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The Vatican, not before time, has appointed a lay professional as its ‘communications adviser’. Significantly, he’s an Opus Dei numerary

In a bare decade, Opus Dei has gone from being ‘secretive’ and misunderstood to being the Church’s PR experts

By on Friday, 29 June 2012

New Vatican communications adviser Greg Burke (Photo: CNS)

New Vatican communications adviser Greg Burke (Photo: CNS)

How very interesting it is that in the space of less than 10 years, Opus Dei has gained a reputation for its expertise in public relations. The most famous example of course was Joaquín Navarro Valls, an Opus Dei numerary, the spokesman of John Paul II. Now, in the midst of what can only be described as a PR catastrophe in the Vatican (including the arrest of the Pope’s butler for stealing private papers, and everything that story leads on to in terms of inter-cardinalatial mayhem), the Vatican has appointed to the previously unknown role of “communications adviser” a Fox News (thumbs up from me) journalist called Greg Burke, also a numerary (ie a celibate lay professional who gives his earnings to “The Work”) of Opus Dei, who in the words of the eminent Vaticanologist Sandro Magister “may be able to restore the splendor of Joaquín Navarro Valls”. Well, cor.

I once (when editor of this organ) spent a fascinating hour or so with Señor Navarro Valls (incidentally, that’s pronounced “Vice”, not as it is written) in his office in the wonderfully appointed press centre — situated on the right, just before you get to St Peter’s square. He was very far from being the suave and slightly oily caricature of him constructed by the many anti-Opus Dei non-apologists of the period (where have they all gone?): he was humorous, intelligent, robust, quite open in his views on a host of questions on which a smooth Roman bureaucrat would have been more discreet. I asked him, for instance, why he thought the CDF’s declaration Dominus Jesus had had such a hostile reception, when all it did was simply to restate basic Catholic teaching about the person of Christ and the unique character of the Church as the authentic embodiment, in both word and sacrament, of the Church he founded. The ecumenists didn’t like it because it reiterated what was already known to be the Church’s teaching: that non-Catholic Christian ecclesial communities which, unlike the Orthodox Churches, have not preserved a valid episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery, are not Churches in the proper sense.

How had that declaration been such a PR disaster? Quite simple, he said. It was encompassed by liberal bishops, who used their contacts in the press to brief against it. Against my advice, he said, advance copies were sent to the bishops: so the liberal Catholic and secular media were all ready to go with an onslaught on mainstream Catholic eccelesiology when it was published. The English bishops, he thought, were particularly bad. That’s where we began our discussion; some of what he then said, even now, I think I had better not reveal.

This was a period in which Opus Dei, who had themselves suffered from terrible PR to do with their supposedly extreme and sinister secretiveness, were getting themselves together under what was at first the disaster of Dan Brown’s lying farrago The Da Vinci Code (2003). Opus Dei’s reaction was inspired. Suddenly, they found their centres on a Da Vinci Code trail, in which coaches full of tourists drew up outside the door, to gape at these creepy places: so they simply went out and invited the tourists in, giving them a tour of their in fact exceptionally non-sinister establishments and an explanation of what they actually believed. One result, I understand, was a substantial increase in vocations to Opus Dei. Another permanent gain was a new expertise in communications, from which the Church is now benefiting. So Opus Dei has reason to be grateful to Dan Brown; very quickly it had to respond, by learning as a matter of urgent necessity how to explain themselves and their beliefs, in a situation in which they had been grossly misrepresented.

Now, the Vatican has a PR disaster of literally comparable seriousness: last week, apparently, the current scandal’s most prominent victim, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone (basically, the scandal has been brought about by a liberal conspiracy against him and therefore the Pope himself), attacked the media for trying to “play at Dan Brown”. But this isn’t the first time in recent years that there’s been an avoidable PR disaster. According to the AP, the Pope’s official spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi, says that the Vatican is trying “to cope with years of communications blunders and [now] one of its most serious scandals in decades”. So, the Secretariat of State has appointed Greg Burke, an Opus Dei numerary, basically to cope urgently with the fact that Fr Lombardi is —well, let us be charitable and say that he is no Navarro Valls.

Greg Burke sounds interesting. “I’m an old-fashioned Midwestern Catholic whose mother went to Mass every day,” Burke says. “Am I being hired because I’m in Opus Dei?” he asked. “It might come into play.” He notes, however, that he was also in Opus Dei when he was hired by Fox News, and before that by Time magazine. Burke has been a Fox correspondent since 2001. He was the Time magazine correspondent in Rome for a decade before that. At Fox, he led the network’s coverage of the death of John Paul and election of Benedict in 2005, and has covered the papacy since then, travelling with the Pope around the globe. He has also used Rome as a base for non-Vatican reporting, including several stints in the Middle East during the last intifada, labour law protests in France and the terrorist attacks in London and Madrid. He is a graduate of Columbia University’s School of Journalism.

