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Covering the Vatican and the Church: John Allen’s lecture in Toronto

Salt and Light Media

October 1, 2010
On Tuesday, September 28th, “Vaticanista” John L. Allen, Jr. was in Toronto as part of the Kelly Lecture. The text of his talk, “Covering the Vatican and the Church — A Vaticanista Reflects on Challenges Facing the Church Today”, is found below. This talk will also be broadcast on S+L on Wednesday, October 13th at 8pm ET. You can also watch for Allen on the October 8th edition of Perspectives Weekly, as well as in an upcoming episode of Witness. For those not familiar with him, S+L CEO, Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, offered this introduction on Tuesday evening:
Fr. Thomas Rosica’s introduction to John L. Allen, Jr,
distinguished presenter of the 2010 Kelly Lecture
University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto, Ontario
September 28, 2010
Good evening,
John AllenA communicator can attempt to inform, educate, entertain, convince, and comfort; but the final worth of any communication lies in its truthfulness. In one of the earliest reflections on the nature of communication, Plato highlighted the dangers of any type of communication that seeks to promote the aims and purposes of the communicator or those by whom he or she is employed without consideration for the truth of what is communicated. The art of communication is by its nature linked to an ethical value, to the virtues that are the foundation of morality.
No less worth recalling is Cato the Elder’s sober definition of the orator; vir bonus dicendi peritus – “a good or honest man skilled in communicating.” These words made me think immediately of today’s distinguished speaker: John Allen: “vir bonus dicendi peritus”, a good and honest man skilled in communicating. In fact that is exactly what he has been doing for over thirty years in the business of Catholic journalism and communications.
John Allen is the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and a Vatican analyst for CNN and National Public Radio. He is the author of The Rise of Benedict XVI and All the Pope’s Men: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Thinks and his most recent book The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Miami Herald, The Nation, and many other publications. His Internet column, “All Things Catholic,” is considered by knowledgeable observers to be the best single source of insights on Vatican affairs in the English language.
In Roman circles, he has been called “the best English-language Vatican reporter in history.” His objectivity has even been described as “maddening.” I think that he is the best Vatican reporter in history, period!
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you John L. Allen, Jr, one of the world’s leading ‘Vaticanistas’ who will reflect on “Challenges facing the Church today.”
Covering the Vatican and the Church: A Vaticanista Reflects on Challenges Facing the Church Today
John L. Allen, Jr.
My subject tonight is the much-bemoaned one of the Vatican’s PR problem. Complaining about the communications inadequacies of the Vatican is, of course, a favorite indoor sport among Catholics. My own personal favorite way of making the point is this: When I am asked what I think of the Vatican’s communications strategy, I usually say that as soon I see evidence they’ve got one, I’ll tell you what I make of it.
Much of that, naturally, is unfair. In the period since the Second Vatican Council, the Vatican has become far more sensitive to public communications than it once was, in keeping with Pope John Paul’s famous 1984 injunction that the Catholic Church should be a “house of glass” in which everyone on the outside can look in and see what’s going on. When the Vatican communicates effectively, it often means that no controversy is stirred, no heartburn is generated, and hence no one notices. It’s only the meltdowns and debacles that grab attention. Moreover, I think everyone who knows him personally would agree that the present Vatican spokesperson, Fr. Federico Lombardi, is a kind and deeply intelligent soul who does everything in his power to respond effectively and in a timely fashion to the legitimate questions reporters put to him. It’s also the case, of course, that there is often a riot of voices speaking in and for the Holy See, and it’s beyond the capacity of anyone, Lombardi included, to keep them in concert.
That said, there is also abundant evidence of a chronic and serious weakness when it comes to relations with the media and with the broader public, some of which is institutional and historical, some of which is managerial and personal. That’s a problem not just for the Vatican but for all of you involved in the life of the Church, because, of course, you’re the ones left to pick up the pieces when the latest bomb explodes in Rome. I want to examine the subject tonight in the hopes that it might not only prompt some ideas about the Holy See, but also some broader lessons about the whole enterprise of church communications.
Before coming to that, however, two caveats.
