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Is it going too far to say that the Roman Curia is a ‘train wreck’? Probably not

It’s time for reform. No pontificate can reach its full potential with an incompetent Vatican bureaucracy

By on Friday, 19 November 2010

Pope Benedict XVI speaks to journalists on the papal plane (Photo: CNS)

Pope Benedict XVI speaks to journalists on the papal plane (Photo: CNS)

What might seem something of an odd couple (though they are, apparently, good friends) have issued together what amounts to a full frontal attack on the Roman Curia. George Weigel – official biographer of John Paul II, conservative commentator on Catholic affairs – and John Allen, Vatican specialist of the National Catholic Reporter, which makes him definitely a liberal – recently answered questions in a joint interview published in USA Today under the headline: “Vatican government is a ‘train wreck’: Experts.”

Well, they are undoubtedly “experts”, in that they have long experience of the subject and have frequently written about Vatican affairs. Their opinion is worth listening to, especially if, from their very different standpoints, they come to precisely the same conclusion. And they agree that “there is, essentially, no media strategy, no war room, no one with a handle on reforming communications or, worse, reforming the governing structure itself”.

Vatican officials, Weigel said, “can appear to be dissembling or disinterested when there is no well-formed intent to deceive, they just don’t know what’s going on.” He insisted not only that “the Vatican communications debacle has to end” (which everyone has been saying for years), but also, very interestingly, that “the Church must find a way to dump bad bishops”, which he called “the single biggest management problem in the Church today… and the single biggest fix that can affect the life of the Church”.

Well indeed. Imagine the opportunities that could arise if, say, we could have a clean sweep along the English south coast. But that always supposes in its turn that the Roman Curia has in place a sure-fire method of appointing the right bishops to replace the ones you have removed. And as I discussed earlier this week, it just doesn’t.

The reform of the Roman Curia has to start somewhere. Its communications strategy is probably the place to start. The trouble is that the incompetence of those responsible for the Pope’s public relations can give the strong impression that it is the Pope himself who is out of his depth, even when he very clearly 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 last year. When he correctly replied – in response to the usual question about why he was so unreasonably opposed to condoms as a means of fighting Aids – that in fact condom distribution 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? The Pope should have been immediately backed up by a rapid response unit, ready at all times to react to such criticisms with the facts. After the fuss had died down (in other words, when it was too late to protect the Pope’s reputation from lasting damage), some authorities on the subject spoke out in his defence. Edward C Greene, director of the Harvard School of Public Health, wrote in the Washington Post that, “in truth, current empirical evidence supports him”. He pointed out 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”.

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. Instead, the Pope was left undefended, to the tender mercies of people like 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”.

Well, his papacy has recovered, rather well: entirely due to his own gentle but powerful pastoral presence on the world stage and to his own intellectual brilliance and deep spirituality. But he should not have to carry the whole burden, not only of the pastoral leadership of the Catholic Church but of the chaos of the Vatican government as well. As Weigel wrote last year in a piece entitled “The Pope versus the Vatican”,  “no pope can govern successfully with an ineffectual Curia whose gaffes undercut the papal message and erode its authority. Both Pope and senior churchmen must find new ways to work together if the promise of this papacy is to be fulfilled.”

But when? And how? These are urgent questions: and we need an answer to them, soon.

  • Jack B

    It unduly flatters the Roman Curia to use such a modern metaphor as “train wreck”.

    Occasions of appearing to dissemble without intent to deceive often look like sloppy examples of mental reservation, a well-documented technique for inducing listeners to believe a falsehood without technically telling a lie in the eyes of the Church. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes it under Mental Reservation

  • Jeannine

    I enjoy reading George Weigel's writings. I also like watching him being interviewed on TV. He always makes excellent points; IMO he is also a rigid, orthodox Catholic. (I'm not saying that all orthodox Catholics are rigid, far from it. I am also an orthodox Catholic.) When I read that he wants the Church to “find a way to dump bad bishops,” a question springs up, “What is a bad bishop to George Weigel?” Obviously, bad could mean covering up child abuse scandals & other horrible public scandals. But could it also mean not keeping lockstep w/the pope at all times? That is also not a good idea either.

