Why it matters that the new Vatican communications chief is a layman

Paolo Ruffini (CNS photo/courtesy TV2000)

The daily bollettino from the Press Office of the Holy See on Thursday announced the nomination of a new Prefect of the Dicastery for Communication: the 62-year-old Neapolitan journalist and editor, Paolo Ruffini.

The nomination is significant for several reasons, not the least of which is that Ruffini is a layman.

Ruffini has decades of experience in both secular and ecclesiastical news media. The biographical sketch from the Press Office notes that he has been a professional journalist since 1979.

He also trained as a lawyer, graduating with a degree from the Faculty of Jurisprudence of Rome’s prestigious La Sapienza University — where he wrote his dissertation on freedom of the press — before beginning his journalistic career, which has seen him win several awards, including the international Ischia Prize in 2001, for distinguished professional ethical practice.

The higher-ups would not likely ever admit it, but their choice of a man with a professional reputation as a straight shooter could suggest they have taken the lessons of the “Lettergate” scandal to heart — or at least, that they want to appear to have taken them to heart.

Ruffini is also a man with an impressive Italian and Vatican pedigree.

He is the son of the Italian politician, lawyer, and essayist, Attilio Ruffini, who held several portfolios including foreign minister in the late 1970s under various Christian Democrat governments during that party’s heyday under Giulio Andreotti and Francesco Cossiga.

Paolo Ruffini’s great uncle was Ernesto Cardinal Ruffini, archbishop of Palermo from 1945 until his death in 1967.

In 2014, after decades in Italy’s print and television media establishments, Ruffini took over direction of the Italian bishops’ TV2000 and Radio InBlu networks, where he worked to consolidate mission focus and spearheaded forays into new media.

At nearly 62 years of age, with an impressive career behind him, Ruffini does not need the job to pad his resumé. His conduct in previous positions strongly suggests he is not intent on being either a token or a pushover. During his tumultuous relationship with the Rai 3 network, he felt he was sidelined for political reasons, and in 2010 fought successfully to be given the directorship he formerly held, only to resign his post after winning the legal battle for it.

Ruffini, in other words, is willing not only to stand on principle, but to leave when he does not feel he is getting the institutional support he needs to do the job he came on to do.

The general tenor inside the Dicastery for Communication, meanwhile, seems to be one approaching cautious optimism. Sources inside the department say the attitude is “wait and see” with open minds.

There are two things Vatican watchers are waiting to see.

The first is: will a layman be able to overcome the institutional culture of clerical privilege within the Curia — in other words — will Ruffini be able to govern? To put the matter more bluntly: will he be able to put the right people in place, even if it means moving others out, and even when some of those people are clerics?

The answer to that will depend almost entirely on the support Ruffini gets from above.

The other question is: what is Ruffini’s mandate? If he is to steer the ship along the current heading, it will likely as not lead to shoals — and in any case, there’s no guarantee he’ll get his bearings in time to make necessary changes.

If his mandate is to steer the ship safely to port, his best bet may be first to take her back out to sea.