The Vatican has raised the possibility of moving forward the date for cardinals to elect Pope Benedict XVI's successor. A spokesman said the rules governing the date could be "interpreted differently."
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the conclave could be held earlier than anticipated after the possibility of bringing it forward was "raised by various cardinals."
The Vatican had previously indicated that the conclave would start on or after March 15 in order to abide by current rules that require a 15-to-20-day waiting period after the papacy becomes vacant. Benedict is due to step aside on February 28.
But Lombardi said top officials were debating whether to interpret the Holy See's constitution differently to determine whether a rule change was possible.
The current rules are in place, Lombardi said, to allow "all those [cardinals] who are absent" time to travel to Rome in the event of a sudden papal death. In this case, however, the cardinals have time to prepare due to the advance notice of Pope Benedict's resignation.
Lombardi stressed, however, that no decision had officially been taken and it could still be held later "if a cardinal cannot make it in time."
The conclave will see world's 117 cardinal electors come together in secret under Michelangelo's famous frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. They will need a two-thirds majority to elect a new pontiff.
The pope, 85, announced his resignation earlier this month in a shock move which was believed to have taken the Vatican by surprise.
The German-born pope cited his advancing age and declining strength as reasons for his resignation, the first the Vatican has seen in almost 600 years. The last to relinquish the papacy was Gregory XII in 1415.
Speculation is now rife over possible successors, with many suggesting that Africa and South America could be looked to for possible candidates. Although so far, there appear to be no clear frontrunners.
ccp/mkg (AFP, Reuters, AP)