Brunswick Review

Selling The Papacy

It was the ultimate baptism by fire. Just two months after taking over as official press spokesman for the Vatican, in September 2006, Father Federico Lombardi was thrust into an unwelcome spotlight when he found himself explaining a controversial speech delivered by Pope Benedict XVI at the University of Regensburg in Germany.

Written by: Philip Pullella, Vatican Correspondent, Reuters

A passage of that speech, perceived as saying that Islam was an intrinsically violent religion, sparked outrage and rioting in the Muslim world.

The episode demonstrates that “selling” God is not always easy and selling the politics of God can be trickier still. But this is what the Vatican faces every day, as spokesmen for the headquarters of the 1.1bn-member Roman Catholic Church try to explain its policies and politics to the outside world.

Vatican officials often cringe when reporters suggest that the Holy See is a political power. And yet it has full diplomatic relations with more than 170 countries, as well as formal missions to the United Nations and representations to a host of other world institutions. Every head of state – with the exception of Chinese and North Korean leaders – beats a path to Pope Benedict’s door for a private audience of the type Italians like to call “a quattro occhi” (only four eyes in the room). Even before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, leaders of what Ronald Reagan branded the “evil empire” – albeit lower ranking ones – came to Rome, smiled and had their picture taken with the man in white, the man Stalin had dismissed decades earlier with the notorious question “How many divisions has the Pope?”

While veteran Vatican reporters have their own sources in many departments – even though Vatican regulations frown on employees talking to the media – the official task of “selling” what is still a notoriously centralised institution falls essentially to one person – the Vatican spokes-man or, to give him his official title, the Director of the Press Office of the Holy See.

None of the individual departments of the Vatican such as the Secretariat of State (the equivalent of the State Department or Foreign Office), the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (Justice Ministry) or the Health Ministry, has its own spokespeople. No regular briefings are held anywhere in the Vatican, not daily, weekly, monthly or even yearly. Press conferences take place on an ad hoc basis, usually to present a new document or in an emergency, and the questions addressed are usually confined to the issue at hand.

With the transition three years ago from the papacy of John Paul II to that of Benedict XVI, a quiet revolution also took place in the Vatican’s relations with the media. In the process, the job passed from a layman who had become a celebrity in his own right, to a priest known mostly in Vatican and Jesuit circles. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the previous incumbent who stayed in the job for a year to help with the handover before quietly stepping aside in 2006, is a suave Spaniard who was John Paul’s spokesman for more than 20 years. A little-known journalist before he moved to the Vatican, he was the classic “outside” appointment (appropriately enough, given that he was hired by the first non-Italian pope for more than 450 years).

Benedict, on the other hand, a German seen as more Roman than the Romans after his 25 years at the Vatican, chose a man who can safely be called an insider’s insider. Father Lombardi was head of Vatican Radio and Vatican Television, former deputy editor of the authoritative Italian Jesuit journal Civilta’ Cristiana, and former provincial superior of the Italian Jesuits. The only element of continuity was provided by Father Ciro Benedettini, a priest of the Passionist order, who stayed on as deputy spokesman.

The backgrounds of Navarro-Valls and Lombardi are starkly reflected in their different styles. Navarro-Valls often appeared on Italian TV talk shows, popped up at international tennis tournaments and socialized with the world’s movers and shakers. He liked to compare his job to that of spokesperson for the Kremlin or the White House. He had a colorful past – psychiatrist, doctor, amateur bull fighter – and made no secret of the fact that he was a member of the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei. Indeed, he was arguably its most high profile member, using his position as papal spokesman to demonstrate the group’s creed, namely that a lay person, doing his or her daily job with a combination of gusto, humility and an occasional creature comfort like a brandy and a good cigar (he shared both with Fidel Castro in Havana) can promote Christian values as well as priests and nuns.

Lombardi, by contrast, is a reserved man with an almost shy demeanor in the image of the master he serves. He has spent most of his working life in the Church’s official media and remains head of Vatican Radio and Vatican Television (giving him effective control over all Vatican communications except its newspaper).

Lombardi’s introduction to the world of papal communications at Regensburg was arguably the stuff of communications nightmares. Nearly everyone now agrees that the Pope’s message would have been better received without the words he quoted, spoken in 1391 by the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos to a Persian scholar: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

One key problem was that none of those who had read the speech ahead of time apparently had the courage to suggest he should change it (assuming, that is, that an alarm bell had gone off). It is difficult for most people, let alone those who are part of an institution like the papacy, to tell a man whose titles include Vicar of Jesus Christ, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City and Servant of the Servants of God, that perhaps he may be blundering and has made a wrong judgment.