First, by examining the Vatican’s PR woes, by no means do I want to suggest that the problem lies entirely on the church’s side of the equation. As a media professional, I am well aware of the almost shocking degree of religious illiteracy that characterizes a broad share of the working press, which leads to superficial and sometimes wildly inaccurate reporting on religion which wouldn’t be tolerated if the subject were politics or business or even sports or entertainment. I’m also well aware of my profession’s penchant for controversy and crisis, and I would concede that some in the media, though I believe it to be a small minority, have axes to grind against the Church. In other words, one could easily devote an entire lecture like this to the topic of the media’s inadequacies when it comes to the Vatican, rather than the Vatican’s problems with the media. Alas, I see no evidence that the New Jerusalem is scheduled to arrive anytime soon, and thus we are constrained to operate in the media environment as it presently exists. In other words, I intend to dwell tonight in the world of “is,” not the land of “ought.”
Second, I also don’t want to suggest that the challenges facing Roman Catholicism in the early 21st century can somehow be reduced entirely to matters of image and spin. Whether the question is the sexual abuse crisis, or the vocations shortage, or the implications of an accelerating demographic shift within Catholicism from the global North to the global South, we face weighty questions that can’t simply be massaged away with new “imaging” techniques. At best, a more thoughtful PR approach can do no more than clear away the debris of misunderstanding and false debates, so that we can face the real challenges head-on … and the rest of the world can watch us doing so, without the burden of false assumptions about the church’s motives, priorities, and agenda.
With that, let me sketch how we’ll proceed. I’m going to briefly consider three recent case studies in Vatican communications, two of them cautionary tales about what not to do, and one of them an example of how to get things right. At the end, I’ll offer three lessons to be learned which I believe are widely applicable in the life of the Church.
Case Study One: The Trip to Africa
Pope Benedict XVI traveled to Cameroon and Angola in March 2009, marking his first trip to Africa. The specific motive for the trip was to present the working document for the Synod for Africa to take place later that year, but more broadly the Holy Father’s hope was to spotlight the incredible dynamism of the African church and so many African societies, as well as to raise global consciousness about the urgent humanitarian and development issues facing Africa.
Alas, precious little of that was reflected in reporting on the trip in the Western media, which was instead dominated by a firestorm created as a result of comments the pope made aboard the papal plane from Rome with regard to condoms and AIDS. In a nutshell, the pope argued that personal responsibility, not condoms, is the key to resolving the AIDS crisis; indeed, he said, condoms make the problem worse. That line became the shot heard round the world, and generated a fierce backlash among anti-AIDS activists and secular society generally, especially in the West. In an unprecedented move that foreshadowed things to come, the Belgian Parliament voted to formally censure the pope, and the Spanish government under Prime Minister Zapatero announced that it would ship one million condoms to Africa in protest.
The “great condoms debate” utterly obscured any other feature of the trip for days, exacerbating impressions that the pope and the church are out of touch and so phobic about sex that we’re willing to ignore scientific and medical reality. Only much later into the media cycle did four other points become clear:
  • Whatever one makes of the pope’s comment, the sentiment is widely shared among the Catholic bishops of Africa. Almost to a person, they will tell you that the condoms which reach Africa are often expired and defective, and in any event, that a young African male often regards a condom as a kind of talisman that renders him immune to harm, thereby inducing him into even riskier behaviors. In other words, this was an instance in which the pope was speaking collegially, articulating the conviction of the local episcopacy, rather than imposing his own view.
  • The same belief is held by a wide cross-section of other religious leaders in Africa. I know this because I interviewed the Imam of the National Mosque in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, who told me that his only regret about the pope’s comment was that he didn’t wait until he had arrived so they could have said it together.
  • There is empirical evidence to suggest that reliance on condoms is not the most effective anti-AIDS strategy. Research by Edward C. Green of Harvard University shows that programs emphasizing abstinence and marital fidelity have brought down infection rates more successfully than those which rely primarily on condoms. Green says that’s for three reasons: people often don’t use condoms correctly; they stop using them when they believe they know the other person; and condoms generate a false sense of security.
  • Many secular AIDS experts in Africa, unaffiliated with the Catholic church, also hold the same view. Vanessa Balla, a non-Catholic physician in Cameroon who treats AIDS patients, told me, “With condoms, people think they can do whatever they want. I’ve seen it myself … they take as much risk as possible.” Insisting that “it’s incredibly hard to watch young people dying of AIDS,” Ballas said the solution is “not condoms, but changing behavior.”
