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The obstacles to reform of the Vatican’s communications efforts

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | May 05, 2017

Pope Francis was unusually candid in his May 4 address to the staff of the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications, admitting that the consolidation of the many different Vatican offices involved in the project will require “a little violence.” It will be “good violence,” the Pope assured his audience, insofar as it responds to the needs of the Church in a new era of public communications.

Charles Collins, writing on the Crux web site, has an excellent analysis of the reforms, and the obstacles they must overcome. But as Collins would surely agree, much more could be said and written on the topic. Bringing the Vatican’s communications strategy into line with the demands of the 21st century will involve some hard work. But that aspect of the reform will be simple—non-violent, if you will— in comparison with the second major challenge: making Vatican officials appreciate the field of public relations.

To appreciate the scope of these challenges, understand that the Vatican began the process of reform three years ago. In some multi-national businesses, entire corporations can be merged, and new structures created, literally overnight. Not in Rome. A commission of experts was empaneled in 2014 to study the Vatican’s communications efforts and recommend changes. The commission recommended a consolidation of the many different offices involved, and in June 2015 the Council of Cardinals approved that recommendation. Meanwhile Pope Francis appointed a new commission to study the recommendations of the first commission and suggest a program for implementing them. About a year later, Msgr. Dario Vigano, who had been appointed to head the new consolidated Secretariat for Communications, reported that it would take until 2018 to bring all the scattered Vatican offices together into a single coordinated unit.

The task is admittedly a daunting one. The Vatican offices involved in public communications included the newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican television center, the press office, Vatican Radio, and the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and a half-dozen other offices—all operating independently, without any central strategy. Each had its own staff, its own proud history, its own interests to protect. Lord Patten, who chaired the first expert commission studying the problem, did not have to be a prophet to predict that there would be entrenched opposition to the proposed reforms.

Apart from the inevitable turf battles, the reform effort had to face knotty questions of budget and personnel. In both of those categories, Vatican Radio is the dominant concern; it is an enormously expensive operation, with a very large staff (about 300 employees). Vatican Radio employees are generally very good at what they do, but what they do—what they have done, anyway—is produce radio programs. In the Vatican’s new strategy for the digital age, radio broadcasts were to play a much reduced role.

But even if all the resistance could be overcome and all the turf battles mediated, even if the Vatican Radio staff could adapt happily to new responsibilities and the money could be found to pay them all, the process of reform would be only beginning. Because the real obstacles to effective communications at the Vatican do not, and will not, lie within the reorganized Secretariat for Communications. The effort is hampered by the policies and habits of other Vatican offices: the offices on which the Secretariat must rely.

Charles Collins pinpoints one of the problems in his Crux analysis:

Sometimes a papal speech can be translated independently, in whole or in part, 3 or 4 times by different offices. Yet a central translation office hasn’t been established, and it would require coordination between the new communications office, the powerful Secretariat of State, and the Pontifical Household, which controls the pope’s schedule.

Ah, the Pope’s schedule. Before he retired from his position as director of the Vatican press office, Father Federico Lombardi admitted that he often didn’t know where the Pope was, or what he was doing. “One person knows one part of his schedule, someone else knows another part,” he revealed. If the Pope’s chief spokesman doesn’t know what the Pontiff is doing, how can he be expected to answer media questions?

Then when the Pope makes a public statement, another difficulty arises. Collins explains that “whenever the Pope speaks off the cuff—or says something controversial—the Secretariat of State tells everyone in the Vatican to wait, until the “official version” comes out, no matter that the ‘unofficial,’ but authentic, version is all over television and the newswires.”This problem is compounded, of course, when the Pope sets aside a prepared text and speaks extemporaneously, as Pope Francis does quite regularly. Reporters hear his words immediately; hours might pass before the press office has the “official” version, vetted by the Secretariat of State—which often does not match the statement that by now has been broadcast all over the world.

Why is the Secretariat of State involved in this process at all? Well, the Secretary of State outranks everyone at the Vatican except the Pope himself. Certainly Cardinal Parolin outranks Msgr. Vigano (who is, Collins notes, “the highest-ranking Vatican official to not be a bishop”). The Secretariat of State supervises every other office of the Roman Curia, and so the Secretariat of State supervises the Secretariat for Communications. So at any moment the strategies concocted by the media experts at the Secretariat for Communications can be thwarted by officials at the Secretariat of State who are definitely not media experts.

The reform of Vatican communications effort cannot be truly completed, then, until the office is free to set its own policies, without interference from the Secretariat of State. As a matter of fact, the entire project of Vatican administrative reform cannot be completed until the Secretariat of State is reduced to a more manageable role. But that is a story for another day.

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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  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - May. 06, 2017 12:08 AM ET USA

    The Pope can't even control himself, and that is the start of a lot of the problems. If he stuck to his prepared remarks then everything could be veted and translated first.