Saturday, December 11, 2010

Dept. of No Surprise: We're Right

As has become evident throughout the controversies, much of the Vatican hierarchy greatly undervalues external communication.
This masterpiece of understatement is from diplomat (and Seven Sisters alumna) Julieta Valls Noyes in an internal 2009 State Department document, released by Wikileaks (and published by the Guardian). Regular readers will recall that the Egg has often made the same point: Vatican PR and crisis management are both unspeakably bad. We have also argued that this lack of media savvy is injuring the credibility not only of the Roman Catholic Church, but of Christianity as a whole.

Noyes's cable is a must-read for anybody concerned about the problem. In a brief, clear and well-informed report, she lays out the problem in terms that anybody can understand. Here are a few highlights.

1. The structure of the curia:
The Vatican is highly hierarchical with the Pope ultimately responsible for all important matters. Yet it is also highly decentralized in its decision-making.
This structure reflects belief in the principle of "subsidiarity": leaving decisions to those closest to, and best informed on, a particular matter.
On a practical level, however, subsidiarity can limit horizontal communication by eliminating peer consultation and review. This approach also encourages a narrow focus on issues at the expense of the big picture.
In practice, this means that, as an archbishop involved puts it, "the Church's current communication style [is] focused on the content of a decision, rather than its public impact."

2. The personnel:
Most of the top ranks of the Vatican -- all men, generally in their seventies -- do not understand modern media and new information technologies. The blackberry-using Father Lombardi remains an anomaly in a culture in which many officials do not even have official email accounts.
No wonder they sound out of touch. They are out of touch.

(For the record, our one curial-staff acquaintance was a priest of our own age, meaning that he was in his early 30s when he served a cardinal's secretary, back in the 1990s. He could barely type, and had apparently never seen a computer. Ivy League, or wasn't that obvious?)

They are also "Italo-centric," with a single American as the only Anglophone in the Pope's inner circle. This means that "few had exposure to the American -- or, indeed, global -- rough and tumble of media communications."

Here's an especially glorious detail, at least for anybody who has ever tried to read Vatican-speak:
The Pope's Italian advisors, he said, tend towards old-fashioned, inwardly focused communications written in "coded" language that no-one outside their tight circles can decipher.

The Israeli Ambassador, for example, told CDA that he recently received a Vatican statement that was supposed to contain a positive message for Israel, but it was so veiled he missed it, even when told it was there.
And those guys can read a language without vowels.

3. Benedict vs. JP2:

There is also the question of who, if anyone, brings dissenting views to the Pope's attention. As noted, [Secretary of State Tarciso] Bertone is considered a "yes man," and other Cardinals don't hold much sway with the Pope -- or lack the confidence to bring him bad news.

And if bad news rarely filters out, leaks never spring. [A source]said that under Pope John Paul II leaks were much more common. While damaging, these leaks did allow time for critics of pending decisions to mobilize and present opposing views to the Pope in time. Pope Benedict and Cardinal Bertone run a much tighter ship, he said, but at the expense of squashing coordination or [not allowing] dissenting voices to be heard.

There's a lot more, with some specific detail. It's not mean-spirited; if anything, quite the opposite. But it is clinical, and fits with our own observation. As we said, a must read.

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