Comment on the Comments
William Oddie FAITH Magazine July-August 2009
Well, the Pope's visit to Israel in May provided the final proof, if proof were still required (which it wasn't) that something has urgently to be done about the sheer, utter, mind-numbing incompetence (one struggles for words) of those responsible for the PR of the present pontificate. In case you have blotted the incident out of your memory in self-protection, here it is again, in the words of the Times report, which also demonstrated vividly the consequences of blunders like this, when it comes to the opportunities they present for the secular press to produce a grossly distorted coverage of papal affairs:
"The Pope has said he never, never was a member of the Hitler Youth, which was a movement of fanatical volunteers,' Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said -contradicting statements the Pope has himself made about his involvement with the group. The Vatican denial came as Benedict's trip sank deeper in controversy and recrimination, eclipsing the message of peace and reconciliation he has been pushing during his pilgrimage."
The relevant documentation was given in The National Catholic Reporter by John Allen (who despite the liberal complexion of the paper he writes for has been consistently fair-minded in his assessments of the present papacy): it is the 1997 book Salt of the Earth, based on an interview which the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger granted to the German journalist Peter Seewald:
Seewald: Were you in the Hitler Youth?
Ratzinger: At first we weren't, but when the compulsory Hitler Youth was introduced in 1941, my brother was obliged to join. I was still too young, but later, as a seminarian, I was registered in the HY As soon as I was out of the seminary, I never went back. That was difficult, because the tuition reduction, which I really needed, was tied to proof of attendance at the HY. Thank goodness, there was a very
understanding mathematics teacher. He himself was a Nazi but an honest man, who said to me, "Just go once and get the document, so that we have it..." When he saw that I simply didn't want to, he said, "I understand, I'll take care of it," and so I was able to stay free of it.
"To be fair", commented John Allen, "Lombardi's point was doubtless that the young Ratzinger never wanted to be part of the Hitler Youth and never participated in it. His concern is probably that short-hand media formula such as 'former Hitler Youth member' can leave an inflammatory, and inaccurate, impression." Asked later in the day for clarification, Lombardi said he could confirm that what Cardinal Ratzinger said in 1997 was correct, that he was registered in the Hitler Youth and was therefore technically a member.
But that "clarification" in no way justified Lombardi's grotesque announcement only a few hours previously that "The Pope has said he never, never was a member of the Hitler Youth", since the Pope never, never said anything remotely resembling what Lombardi said he did. Either Lombardi knew that, in which case he was uttering a deliberate distortion, or he didn't, in which case he went to Israel grossly ill-prepared for such a difficult and sensitive visit. Whichever it is, he ought to have been sacked immediately.
By the time you read this, he may have been, in which case there is a chance that things might now improve. The chances are that he hasn't. For, the fact is that the problem is deeper simply than that the Pope has an incompetent Press Officer: it is that he is surrounded by incompetents everywhere he looks. The month before the Pope's visit, George Weigel gave an analysis in the excellent Standpoint magazine (edited by an orthodox Catholic, Daniel Johnson) of why, as he put it in his
article ("The Pope versus the Vatican"), "the Pope needs a Roman revolution":
The Lefebvrist fiasco was a microcosm of the complex set of administrative and managerial problems that Benedict must confront and resolve, if his intellectual lucidity and pastoral good sense are not to be obscured by the incapacities and incompetence of the Curia, the reform of which he was expected to undertake by those who elected him in 2005.
The Curia exists for one reason: to give effect to the will of the Bishop of Rome, who is the source of both legislative authority and policy initiative in the universal Church.... As in all governmental bureaucracies, of course, stated rationale and actual performance are not always aligned. For the Curia not infrequently mimics the behaviour of every other bureaucratised power structure on the planet.... It is often thought that popes have a unique freedom of action. The fact is that the exercise of papal governance is deeply affected, for good or ill, by the competence of the Curia and its senior officials. Contemporary popes can and do go over or around the Curia to shape the international debate, as John Paul II and Benedict XVI have shown. Yet there is no governing the CatholicChurch over or around the Curia.
The Pope's problems with the Roman Curia as a whole, however, take us further than we can go here. My theme is the way these problems affect the way in which the secular world perceives the Pope in particular and the Church in general. And the trouble is that the incompetence of those responsible for the Pope's public relations gives a strong impression that it is the Pope himself who is out of his depth, even when he very clearly (to anyone who knows from the inside what he is saying and doing) is not. Take the way the Press reacted to his remarks about condoms, made to a handful of journalists on the plane to Africa in March. When he commented - in response to the usual question about why he was so unreasonably opposed to condoms as a means of fighting Aids - that in fact condomdistribution isn't helping, and may be worsening, the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa, he provoked an avalanche of hostile comment, much of it almost hysterical in tone. The assumption was that here was an ignorant and bigoted old man, simply out of touch with modern realities.
