The Vatican’s Real Communication Problem

“Smart move.” That’s how many loyal Catholics reacted to the announcement that the Vatican had hired a veteran American newsman as a consultant to grapple with its communication problems.

In many respects, the reaction was correct. As an experienced professional with Fox News and Time, and a serious Catholic, Greg Burke is an excellent choice for a tough assignment. (Disclosure: he’s also an old friend.) But the question remains: Will he be permitted to do the job? Neither Burke nor anyone else can be of much help to the Roman Curia unless it’s open to being helped.

Goodness knows the Vatican needs PR assistance. Recent disasters have included an embarrassing series of leaked documents, seemingly evidence of serious conflict within the Curia (the Pope’s butler is said to have purloined the documents but few believe that he’s the only one involved); the unceremonious sacking of the Vatican bank head amid a jarring torrent of personal abuse; and fumbled communication about apparently snarled negotiations with the Lebebvrist Society of St. Pius X.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. As anyone even casually familiar with the situation realizes, the underlying problems in Rome go deeper and have existed for years. Burke is eminently well qualified to tell his new employers what the problems are and what should be done. What isn’t so clear is whether they’ll listen and act. During three decades spent directing public relations at the national and international levels for several Catholic organizations including the American bishops’ conference, I found that people at the top not infrequently imagine that good public relations is a matter of technique.

Push a couple of buttons, do a little tweaking here and there, and behold—your previously tarnished image will glow.

Good technique is certainly important in communication, but seldom are problems like the Vatican’s only or mainly failures of technique. Instead they’re problems of attitude and philosophy. In the case of the Vatican, the difficulties tend to be the bitter fruit of an entrenched clericalist culture linked to a similarly entrenched reliance on secrecy as a routine management tool. The result is a counterproductive approach to communication and media that lies far beyond correction simply by tweaking and technique.

Often, too, communication problems get blamed on the media: “The journalists are out to get us.” In fact, some reporters really are hostile to the Church, as are some news organizations. But most professional journalists, including many personally at odds with Catholic views, want only to do a good job according to the standards of their profession, which means getting facts straight and correctly explaining what they mean. Where these men and woman are concerned, the explanation that “They’re out to get us” is neither fair nor helpful. It’s a non-explanation that impedes solutions instead of encouraging them.

All that said, it must be added that there are many good, dedicated people in the Vatican. One can only imagine how badly they—to say nothing of Pope Benedict himself—have been hurt by the recent shenanigans. A serious effort to understand the underlying causes of what’s happened as well as the more immediate ones would be a service to them as well as to the rest of the Church.

Greg Burke has what it takes to give the Curia good advice. But the problems run deep, and for Burke’s expertise to matter, he needs total, unflinching support from the top—from the Pope himself. Unless it’s forthcoming (and here’s hoping it is) don’t look for much improvement.

Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C.

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