Papal continuity or discontinuity? The Vatican PR team scores on its own goal
Last week the Vatican published a series of short books on the theology of Pope Francis. You probably haven’t heard much about those books. But you’ve heard quite a bit about the controversy that erupted after they were unveiled.
If the Vatican had only announced the publication of the books, the story would have passed unnoticed. Only a few weeks earlier, the same Vatican publishing house had put out The Pope Francis Lexicon, a series of essays explaining some of the terms that the Holy Father commonly uses. The book’s launch was barely noticed in the Catholic media; secular outlets ignored the story entirely.
Frankly The Pope Francis Lexicon was a better bet for public attention than the series that made its debut last week. Pope Francis has captured attention by introducing new terms, new ideas, into discussions of Vatican affairs, and an exploration of his unique use of language makes sense. He is not, on the other hand, primarily known as a theologian. (And that’s perfectly OK; the Roman Pontiff need not be a leading theological scholar.) The new books were short; their authors were not household names. This launch, too, was destined to pass quietly.
But then someone at the Vatican had a bright idea. Why not solicit a statement from Pope-emeritus Benedict—who definitely is known as a world-class theologian—praising the new books? Msgr. Dario Vigano, who heads the new Secretariat for Communications, wrote to the former Pontiff in January to solicit a comment. Benedict politely declined. Without a comment from him, the introduction of the new books was again likely to pass unnoticed.
But Msgr. Vigano was evidently not ready to give up easily. He pulled a few sentences from Benedict’s letter, in which the unfailingly courteous retired Pope praised his successor’s theological training and spoke of the “interior continuity” between the pontificates, and highlighted them in the news conference announcing the new books. Now he had a story to tell the media!
Sure enough, the headline stories generated by the news conference last Monday were not about the books being published. The spotlight was fixed on the Pope-emeritus. His letter was cited not only as an homage to Pope Francis, but also, more importantly, as an implicit rebuke to the new Pope’s conservative critics. “ Pope Benedict Protects Pope Francis’ Right Flank,” read the headline in the Wall Street Journal, in a fairly typical presentation of the story line. As Pope Francis reached the 5-year anniversary of his election, the quotes from Benedict were cited as evidence that, while some critics saw sharp differences between the teachings of Francis and those of Benedict, the retired Pope himself did not.
Then, of course, the story fell apart. Reporters learned, first, that Pope Benedict had actually declined to read the new volumes, and that the Vatican PR team had deliberately doctored a photocopy of his letter to camouflage that fact. Still later it emerged that in the full letter—which the Vatican public-relations crew had held back—Benedict had complained that one author in the new series had been bitterly critical of the teachings put forward by himself and by Pope John Paul II. He objected to the inclusion of an author who had, in the past, “virulently attacked the magisterial authority of the Pope,” specifically on questions of moral theology.
The Vatican had introduced the letter from Benedict in an effort to show continuity in papal teaching; in fact, when the dust settled, the former Pontiff’s letter pointed to the clear discontinuity. The author who praised the theological approach of Pope Francis had decried the approach of his predecessors. To be even more specific, the point of contention was the encyclical Veritatis Splendor, by St. John Paul II, which set forth the clear moral principles that have been largely obscured by Amoris Laetitia.
This might have been a simple story, about the theology of Pope Francis. But the Vatican public-relations team wanted something more: they wanted headlines about how Pope-emeritus Benedict had endorsed the thought of his successor. It was not the former Pope who created this story; he had marked his letter to Msgr. Vigano as “personal and confidential.” It was the Vatican communications team, with its maladroit handling of the episode, that drew attention to the retired Pope, and eventually to the clear differences between him and Pope Francis.
(An early version of this post attributed the botched handling of the letter to the Vatican press office. Actually the press office was not directly involved. The release of the books, and thus of the letter, was managed—mismanaged—by the Secretariat for Communications.)
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