According to Fr John Wauck, a professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, “He’s a lay person, from the professional world, who understands how theologians think and shares their faith… he’s well respected and genuinely liked by the journalists in Rome.” Also: “He’s an English-language media professional who knows Italy — the language, the culture, the mindset — and the Vatican inside out,” professor Wauck said. “This is important because many of the Vatican’s difficulties with the media stem from things getting lost in translation. Greg can help prevent that.”

Well, no doubt he can; but will he be allowed to? Will they actually listen? The Roman Curia has a reputation precisely for not listening. Cardinal Bertone has obviously convinced Greg Burke (he turned the job down twice, but the Secretariat of State was persistent) that they will listen, that his advice won’t simply be brushed aside. As he says, “I’m not going to be a powerful guy, but I’ll be at the table with people who do have power, and I think my voice will be heard.” Well, I hope and I pray that it will; for he has an awesome and vitally important task ahead of him. So, when you pray for the Pope himself, a prayer on the side for his new “communications adviser” will not go amiss. He’s going to need it.

  • TOM DAWKES

    Mr Oddie

    VALLS is a Catalan name and as such as it is pronounced EXACTLY as it is written.
    [V=B in Catalan - as in Spanish ;  A as also in Spanish (not as in English WALLS); LL as in many varieties of Spanish like the LLI in English MILLION or PILLION ; and S as in Spanish.]
    You may not like Joaquín Navarro Valls, but you can avoid making offhand remarks about his funny foreign name – or perhaps you could go back to that man with the odd Polish name WOJTYŁA, also pronounced exactly as written – VOY.TI.WA.

  • Boanerges

    So the Vatican, not content to give a knighthood to the pornographer Murdoch, employs one of his minions to as a “communications advisor”. Just what the Church needs – a hysterical propaganda-merchant of the far-right. And before that, he worked for Time, so we can be assured that he’s also bound to be ill-informed and sloppy, to boot. Perfect.

  • W Oddie

    I asked him how he pronounced his name, and that’s what he told me. And I thought I made it pretty clear that  IDID like him: have you actually READ what I wrote. Obviously not: do you really feel it necessary to say ANYTHING? If so, why?

  • W Oddie

    Judging by this, he is clearly the perfect choice. Far right be damned. What a …. . Do I detect “the spirit of Vatican II perhaos”? Or is this person just a Dawkinsite atheist? Almost impossible to tell the difference from this contribution; he could be either. Boanerges indeed: sons of thunder, I DON’T think.

  • GFFM

    If “they” listen, it will be a first. The Church’s leaders have needed lay input on public relations and involvement for as long as I have been alive. The PR disasters of the last several years are emblematic of smaller yet analogous disasters in every major diocese and bishops’ conference in the West. The hierarchy generally does not allow lay people with real expertise to advise them or to help explain what the Church teaches and how the Church operates. This is quite frustrating because the perspective that qualified lay people bring about the concerns of ordinary church going Catholics is invaluable and could be transformative. The real strike against Burke from the Vatican insider perspective is the fact that Burke is an American, a midwestern American and therefore a rube. We shall hope.

  • W Oddie

    Sorry: but what’s a rube?

  • Boanerges

    Neither, but it does Dr. Oddie as little credit to engage in such idle – and baseless – speculation as it advances his argument in favour of the man.

    One wonders what Dr. Oddie’s doctorate is in: if he can’t tell the difference between politically right-wing ideology and the deposit of the Faith, and indeed, between opposition to Murdoch and the “Spirit of Vatican II”, it seems unlikely it is in Catholic theology.

  • Thomas

    An americanism that means bumpkin or provincial. Someone with out much savvy or cleverness.

  • TOM DAWKES

    Dear Dr Oddie, A completely fair criticism.  I was being pedantic about the question of “not as it is written’.

    Best wishes

  • GFFM

     By the way, I do not think he is a rube. If he is allowed–he could be a great help to the Church and Benedict.

  • JByrne24

    I’m quite sure that Dan Brown is all too responsible for the renewed interest in and membership of Opus Dei, sometimes possibly from fantasists and the self-important. Those, like ourselves, who have actually had a bit of fall-out experience from the real thing, could tell them better.

    “Fox News” – well it all goes on fitting together, doesn’t it?    I’d bet that Burke and W Oddie wouldn’t and don’t (respectively) like the high-efficiency compact discharge bulbs we now have in the EU.
    And the………etc. It would be easy to make a list.

  • Mikethelionheart

    So is you issue simply opposition to Murdoch?
    I despise Murdoch too. A truly evil and vicious excuse for a human being.
    However, I still this is good. 

