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Vatican busywork: the formal statements that accomplish nothing

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 07, 2013

My work gives me an unusual perspective on statements from the Vatican. Every day I read through the press releases and formal announcements from the Holy See. Sometimes the statements are edifying. Sometimes they’re not.

During the pontificate of Blessed John Paul II there was a never-ending stream of official statements—purportedly from the Holy Father, but of course mostly written by staff—for every occasion you could imagine and some you couldn't. John Paul liked to meet people, and no meeting was complete without a statement for the record. The ghostwriters learned to tie the Pope's major themes to all occasions. So day after day the Vatican press office would churn out statements on topics like "The Role of Professional Jugglers In Advancing the New Evangelization" and "How Automotive Design Contributes to a Proper Understanding of the Theology of the Body." (OK, I made those up. But if you browse through the archives from the 1990s you'll see I'm not exaggerating that much.)

Pope Benedict XVI chose not to hold so many private audiences. The machines that churned out papal statements—which, by the way, kept cranking long after it became patently obvious that JPII could no longer be writing or even reading them—was shifted into low-low gear. For that I was enormously grateful; it made my life easier.

Well, in the past few months that machine has been revving up again. It's nowhere near as busy as it was, but the number of statements is definitely on the rise. I see no evidence that Pope Francis has encouraged the proliferation of formal statements. I suspect that, as the Pope considers trimming the Vatican bureaucracy, some officials are doing their best to look busy. If that’s their strategy to keep their current positions, it might backfire; some of these statements call attention to the fact that the individuals and offices involved don’t seem to have anything to say.

Here’s an example, taken from a recent announcement from the Vatican Information Service. I’ll supply just the first paragraph, then offer a few observations:

In a note published today, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications explained the meaning and context of the central theme of the next Social Communications Day, which is celebrated every year on 1 June. This year, the theme chosen by the Holy Father is “Communication at the service of an authentic culture of encounter”.

What have we learned?

  • The actual res--the thing being announced-- is a staged event: the World Day for Social Communications.
  • That event will take place in June of next year. So it's far too early to begin whipping up interest. There is no clear reason for issuing a statement now.
  • In one of those odd Vatican traditions, the Pope's message for the event is issued several months early: on January 24, the feast of St. Francis de Sales, patron of journalists. So when the actual event occurs, there's nothing to do but repeat that statement.
  • However, we're not even talking about the papal statement yet. We're talking about the theme of the statement. Or rather we're talking about the "meaning and context" of the theme.

To review: Today's statement released on September 30 was about the background for the theme of a statement that will not be issued for nearly 4 months, in anticipation of an observance that will be held in another 4 months.

OK, OK, I know you're just quivering with curiosity to know what this newsworthy statement actually says. Here's the high point:

The Message for World Communications Day 2014 will explore the potential of communication, especially in a networked and connected world, to bring people closer to each other and to co-operate in the task of building a more just world.

See what I mean? There's nothing wrong with that statement, nothing with which anyone could disagree, nothing that could provoke a strong reaction. In fact, nothing.

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: jg23753479 - Oct. 08, 2013 8:20 AM ET USA

    For me the important press news from Rome is the revised story of the Scalfari interview. Fr. Thomas Rosica said Oct. 3 that Scalfari, at 89 (!), did not record or even take notes during the meeting with PF; he 'reconstructed' from memory the whole thing. The pope may have 'approved' Scalfari's version of things, but who in his right mind can doubt it is risky to dissect the Repubblica article? The Vatican says details there may be 'conflated'; how about 'distorted' or 'hyped' or even 'wrong'?