Knowing those four things may not ultimately change someone’s mind, but they obviously make the pope’s comment far more difficult to simply dismiss.
What lessons should be learned from this episode?
Let’s grant that Benedict XVI could not have traveled to Africa and ducked the issue of AIDS and condoms. Let’s also stipulate that Vatican officials could have, and should have, anticipated that whatever Benedict XVI said would attract wide interest, running the risk of being misrepresented or caricatured.
In that context, four steps suggest themselves.
First, the primary aim of Benedict’s six-day trip was to throw a spotlight on Africa, especially the dynamism of the Catholic church on the continent. Thus when the AIDS question came up on the plane, Benedict could have said something like: “That’s a very important issue, and I’ll talk about it two days from now during my visit to the Cardinal Léger Center for the Suffering on Thursday. For now, however, I want the focus to be on good news from Africa.” Such a reply would have ensured that journalists had to file day-one stories on the broader African situation, without feeding impressions that the pope was ducking the condoms question. It also would have created global interest in his visit to the Léger Center, one of the most visually striking moments of the trip, as it put the pope in direct pastoral contact with sick and disabled people.
Second, when Benedict did talk about condoms, the Vatican could have arranged for him to be flanked by other African religious leaders — Catholic and Anglican bishops, Pentecostal preachers, Muslim imams, and leaders of traditional tribal faiths, all of whom would have echoed his argument. I can tell you from personal experience that they were not hard to find.
Third, the Vatican could have arranged to have secular African AIDS experts such as Balla on hand, with no ties to the Catholic church, who could have offered their expertise in support of the pope’s argument. Both the religious leaders and secular AIDS experts could have been made available to reporters at the press center in Yaounde immediately after the pope’s speech.
Fourth, Lombardi and his aides could have assembled a packet of empirical studies demonstrating the limits of anti-AIDS efforts based on condoms, featuring the Green study from Harvard. That packet could have been distributed shortly before the pope’s speech, so that it figured in the first cycle of stories and TV commentary. Journalists should not have had to wait forty-eight hours to read about Green’s work in an op/ed piece in The Washington Post — a piece, by the way, that seemed to catch the Vatican completely by surprise.
None of this would have prevented protests about the pope’s remarks, especially given that there’s a legitimate debate to be had about the proper role of condoms in anti-AIDS efforts. Such a strategy, however, would at least have made it more difficult to portray Benedict XVI as isolated, out of touch, and uncaring, which was the storyline that dominated the African journey.
Case Study Two: The Williamson Affair
Probably everyone in this room has at least a passing familiarity with the cause célèbre surrounding the traditionalist Bishop Richard Williamson of the Society of St. Pius X, whose 1988 excommunication, along with three of his colleagues, was lifted by Benedict XVI in January 2009. Just days before that decision was announced, an interview with Williamson done by a Swedish television network was broadcast in which he repeated claims he had previously made in other venues that the Nazis did not use gas chambers and that no more than perhaps 300,000 Jews had died during the Second World War, as oppose to the conventional estimate of six million.
The global media storyline obviously was “Pope rehabilitates Holocaust-denying bishop,” creating a crisis in Jewish/Catholic relations, doubts within Catholicism about the pope’s commitment to the Second Vatican Council, and a huge public relations embarrassment. In the wake of the affair, Benedict XVI took the extraordinary step of issuing a letter to the bishops of the world expressing his personal anguish and apologizing for the way it was handled.
Let’s grant that the Holy Father’s motives for taking this step were noble. In tandem with his predecessors Paul VI and John Paul II, Benedict XVI obviously is motivated to try to heal the only formal schism to follow the Council, which was the rupture with the traditionalist movement launched by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Moreover, as a statement from the Secretariat of State would later (and I emphasize “later”) make clear, lifting the excommunications was the beginning of a process of readmission to full communion, not the end. The four prelates still have no warrant to act as bishops in the Catholic Church, and the Society of St. Pius X has no standing. If they want full reintegration, the traditionalists will have to accept the full body of church teaching, including religious freedom and the importance of ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue.