  • theroadmaster

    Instant communication in our present technological age is now being prioritized by the Holy See, as the Church has just appointed a very astute and experienced journalist  in the person of Greg Burke, to act as the Vatican’s new communications adviser.  This is not before time, when we survey the catalog  of media gaffes and morale-sapping revelations, that have been prominent in the global press over recent years.   Greg Burke, has a very impressive CV in terms of covering global affairs, and has enjoyed a distinguished career covering Church affairs in Rome for the U.S network Fox News.  Let us hope that his expertise can help raise the standards of Vatican responses to media leaks and embarrassing stories which have dogged the Vatican up until now.

  • awkwardcustomer

    ‘Communications blunders’ by the Vatican or not, the secular and liberal Catholic media are unlikely to play fair in their reporting of news from Rome, no matter how much expertise Greg Burke brings to the role. Neither can bear to listen to sound Catholic doctrine, which might also explain their reaction to the CDF’s declaration Dominus Jesus. News management is important, yes, but no amount of journalistic skill can produce a favourable reaction to something that people just don’t want to hear.    

    It’s all very well blaming the Vatican for messing up, but no matter how many lay journalists and media types they enlist, hostility to Church teaching is profound and widespread.  Have the BBC and the Tablet caught on yet to the fact that Greg Burke used to work for Fox News.  I’m sure they’ll love this and have a field day reporting it. 

    Meanwhile, however, I wish Greg Burke the best of luck.     

  • Parasum

    “This was a
    period in which Opus Dei, who had themselves suffered from terrible PR
    to do with their supposedly extreme and sinister secretiveness, were
    getting themselves together under what was at first the disaster of Dan Brown’s lying farrago The Da Vinci Code (2003).”## It’s a novel – not a work of history. If a novel with some historical content is to be denounced as a “lying farrago” because it is not historically accurate, Sir Walter Scott is in trouble, to name no more. If readers are incapable of telling the difference between a lie and a literary fiction, and condemn both alike for not being true (in some undefined sense), that is no fault of the author, but the misfortune of the reader. It may have no literary merit whatever, or even be unreadable – I gave up at page 2 – but these are two further questions. If a religious society can be upset by a work of fiction, something is wrong somewhere. Is the author of the “Golden Legend” (the original work of that name) a liar because his book abounds with impossible tales about the Saints ? Surely not. People are – surely ? -  sufficiently sophisicated to tell the difference between the fictions of a Victorian novelist, a 13th-century hagiographer, the pious tales in the “Glories of Mary”, the patriotic inventions of Geoffrey of Monmouth, an epic fantasy, & classical or OT mythology. So why is the fiction of a rather mediocre novelist a threat ?  Some posters read “Windswept House” – is that not a “lying farrago” by the standards that  show “”The Da Vinci Code” to be one ? The theological  POV is very different, because Catholic & traditional; but how does that alter matters ? 

  • Etienne

    Greg BURKE not Greg BROWN.

  • Riopalos

    Chapeau,Oddie

  • http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/ The Catholic Herald

    Thank you for pointing that out. We have corrected it.

  • Patrickhowes

    Don´t confuse the issues Dr Oddie.If this man has played any part or could be implicated in what Murdoch has done,then Noanerges makes a fair point.Lte´s not forget Dr Oddie that Murdoch is a Papal Knight!

  • Patrickhowes

    Opus Dei is not secretive.It is discreet and had to be.It began during the Spanish Civil War when the Republicans were executing Catholic priests.They have a tremendous work ethic and uphold the teaching of the Catholic Faith.They do tremendous charity work and they have a “move in and a move out mentality” when it comes to doing charitable works.A very positive prsence in the Church.Their schools are excellent both academically and in terms of their catholocism.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/TCLYWRNOBG36K23AAYK3G35CGA Peter

    “What Murdoch has done”? What has he done?, apart from the “crime” of becoming a very successful businessman in a business at which most of his rivals at the time were going broke because they were wedded to an old fashioned and outdated model of technology and business. For which his defeated rivals hate him. Yes some of his publications have sleazy content, some are very fine indeed. Like any other large media corporation. Murdoch got his knighthood for his philanthropy and his large donations to charitable causes, not for his business activities. Much less for the illegal and immoral activities of some of his subordinates, which all the evidence so far shows he did not approve or know about.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/TCLYWRNOBG36K23AAYK3G35CGA Peter

    Oh give it up. Nobody objects to it AS A NOVEL on factual grounds (only on literary grounds). The lying farrago part is what Brown claims in the book and has reapeatedly claimed in teh media ever since, are “facts” about Opus Dei and the Catholic Church which are utterly wrong and obviously deliberately intended to arouse hatred of Opus Dei and and of Catholics in general.

  • daclamat

    Does anyone up there watch Jon Stewart? Or Fox News? Does the Vatican really need more blinkered
    bigotry? To go to Fox for a communicatios advisor… words fail me. But if Oddie approves we must be in safe hands.