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Two Americans will play key roles at Vatican

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jun 26, 2012

The early days of summer are always a season for speculation around Rome, and this year especially so. With a flurry of appointments, is Pope Benedict XVI sending important signals about his policies and priorities? Yes, he is.

Ordinarily I avoid predictions about Vatican affairs. As the old saying goes, “Those who know don’t talk, and those who talk don’t know.” But the creation of two entirely new Vatican positions—as it happens, both to be filled by Americans—makes me confident now in saying:

  1. The Holy See will reach an agreement to regularize the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). The agreement may not come immediately, and a large faction within the SSPX will resist. But a reconciliation is coming; Pope Benedict is determined to see it through.
  2. The Secretariat of State has finally recognized the damage done by a cult of secrecy, and is prepared to adopt a different management style. Again change will not come easily; centuries of tradition will not give way without a fight. But again Pope Benedict is committed to the change.

Summers are always quiet in Rome. But in June, just before he leaves for his summer at Castel Gandolfo, the Pope generally announces a series of appointments to the Roman Curia. Today’s announcements did not include the much-anticipated appointment of a new prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF)--that news could still come within the next week. But there was one eye-catching item: the naming of Archbishop Augustine Di Noia, to become vice president of the Ecclesia Dei commission--a position that had not previously existed. The Vatican press office made a brief, formulaic announcement of the appointment. But the CDF followed up with a detailed explanation, leaving no doubt that Archbishop Di Noia’s primary responsibility will be working with the SSPX.

When he has sensitive positions to fill, Pope Benedict tends to choose prelates with whom he has a longstanding personal acquaintance. Archbishop Di Noia fits that description; he worked closely with then-Cardinal Ratzinger when the future Pontiff was prefect of the CDF. On paper, the archbishop’s move is scarcely a promotion: from being the #2 official at a powerful congregation (the Congregation for Divine Worship), he becomes #2 at a less powerful pontifical commission. But a pontifical commission typically does not have a vice-president, and in this case the titular president—who is the prefect of the CDF—has other major responsibilities. Clearly Archbishop Di Noia is expected to be the Vatican’s “point man” in dealings with the SSPX.

This appointment makes sense only if Pope Benedict expects the talks with the SSPX to involve important policy matters, and to bear important fruit. Since the last round of formal talks between the CDF and the SSPX earlier this month, there has been very little news about the discussions, and even some speculation that the movement toward a reconciliation had bogged down. With this appointment, Pope Benedict signals that he believes the talks are still very much alive. He would not have created a new position, and filled it with a trusted aide, if he thought the negotiations were doomed.

The SSPX has severe internal problems, with other traditionalist bishops resisting the efforts of the superior general, Bishop Bernard Fellay, to reach an agreement with the Holy See. But Bishop Fellay has promised to answer the latest Vatican offer promptly, keeping the discussions moving. Perhaps more significantly, he has postponed priestly ordinations, explaining that he wants to be assured of the new priests’ loyalty, and taken disciplinary action against the most notorious SSPX firebrand, Bishop Richard Williamson. Bishop Fellay’s actions certainly look like those of a careful leader entering into the delicate final rounds of complex negotiations.

The PR adviser

Archbishop Di Noia’s new position was announced barely 24 hours after the Vatican announced that another American, Fox News correspondent Greg Burke, had been named as “communications advisor” to the Secretariat of State. A veteran newsman with a deep Catholic faith, an extensive acquaintance with Rome, and a lively sense of humor, Burke is the best possible choice for what might turn out to be an impossible job.

Burke has exactly the right combination of background and skill to provide sound public-relations advice to the Vatican. He knows the journalists who cover the Vatican; he has worked alongside them for years. He knows what they want, and knows how to talk to them. They know him, too, and will trust him far more than they trust other Vatican sources.

However, the Secretariat of State will not adapt easily to modern public-relations techniques. Few institutions in the world are as secretive as the Secretariat of State, where information is tightly held on a “need to know” basis, and transparency is seen as a vice rather than a virtue. Burke will be asked to apply his distinctly American sense of openness and accessibility to the very hotbed of Romanita and clerical intrigue. It won’t be easy.

Still there are hopeful signs. Since his appointment was announced, Burke himself has been a model of candor, freely admitting that he twice turned down the job before finally accepting the challenge, and that he is not sure Vatican officials will listen to his advice. The Secretariat of State, which has endured a string of embarrassing public-relations debacles during this pontificate, finally recognizes the need for expert help. The “Vatileaks” scandal, and the ugly public ouster of the head of the Vatican bank, have thrown the entire dicastery into crisis mode. Now at last, Vatican officials are realizing that candor is a defense against skullduggery, and an obsession with secrecy gives a tactical advantage to the unscrupulous people who leak confidential documents. Maybe, with Burke’s help, Vatican leaders will come to recognize that it is better to explain a policy decision clearly than to expect unquestioning acquiescence—and even, beyond that, to see that every opportunity to explain Church policy is also an opportunity to evangelize.

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  • Posted by: Nuage - Jun. 27, 2012 12:32 AM ET USA

    I hope you are correct regarding the reconciliation. However, the protection of the Mystical Body of Christ from further error and injury is of paramount concern to the Holy Pontiff, as well it should be. Before they can be reconciled, the SSPX must refute the heresies they have embraced and spread for many years now. The Vicar of Christ has asked them to sign a profession of faith and loyalty to the Holy See. Bishop Fellay needs to do this without further delay.

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