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Why you need CWN: illustration #6,407

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Aug 19, 2008

 This headline is popping up in quite a few newspapers in and around Vermont:

 Former Vatican counsel castigates Vt. Church

 The story-- here's a representative sample-- involves testimony by Father Tom Doyle in a case involving clerical abuse. 

Father Doyle is a well known figure in these cases. Back in the 1980s he was among a handful of people who tried-- energetically but unsuccessfully-- to persuade the US bishops that they should confront the problem forthrightly. He was remained outspoken on the issue, and while his comments on Church authority raise concerns about his own theological beliefs, there's no question that he qualifies as an expert witness in a secular courtroom. 

But the headline doesn't describe Father Doyle as an expert witness; it calls him a "former Vatican counsel." That description suggests someone high up in the Roman Curia-- perhaps the equivalent of a White House counsel, who has regular access to the Oval Office. The headline conveys the impression that some ranking official in Rome has singled out the Burlington diocese for special criticism. That's not the case. Father Doyle once worked in the office of the apostolic nuncio in Washington. It's true that he handled canonical affairs; in that sense you could say that he was a "counsel" for an office of the Vatican. But by no stretch of the imagination was he an important policy-maker for the universal Church.

It's easy for secular journalists, who know little about the workings of the Vatican, to exaggerate the importance of Church functionaries. One regularly sees references to statements by  "important Vatican officials," who turn out to hold minor clerical posts in the Roman bureaucracy. 

The people who run the Vatican post office are "Vatican officials," and since mail service is important, you could describe them as "important" Vatican officials.  Keep that in mind, next time you see that phrase.  


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 See full bio.

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