John Allen is right. In his Easter column at Crux, he says the Vatican can’t blame the media for “spin cycles” around Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, to whom Pope Francis paid a surprise visit on Holy Thursday, setting off a flurry of speculation in the press that turned into a blizzard when official Vatican communications sources refused to confirm the news.
In case you’re having trouble placing Becciu: His Eminence resigned from his position as Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints last year – after more than a year under increasingly intense public scrutiny – and Pope Francis stripped him of his rights as a cardinal, apparently over founded suspicion of financial impropriety.
Cardinal Becciu denies wrongdoing, and – we are promised – an investigation is underway.
When the Vatican took to friendly outlets to communicate the pope’s consternation at “media instrumentalizations” of the visit – variously interpreted on a spectrum ranging from rehabilitation of a fellow unjustly accused to mere pastoral solicitude for a suffering man – the collective eyeroll in the press corps was visible from orbit.
“If you stand on a balcony and chuck a brick over the side, and that brick ends up hitting somebody in the street,” Allen observed, “it’s no defense to blame the law of gravity.”
What we know about Holy Thursday: Pope Francis went to see a guy who has lost his cushy curial job and has been living under a cloud of suspicion; he celebrated a private Missa in coena Domini – not just any Mass, but the one that proves par excellence the public character of liturgy as such – with the cardinal in his private chapel, less than two weeks after telling literally every other cleric and member of the faithful in the world they can’t celebrate “private” Masses in the basilica shrine of the prince of the apostles.
Apostolica sedes a nemine iudicatur, and all that, but still, I mean … c’mon.
The visit to Becciu on Holy Thursday was 1) going to get out, by hook or by crook and 2) going to make waves. Pope Francis could have been in front of the story with an official statement and thus kept control of the inevitable narrative. He has his reasons for not doing that, one supposes. By refusing to say why he did what he did, he has forfeited the right to complain about the speculation regarding either the visit or his motives for it.
Compounding the absurdity of the situation, Vatican News – an official outlet – published a late news brief on the visit under an editorial by-line, with a bottom-line qualification: “This was a private engagement on the Pope’s part and there is as of yet no official confirmation.” Ladies and gentlemen, we’re through the looking glass.
Talking about it with Allen on Monday morning – tune in to Crux of the Matter on Sirius XM’s Catholic Channel at 7pm EDT to hear us chew the fat over it – I wondered aloud whether the guys calling the shots in comms have any respect for themselves.
When it comes to stepping on their own message, neither the pope nor the Vatican has need of the press corps’ help.
Whether it was Benedict turning a 2009 visit to Cameroon and Angola into a referendum on the Church’s condom policy, or Francis turning his 2019 visit to Mozambique and Madagascar into a debate over where the next schism will start, or — the world heavyweight champion of communications disasters for nearly a decade — the botched announcement of the lifting of SSPX bishops’ excommunications (also 2009), neither popes nor flacks in the Vatican need any assistance from the scribblers.
This time, it’s different.
When Cardinal Ouellet wrote an open letter responding to Archbishop Viganò, into which he which he snuck confirmation of certain pertinent facts and gave away the store on the existence of a “gay lobby” in the Roman Curia, it was trolling.
When the director of the Vatican press office, speaking at the largest international gathering of ecclesiastical leaders ever assembled to address the abuse and coverup crisis in the Church, refused to say whether a credibly accused Vatican official was still in his job, it was of a piece with the management of the whole affair.
When the Vatican first had no complaint against Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta until they did, then suspended him only to invite him on the curial retreat, then gave him a note saying they needed him on the job from which he was suspended, then went silent, there was a sort of shrug to say — basically — ok, so, that’s how it’s going to be.
When official sources refused to confirm whether Francis had been exposed to a deadly virus or reveal the identity of a Vatican official who had tested positive for a highly contagious and deadly disease he had carried into the Apostolic Palaceresidence abode, it was par for the course.