There are rumours on a German traditionalist blog that Fr Federico Lombardi, the Pope’s communications chief, will stand down after the Pope’s Holy Land trip in May. I have no idea if they are true. But I do know that, whatever the Jesuit’s limitations, the Pope’s communications problem is not Fr Lombardi.  

The key problem under Pope Benedict XVI is that Fr Lombardi is not part of his decision-making cabinet. The exact opposite prevailed under John Paul II: former comms director Joaquin Navarro-Valls was one of the key papal advisers -- to the constant annoyance of the Secretariat of State.

With Benedict XVI’s election and the retirement of Navarro-Valls, the notoriously clunky and out-of-touch State  -- which best exemplifies the managerial culture panned by George Weigel in an interesting new essay, ’The Pope versus the Vatican’, in Standpoint - moved to reassert its traditional role as executor of the papal will. With Communications relegated to a technical, transmission-belt function, the consequences, time after time, have been disastrous, as curial departments have marched the Pope into the PR disaster zone and left him there, leaving Fr Lombardi to arrive on the scene late and out of breath.

As Weigel notes:

"Fr Federico Lombardi SJ, Navarro-Valls’s successor, was sadly unprepared for the informal press briefing he gave the day the story [about Bishop Williamson] broke, because he hadn’t been brought into whatever deliberations there had been about lifting the Lefebvrist excommunications."

I met Fr Lombardi in 2007, and he was clearly struggling back then to have a voice in the decision-making process. I have grown more and more sorry for him since. Communications is not what you do with the policy. In the Church, above all, it IS the policy; and in Pope Benedict, who is a brilliant conceptual communicator, it is also the man.

If -- after Regensburg, Maciel, Bishop Williamson and countless other eruptions great and small -- Pope Benedict does not realise by now that communications must be part of his decision-making, then he is not as innocent of these disasters as Weigel claims. If he does realise, and is unable to do anything about it, then he is a prisoner of the Vatican.

If neither of these statements is true, Fr Lombardi will soon be brought into the papal decision-making process -- and Catholics can stop apologising for their Church’s communications disasters. But if the blogs are right, and Fr Lombardi is to stand down, then I fear he is being scapegoated for ills which lie deep in the heart of the Vatican Curia. We shall see.

Comments

Anonymous | 3/30/2009 - 3:14pm
Please define communications “disasters”? Would Jesus’ words leading up to the “this is a hard saying” reaction of his disciples (John 6:60) have been a communications disaster? (To name only one example from the Gospel accounts.) [¶] True, Benedict XVI and his advisors seem not to have accurately anticipated the media reactions. The Holy Father seems to have admitted as much after the Williamson flap. But at a level too obscure for journalists and political pundits to grasp is the fact that Benedict XVI is a scholar and a teacher. He provokes his hearers to think and to do their own research. He takes us as intelligent adults who are able to challenge what he says reflectively rather than in knee-jerk tirades. The chattering classes (most journalists, unfortunately) want nothing to do with research or reflection. They want slick, sanitized statements that pass by unnoticed or that allow the journalist gate-keepers to supply their own eisegesis. Even if Benedict XVI doesn’t fully understand the media’s point of view, I’m delighted he apparently has no intention of reading from their script. [¶] By the way, as subsequent reports on some of the controversies have proven that the media overreacted or simply shared their ignorance with us (e.g., inaccurate statements that Williamson was being “reinstated” or “rehabilitated”; furious denouncements of the condoms statement when a Google search [ahem] would have proven that the Pope had empirical data to back him up), why, if the competence of people in the Vatican is still an issue, isn’t the competence of journalists as lively a topic of discussion?
Anonymous | 3/29/2009 - 11:15pm
Austen, " But I do know ..."" and how is that? Mike Iwanowicz
Anonymous | 3/29/2009 - 5:36pm
Weigel writes: "And the thumbscrews and rack have remained locked in the basement of the office Ratzinger once headed, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which (as the world media never cease to remind us) "was once known as the Inquisition"." Well, I guess if he's referring to actual racks and thumbscrews, then yes, we haven't seen them, but the CDF is still operating just as it was when Ratzinger headed it.
Anonymous | 3/29/2009 - 4:42pm
''Church's communications disasters'', an interesting phrase. It reminds me of Jesus' communications disasters in the Gospels. Anybody reading the Gospels in the backdrop of the media's criticisms of Pope Benedict would agreee that Jesus Christ has also communications disasters in the manner He presents the Good News. But the media may well be the message. Obi
Anonymous | 3/29/2009 - 12:59pm
Perhaps what you say is true. One does not know. I take exception with you that Regensburg was a problem however. The reaction to Regensburg, proved, sadly but nevertheless accurately, that there is a violent streak in Islam. Speaking truth is hardly a communications disaster.