The Vatican’s media machine is broken

Pope Francis with Vatican spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi (CNS)

Cardinal George Pell, chief reformer in Pope Francis’s governance of the Church, announced this month a new commission to advise the Holy Father on the entire media operations of the Holy See. It will be chaired by Christopher Patten, chancellor of Oxford University and former chairman of the BBC Trust, and report back in a year’s time.

A few days later, La Repubblica published the third interview that Pope Francis has granted to Eugenio Scalfari, causing headlines around the world about priestly paedophilia and “finding solutions” to the question of priestly celibacy, which the Holy Father said dated from the 10th century, not apostolic times.

Within hours of the interview being published the Holy See press spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi, issued a statement reminding everyone that Scalfari neither takes notes nor records his interviews with Pope Francis, so that it is not possible to attribute to the Holy Father what in fact Scalfari attributes to him. The Holy See press office was thus in the awkward position of implying either that the Holy Father was wrong on his facts or that he was imprudent in talking to the unreliable Scalfari again. More than a few observers commented that Lord Patten’s commission could not begin work soon enough.

But that is to confuse two different things. Lord Patten’s commission will not do anything to “find solutions”, to borrow Scalfari’s phrasing, for papal statements. Media problems originating in the papal apartment – whether it be in the apostolic palace or the Domus Sanctae Marthae – cannot be solved by anyone other than the Pope who is the cause of them. The broader structure of communications is what Lord Patten’s commission will examine.

The Holy See has many media agencies: the daily newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano in Italian and its weekly editions in various languages; the Vatican television centre, which provides the video feed for papal events and produces other programming; Vatican Radio, which broadcasts both news and spiritual programming around the world in several languages; and the Holy See press office, which issues a daily bulletin, press statements and holds press conferences. Alongside of all this is the Vatican website and various email and social media tools that serve both as a source of current information and an electronic resource for magisterial and informational documents. Then there is the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, a fully fledged Vatican department, but which does not control any of the above.

The fact that the prefect for the economy, Cardinal Pell, announced the Patten commission indicates something of the priority here. The Vatican communications operation has added over the last 20 years various services to keep abreast of developments driven by the internet, but has maintained its older services at the same time. For example, 25 years ago it was necessary to await the arrival of the weekly edition of L’Osservatore Romano to know what the Pope had said on a particular occasion. Now it is available in real time anywhere in the world. So the question arises: is it necessary to still produce vehicles that are used by fewer people when digital options reach more people, more quickly and more cheaply? When Cardinal Pell said that the Patten commission would be looking for “significant savings” in the communications operation, it was clear sign that expensive operations like Vatican Radio are headed for considerable downsizing, with more energy diverted to the digital world.

None of that has anything to do with what most observers mean when they speak of communications problems in the Holy See. Whether it was the imbroglio over the Society of St Pius X and the Holocaust-denying Bishop Williamson, or the Argentine woman whom Pope Francis (allegedly) told to ignore her parish priest’s advice about not receiving Holy Communion while living in an invalid union, it is the international headlines that cause confusion and consternation that are widely considered the problems that need to be solved. The budget of Vatican Radio is irrelevant to that.

What is relevant is the authority of the papal press spokesman. In order for such eruptions to be avoided, the press spokesman has to have regular access to the Holy Father and be able to speak freely about mistakes to be avoided. His job is not to tell the Holy Father what to do, but what the likely media reaction will be if it is done in this particular way, and advise on better options. When eruptions do occur, the Vatican press corps must believe that the press spokesman has sufficient access to the Holy Father that his statements do in fact reflect the reality of situation, and not merely his commentary upon it.

This was the case during the long collaboration between St John Paul II and Joaquín Navarro-Valls, the former Spanish journalist who became a confidant of the Holy Father, seeing him daily and even accompanying him on holidays. When Navarro-Valls advised something, it was taken to heart by those who made decisions throughout the Roman Curia. When he clarified something for the press corps, they knew that he was speaking the Holy Father’s mind.

That is not the case with Fr Lombardi, who has served as press spokesman since 2006 for both Benedict XVI and now Francis. Fr Lombardi’s genial manner and generous spirit have served the Church well in many difficult moments, but he has been put in a difficult position
by both the popes he has served. He is not even a full-time spokesman, carrying on with senior duties at Vatican Radio and Vatican television, in addition to governing duties in the Society of Jesus. That the Pope has a part-time spokesman speaks volumes about the priority the Holy See has put on proper media relations.

The lack of access has hampered Fr Lombardi’s effectiveness. During white-hot controversies during Benedict’s time, the fact that he did not see the Holy Father for long periods of time led the press corps to conclude that Fr Lombardi was providing spin more than substance. That he is now often taken by surprise by Pope Francis’s phone calls and interviews means that his ex-post clarifications put him in the odd position of apparently contradicting the Holy Father himself. A man with a lesser sense of service would have been tempted to resign the impossible task being asked of him.

The Patten commission will do important work in enhancing communications and cutting costs. But solving the higher profile problems can only be done by the Pope himself.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine (

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald (25/7/14)


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