Nonetheless, it should have been clear that if the Holy Father was going to take this step with a man whose track record on the Holocaust is so obviously troubling, it would spark wide controversy. We now know that insensitivity to public reaction was actually more mind-boggling than it appeared, thanks to the recent book “Attack on Ratzinger” by the accomplished Italian Vatican writers Andrea Tornielli and Paolo Rodari. For the first time, they published the minutes of a high-level Vatican summit on January 22, 2009, which took place two days after the German publication Der Spiegel broke the story of Williamson’s comments, and one day after Swedish TV actually aired the full interview. The meeting brought together the most senior officials in the Vatican’s power structure to discuss how to present the pope’s decision. Incredibly, there was no reference at all to Williamson’s interview, as if no one had bothered conducting even the most elementary search of the media for potential problems.
Also worth noting is that two key figures were not on the guest list for the Jan. 22 meeting: Lombardi, who had to explain the decision to the world’s media, and Cardinal Walter Kasper, who had to explain it to the Jews. Instead, an official of the Secretariat of State led a brief discussion about a proposed statement to the press, and the minutes reflect general agreement not to grant any media interviews. A canonist was commissioned to publish an article in L’Osservatore Romano explaining the decree, but only “after a few days.”
Looking back, here’s the thing.
Even if Williamson had never given his interview to Swedish TV, anyone looking at the situation from a PR point of view should have anticipated that once the Vatican announced these four bishops were no longer excommunicated, reporters would look into their backgrounds. Had anyone in the Vatican spent even five minutes on Google searching under the name “Richard Williamson,” his troubling history on the would have leapt off the screen, which was a matter of public record long before he spoke to the Swedes. Indeed, here in Canada Williamson narrowly escaped prosecution under your country’s hate crimes law in the late 1980s for saying essentially the same thing.
Armed with that information, the Vatican could have issued its detailed Feb. 4 statement along with the decree itself, to explain from the outset that these guys have not been “rehabilitated,” but rather given an opportunity to clean up their act. They could also have organized a press conference, so there would be TV sound bites assuring the world that this decision in no way signified a rollback on Catholic/Jewish relations or anything else.
Under any set of circumstances, failure to take such common sense steps is hard to explain. Yet Williamson did give that interview to Swedish TV, and in that light, the revelation that the pope’s top aides assembled two days after it went public and still seemed oblivious to the train wreck hurtling towards them is, to say the very least, alarming.
Case Study Three: The Trip to the United Kingdom
There is by now a fairly wide consensus that Pope Benedict’s Sept. 16-19 trip to Scotland and England was a success. Part of that, to be sure, is merely the natural by-product of incredibly low expectations. Given the predictions of disaster that preceded the pope’s arrival, anything that happened was destined to seem a pleasant surprise. It’s also true that one should not minimize the blowback: the estimated 10,000 people who marched through the streets of London on Saturday to protest the pontiff’s state visit represented the largest public protest this pope has ever seen, and one of the largest in modern times.
Nevertheless, Benedict’s supporters easily outnumbered his opponents, as he drew large and enthusiastic crowds, generally surpassing the best-case estimates. Media coverage was constant and generally positive, and there’s considerable evidence that the Holy Father accomplished what he set out to do: Stimulate a national conversation about the role of religion in public life. At the end of the trip, the editor of the Tablet – hardly a publication known as a Vatican lapdog – described the mood among British Catholics as “euphoric,” and Prime Minister David Cameron paid Benedict perhaps the ultimate British compliment by telling him that he had forced the Brits to “sit up and listen.”
By most accounts, the highlight of the trip was Benedict’s Sept. 17 speech in Westminster Hall, in the very location where St. Thomas More was tried and condemned in 1535 for refusing to acknowledge the King as the head of the Church. Speaking before all the living former Prime Ministers of England and the cream of British civil society, Benedict made a forceful argument that religious believers and secularists need one another. Faith shorn of reason, he contended, becomes secularism and fundamentalism; reason without faith becomes inhuman ideology.
As someone who has covered all of Benedict’s seventeen foreign trips, I can testify that this was one of those rare instances in which the narrative that the media told about the trip, and the narrative the pope actually came to deliver, more or less coincided.
From a PR point of view, what made the trip work? Two points seem most decisive.
First, Benedict directly addressed the sexual abuse crisis, beginning with forceful comments aboard the papal plane and continuing in three of his public addresses, including a homily at Westminster Cathedral. For the fifth time, he also met with a group of victims of sexual abuse. Although the Church in the U.K. has largely been spared the massive sexual abuse scandals that have rocked Catholic communities elsewhere, it has been a dominant subject in the British media and has significantly influenced public opinion about the Church. By dealing with it early and often, the pope defused any potential criticism that he “doesn’t get it” or is attempting to duck the crisis.
