There were a couple of Vatican communications fiascos recently. The dust appears to have settled on them – at least, folks appear to have moved on – but they are worth a second look. Consider this a postmortem of a pair of kerfuffles.
One was the result of Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia’s unfortunate remarks during an appearance on Italian state television. Paglia – the President of the Pontifical Academy for Life – called Italy’s abortion law “a pillar of our social life.” The other was the Holy See press office’s improbable statement regarding Pope Francis’s contributions to the Ukraine crisis. Together, the two contretemps set in high relief just why the Vatican keeps finding itself in the messaging weeds.
Archbishop Paglia’s remarks to Giorgia Rombolà of the Agorà Estate program on Italy’s Rai3 were in response to a reasonably open-ended question: “You’re the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life,” Rombolà said. “What do you think of this debate [over abortion]?” Other guests had raised the issue. Paglia’s answer was ambling, but he led with the statement that made the rounds in both the mainstream and the Catholic press.
A follow-up statement came from Archbishop Paglia’s spokesman.
The gist of the attempt at clarification was that Archbishop Paglia only meant to state the obvious: Italy’s Law 194 (May 22, 1978) – which regulates the country’s abortion regime – is not going away. There is no political will to repeal it or even to modify it. Paglia, for his part, would like to see certain elements mentioned in the law’s preamble taken more seriously, viz. its talk about the importance of maternity and the need to support mothers.
OK, fine. Only, the follow-up statement ignored the plain meaning of the thing Archbishop Paglia actually said. It also accused reporters and some commentators of taking the statement out of context and exploiting it. “The reaction,” the statement said, “was more than specious, indeed [it was] offensive.” Oh, dear.
The statement from the Pontifical Academy for Life also noted that the much-beloved olim Vicar of Rome, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, had taken a similar line in less suspicious times, largely without incident. “That the law may be improved – indeed, must be improved – in the direction of greater protection for the naciturn,” the clarifying statement went on to say, “is more than auspicable.” Glad that’s cleared up, then.
Even if the clarification had not come until too much dust was up to make much difference, that clarification was always going to do more harm than good. Defensiveness and willingness to blame the other guy are not a good look on anyone. They are especially ill-suited to high clerical types, especially these days.
When you’re a flack, you need to know that your principal is going to flub it sometimes. You need to be ready for it. If you’re a flack who works for Archbishop Paglia – a fellow not entirely unused to the sensation of his own toes between his teeth – you need a template. Archbishop Paglia needed to say that he misspoke and that he’s sorry about it, and only then – maybe – that he meant to say … etc. Everybody makes mistakes, right?
The other contretemps was the Holy See press office’s improbable statement regarding Pope Francis’s statements on the war in Ukraine.
“There [have been] numerous interventions by the Holy Father Francis and his collaborators in this regard,” the statement said. “For the most part, their purpose [was] to invite pastors and the faithful to prayer, and all people of good will to solidarity and efforts to rebuild peace.”
“On more than one occasion,” the statement went on to say, “public discussions have arisen on the political significance to be attached to such interventions.” Well, yes. “In this regard,” the statement continued, “it is reiterated that the Holy Father’s words on this dramatic issue should be interpreted as a voice raised in defence of human life and the values associated with it, and not as a political stance.”
One must admire the passive voice, there. “It is reiterated.” The Italian has a sort of middle voice: Si ribadisce, which leaves open the question of who, precisely, is doing the restating; but at least the original makes clear that someone is doing something. In this case, it is pretty clearly the Holy See press office.
The problem isn’t grammatical or stylistic. The problem, really, is substantial. The pope doesn’t get to make comments on a global political crisis and then complain that people read his remarks in a political register. Also, his mouthpieces don’t get to “reiterate” things the principal has never quite said.
“As for the large-scale war in Ukraine, initiated by the Russian Federation,” the press office declaration continued, “the Holy Father Francis’s interventions are clear and unequivocal in condemning it as morally unjust, unacceptable, barbaric, senseless, repugnant and sacrilegious.”
Pope Francis’s statements have been neither clear nor unequivocal.
“There are no metaphysical good guys and bad guys here, in an abstract way,” Pope Francis said in May. Sure, but Russia invaded Ukraine. In another May statement, Francis said that NATO barking at Russia’s door,” had perhaps “facilitated” Russian anger, even if it hadn’t “provoked” Russia to aggression. That’s a fine distinction, to say the least.
Pope Francis has condemned the “ferocity” and “cruelty” of Russian troops – his words – as well as the killing of civilians, especially women and children. He has expressed prayerful solidarity with the suffering of the embattled Ukrainian people. “In God’s name, stop this massacre!” he prayed at a March 13, 2022 Angelus address. Even then, he prefaced his appeal with a call for “real and decisive focus on negotiation.” That reasonably left Ukrainians wondering what there is to negotiate.
The Secretary of State for Relations with States – the Vatican’s foreign minister – Archbishop Paul Gallagher, has warned against the temptation to compromise Ukrainian territorial integrity in exchange for cessation of hostilities. The official Vatican news portal, Vatican Media, ran an interview with a leading Jesuit economist, Fr. Gaël Giraud, SJ, in which Giraud expressed his personal opinion that the best way to peace would be for Ukraine to cede territory.
Suffice it to say there have been lots of statements from lots of people, saying sometimes very different things.
The statement from the Vatican press office happened to come on the heels of a major diplomatic dust-up, which Pope Francis precipitated when he referred to a Russian journalist slain in a Moscow car bombing as an “innocent” victim of the war. Russian authorities blamed Ukrainian operatives for the bombing that killed Darya Dugina – daughter of a prominent Russian nationalist-imperialist – but Ukraine denied having a role in the incident and instead blamed the Russians themselves.
Ukraine’s ambassador to the Holy See took the vanishingly rare step of publicly criticizing the pope’s remarks. Ukraine also summoned the Apostolic Nuncio to Ukraine – the pope’s ambassador in Kyiv – to explain the remark. The Vatican has been on a damage control mission ever since, and the statement from the press office reasonably appears to be part of those efforts.
Sure, there’s a hierarchy in the Vatican, and some statements mean more than others simply because of who makes them. Still, one cannot expect that the rest of the world should be ready to parse the niceties of the Vatican pecking order. “Pie-in-the-sky” is not entirely inappropriate. In any case, a late declaration from a mouthpiece definitely doesn’t outweigh the Head Man’s ipsissima verba.
People are going to take the words that escape the lips and pens of Vatican types, and they’re going to run with them. Sometimes, scribblers are going to run in directions the words don’t warrant. Sometimes, however, the words themselves are going to lend themselves to misinterpretation. Sometimes, those words will be poorly chosen. When they are, it is important to own it.
Conversely, a reporter or a pundit may misquote or take a statement out of context. Sometimes, it will be necessary to address such misrepresentation. Usually, it isn’t necessary, but sometimes it is. When it is necessary to address a misrepresentation, best practices call for cool, calm, and good cheer whenever possible.
If you – the flack – don’t like what reporters and pundits are saying about what your principal said, that doesn’t mean the reporter or pundit has treated your guy unfairly.
Broadly and generally speaking, flacks know this. In the Vatican’s comms culture, however, what flacks know (or don’t know) doesn’t really matter all that much. Principals either don’t listen to their comms experts, or only listen when their comms guys say what the principals want to hear. Sometimes, the comms guys even believe their own hype.
That is a problem.
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