The Catholic Thing
What’s Wrong in the Vatican Press Office? Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 17 September 2012

The Vatican hired Greg Burke in June, an experienced journalist at Catholic and secular outlets, as a special consultant to help with press communications. Given the multiple stumbles and misfires in recent years, it seemed that – finally – Rome understood the need for a very different approach in the current global communications network.

So what happened this week after the violence in Libya? On Wednesday, well after the basic facts were known, Fr. Federico Lombardi, director of the press office, issued the following:

Profound respect for the beliefs, texts, outstanding figures and symbols of the various religions is an essential precondition for the peaceful coexistence of peoples. The serious consequences of unjustified offence and provocations against the sensibilities of Muslim believers are once again evident in these days, as we see the reactions they arouse, sometimes with tragic results, which in their turn nourish tension and hatred, unleashing unacceptable violence.

The message of dialogue and respect for all believers of different religions, which the Holy Father is preparing to carry with him on his forthcoming trip to Lebanon, indicate the path that everyone should follow in order to construct shared and peaceful coexistence among religions and peoples.

That’s it. You can find it on the Vatican’s official website here. Nothing about the four Americans killed, and the violence gets only that mildest of modern moral condemnations “unacceptable.” (By whom?)

After widespread criticism, Fr. Lombardi issued this: “The very serious attack organised against the United States diplomatic mission in Libya, which led to the death of the ambassador and of other functionaries, calls for the firmest possible condemnation on the part of the Holy See. Nothing, in fact, can justify the activity of terrorist organisations and homicidal violence. Along with our sadness, mourning and prayers for the victims, we again express the hope that, despite this latest tragedy, the international community may discover the most favourable ways to continue its commitment in favour of peace. . .”

Unlike the Obama administration, the Vatican was actually able to say the words “terrorist organizations” and to suggest that the attack was planned – not the result of mere hurt feelings.

It’s understandable that, as a first reaction, a religious institution would be sensitive to insults to a faith as such, especially since the Vatican itself is often the target of such treatment. So we might cut the press office a little slack for that first response – but only a little.

This whole episode seems to confirm that the press office, and maybe people higher up, still have bad instincts. They’re missing the kind of fundamental realism that spokesmen have to display both to be taken seriously and to avoid PR disasters. It’s not all that difficult to denounce anti-religious prejudice and Muslim violence, if you have both eyes open.

There’s another element in both statements that calls for some additional scrutiny: the pious hope that dialogue is a path of peace available to all parties. Dialogue is a good thing – if both parties are sincerely committed to avoiding unnecessary conflicts and perhaps even negotiating.

        Fr. Federico Lombardi

They rarely are. President Obama went to Cairo shortly after his inauguration and gave a controversial address in which he repudiated America’s past actions in the Middle East and held out an olive branch to those who wanted to dialogue about a different future. Three years later, he spends Tuesday mornings, according to reports, deciding which Muslim militants to eliminate via drone attacks.

It was a good and brave thing for Pope Benedict to go to Lebanon last week and thank God he returned home safely. Given what’s been happening in the Middle East, that wasn’t a sure thing.

He said to reporters on the plane that he never considered cancelling the trip, “because I know that as the situation becomes more complex, it is all the more necessary to offer this sign of fraternal encouragement and solidarity.” The press regards him as an out-of-touch intellectual. But he sure doesn’t sound like one when it comes to sheer physical courage.  

He called for dialogue, but also for several things that it would have been good to see the press office highlight to the media. Some in the Vatican still seem to think that if you’ve said something you’ve communicated it.

For instance, he asserted, peace is not merely the absence of war. It’s an inner harmony that comes purification of life, and not from the purification of fundamentalism, which is “always a falsification of religion.”

This was a subtle way of introducing a prerequisite to dialogue often overlooked even in religious circles, which might otherwise have seemed rude coming from a prominent visitor.

Benedict clearly knows that will not be easy to convey to the most troublesome actors, but he appealed to the better angels of all: “Peace is something so desirable that it has become a greeting in the Middle East.”

He even praised the “Arab Spring,” despite its obvious shortcomings so far, as a genuine desire for freedom, but added: “We must do all we can to ensure that the concept of freedom, the desire for freedom, goes in the right direction and does not overlook tolerance, the overall social fabric, and reconciliation, which are essential elements of freedom.”

