What’s Wrong in the Vatican Press Office?

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 books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.