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A thin-skinned Vatican spokesman harms his own standing

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 05, 2015

Father Thomas Rosica works with the Vatican press office, and is sometimes quoted by the English-speaking media as a spokesman for the Vatican. So you might take it for granted that he has some understanding of the field of public relations. You’d be wrong.

Hounded by an obscure Canadian blogger who subjected him to intemperate denunciations, Father Rosica had a lawyer send the blogger a letter, informing him that his statements were “libelous” and threatening to sue. The results were entirely predictable. The blogger, who had been an unknown, suddenly became a celebrity; his denunciations of Father Rosica reached a much wider audience. Meanwhile the sometime Vatican spokesman—who should have been a sympathetic figure, because the blogger’s criticisms really were offensive—placed himself in the position of the “bad guy,” a seemingly powerful figure threatening to close down a poor solitary blogger.

So now Father Rosica announces that “it was never my intention to sue.” Maybe not. But he—or at least the lawyer acting on his behalf—certainly intended to threaten a suit. A ham-handed attempt to silence a critic is not the best way to gain favor with the media.

Still Father Rosica seems not to have learned his lesson; he does not realize the damage that he has done to his own public standing. He seems to think that he, and he alone, will decide when discussion of this unfortunate incident should stop. “The matter is now closed,” he says. No, it isn’t.

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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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Dec. 10, 2016 1:58 AM ET USA

    From Donum Veritatis nn. 15-17: "The charism of infallibility [bestowed by Christ] in matters of faith and morals...can be exercised in various ways. ...One must therefore take into account the proper character of every exercise of the Magisterium, considering the extent to which its authority is engaged...Magisterial decisions in matters of discipline, even if they are not guaranteed by the charism of infallibility, are not without divine assistance and call for the adherence of the faithful."

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Dec. 07, 2016 2:14 PM ET USA

    For Mr. Spanier, a reference to the "hierarchy of doctrines," from LG n. 25: "This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence,...according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking."

  • Posted by: phil L - Dec. 07, 2016 9:54 AM ET USA

    In reply to Sharonand84353 (see below): From the Pope's statements and silences, I infer that he does not want to press the issue, knowing that if he said forthrightly what he now implies, the break with prior Church teaching would be evident. As things stand, if silence implies consent, then he has given his tacit consent to contradictory readings of AL.

  • Posted by: Sharonand84353 - Dec. 06, 2016 7:56 PM ET USA

    Mr. Lawler, do you have any opinion on why he has chosen to handle things this way? He clearly supports the Argentinian bishops' interpretation of AL. Do you think he also supports the interpretation of the bishop of San Diego? If silence implies consent, then is it reasonable to think that he does support such interpretations? Do you think it's possible that he doesn't really understand the importance of constant Church teaching? He certainly is a most unique Holy Father.

  • Posted by: phil L - Dec. 06, 2016 9:39 AM ET USA

    In reply to R. Spanier (see comment below): As a general rule, new statements from the magisterium should be read in the light of earlier statements, on the assumption that they are in continuity. Encyclicals generally carry a weightier teaching authority because they are often devoted to the exposition of questions of faith or morals, whereas apostolic exhortations are typically devoted to encouraging a deeper and more fruitful Christian life. Thus the type of document is one clue to the Pope’s intention: whether to teach a particular truth or to promote virtue based on what we already know.

  • Posted by: rickt26170 - Dec. 06, 2016 2:13 AM ET USA

    Well put. What is unsettling is that Francis could use the same tactic of "smoke and mirrors" to deflect criticism if he tries to expand his revolution in the Church. The way divorce for the remarried was handled, you could use exactly the same tactics to change almost anything that has 1900 years of tradition behind it. And there is good reason to think Francis has big plans for the future. Pray for the Church.

  • Posted by: feedback - Dec. 05, 2016 10:32 PM ET USA

    "The Pope cannot teach authoritatively by dropping hints." So obviously true! The four Cardinals did not challenge the authority of the Pope, or the respect due to his Office, but that style of teaching by "dropping hints" and then pointing to those few who "interpreted them right." The role of every Bishop is to present solid, orthodox, unambiguous teaching firmly grounded in the Deposit of the Faith of One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. All Bishops are to guard firmly that Deposit.

  • Posted by: R. Spanier (Catholic Canadian) - Dec. 05, 2016 9:22 PM ET USA

    Re. "earlier papal encyclicals, which carry a higher level of teaching authority..." Dear Mr. Lawler, Would you please tell where the Church teaches this? Thanks in advance.

  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Dec. 05, 2016 9:09 PM ET USA

    Two words: weaponized ambiguity.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 05, 2016 7:46 PM ET USA

    Mr. Lawler's testimony is laudable. However, it is essential that we transcend the notion that Pope Francis is among few in all this. He is simply pushing an envelope in an era where the envelope has become the enemy rather than the friend. There's a new understanding. Clearly. The concept of vigilant guardian of the Deposit is something foreign to too many pastors. Thus we see such small numbers in raising a challenge. And thus "teaching" ultimately proves to be a matter of semantics.

  • Posted by: ALC - Dec. 05, 2016 4:45 PM ET USA

    This is the best article I have seen on the subject. Thank you for making it so clear. What I find most disturbing is that, as opposed to what we went through with the misinterpretation of Vatican II, this time the confusion and wrong interpretation is coming from the top. I have lived since Pius XII and this is the first time this happening I know of a Pope being the one to cause the confusion and misleading information to be promulgated.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Dec. 05, 2016 3:52 PM ET USA

    The cited article about Abp. Forte says: "Footnote 351 comes at paragraph 305, where the pope says that despite an 'objective situation of sin' it is possible that a person 'can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.'" This quote brings us once again to the question of doubt. Can a confessor who has a doubt about the species of a given sin (mortal or venial) counsel a penitent to continue in that sin?

  • Posted by: padrebill - Dec. 05, 2016 2:34 PM ET USA


  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Mar. 08, 2015 10:05 PM ET USA

    I would not characterize the blog post as offensive. It is within the bounds to accuse someone of being dishonest by presenting the evidence of their apparent dishonesty. It'a an opinion. There's a name given to this: the Barbara Streisand effect.

  • Posted by: MAG - Mar. 07, 2015 12:03 PM ET USA

    Phil I also wonder what is being called "intemperate denunciations". Perhaps I missed it. From my reading, Vox Cantoris simply brought attention to Fr. Rosica's own words; words in which he labeled Cardinal Burke a "dissenter". (This is the same Fr. Rosica who fawned over the heretic Gregory Baum...)

  • Posted by: dowd9585 - Mar. 07, 2015 6:31 AM ET USA

    I say thank God for Fr. Rosica in helping make known this courageous blogger. Mysterious are the ways of God.

  • Posted by: mclom - Mar. 06, 2015 6:58 PM ET USA

    From my reading on the matter of Fr Rosica, the blogger merely used Fr Rosica's own words & statements to show how far off the mark was Fr. Rosica from proclaiming certain Gospel truths which are also part of 2,000 years of Church teaching. I normally agree with and accept your analyses on various issues so I wonder if you would indicate just which of the blogger's comments were really offensive? How does quoting a person's own comments equate with them becoming offensive?