  • Jeannine

    My prior post should read “That is not a good idea.” not “That is also not a good idea either.”

  • Wittgenstein

    try John R Quinn's (ex Archbp of San Francisco) “The Reform of the Papacy”. You'll get chapter and verse.

  • Jean

    I agree that the problem with the condom issue rests with the Vatican communication. The pope was ill adviced by his media people. His comments on the Aids are justified in their full scope. They simply should have never been pronounced in that context, and the pope should have been told by his people that he should speak his truth during a proper speech or homily, not in an aeroplane…
    I already have been in the papal plane in the recent past.
    1/ The problem is that you don't hear properly what the pope says, because of the noise, so it's difficult to get the verbatim right, unless you get an chance to sit next to him and record his words… (forget it)
    2/ the media which are equipped in sending news via satellite get an advantage ( ie the news agency like AFP , etc) . But since they work in competition, they are obliged to send extremely quickly the soundbite that is “newsbreaking”. Thus they send information without the full context, which is problematic.
    These two problems can be solved if the papal opinion is delivered within a speech delivered to the media under embargo. Because the journalists have more time to work when they are under embargo.
    Oddie is absolutely right in stating that the communications unit is hopeless. But Benedict is also responsible for that : he appointed his people, didn't he ?

  • paulpriest

    Sorry Dr Oddie but you're falling into the trap well-prepared for you:

    The intended conclusion for this 'fit up' is for you to think “Pope Benedict's doing something wrong – he can't keep his own house in order – he isn't a capable ruler or administrator – he's a poor judge of character – he hasn't got the diplomatic nous or killer instinct to eradicate the dead-wood – he dwells in an anachronistic regime not fit for purpose – and it's all his fault it isn't changing ”
    “..and I don't suppose it will under the Ratzinger tenure – we'll have to wait and hope for a new broom in the next papacy – Benedict's let us down where it matters most….”

    Clever isn't it ?

    Those unswervingly devoted to His Holiness and the second spring of the Benedictine revolution and a healing of the post-hermeneutic of rupture Church…
    …are the ones indirectly indicting His Holiness for his Vatican 'failure' – for His lack of leadership – “Ah he might have been a fine executive officer – but he could never carry off the role of Captain” etc etc etc

    You have GOT to see how the enemy play this game – they have no scruples or compunction is distorting perceptions of the situation into the antithesis of reality – Silvestrini's “confessions of a cardinal” will reveal exactly how deeply we are in a state of civil war – the affair of permission for girl altar servers should have shown you exactly how the Vatican worked in JPII's final years.

    How many times do I have to say this ?
    The Pope is playing the long game – Less a chess game: More a game of wei-chi [go].
    He's in it for the long-haul ; preparing the way for his successors – ensuring the orthodox can build on Benedictine foundations – guaranteeing that any progressive 'reformer' will have his hands tied and ways blocked at every turn by doctrinal monoliths and moral precedents…

    His Holiness is like the true Thomistic Hero – not the reckless dolt who rushes headlong into the fray – but the one who risks everything for the sake of The Truth, Love & Beauty of God and His Creation – not the cavalryman – but the bombsquad member.

    A long lonely mission , a terrible burden…

    But the major thing you simply don't get – The Pope is not the CEO of Amalgamated Catholics inc – He's not a glorified Alan Sugar.

    He's the Bishop of Rome – and He has to care for all his flock – even when most of those around him are his enemies or work against him for their own ends or have been placed in their jobs and are protected by certain powers because they are inept and stupid and won't ask questions and won't do their job properly !
    His Holiness is shepherd over all his sheep – and must act accordingly – he has to care for the souls of the few as well as the many.

    Trust in God.
    Pope Benedict is Pope because God loves us.
    Man does not live by bread alone…if the Pope is willing to accept humiliation , embarrassment and media derision for greater reasons than we are aware?
    …maybe we should be less embarrassed and rush to his defence ourselves?

  • Rory

    I am sure that Weigel and Allen would disagree as to whom the “bad bishops” are. While I agree that there are serious communications problems…and curia members who are not “with the program”, I think that Weigel and Allen have there own idealogical agendas which might be in conflict with the Holy Father.
    I thanks God for Benedict XVI every day!

