Thursday, February 05, 2009

Communication Breakdown, Vatican Edition

When even the Vatican's Media Czar -- the head of the Holy See Press Office, Vatican Radio and CTV -- admits the operation's a mess, you know things are bad:
The Vatican does not have control over its own communications and should improve the way it presents controversial statements, spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi told a French Catholic newspaper on Thursday.

Lombardi spoke to the daily La Croix after almost two weeks of heated debate over Pope Benedict's decision to lift the excommunications of four ultra-traditionalist bishops, one of whom has denied the Holocaust....

"We didn't control the communications," said Lombardi, whose office originally announced the pope's decision in a simple statement accompanied by the Vatican legal document that readmitted the four back into the Roman Catholic Church.

"I think we still have to create a communications culture inside the Curia, where each dicastery (ministry) communicates by itself, not necessarily thinking of going through the press room or issuing an explanatory note when the issue is complex."

The Holocaust denial by Bishop Richard Williamson, broadcast three days before the Vatican announcement, overshadowed the public discussion of the move. Under heavy criticism, the Vatican demand on Wednesday that he publicly recant.

Lombardi, whose comments were distributed by La Croix before publication on Friday, said the Vatican could have avoided several hectic days if it had issued the order for Williamson to recant along with the announcement of the bans lifting.

"Especially when it's about hot topics, it's better to prepare the explanations," he said.

Lombardi said the Vatican officials who dealt with the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), the breakaway group the four bishops lead, focused on the views of the group's leader Bishop Bernard Fellay and not those of Williamson or the others.

"They didn't take the views of the other bishops enough into account," he said. "One thing that's certain is that the pope didn't know. If someone should have known, it was Cardinal (Dario) Castrillon Hoyos."

Castrillon Hoyos heads the Vatican department that deals with traditionalist Catholics.

Lombardi said modern communications made it difficult for the Vatican to issue some statements.

"Certain documents are meant for specialist of canon law, others for theologians, others for all Catholics or all people," he said. "But today, whatever the type of document, it all ends up directly in the public sphere. It gets difficult to manage."

The announcement on lifting the excommunications was negotiated "up to the last minute," the spokesman said, and some points remained a bit confusing.

"The communique accompanying it left too much in doubt, giving rise to different interpretations," he said.
...the Holy See's lead point-man on Catholic-Jewish relations has likewise piped in:
"Up to now people in the Vatican have spoken too little with each other and have not checked where problems might arise," Cardinal Walter Kasper told Vatican Radio's German program Feb. 2.

"There were misunderstandings and management errors in the Curia," he said, in reference to the lifting of the excommunication of British-born Bishop Richard Williamson, who has claimed that reports about the Holocaust were exaggerated and that no Jews died in Nazi gas chambers.

Bishop Williamson was one of four bishops of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X whose excommunication was lifted by Pope Benedict XVI Jan. 21 -- the same day a Swedish television station aired a November interview with Bishop Williamson in which he repeated his position on the Holocaust.

The papal decree was made public Jan. 24 and Jewish groups expressed shock that the Vatican would lift the excommunication against Bishop Williamson even after his comments had been televised.

Cardinal Kasper said he has been following the unfolding controversy "with great concern."

He said the pope "wanted to open the discussion because he wanted unity inside and outside" the church. But the cardinal said he "would have also liked to see more communication in advance."

"Explaining something after the fact is always much more difficult than if one did it right away," he said.
Meanwhile, B16 & Co. are said to be "horrified" at the post-deexcommunication blowback:

[A]ccording to a German politician who met with Benedict following the papal audience [yesterday], the pope is angry at the tone of German criticism. "The Vatican is horrified by the discussion in Germany," Georg Brunnhuber, a parliamentarian from Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), told the Financial Times Deutschland. "The impression there is that all of the anti-Catholic resentments hiding under the surface in Germany are now coming to the surface."

The comments from Merkel, in particular, have raised eyebrows both in the Vatican and elsewhere. On Tuesday the German chancellor said Holocaust denial was unacceptable and that Pope Benedict XVI hadn't made a "sufficient clarification" regarding the church's attitude toward Williamson's Holocaust remarks. Some have credited Merkel with spurring Wednesday's demand by the Vatican that Williamson publicly retract his views. Many, though, see her comments as unacceptable interference into an internal church matter....

As frustrated as the pope may be about the continuing debate, at least one Vatican insider thinks Benedict may even consider turning in his resignation. Father Eberhard von Gemmingen, head of the German language staff at Radio Vatican, said the pope "has his back to the wall," in comments to German radio. "As I know the pope," he said, "then it is certainly possible that he has thought to himself: 'At some point I might have to step down so that the papacy is respected.'"

And that last quote is your bombshell of the day.

On further review, strike that bombshell -- the quote from von Gemmingen was taken out of context by the above-cited Der Spiegel, alongside much of the rest of the German press.

Earlier today, Vatican Radio released a clarification providing the context for the cleric-commentator's quote as originally given in an interview with a German radio outlet. In said context, Gemmingen echoed other insiders who've mused over time that, should Benedict XVI be in prolonged failing health, the current pontiff's concept of the papacy would likely be more open to considering the option of resignation than was John Paul II, who saw his suffering as a witness to be borne before the eyes of the world until he was called from this life.

In that light, the RV note said, extending the priest's observation to point toward a possible papal resignation over the Lefevbrist crisis was an "inadmissible" construction.

The Vatican broadcaster underscored that "neither Father Gemmingen nor the German-speaking department of Vatican Radio are involved in any speculation over what the pope would have to do or to allow."