News Analysis

The sudden departure of the Vatican spokesman and his deputy is no mystery

Greg Burke and Pope Francis (CNS)

The latest chapter in the Vatican media reform saga is the abrupt and unexpected double resignation of Greg Burke and Paloma Garcia Ovejero from the two top spots in the Press Office of the Holy See, and their replacement with Alessandro Gisotti, who – like this Vatican-watcher – also came up at Vatican Radio, as interim director of the Press Office.

Burke and Garcia Ovejero have been laconic about the proximate cause of their departure. A pair of tweets from Burke saying that they felt Pope Francis needs to be free to assemble a new team, and another saying that he and Garcia Ovejero had been at prayer for some time regarding the decision, were the only statements either member of the duo directly addressed to the subject.

In the Vatican, there’s often a temptation to look for the real story hidden behind bureaucratic machinations and ecclesiastical politics, intertwined with personal scores and professional intrigue. In general, however, the real story is hiding – if it is hiding at all – in plain sight.

There is every reason to take Burke and Garcia Ovejero at their word, and no reason to think that what happened sooner than expected wasn’t bound to happen eventually. We’ve known since the announcement of the McKinsey & Company study in 2013 that the Holy See has been looking to cut costs and get a handle on its messaging. Given the task of “provid[ing] advice contributing to the development – in close collaboration with the heads of the relevant departments – an integrated plan to make the organisation of the means of communication of the Holy See more functional, efficient and modern,” the McKinsey study made two broad recommendations: reduce costs, and control the message.

The cost-reduction was always going to prove difficult, and was never the primary concern. The bigger question – and the real issue – was always message-control. The old structures had their own mandates and cultures, which grew up organically in response to their respective missions. They were by design different and not perfectly aligned.

The semi-official Vatican Radio, for example, would on rare occasion have to ask forgiveness, but almost never permission. L’Osservatore Romano was unambiguously an organ of the Secretariat of State. The Centro Televisivo Vaticano helped to produce television coverage of papal events and kept a video archive, but was never intended to be a broadcast television station in the way one usually thinks of such outfits.

People who understood the culture grasped that some friction was inevitable and even to be desired. They also realised that even sweeping reform of those old structures could do little to prevent the kind of communications contretemps the Vatican encountered in the first part of the 21st century. None of that appears to have mattered much to the reformers, who had their own agenda right from the start.

In any case, the message-control prong of the institutional reform effort was largely accomplished, with Paolo Ruffini placed at the head of the Dicastery for Communication, long-time Francis-supporter Andrea Tornielli in place as editorial director of Vatican Media, and Andrea Monda installed as head of L’Osservatore Romano.

What this means, in essence, is that the clear vector of the reform is one that will see the Press Office of the Holy See working in much closer concert with the Dicastery for Communication, which is in essence a public relations department. It is easy to see how seasoned journalists such as Burke and Garcia Ovejero would have a hard time getting their heads around such a decision, let alone getting on board with it. The choice of Gisotti, an old institutional hand and also a seasoned journalist who knows the job and knows the score, is in this line. Gisotti – for now interim director – has his work cut out for him.

When it comes to budget concerns, sources inside the Vatican’s communications dicastery have told the Catholic Herald in recent days that a new round of major cuts have already been announced, as part of spending reductions across the curial board. Others close to the matter say the future of the deputy position left vacant at Garcia Ovejero’s departure is being worked out. “Alessandro Gisotti is taking on the tasks of director and deputy,” one source with direct knowledge said, “while work continues on a new structure for the Press Office.”

There are institutional wrinkles to iron out, as well. The statutes of the Dicastery for Communication clearly place the Press Office under the Dicastery’s purview. The same statute defines the responsibilities of the Press Office broadly, as follows:

To publish and disseminate official communications concerning both the acts of the Roman Pontiff and the activities of the Holy See, following the indications of the Secretariat of State.

To host and moderate press conferences and briefings; respond officially to the questions of journalists on the activity of the Roman Pontiff, the Dicasteries of the Roman Curia and other organisms of the Holy See or Vatican, after having consulted the Secretariat of State.

The institutional challenge facing the new Press Office director will be that of managing the tensions inherent in a billet that answers to two sets of superiors: those in the Dicastery for Communications, and those in the Secretariat of State.