The only line that got some global resonance, however, was his calling the importation of arms a “grave sin.” The pope said it, so it calls for serious attention, but it’s hard to say how it’s a sin per se since arms are often also used to protect the innocent and pursue justice.

As we know only too well at this site, it’s difficult to get specifically Catholic points across to an unsympathetic media. But any “Vatican press office” worthy of the name has to do better. The pope said noteworthy things in a Middle East literally in flames.

There are effective ways to communicate that he went to the region to do more than offer just another plea for dialogue and non-violence.   

Robert Royal
is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is
The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (23)Add Comment
written by Tom Williams, September 16, 2012
Thank you for saying something about this matter. My reaction to the press releases was to think it was a way to avoid problems with the Holy Father's visit, which I saw as cowardly and unproductive. We can never appease evil,which is what the attacks are, by our responding in fear....evil wins again.
written by Gian, September 17, 2012
1) There is no reason to believe that the Libyan attack was connected with the movie protest. Given the fact that USA is meddling in inter-jihadist politics (this shown by the fact that one jihadist group intervened to defend the Americans from the attack by another jihadist group), the Libyan attack was the consequence to be expected--nothing to do with the Egyptian and other protests.
2) Why should the present understanding of the 1st Amendment (which is an American law, and not a universal law of mankind) be the standard against which the rest of the nations and mankind be measured?
USA holds foreign Govt accountable for the violence perpetrated by non-State agents present in those nations.
The foreigners might equally valid hold the US Govt accountable for blasphemy perpetrated in USA.
The tradition of Christendom is on the side of Protestors. It was held to be an essential duty of State to supress blasphemy and it is only the Progressive reading of the laws that holds otherwise.
The Progressives must be a bigger concern of the faithful than Mohammdans who pose no serious military challenge. While the Progressives fully intend to bury all that remains of the Christendom and it would be a utmost folly of Tribal Pride to confuse the bigger for the weaker enemy.
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, September 17, 2012
It might be an interesting exercise to imagine the Vatican's press statement when the terrorists strike at the heart of the Catholic Church. Oh, for those who deny that this is not the ultimate intention of these same terrorists, you might do a quick read of history, but don't delay as time is running out.
written by Jack,CT, September 17, 2012
Mr Royal,
I totally agree it is such a shame, thanks.
written by Francis, September 17, 2012
Where now are all the so-called "liberals" whose favorite retort was "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it?" It seems the safety of our embassies comes down to preventing private citizens from offending Islam?

First this administration attacks the freedom of religion clause to the First Amendment. Now it attacks the freedom of speech clause to protect the tender feelings of Muslims? Freedom of the press? Most of the press is busy trying to ensure Obama's re-election.

Mark Steyn is right: the end of this wonderful experiment in freedom and self government is nigh.

Please pray for our country; only the Holy Spirit can save us now.
written by Laurie Morrow, September 17, 2012
When the head of the Vatican Press Office is too fearful or too wishy-washy to call evil by its proper name, he should be removed, immediately. The Vatican is in the business of teaching people to distinguish good from evil - not to blur the lines between them.
written by Joe, September 17, 2012
"Profound respect for the beliefs, texts, outstanding figures and symbols of the various religions is an essential precondition for the peaceful coexistence of peoples."

Right off the bat, such a statement sends the wrong signal.

I may be an unbeliever, although I think Christianity is the most appealing religion, but to extend "profound respect" to Islam, which clearly expresses violence and intolerable towards non-adherents and especially Jews, is the worst of messages to send.

Does Rome forget that for nearly 200 years, crusaders fought against the attacking Muslim hordes in the Levant and for 400 more years outside? Advancing Moslem armies sought to force captives to leave, convert or die -- which a thousand years later continues to be their common quest.

Does Rome forget Sharia Law, which is antithetical to Western concepts of individual freedom and which seeks to control and restrict behavior in ways that are brutal and oppressive?

