Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Announcing the Pope’s surgery: another Vatican PR blunder

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 07, 2021

Another week, another display of ineptitude by the Vatican’s public-relations team. So what else is new?

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On Sunday afternoon, the Vatican press office announced that Pope Francis had been admitted to the Gemelli Clinic that same day for “planned surgery” to relieve diverticular stenosis. Within a few hours, another statement confirmed that the “scheduled surgical operation” had been performed successfully.

If the surgery had been scheduled in advance—as obviously it was—why did the Vatican postpone an announcement until the Pope was already in the hospital?

Even a public figure like the Roman Pontiff deserves some personal privacy. He need not disclose every detail about his physical health. And frankly, no one wants to know the details about an intestinal complaint. But isn’t it common to let your family and friends know beforehand if you are having major surgery?

There are three good reasons why you might make a low-key announcement before having routine surgery.

  1. Sometimes things go wrong, and a “routine” hospital visit becomes an emergency. It’s an act of charity to ensure that, if an emergency occurs, your loved ones won’t be taken completely off guard.
  2. If you don’t let them know of your plans, some of your relatives and friends might learn that you are in the hospital, and—having had no prior notice—assume the worst. Again it’s an act of charity to spare them unnecessary fears.
  3. If they are believers, your loved ones will surely pray for a successful operation and a quick recovery—but only if they know that some extra prayers would be timely.

Catholics all around the world pray daily for the welfare of the Pope. They might have redoubled their prayers, if they had known he was headed for the hospital. Instead they were surprised—and naturally alarmed—to hear about his hospitalization. What harm could have been done by a simple announcement, a few days before the fact, saying:

Pope Francis will be checking into Gemelli Polyclinic this weekend for routine surgery to repair diverticular stenosis of the colon.

On the basis of such a simple announcement, anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of medicine (or with access to an internet search engine) would have quickly concluded that the Pope’s surgery was not a special cause for concern. But the Vatican, which only gives out information on a parsimonious, need-to-know basis, evidently thought that the news of a papal hospitalization would cause undue concern. So there was no announcement before the fact.

The net result—as usual with a first-class public-relations blunder—was precisely what the PR machinery had thought to avoid: undue concern. Sometime on Sunday, countless Catholics were shocked to hear that the Pope had been hospitalized, and feared the worst.

Three days later we are assured, by the same Vatican press office, that the Pontiff’s recovery is “regular and satisfactory.” Ordinarily there would be no reason to doubt that statement, since the operation is not regarded as risky and the Pope’s overall health is by all accounts good.

However, as the New York Times reports, there is “a lingering cloud of earned skepticism about the Pope’s actual condition.” Why? “The Vatican’s history of obfuscation, opaqueness and Pravda-like messaging is well established,” the Times explains.

The Times is no friend of the Vatican, but in this instance its report is accurate. The Vatican has a longstanding and amply justified reputation for concealing any adverse news about the Pope’s health. Remember back in October 1996, when the papal spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls (who by the way was trained as a physician) earned a stiff rebuke from the Secretariat of State for disclosing what everyone already knew: that Pope John Paul II was suffering from Parkinson’s disease?

So the Vatican’s botched handling of a simple announcement has another negative effect: it undermines confidence in what almost certainly is an accurate report about the Pope’s successful recovery. The fundamental problem with the Vatican’s PR approach is the ingrown tendency to tell people what they should think (in the opinion of the Secretariat of State, which ultimately controls Vatican statements), rather than to deliver the unvarnished truth.

On the same weekend that saw the unexpected announcement of the Pope’s surgery, the Vatican released another important story, about plans to prosecute ten people for financial misconduct. One of the accused, Tommaso Di Ruzza, has confidently stated that he will be fully cleared when the charges are weighed before a Vatican tribunal, in proceedings scheduled to begin later this month. Perhaps he is right. But if he is exonerated, will the Secretariat of State allow the proceedings of that Vatican tribunal to be made public, to vindicate those who were wrongfully accused?

That question is a crucial one, for the withered credibility of the Vatican. Because while the charges that were made public this past weekend involve ten different individuals, nearly all of the alleged financial crimes involve the cooperation, and sometimes the explicit approval, of the very agency that controls the flow of information from the Vatican: the Secretariat of State.

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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