The ongoing problems in the Vatican’s communications culture haven’t helped public perception of curial competence. Failures of timeliness and transparency in communication arguably fostered the impression that the Vatican’s response to the coronavirus crisis has been far less competent than it really has been.
To the outside world – whether fairly or not – the Curia often seemed to be functioning on autopilot during the lockdown.
Notwithstanding the Curia’s suspension of all non-essential work, the gears of governance grind and the great machinery of state trundled along. The prefaces for optional memorials in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite – thirteen years in the crafting – were promulgated. A new commission on women deacons, made up largely of those skeptical about the reform, was launched. Bishops were named to several sees.
On April 22nd, the Holy See seemed to have sprung into action. A communiqué from the press office let it be known that “an extraordinary meeting” had taken place that morning, “chaired by His Eminence the Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, in the presence of the heads of the Dicasteries and Entities of the Holy See.” The purpose of the reunion was to consider a “second phase” of the COVID-19 emergency .
The statement said that “the gradual reactivation of ordinary services was decided, while safeguarding the health precautions to limit contagion, so as to ensure service to the Holy Father and to the Universal Church.”
That’s it. We never learned precisely what the safety protocols were, or how the various dicasteries had adopted them, or what the oversight regimen was, or what the sanctions for noncompliance were, or really anything of the sort. So, one supposes that a terse general statement would suffice: no need to go into detail about how we’re going to come out of lockdown, when there was so little given about how we went in or what it was like under it.
The Vatican’s communications culture is broken, but that’s mostly not the fault of the communications department.
From Archbishop Sorondo’s unfortunate paean to the Chinese government’s adroitness in implementing Catholic social teaching, to the more recent SNAFU announcement-and-walk-back of the new personnel department, trouble has often come from officials talking out of turn; or, from their use of the communications apparatus as a mouthpiece rather than as a professional outfit there to help craft the message, skate pitfalls, and be in front of stories.
The locus classicus of the last 15 years for things that got placed at the feet of the comms department but weren’t really the comms department’s fault was the lifting of the SSPX bishops’ excommunications (if you recall, one of them – an Englishman – was a notorious Holocaust denier). I remember sitting in the office at Vatican Radio and thinking aloud with my colleagues there, that nobody asked us what we thought of the business, or how they might make the announcement.
In the Francis era, the chief mischief-maker in these regards has been the head man, himself. Sometimes, the best way to clean up is to run with it until it shakes off or dries out. Think: “Who am I to judge?” Other times, that’s just not possible. Think: Chile.
Fostering a culture of transparency will sometimes be in tension with the work of improving communications savviness across the board. You can’t have perfect message control – not even in a police state, which the Vatican isn’t – and you can’t have people comfortable with sharing information and talking to the press without some things getting out that you’d rather not. Nevertheless, the Vatican needs to get serious about both communications and transparency.
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