If the Vatican's main spokesman doesn't know what the Pope's doing, who does?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jul 20, 2015

Don’t let the understated headline fool you. There’s dynamite in this CWN headline story.

It’s not big news that the director of the Vatican press office admits he is “confused” by Pope Francis. We’re all confused. Join the club, Father Lombardi.

But when the Vatican’s chief spokesman reveals that he doesn’t know what’s on the Pope’s schedule—and no one else knows, either, except the Pope himself—that’s astonishing. Indeed all of the remarks by Father Federico Lombardi, as quoted in an otherwise unremarkable article in National Geographic are eye-opening. The papal spokesman limns a picture of a leader who doesn’t give clear directions, doesn’t communicate with his staff, and (at least in diplomatic affairs) doesn’t have a strategic vision.

“No one knows all of what he’s doing,” Lombardi says. “His personal secretary doesn’t even know. I have to call around: One person knows one part of his schedule, someone else knows another part.”

The job of a spokesman is to make his boss look good. These comments by Father Lombardi definitely do not make Pope Francis look good. What’s happening here?

  • Has the frustration at the Vatican reached such a level that Father Lombardi feels that he can make critical comments about the Pontiff, knowing that other Vatican officials will back him? Or…
  • Is Father Lombardi himself frustrated enough so that he’s willing to risk his job? Or…
  • Does the papal spokesman—who knows the Pope much better than you and I do—feel confident that Pope Francis won’t be unhappy with the comments in National Geographic?

But what those remarkable quotes say about Father Lombardi is a secondary issue. What’s really important is what they say about Pope Francis.

By all accounts, the conclave that elected Pope Francis was looking for someone who could reform the Vatican, bringing accountability and efficiency to the Roman Curia. How can a leader harness a bureaucracy if he doesn’t give clear directives? How can he promote a culture of accountability if his own staff doesn’t know what he’s doing from day to day?

No one doubts the intelligence of Pope Francis. No one questions his work ethic. So what’s going on inside the Vatican? What do Father Lombardi’s revelations say about Pope Francis himself? Why would an intelligent, hard-working man, who is obviously determined to bring about change, adopt such an odd managerial style?

  • Hypothesis #1: The Pope is deliberately working outside the ordinary lines of command because he doesn’t trust the Vatican bureaucracy. Pope Francis has issued some scathing indictments of the habits of the Roman Curia, most notably blunt Christmas “greetings” to Vatican officials last year. He came into office knowing that the machinations of Vatican officials had undermined his predecessor. He doesn’t trust the bureaucracy. But it’s been over two years now since he assumed Peter’s throne; shouldn’t he have assembled his own trusted staff by now?
  • Hypothesis #2: The Pope is a maverick by nature; he doesn’t work well with a staff. There’s nothing wrong with people who prefer to work alone—unless they are in charge of large international organizations!
  • Hypothesis #3: The Pope doesn’t want to exercise leadership by himself; he really does prefer a collegial approach. Some dramatic reforms have already taken place during this pontificate: the new regularization of finances and budgeting; the new norms for bishops’ handling of sex-abuse complaints; the overdue streamlining of Vatican communications. But all these changes have come about through consultations with the Council of Cardinals—a body created by another innovative reform—and with the Synod of Bishops.

Like Father Lombardi, I’m confused; I don’t know which of these hypotheses—if any—is right. My guess is that there’s some truth in each of them. But once again, a glimpse into the internal workings of the Vatican under Pope Francis has raised far more questions than it answers.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 8 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Jul. 22, 2015 3:41 PM ET USA

    I am a avid consumer of hagiography, and the number of saints who deliberately made themselves look dumber, less attractive, and even less sane than they actually were is astonishing. Pope Francis makes it hard to be Catholic when so much idiocy is spread about him. It appears that a lot of it may come from him directly. It keeps me focused on the Lord even in the face of Papal Infallibility.

  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Jul. 22, 2015 9:53 AM ET USA

    I think the confusion generated by the Pope's way of working and speaking (within and without the Vatican) undermines the Church's standing. With the faithful, because there is no anchor attached to the barque of Peter, and with the world at large, where leftist ideologies are bolstered.

  • Posted by: Jim.K - Jul. 22, 2015 12:52 AM ET USA

    Hypothesis #4 -- None of the above. A) Giving him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps Fr. Lombardi was not authorized to answer that question. B) In the past, Fr. Lombardi has always seemed incompetent to me. C) Perhaps whatever he said was modified by the translator. (I'm sure you agree that we shouldn't get our Catholic news from the secular press.) D) Maybe it is just none of our business! E) The most scary of all -- perhaps one of your hypothesis is correct! -- Yikes! - Thanks for the article.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 21, 2015 10:18 PM ET USA

    It is challenging to try to understand, but it has been the case nonetheless for some time that much of the assault over recent decades has been an assault against knowing. Malevolence? Sure, but at this point what's the point? It's been an assault against the ability to know- against CONFIDENCE. The baptized, by baptismal character, participation in the life of grace and proper catechesis to which he is entitled... can know. In so many ways this confidence is challenged; in ways unheard.

  • Posted by: kathimcnamee11450 - Jul. 21, 2015 6:03 PM ET USA

    Between Obama, Pope Francis and the Muslims, my world is like tossed salad. Time was when I could feel secure in my Catholic Church... no longer!!!!

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Jul. 21, 2015 4:03 PM ET USA

    My take? Pope Francis is a man of prayer and seeks to be led by the Spirit. Whether that is working or not, only God knows.

  • Posted by: feedback - Jul. 21, 2015 3:13 PM ET USA

    Media were relentless, and often very unfair, in pigeonholing the previous two Popes. But there is no way to pigeonhole Pope Francis. That's a good thing for now, I think.

  • Posted by: ElizabethD - Jul. 20, 2015 10:35 PM ET USA

    I am confused too, but I think one thing it suggests is how different Pope Francis is from any high level secular leader one could imagine. He is not of one party or another, but is for everyone, especially those at the peripheries, and meets people humanly and not with an agenda. He defies interpretation as a politician or as someone trying to manipulate public opinion through the media. He keeps his own appointment book and his life is not run by personal assistants or mediated by spokesmen.