Papal in-flight press conferences are counter-productive and unnecessary

The Vatican is reorganising its communications structures, you may have heard. As part of this Fr Federico Lombardi, the Papal spokesman, will be leaving his job at Vatican Radio, as this article explains, and various people will be stepping into other responsibilities. It all sounds rather complicated, as the Vatican tries to join up several departments and create one single entity that will guide its communication strategy.

That a new approach is necessary, let no one doubt. Just recently the Pope spoke about the need for the world to abolish the death penalty. This is a matter of great importance, and it is a scandal that countries as diverse as the United States, Iran, China and Saudi Arabia still execute so many people. Yet, though this story was given prominence by this magazine, I did not see reaction where one would hope to see it, in any of our daily papers, apart from the Daily Mail, though CNN picked up the story. Over at the Guardian, there were Pope-related articles, but these were both to do with the Zika virus and contraception.

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My guess (it would be pushing it to call it an analysis, I admit), is that the death penalty issue was ignored largely because the media and its internet echo chamber had had their fill of the Pope thanks to the in-flight press conference on the way back from Mexico. In other words, the Pope versus Trump story, the Zika and condoms story, and even the Ukrainian story, effectively saturated the airwaves and meant that when the death penalty story came out, no one was really interested.

Looking around the internet, and reading much of the commentary generated by the in-flight press conference, I was struck by the overwhelmingly negative reaction from Catholics. As for the non-Catholics, their reaction was what one would expect. Take this headline, for example: “If condoms are OK for Zika, why not for AIDS, Pope Francis?” That is a good question, and one not to be dismissed out of hand. But the truth is that it would never have been raised but for that in-flight press conference.

If the Vatican is to develop a coherent communication strategy, and it certainly needs to, then it is going to have to do something about the way stories emerge from the Vatican, because once these stories are out there, they are effectively beyond the Vatican’s control, despite all the efforts of Fr Lombardi to the contrary. This is why in recent days the talk has all been about Zika, condoms and nuns in the Congo, and not about the things that the Vatican and the rest of us would really like to see discussed, such as the inhumanity of the death penalty.

The truth is, as Amy Welborn has observed, we do not really need a Pope who shares with us his every opinion about everything. The Pope has Vatican dicasteries working for him, and he has bishops around the world in communion with him, and it is to these people that much of the task of dealing with matters such as Donald Trump’s Mexican wall and the Zika virus must fall: and it is better that way. The overcentralisation of discourse – the idea that only one voice counts and that is the Pope’s – is a recipe for disaster. And if you don’t believe me, ask yourself this: just what good came out of the last Papal in-flight press conference?

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