Vatican PR and the House Gang of Fifty

Pope Benedict XVI is, not surprisingly, still in a bit of hot water about lifting the excommunication on the bishops of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX). As I explained here last week, the uproar was only partly about the SSPX and the Latin Mass. The real problem is that one SSPX bishop is a Holocaust denier. The Vatican made a huge public relations blunder in not reaching out in advance to friendly Jewish leaders, of whom there are many, to explain that the move in no way condoned denial of the Holocaust. It did not even end the differences between the Vatican and SSPX. But as Twain said, “A lie is halfway around the world before truth gets out of bed,” and the Vatican has a grave responsibility to recognize the media environment in which we all live now.

In many ways, of course, it’s unfair. Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi had pointed to Benedict’s words both before and after the current controversy and asked: what else can he do? But this response was part of the problem. Whether we like it or not, there is a difference in our wired world between saying something and communicating it. John Paul II understood that perfectly. One of Benedict’s charms is that he often doesn’t seem to bother about such things, and wins people over with his simplicity. But he has a professor’s tendency to think that a clear statement is the same as an effective public utterance.

Conceptually, he’s usually spot on. But there are only two good ways of handling a controversy like this. The first is to anticipate media problems. That option is past. The second is to do something publicly to fix the mistake. Popes don’t do press conferences. And mere statements leave the impression that what has been done is little and half-hearted, which is why the Vatican has got to be especially skillful with the media out of its very concern for the cause of truth. It seems finally to have found the right formula yesterday, but needs to take this lesson very much to heart.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s sense that the pope had not done enough reflects some real truth about the awkward position he had put himself into. They’re both Germans and still feel a special responsibility about the Holocaust. The Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem had threatened to cut off relations with the Vatican driven by God only knows what mixture of media distortion and misapprehension. But that should not be dismissed by Catholics as merely a misunderstanding, or a Jewish inclination to use the Holocaust at every opportunity. There were plenty of people to talk with in order to dispel this cloud. My friend Rabbi Leon Klenicki, who just died, was a tireless participant in Jewish-Catholic dialogue in this country. He always defended legitimate Jewish interests, but stated openly that relations between Catholics and Jews today are probably better than at any point in history. He was far from being alone, though many people in these controversies show far less pure goodwill.

Which brings me to the House Gang of Fifty, as I like to call them, fifty or so Democrats who lay claim to being Catholic and have taken to instructing the American bishops and, this past week, the Vatican on moral matters. They first swam into view in 2006 under the leadership of Rosa De Lauro, a ten-term congresswoman who, in a typical year is rated, oh let’s just call it 100 percent by the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL).In 2006, the group issued a statement explaining why they agreed with the Church on the sanctity of life, agreed that it was not one issue among many, but had no obligation to do anything about it.

This week they sent a letter to the pope about the lack of an explicit repudiation of Holocaust denial at the moment he lifted the excommunication. And just yesterday, they issued a second statement commending the Vatican for asking Bishop Williamson to recant because “ the Church’s silence . . .was deeply troubling.”

Silence, you will recall, is what Pius XII is supposed to have practiced during the Holocaust.

These are fifty individuals and it would not be fair to paint them all with the same brush. Michigan’s Bart Stupak is a decent man and it’s a shame to find him in this company. But the more typical member of the group is someone like Jim Moran, from Northern Virginia, a 100 percent NARAL Laureate, who shows up in the local papers from time to time with anger issues. In 2003 he let fly at a public event with remarks blaming Jews for the Iraq war and had to issue multiple apologies. Nancy Pelosi, sometime member of the gang, was called in and trenchantly declared: “Congressman Moran’s comments were not only inappropriate, they were offensive” – wrong and untrue being words unsuitable to Washington.

But the most incongruous member – okay Dennis Kucinich excepted – is Linda Sanchez (D-CA). A couple of months ago, she announced that she was having a baby and that she and the father were thinking about marriage. The news caused the barest flutter in Washington. (Dan Quayle got laughed at some years ago for claiming that Hollywood would make children out of wedlock commonplace.). It had been kept so secret that even Linda’s sister Loretta, also a Congresswoman from California, didn’t know about it until the announcement. Both sisters are 100 percenters with NARAL and 0 percenters with the National Right to Life Committee.

The gang had a point about the Vatican’s goofs. And no one but a few kooks think it’s a good idea to let Holocaust deniers go unrebuked. But there’s something more than odd about this crew instructing the Vatican in moral leadership.

And we have not heard the last of them.


Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.