Can a distinguished layman rescue the Pope’s communications reform?
Pope Francis’s choice of Paolo Ruffini to lead the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication could be the most significant decision of his pontificate, as far as the reform of the Roman Curia is concerned. That the announcement met with so little fanfare is arguably indicative of how little confidence remains in Francis as a reformer.
It is also a measure of the lengths Francis has to travel in order to recover even a portion of the trust and goodwill he enjoyed before the explosion of the clerical sexual abuse crisis in Chile, the conviction of Mgr Pietro Amenta, a sitting judge on the Roman Rota at the time, for sexual molestation of an adult and possession of child pornography, a public dispute over the running of the Papal Foundation in the US, diplomatic contretemps with China, theological and ecclesiological turmoil in Germany, and the “Lettergate” scandal that led to the vacancy Ruffini’s appointment fills.
It’s been a troublesome year for Pope Francis, and it’s only half over.
Pope Francis needed a win, and there is a sense in which the appointment of Ruffini is a bigger win than has been represented so far. Ruffini is a decorated 61-year-old Italian journalist with a decades-long record of distinguished service in print and broadcast news media both secular and ecclesiastical, as well as experience in working to implement new media strategy in ways that augment, rather than compromise, traditional forms of communication.
He is also a layman with a reputation as a class act. He has shown throughout his career that he is nobody’s pawn and won’t be anyone’s doormat.
This was especially evident in his conduct of an employment controversy in 2010 with the Italian state media’s Rai 3 channel, which is devoted primarily to political news and cultural programming.
After seven years at the helm of the channel, Ruffini was sidelined – unjustly, he felt, and for political reasons – and was offered what he felt were unworthy consolations. He fought a legal battle to get his old post back, and won, only to resign a little over a year later and take a job with Italy’s La7 television outfit, before moving in 2014 to lead the Italian bishops’ TV2000 and Radio InBlu networks.
In other words, his reputation and record do not indicate that he would be a good pick if what the Vatican wants is (more) window dressing: a layman in a senior post, just so Pope Francis can say he has one.
If the Vatican does expect Ruffini to be a pushover, willing simply to toe the company line and bend before the prevailing culture of clerical privilege, there is good reason to believe that the powers that be will be in for a rude awakening.
If anything is certain as Ruffini comes in, it is that he is taking the helm of a troubled ship. The reform of the Vatican’s communications apparatus has been in crisis almost from the start and may quite simply be too far gone to rescue. (I left at the end of 2017, after 12 years of service on the Vatican Radio world news desk, and I was not the only one to abandon ship.)
Vatican watchers have two major questions regarding Ruffini’s specific mandate: will he simply oversee the final stages of the reform project as it has been carried out thus far? Or will he steer a new course, perhaps taking the ship out to sea first, so he can learn how she runs?
Ruffini’s nomination is the closest thing to an admission of error on the first attempt that we are likely to see from the Vatican. Any signs that indicate a more self-critical attitude will have to be found in the orders Ruffini gives and the modes he establishes for the ship’s running.
Meanwhile, the senior leadership Pope Francis originally named remains largely in place. Francis accepted Mgr Dario Viganò’s resignation as prefect, but also appointed him “assessor” to the dicastery. Viganò is currently listed as the number three man on the dicastery’s totem pole, while the man who was the acting prefect, Mgr Lucio Ruiz, seems for the time being at least to have moved back to the number two position.
This may be a sop to curial culture, in which churchmen are never embarrassed more than is absolutely necessary – and being replaced by a layman is embarrassment enough. In any case, as the saying goes, old habits die hard.
Then again, neither Mgr Viganò nor Mgr Ruiz is a cardinal or even a bishop: if Pope Francis were to let his new prefect release either, or both, it could serve to put the purple and red zucchetti on notice, without causing too much of a stir all at once.
Whatever decisions Ruffini makes, he will need the support of Pope Francis to make them stick. Whether he gets it is the other major question.