What might seem something of an odd couple (though they are, apparently, good friends) have issued together what amounts to a full frontal attack on the Roman Curia. George Weigel – official biographer of John Paul II, conservative commentator on Catholic affairs – and John Allen, Vatican specialist of the National Catholic Reporter, which makes him definitely a liberal – recently answered questions in a joint interview published in USA Today under the headline: “Vatican government is a ‘train wreck’: Experts.”
Well, they are undoubtedly “experts”, in that they have long experience of the subject and have frequently written about Vatican affairs. Their opinion is worth listening to, especially if, from their very different standpoints, they come to precisely the same conclusion. And they agree that “there is, essentially, no media strategy, no war room, no one with a handle on reforming communications or, worse, reforming the governing structure itself”.
Vatican officials, Weigel said, “can appear to be dissembling or disinterested when there is no well-formed intent to deceive, they just don’t know what’s going on.” He insisted not only that “the Vatican communications debacle has to end” (which everyone has been saying for years), but also, very interestingly, that “the Church must find a way to dump bad bishops”, which he called “the single biggest management problem in the Church today… and the single biggest fix that can affect the life of the Church”.
Well indeed. Imagine the opportunities that could arise if, say, we could have a clean sweep along the English south coast. But that always supposes in its turn that the Roman Curia has in place a sure-fire method of appointing the right bishops to replace the ones you have removed. And as I discussed earlier this week, it just doesn’t.
The reform of the Roman Curia has to start somewhere. Its communications strategy is probably the place to start. The trouble is that the incompetence of those responsible for the Pope’s public relations can give the strong impression that it is the Pope himself who is out of his depth, even when he very clearly is not. Take the way the press reacted to his remarks about condoms, made to a handful of journalists on the plane to Africa, in March last year. When he correctly replied – in response to the usual question about why he was so unreasonably opposed to condoms as a means of fighting Aids – that in fact condom distribution isn’t helping, and may be worsening, the spread of HIV/Aids in Africa, he provoked an avalanche of hostile comment, much of it almost hysterical in tone. The assumption was that here was an ignorant and bigoted old man, simply out of touch with modern realities.
So, where was the Vatican press office when all this was going on? The Pope should have been immediately backed up by a rapid response unit, ready at all times to react to such criticisms with the facts. After the fuss had died down (in other words, when it was too late to protect the Pope’s reputation from lasting damage), some authorities on the subject spoke out in his defence. Edward C Greene, director of the Harvard School of Public Health, wrote in the Washington Post that, “in truth, current empirical evidence supports him”. He pointed out that “major articles in… peer-reviewed journals such as the Lancet, Science and BMJ have confirmed that condoms have not worked as a primary intervention in the population-wide epidemics of Africa”.
Now, the fact is that everyone knew that on a journey to Africa, someone sooner or later was going to bring up the question of condoms. Everyone, apparently, but the Vatican press office. And those articles in peer-reviewed journals such as the Lancet, Science and BMJ, mentioned by Dr Greene, were all in the public domain: the Vatican press office should have known about those, too, and should have been ready to quote them the instant the Pope made his off-the-cuff remarks. Instead, the Pope was left undefended, to the tender mercies of people like Sir Stephen Wall, who attacked his views as being “a mixture of the extreme and bizarre”, and concluded that “he has lost credibility” and that “his papacy will not recover”.
Well, his papacy has recovered, rather well: entirely due to his own gentle but powerful pastoral presence on the world stage and to his own intellectual brilliance and deep spirituality. But he should not have to carry the whole burden, not only of the pastoral leadership of the Catholic Church but of the chaos of the Vatican government as well. As Weigel wrote last year in a piece entitled “The Pope versus the Vatican”, “no pope can govern successfully with an ineffectual Curia whose gaffes undercut the papal message and erode its authority. Both Pope and senior churchmen must find new ways to work together if the promise of this papacy is to be fulfilled.”
But when? And how? These are urgent questions: and we need an answer to them, soon.