Communion, communications, and (more) Vatican confusion – Catholic World Report

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Pope Francis’s communications people have taken a page from his book, and added their own in a vein that frequently reads like Orwellian fanfic.

Communion, communications, and (more) Vatican confusion – Catholic World Report
U.S. President Joe Biden talks with Pope Francis during a meeting at the Vatican Oct. 29, 2021. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

The kerfuffle over Pope Francis’s putative remarks to US President Joe Biden has kicked up a good bit of dust in Catholic circles – understandably – but it has also uncovered some of the dysfunction in the Vatican’s communications culture.

“[H]e was happy I was a good Catholic and I should keep receiving Communion,” is what President Biden said Pope Francis said.

The question that pundits and talking heads have been asking ever since, is some variation on a single theme: Did Francis say what Biden said he said?

The short answer is: It doesn’t matter. Leave aside that one may fairly construe President Biden to have been reporting speech indirectly – offering what he took to be the purport of Pope Francis’s words to him – and concentrate rather on the more important fact: The Vatican didn’t deny it.

The Vatican didn’t clarify, revise, extend, or otherwise gainsay Biden’s version.

All the Director of the Press Office of the Holy See could offer was a rather milquetoast demurral: “I would consider it a private conversation,” Matteo Bruni told journalists, “and [the Vatican’s take on the meeting] is limited to what was said in the public statement.”

The Vatican’s official statement said that the pope and the president “focused on the joint commitment to the protection and care of the planet, the healthcare situation and the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the theme of refugees and assistance to migrants,” during the “cordial discussions” that also afforded the opportunity to discuss “the protection of human rights, including freedom of religion and conscience.”

“Finally,” the statement concluded, “the talks enabled an exchange of views on some matters regarding the current international situation, also in the context of the imminent G20 summit in Rome, and on the promotion of peace in the world through political negotiation.”

In a word: boilerplate.

These statements almost always are. It was – as John Allen rightly pointed out – a diplomatic meeting, rather than a pastoral consultation. One wonders, therefore, that the subject of Communion came up at all. President Biden was with Pope Francis for an hour and a half – the longest meeting with a sitting US president on an official visit that I can recall (and Bill Clinton was president when I got to Rome) – and they pretty clearly had much to discuss.

The optics of the whole business didn’t get much help from the late decision to limit press coverage of the encounter. Reporters aren’t usually allowed to sit in on the pope’s meetings with foreign leaders, but are ushered into an anteroom after the pleasantries and usually allowed to return for the handshake with the delegations and / or gift exchange. Sometimes, those moments can offer pretty good nuggets to attentive reporters, who bring them to the Vatican press corps.

Fr. Federico Lombardi SJ, who served both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis as Press Office Director, once explained how the papal spokesman – in his experience – would meet briefly with the pope after every tête-à-tête with a head-of-state or government “to receive information and essential indications for his communiqué.”

“Pope Benedict,” Fr. Lombardi explained, “would summarize the meeting, in a very short time and with extraordinary clarity, offering some specific points on the contents of the interview.”

“Pope Francis,” Lombardi continued, “did not speak to me about the contents of the meeting—not spontaneously—but about the personality of his interlocutor: his attitude, what he had said about himself, his human traits and the climate of dialogue.”

So, even if the current spokesman, Matteo Bruni, did huddle with Francis after the Biden meeting, it’s likely as not that Francis didn’t volunteer much about the conversation. It’s also a fair bet Bruni didn’t probe or prod him too roughly.

Perhaps more telling was the short shrift India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, got on Saturday – the day after Biden’s visit – for which the Vatican officially offered a statement acknowledging that the meeting had taken place, and that “the cordial relations between the Holy See and India were discussed” during “a brief conversation” between the Prime Minister and the Holy See’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

Now, that could have been the result of long-simmering papal pique at being snubbed by Modi in 2017. Negotiations for a visit dragged on and on, after which Pope Francis decided to go to Bangladesh and Myanmar, instead. The cameras on scene for Modi’s visit on Saturday, however, captured Pope Francis taking the Prime Minister’s hands in his and thanking him for his visit, then saying, “I am happy,” and apparently meaning it.

Here’s the trouble with the whole business: Pope Francis decries the general addiction to the narrative thinking that is a function of narrative-driven news reporting and vice-versa (the thinking and the reporting are functions of one another), but much of his own behavior and his whole comms apparatus tend to drive that kind of thinking.

Whether Francis is personally plugging a book he hasn’t read (yet), or expecting the press to do his dirty work for him, or fudging on what he knew about a high-profile abuse case and when he knew it, or doubling down on incendiary remarks he made off the cuff, he is pretty consistently to be found playing the angles. That’s par for the course, by the way. I’m happy to chalk it up to “leadership style” and let people think of it what they will, but let’s be clear about what we’re talking about.

While we are on that subject, let’s consider that his communications people have taken a page from his book, and added their own in a vein that frequently reads like Orwellian fanfic.

They only very reluctantly and at best half-answered this journalist’s question regarding the status of Msgr. Joseph Punderson after it came out that he had a credible abuse allegation against him and had been operating under “secret” CDF restrictions for more than a decade. That was after telling me I needed to go to the Diocese of Trenton to ask whether a priest of that diocese was still in his job on the Vatican’s highest court.

They created a ridiculous fiasco where there need not have been any at all, over the image at the center of the so-called “idol synod” in 2019.

Earlier that year, 2019, they played very close and very fine with the facts and the timeline of L’Affaire Zanchetta.

Then, there was the Vatican’s (in)famous red carpet roll-out for a documentary filmmaker who played really fast and awfully loose with his representation of source material and used some very creative editing to make the pope say something he didn’t really say (or did he?), after which the Vatican not only refused to walk back their praise of the film but eventually doubled down on their official celebration of it.

There is, in short, a long train of failures to communicate, some of which have been so egregious as to make this scribbler say they’re actively trolling – I have a high tolerance for comms hijinks – and contribute to the creation of the very polarized climate of discourse Pope Francis rightly decries.

One could take this rehearsal as merely a show of work, or one could take it as a beat journalist’s Queeg diary. I prefer to think of it as the former, but I ought not judge my own cause and don’t much care how one takes it in any case, because the things happened. Thing is, I can’t think of anyone on this beat who doesn’t want Pope Francis and his guys to do well. It shouldn’t be too terribly hard for them to do better. Still, here we are.

How big of deal was this Biden remark in the grand scheme of things? Well, the US bishops were never going to single him out for any sort of criticism in any case. Basic morality doesn’t change by papal fiat – Catholicism is not Mormonism – and discipline in these regards has always been a game of margins; doctrine has a way of sorting itself out. It’s what happens along the way that causes all sorts of consternation and all manner of trouble.

We’re in it, now, and there’s no saying how thick it will get.

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