What on earth are we to make of the affair that has now been dubbed “Lettergate”? I mean, of course, the letter that Pope Benedict wrote seemingly endorsing a series of works on Pope Francis’s theology, but which turned out to be no such thing. Forgive me for not providing links, as the matter has metastasised so much that there are too many links to provide. But here are a few observations.
First of all, it is standard practice in the publishing world to solicit opinions about new books from influential people; this enables the publisher to put some glowing opinion on the cover of the new book. These pre-publication endorsements are generally regarded as worthless by those in the know, because the celebrity endorser usually has not had the time or the inclination to read the book. Nevertheless, the publishing industry still does this, in the hope that such “puffs” increase sales, though everyone knows that what really counts are the reviews that come after publication.
So, trying to get a puff from Pope Benedict is not on the surface wrong. And selective quotation is pretty usual, for let us remember that all quotation is selective. Moreover, as Pope Benedict’s letter suggests, the quote released forms part of a reply to the original request. Therefore, when Pope Benedict says it is ridiculous to think of Pope Francis having no theological formation, he is saying this because, one assumes, the original letter (as yet unreleased) asked him whether he thought that the case. In other words, Pope Benedict would not, on his own, make such a statement.
Where things have really gone wrong is in this: the letter from Benedict has become the focus of attention, and no one cares about the books. This has happened largely because Mgr Viganò has made a dreadful beginner’s error. When found out about the selective quotation, he did not come clean immediately and fess up; rather he admitted to what had been found out, and when more emerged, he had to admit to that too. This gives an impression of deception and dishonesty. He should have come clean at once, immediately and fully, rather than letting the embarrassment leak out slowly and the story dragging on for days.
Protestants used to believe that Catholic priests were liars. (Consider Charles Kingsley’s attack on Cardinal Newman.) English people in general often used to believe that Italians were untrustworthy. These old prejudices have faded with time, but Lettergate will help to revive them. As such it represents a disaster not just for Mgr Viganò and the Vatican department for communications over which he presides, but a disaster for us all. It makes the job of every Catholic in communicating the faith that little bit harder.
The other day I was interviewed for the Sunday programme on Radio 4. One sentence of what I said made it into the final programme, but what didn’t make it was something along these lines. Five years ago, when Pope Francis was elected, everyone agreed that the Roman Curia was not fit for purpose; and we all hoped that the age of scandals and incompetence was over. Alas, our hopes have been disappointed time and again. Lettergate is just the most recent of the many unforced errors that come out of the Vatican and that distract us and everyone else from what really matters: proclaiming the Gospel. As we approach Holy Week, we should be thinking of the Paschal Mystery. Instead we are talking about the amateurish and frankly cretinous behaviour of the Pope’s courtiers. What a terrible own goal!