Rome — During his not altogether serene tenure as papal spokesman and head of the Holy See press office, Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., has perfected a rhetorical style that is redolent of the years of Pius XII and the last heyday of the Papal Court, when the Vatican daily, L’Osservatore Romano, would begin a story based on an interview with the pontiff with the stock phrase, “As we gathered from the august lips . . .”
Thus on March 6, at a Vatican press briefing, Lombardi explained why the wildly popular press conferences the U.S. cardinals were holding at the North American College were being shut down:
The [General] Congregations [of Cardinals, now meeting daily] are not a synod or a congress in which we try to report the most information possible, but a path toward arriving at the decision of electing the Roman pontiff. In this sense, the tradition of this path is one of reservation in order to safeguard the freedom of reflection on the part of each of the members of the College of Cardinals who has to make such an important decision. It does not surprise me, therefore, that along this path there were, at the beginning, moments of openness and communication and that afterwards, in harmony with the rest of the College, it has been established whether and how to communicate.
That, in a word, is baloney. And not very artful baloney at that.
La Stampa, the Italian daily, was printing verbatim reports from the General Congregations, which are conducted under an assumption of confidentiality to which the cardinals present (including those over 80, who will not enter the conclave to elect a new pope) swear an oath. So how did La Stampa get what amounted to transcripts of the General Congregations? Some have suggested Italian cardinals with links to the paper, but my suspicions focus on the linguists who do the simultaneous translations, a known source of such leaks in the past. Still, the point is that at their press conferences, the American cardinals leaked precisely nothing. The discussion focused on issues, emotions, states of mind, and conclave process; there was no violation of the confidentiality of the General Congregations whatsoever. What there was, however, was a real exchange, with journalists from all over the world — an exchange that helped develop stories of a positive character. What was happening was the New Evangelization, in an extended sense of that term.
So in order to try to solve a problem caused by the unscrupulousness of the Italian press acting in tandem with unscrupulous leakers who had nothing to do with the American cardinals, the Americans’ press conferences — the most refreshing and media-friendly source of positive information and commentary on a story that has riveted the world’s attention, and an extraordinary opportunity to explain what the Catholic Church is — were shut down.
By any number of measures, it was a remarkably woodenheaded move, even by recent Vatican-communications standards. The American press conferences were the one regular venue for developing good news stories about the Church; that venue has now been closed. The leaks will continue, since the source of the leaks had nothing to do with the American press conferences; but the press conferences will not be available to correct misapprehensions, distortions, and confusions coming from the leaks. A Church that is suffering from a terrible public image involving alleged cover-ups and scandals has reinforced that image, rather than highlighting one of the few instruments at its disposal for dispelling that image. And the widely advertised Vatican commitment to the full use of all media, including social media, as tools of the New Evangelization has been sacrificed to a lockdown communications “strategy” that is the antithesis of the openness essential in preaching the Gospel in a skeptical and often nihilistic 21st-century West.
But even this stupidity may, in time, be turned to a good end, for it underscores, unmistakably, the grave problems of Church governance that impeded the ministry of Benedict XVI. Those problems have continued apace, even accelerated, since the days immediately preceding the beginning of the Sede Vacante.
I have yet to meet the person who believes that the title (“His Holiness Benedict XVI, pope emeritus”) or vesture (white soutane) of the former pontiff now living at Castel Gandolfo reflected wise or prudent governance decisions. Rather, they have compounded the difficulty of explaining to the world (and reassuring some shaken Catholics) that there will not be “two popes” after the white smoke arises from the Sistine Chapel chimney in a few weeks.
Then there was the starting date for the General Congregations of cardinals, which men who had been responsible for many of the acts of misgovernance under Benedict XVI decided could only be set for March 4, four days after the papal abdication was effected. Why? Because the cardinals had only been formally notified of the Sede Vacante, the vacancy in Peter’s Chair, after the abdication went into effect. As one acidic observer noted, the Unabomber, sitting in his Supermax cell several dozen meters under Colorado, knew that the pope was going to abdicate as of 8 p.m. Rome time on February 28, and had known that since February 11; was it being seriously proposed that some cardinals had not gotten the word yet, and had to be surprised out of their ignorance and summoned to Rome for the General Congregations and the conclave?
Then, when the General Congregations began to meet, the dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano, suggested that the cardinals might like to send a telegram of greeting to Castel Gandolfo, to which the former pontiff would reply in writing — this, four days after each cardinal present in Rome on February 28 had personally said goodbye to Benedict XVI in an audience in the Sala Clementina of the apostolic palace. Why invite speculation that the former pope was somehow involved in the pre-conclave deliberations when he had already said, repeatedly, that he wished to retire into the privacy of prayer and reflection? At precisely the moment when some were suggesting that the papacy had become just another executive job that could be abandoned after a certain period of service, Sodano and his allies seemed eager to do whatever they could be reinforce that bad theology by acting as if the cardinals were a board of directors sending a postcard to a recently retired CEO — yet another imprudent (indeed, incomprehensible) decision with serious consequences for the future of the Office of Peter.
What all of thus suggests is the imperative need for a dramatic reform of governance at the highest levels of the Catholic Church in the new pontificate. Italian curialists once said, and with good reason, “We know how to do this.” Now, many of them manifestly don’t. And when one adds to sheer incompetence and a marked inability to connect the dots between actions and consequences (or, in the case of the former pontiff’s title and vesture, symbols and consequences) the reality of what a distinguished Italian academic described to me as an Italian “culture of corruption” seeping behind the Vatican walls under Secretary of State Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone’s re-Italianization of the Roman Curia, it becomes clear that, as Italian Vaticanista Sandro Magister wrote recently, the new pope’s First Hundred Days ought to see a massive housecleaning and the first steps toward building a new institutional culture in the Church’s central bureaucracy, so that it becomes an instrument of the New Evangelization, not an impediment to it.
That housecleaning must include the Holy See press office, which badly needs new leadership, eager to engage the world media through a conversation framed in something other than baroque evasions and obfuscations.
— George Weigel is the author, most recently, of Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church (Basic Books).