Lombardi’s position was unenviable but his role may have been crucial. It was his first foreign trip as spokesman and he was still getting his feet wet in the new job. At midday on that September day, reporters, who get papal speeches under embargo painfully early in their hotel (usually before dawn), asked the new spokesman for an explanation of the comments. The spokesman said the Pope surely had no intention of offending Muslims. No one knows if he subsequently spoke to the Pope or to one of his top aides, but that afternoon the speech (officially labelled a lecture) was read in its entirety.

Reaction in the Muslim world was literally explosive. Benedict was burned in effigy, an Italian nun was killed in Somalia, Muslim political leaders expressed outrage and the sound of inter-religious bridges cracking under the strain of one sentence could be heard everywhere from Cairo to Kabul. The following Sunday the Pope expressed regret that his words had been misinterpreted (he never delivered the apology some had demanded) and the Vatican organised a fence-mending meeting with ambassadors from predominantly Muslim countries. A papal trip to Turkey later in 2006 was transformed from what should have been a Christian-Muslim bridge-building initiative into a round-the-clock damage control exercise.

The question that has gone through the minds of journalists and other observers since then is whether this public relations tsunami could have been avoided with a bit of fancy footwork by the Pope’s handlers. The answer is probably yes.

It is widely acknowledged that at the time of Regensburg, the new pope had still not fully realised he had exchanged his professorial robes for those of the head of the world’s oldest continually running institution. Most experts agree, moreover, that he could have added something immediately afterwards that clearly distanced him from the emperor’s words.

But factors such as the personalities involved (including the Pope’s), channels of access to the top, and a communications team in transition, all appear to have had a role in what transpired and can offer lessons for internal and external communications professionals everywhere.

Advisers and confidants, for example, can play a crucial restraining part. Navarro-Valls, the previous spokes-man, had Pope John Paul’s ear either directly or through his open line to John Paul’s private secretary, Stanislaw Dziwisz, now the cardinal of Krakow, Poland. Like Navarro-Valls, Dziwisz was a power broker in his own right inside the Vatican and beyond. He was the gatekeeper. He had been with John Paul for nearly 40 years and had developed a son-to-father relationship. While fiercely loyal in public, Dziwisz did not hesitate to speak frankly to Pope John Paul concerning non-doctrinal and non-theological issues. This was possible thanks to the unique bond they had forged over decades in Poland. The two had been together when both were unknown outside Poland, when both were concerned with resisting Communist efforts to shut down churches and impose printing paper rationing on religious publications. John Paul and Dziwisz between them literally struggled to keep a Church alive.

Benedict’s current secretary, Monsignor Georg Ganswein, began working for him in the Vatican only a few years before his election. Benedict was then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and was looking for a German-speaker to help him ahead of his retirement and homecoming to write and teach theology. He never expected to be elected pontiff.

The Regensburg affair was made possible, at least in part, because the John Paul era triumvirate of pope-secretary-spokesman no longer existed. 

Some are convinced, it should be said, that this is exactly what Pope Benedict wanted – a low profile secretary and a low profile spokesman who do not take the liberty of telling the world what they think the Pope thinks about something, a team more in keeping with his own highly reserved personality.

Most of the late John Paul’s papacy had taken place during some of the most tumultuous years of the late 20th century. He was for the most part a natural media star. His own life was an amazing personal story – survival through Nazi and communist tyranny, an assassination attempt and a long drawn-out but highly dignified and public acceptance of failing health and, eventually, death. In many ways the honeymoon period lasted for the entire duration of his 27-year papacy.

In the wake of the whirlwind John Paul years, one of Benedict’s main aims has been the calm and steady reassertion of traditional Catholic identity. In the process he has done and said a number of things that may not have pleased Muslims or Jews but they have thrilled those conservative Catholics who feel a sort of restoration and taking stock is in order. 

Lombardi, as a consequence, has had his work cut out. In recent months he has had to defend the Vatican’s decision to oppose a U.N. resolution to de-criminalize homosexuality and a recent document that reaffirmed the Vatican’s opposition to artificial fertilization and embryonic stem cell research. While these positions are not new, it seems more difficult to sell them under the current papacy. Before, many Catholics did not like the message but loved the messenger. Now, they still do not like the message, but the messenger is more difficult for them to understand or appreciate.

Benedict came with the heavy baggage of having been the Church’s doctrinal enforcer. That meant having to silence some so-called Liberation Theologians in Latin America. While no-one’s free speech poster boy, he has shed that image somewhat as most people have seen his kinder, gentler side. Polls show many people have changed their opinion of him for the better. 

That said, the Jesuit priest who is his spokesman, himself a brilliant scholar and totally dedicated to the Church, is having to “sell” a very different man and a very different style of papacy. The controversy in January 2009 over the lifting of the excommunication of four ultra–traditionalist clerics, including one who denied the Holocaust, is unlikely to be his last test.

Philip Pullella has been Vatican Correspondent for Reuters since 1983.