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

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.

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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.

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