  • paulpriest

    There's also the distinct possibility that sacking Bishops beause they're not in agreement with the Papacy during an orthodox traditional-veering papacy might set a precedent for future more-progressive administrations to indiscriminately dismiss all opposition as well ?

  • W Oddie

    I don'y believe what you say I believe in your first paragraph for one second. You have entirely misunderstood what I have written. Try reading it carefully.

  • paulpriest

    I never implied you believed it – but I suggested you fell into the paradigmatic trap of assessing it within the remit this whole scenario has fallaciously imposed – which [and I'm sorry, but] I believe you have.

    Instead of asking 'why hasn't the Pope sacked all the deplorable renegade, heterodox, secularism-vichyist, relativist bishops ? or why has he maybe even appointed some ?'

    You immediately jump to the scenario of 'The Pope has failed in this regard – and it's obviously a lot to do with the anachronistic administrative ineptitude, wilfully antagonistic agenda and chaos within the curia – and the Pope's also failed by not having cleaned out these Augean stables'.

    Do you know what the Pope's about ?
    Think about this for one second…
    A Billion Catholics across the globe : the Pope makes a comment on condoms…
    His Press secretary stupidly attempts a little official revisionism…
    the media go on an all-out assault on His Holiness ?
    …and a lot of liberal 'Catholics' join in…

    Where was everybody ?
    Who defended the Pope?
    I'm sorry but you can't blame the Vatican when the world's Catholics fall silent !

    Yes I will concede it is a ludicrous situation that the vatican intelligence network is one of the best in the world yet its communications network's worse than it was at the time of Diocletian !
    Yes it is a scandal that there's no 'war room' or projected intensive government restructuring and dendritic communications/briefing network where episcopal blackberries beep on the hour across the globe being updated on crises or response briefing bullet-points/soundbites for political/social crises…

    If it isn't like that – there has to be a bloody good reason – and His Holiness must be fully aware of it and attempting a long drawn out campaign towards its resolution…

    But why the hell aren't we helping ?
    Sure – you in the Catholic Herald do your bit – regular daily tweets from Luke, brilliant updates from Anna ; and Mark's regularly on the ball on here…

    And the blogosphere's terrific at spreading the word…

    But what about our Catholic Communications Network ?
    Have you ever tried ringing them ? I have : Dozens of times!
    …maybe after 40mins hanging on the phone you'll get an out-of-breath reply from someone who seems to be pretending to be awfully busy…
    any question you ask – you'll be countered with a dozen questions inquiring how did someone like you get to know something they didn't…
    If they've been 'cleared' to give a trite generic response it will have no relation whatsoever to the questions one wants answered ; but it will be repeated ad nauseam – if you persist they will state that's beyond their remit to afford a response.
    If they promise to get back to you ? They never do !
    A question by e-mail ? remains unanswered.
    Any Crisis or social issue demanding a response from the Catholic Church ?
    Where are the CCN?
    Is Alexander Desforges never far from the TV or radio studios ever-ready to defend Holy Mother Church?
    Does the CCN daily fill column inches of our newspapers in defence of the faith or to counter misunderstandings or clarify positions?

    We've regrettably seen and heard enough of the unofficial voice of conference via Valero and Ivereigh over the past year – but where's the official voice of the CCN ?

    For all the publicity it garners, he CCN could just as well be run by Lord Lucan!

  • Bertine

    Dumping bad bishops … I dreamed a dream … And I can suggest a couple of candidates in the Netherlands.

  • GabrielAustin

    There is a bit of simple ignorance going on here in the comments about bishops. Bishops were rarely saints; they were rarely plain good people. More often than not they were what are called decent people. They “won” their positions by not rocking the boat. The saints in our Church are few enough, and generally to be found among simple people. I doubt that the Curia was ever efficient, ever even intelligent. Pious perhaps, good at having learned the rules, but not holy. Msgr. Knox wrote “Rome a ses lenteurs”.

    Goethe spoke of the great wisdom of the pope: “he sees the large large; the small small”.