Actually, one can trace the roots of Moslem hatred toward Jews back to when Jacob cheated Esau out of his birthright.
The hatred that Esau had for Israel has been passed on down to successive generations of Edomites. The biblical prophets discuss this murderous antagonism on Edom’s part as being carried down generation to generation to the very end times, as narrated in the Book of Ezekiel (Chapters 35 and 36).

Does Rome forget the countless suicide bombings, a type of Fatwa issued by Muslim leaders, to kill and maim the innocent?

Profound respect? I daresay no religion is less deserving of respect than Islam.

written by John Sobieski, September 17, 2012
What kind of dialogue with Muslims is possible if it is impossible for Christians to say the truth about Mohammed? Even the Pope discourages Christians from telling the truth about Mohammed.
written by G.K. Thursday, September 17, 2012
There's a sense of myopia here in the comments (not in the article though, Robert Royal as usual does a good job of making his distinctions fine; he never criticizes the Holy Father, just his press team). It is important to recall that the Pope has to think in a pastoral way about the millions of Roman Catholics and other Christians throughout these Muslim countries. By simply speaking about those portions of the events most important to us in the U.S.A., the Holy Father would increase the peril of thousands of Roman Catholics in Muslim countries. He cannot put their lives at risk by speaking as an American writer might. Being impatient with the Successor to St Peter seems short sighted, myopically unaware of the bigger reality that the Papacy must attend to in caring for the Universal Church. To get a sense of this there are two websites worth watching:

Pontifical Mission Lebanon (it's found by searching for pontifical mission lebanon)
Vatican Asia News (found by searching for Pontificio Istituto Missioni Estere Asia News)

I can't give the actual links due to the policy of The Catholic Thing blog. I hope this helps mute some of the criticism of the Holy Father that seems to be emerging in the comments.
written by Elizabeth, September 17, 2012
This press statement by the Vatican, my Church, is incredibly disappointing on so many levels. It's no better than the statement made by the Ambassador in Cairo that came out apologizing for the Muslims having their feelings hurt.

What has happened to our glorious Church? This is simply outrageous and I'm sickened by it.
written by Anna B, September 17, 2012
The article states: " On Wednesday, WELL AFTER THE BASIC FACTS WERE KNOWN, Fr. Federico Lombardi, director of the press office, issued the following..."

Is that actually true? Were even the basic facts about the murders known at that point? I don't think that it is clear that they were (or in fact still are!) There was a time when the original statement may not have been updated, so I see this as an improvement.

You are correct...the Pope said and did some extraordinary and important things in Lebanon that need to be highlighted by the press office.. Thank you for taking the initiative!
written by Graham Combs, September 17, 2012
I admit to a bias in favor of the Holy Father -- his blunt and plain-spoken sermon on the corrupt subculture in the priesthood among other things was welcomed by many of us. Blessed John Paul II was a great communicator; Pope Benedict XVI is a great teacher. My point regarding the above situation. As UN and other "peacemakers" and emissaries fled, the Holy Father arrived. The symbolism of that cannot be overstated. And don't underestimate the courage of an old man.
written by Gabe, September 17, 2012
What Gian said, I second that.
written by pat samson, September 18, 2012
I think the article misunderstands the position the Vatican is in and the American administration for that matter. We do not need to repulicate what Mitt Romney has done.
written by Marky, September 18, 2012
The answer to the question posed in the title is in the very first sentence of the story:
"The Vatican hired Greg Burke in June, an experienced journalist at Catholic and secular outlets, as a special consultant to help with press communications"

"Experience journalist" amounts to "Leftist ideologue" as journalism is full of Leftists who do not want to criticize Muslims. These Leftist ideologues masquerading as journalist will say there's a "war against women" if employers don't provide women free contraceptives. But in the name of multiculturalism these same "journalists" will support sharia laws that treat women as little more than dogs.
written by R. L. Hails Sr. P. E., September 18, 2012
It amazes me how poorly our leaders confront evil. They use confusing compound - complex sentences where simple words would be infinitely more effective. Jesus was not a flowery orator; He told it straight. Both east and west have made a hash out of the concept of nation, individual, religion, personal responsibility, and speaking the truth.