So, where was the Vatican Press Office when all this was going on? He should have been immediately backed up by a rapid response unit, ready at all times to react to such criticisms with the facts, who could (in my dreams) have quickly established that what the Pope said was absolutely consistent with current thinking among at least some respected secular authorities. After the fuss had all died down (in other words, when it was too late to protect the Pope's reputation from lasting damage), some of these authorities spoke out in the Pope's defence. Edward C. Greene, Director of the Harvard School of Public Health, wrote bravely in The Washington Post that "in truth, current empirical evidence supports him". The difficulty was, that to say so, even for a scientist with the factsat his fingertips, was to go against a powerful and intolerant conventional wisdom: "We liberals", he wrote, "who work in the fields of global HIV/AIDS and family planning take terrible professional risks if we side with the pope on a divisive topic such as this. The condom has become a symbol of freedom and -along with contraception-female emancipation, so those who question condom orthodoxy are accused of being against these causes." The facts are however, that "major articles in... peer-reviewed journals such as the Lancet, Science and BMJ have confirmed that condoms have not worked as a primary intervention in the population-wide epidemics of Africa". Why? One reason is that "when people think they're made safe by using condoms at least some of the time,
they actually engage in riskier sex". What has worked in Africa, continued Greene, are "Strategies that break up... multiple and concurrent sexual networks [pc-speakfor 'promiscuity'] - or, in plain language, faithful mutual monogamy or at least reduction in numbers of partners, especially concurrent ones".
What the Pope had said on the plane went no further than that: he said only that AIDS "is a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, and that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems". So, not the witterings of a senile bigot: but a comment from an unusually intelligent and well-informed pope, in touch with current research. He had already made it clear what the radical solution to the problem was: that the "traditional teaching of the Church" on chastity outside marriage and fidelity within it had proved to be "the only sure way of preventing the spread of HIV and Aids". Or, in Dr Greene's words, the solution was "faithful mutual monogamy".
Now, the fact is that everyone knew that on a journey to Africa, someone sooner or later was going to bring up the question of condoms. Everyone, apparently, but the Vatican Press Office. And those articles in peer-reviewed journals such as the Lancet, Science and BMJ, mentioned by Dr. Greene, were all in the public domain: the Vatican Press Office should have known about those, too, and should have been ready to quote them the instant the Pope made his off-the cuff remarks. They should have been ready: when the Times, for instance, ran a piece headlined "critics attack Pope for his 'myopic' views on condoms", their reporters had to fall back on old general statements on condoms, rather than having a vigorous defence against the latest attacks, based oncurrent scientific literature, to quote. I know journalists, I have been one: rather than having laboriously to fish around in the cuttings for old statements to warm up, they would infinitely have preferred a feisty defence to quote, hot off the wires from the Vatican Press Office
(that large building on the right, just before you enter St Peter's Square: full of all the latest communications gear and a lot of people who haven't the slightest idea of how to use it).
Instead, the Pope was left undefended, to the tender mercies of supposed Catholics like the wretched Sir Stephen Wall, who attacked his views as being "a mixture of the extreme and bizarre", and concluded that "He has lost credibility" and that "his papacy will not recover"; and to the ravages of Western secular opinion, contemptuously summed up by a cartoon in the Philadelphia Inquirer, reprinted in The Washington Post and other organs, which showed the pope ghoulishly praising a throng of sick and dying Africans with the words "Blessed are the sick, for they have not used condoms."
The gross inadequacy of the Press Office is one example of the incompetence of the Curia as a whole (on which, again, see George Weigel's Standpoint piece at http://www. catholiceducation.org/articles/media/ me0081.htm). As Weigel, perhaps somewhat gloomily, says, "...no pope can govern successfully with an ineffectual Curia whose gaffes undercut the papal message and erode its authority." Reforming the Curia is a major task: but it has to begin somewhere: why not start with the Press Office? Fr Lombardi should go. But there is no point in his departure if he is simply replaced by someone equally ineffectual, who knows nothing about the way journalists operate. Thesimple fact is that the Press Office will only be improved by bringing in a replacement from the outside (as was Fr Lombardi's predecessor, the much more impressive layman Joaquin Navarro Vails). Somewhere, the dream candidate exists: it would be reassuring to know at least that the search was on.