America's leaders should state simple policy: if you demonstrate peacefully, we welcome your views. If you attack our embassies, we will kill you. If you attack our military, we will follow you back to the mountain valley you hide in, and kill you. If you hide among innocents, we will try to only kill you. They should flee you like death. If your nation lies to us, we will call you a liar. If you explode a nuke over Israel, we will melt the dirt in your capital. There is enough land, water, technology, and capital, to raise all Palestinians' standard of living. If Muslims seek real peace, we will work with you to obtain it. If Muslims seek forced conversion and conquest, through Salafi, instead of peace, we will kill you. We respect Islam, but will carry our guns, Bibles and Star of David where ever we go. In the Catholic religion it is a sin to kill an innocent, but a virtuous act to kill a killer. Americans recognize two kinds of peace: the cooperation, and dialog between neighbors, or standing over the grave of our enemy.

Islam must choose, life or death.
written by Robert Royal, September 18, 2012
Marky, you've jumped to an unwarranted conclusion, which is also detraction. Greg Burke is know to me and others personally and he's as sound a man as you will find in journalism anywhere.
written by Dan Bernard, September 18, 2012
While we must always be open to peaceful means, the enemies we face today seek the complete destruction of all non-believers as well as their governments and religions. They say there is one God, Allah and one religion, Islam. Islam is also their government. It is very simple, folks. No need for apologetics...convert or die.

The only way to coexist with them is with a gun pointed at them. As far as they are concerned, the Crusades / Holy War has never ended. We are at war with evil, period.

The biggest problem we have, as a country, is an enslavement to the Seven Deadly Sins. How can we fight evil when we are so enamored with it?
written by I am not Spartacus, September 18, 2012
Ibn Warraq speaks the truth:

Nearly ten years ago, I was the guest of the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI) of Rome. PISAI is dedicated to interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims. But as the director at the time said to me, “There is no real dialogue, since Muslims never reciprocate the goodwill gestures made by the Christians. The result is we sit down together, and the Christians say what a wonderful religion Islam is, and the Muslims say what a wonderful religion Islam is.”
written by ponerology, September 19, 2012
I pray for the Holy Father often. All Catholics should. He needs our prayers. He has many people around him who don't necessarily want the Church to flourish & to continue.
The chaos in the Middle East and around the world is the result of forces (mainly unseen) which maintain the hegelican dialectic. All countries, at the top, are run by those forces. Normal people want to live their lives in peace and tranquility. Those change agents who want "order" from chaos continually stir the pot to get the results they want. Watch the movie 'Brazil' (1985, written by Terry Gilliam) --start removing the cobwebs. Most people, most everywhere are being farmed and used for ends they don't know about, let alone understand.
written by Chris in Maryland, September 19, 2012
John Sobieski:

While I believe that "The Vatican" (i.e., the progressive bureaucrats populating commitees inside The Holy See) is incapable of "telling the truth about Mohammed," you are flat out wrong to that claim against Pope Benedict.

Please obtain and read Pope Benedict's Regensburg lecture (commended to us here by our own Fr. James Schall). In this amazing address, he bravely and openly challenged the political, philosophical and theological failures of Islam, linking its defects to same rejection of reason that emerged in Protestant theology, and subsequently in secular ideology in The West.

After he delivered the address, the liberals in The Church went wild with invective and ridicule against Pope B. The pastor of my (former) parish publicly mocked Pope B from the pulpit at Mass.

"The Vatican" is composed of people who are like my former pastor - college educated, but not very smart; well-positioned in the ranks of The Church, but not of one heart with The Church; clever, but not very wise. Pray for Pope Benedict, as he has begged us to do for him, as he is surrounded by these wolves.
written by leonard, September 20, 2012
I don't offer any better understanding than Fr. Schall's about what's wrong, but it seems like the "dialog" that some folks seek is for its own sake. Dialog, almost by definition, must lead to greater understanding. But the understanding may be that they hate us for reasons belonging to themselves and has nothing to do with anything we have done.
written by Chris in Maryland, September 21, 2012
The current administration prefers some bigots over others: it would never council dialog with a White Supremacist like David would simply declare him (and rightly so) illegitimate. But it will dialog with The Nation of Islam (Farrakhan) and The Muslim Brotherhood (Morsi) and 'moderate Taliban,' even though they are racists, bigots, assasins and Islamic supremacists.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author