Obviously, apologies by themselves don’t resolve the problem, and in fact Benedict finds himself in something of a box: Critics are increasingly quick to dismiss his comments and his encounters with victims as empty PR gestures, while even some of his friends wonder if continually apologizing is actually preventing the Church from moving on. Nonetheless, for the broad English public, to hear Benedict speak so candidly about the gravity of the crisis, and to express such determination to achieve both justice and healing, did at least allow them to listen to the rest of what he had to say.
Second, Benedict did not give his critics much ammunition, in the sense that he did not ride into town breathing fire about abortion, or condoms, or gay marriage, or any of the other hot-button issues in the Culture Wars. Instead, his trip to the U.K. was a tour de force in what I’ve called his “Affirmative Orthodoxy,” meaning his determination to express traditional Catholic teaching in the most positive fashion possible. In that spirit, Benedict went to the roots of the relationship between faith and secularity, making a two-pronged case: A) in a society that prizes tolerance and diversity, believers too deserve a place at the table; B) once that right of citizenship is established, believers have something vital to contribute to a democratic society seeking to realize broad humanitarian aims.
Pitched that way, the pope’s argument came across as thoughtful, constructive, and impossible to write off as the ravings of a religious fanatic. In the end, Benedict’s “Affirmative Orthodoxy” actually made his critics seem like the out-of-touch extremists. It was hard not to laugh, for example, when Benedict was embracing the poor and sick at St. Peter’s Residence in London, run by the Little Sisters of the Poor, at the very same time that Richard Dawkins was denouncing him as an “enemy of humanity.”
From this brief survey of three case studies in Vatican and papal communications, what can we learn? Three broad conclusions seem to suggest themselves.
First, see the train wreck coming. If a Church leader is going to do something controversial, prepare the ground. Naturally, this does not mean that Church leaders should never do anything controversial – were that the rule, they’d never do anything. But one can easily anticipate that public statements about condoms and AIDS, or opening the door for figures with a record of Holocaust revisionism, will be explosive and therefore should be “packaged” in such a way that the ensuing debate is at least about the real issues, and not about caricatures and mistaken assumptions.
Second, get in front of the story. In both the case of the Africa trip and the Williamson affair, the Vatican eventually issued terrific statements that laid out the facts and provided important context, making the statement or decision in question seem far more defensible. In today’s media environment, however, “eventually” is the functional equivalent of “never.” Had those statements been issued beforehand, they would have put an utterly different frame on the public debate. Coming days or even weeks after the fact, however, they amounted to too little, too late.
Third, emphasize the Catholic “yes.” In other words, when tackling a delicate issue in the public square, it’s always wise to begin with the value to which the Church is saying “yes,” rather than the behavior or law or climate of opinion to which it says “no.” This is the heart of Affirmative Orthodoxy, and it’s worth allowing the Holy Father himself to describe it.
Benedict’s most detailed explanation of Affirmative Orthodoxy came in a 2006 interview with German journalists just after his visit to Valencia, Spain, for a World Congress of Families. Handicappers had anticipated an Ali-Frazier style showdown with Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who for many European Catholics looms as an avatar of radical secularism. Instead, Benedict avoided direct confrontation and repeatedly accented the positive, insisting before a crowd of more than 1 million people: “Christian faith and ethics are not meant to stifle love, but to make it healthier, stronger and more truly free.”
Reporters pressed Benedict to explain why he had seemingly pulled his punches with Zapatero. Here’s the exchange, as it was recorded by the German radio outlet Deutsche Welle:
Question: A month ago you were in Valencia. Anyone who was listening carefully noticed how you never mentioned the words “homosexual marriage,” you never spoke about abortion, or about contraception. Clearly your idea is to go around the world preaching the faith rather than as an “apostle of morality.” What are your comments?
Pope Benedict XVI: Obviously, yes. Actually I had only two opportunities to speak for 20 minutes, and when you have so little time you can’t say everything you want to say about “no.” Firstly you have to know what we really want, right? Christianity, Catholicism, isn’t a collection of prohibitions: it’s a positive option. It’s very important that we look at it again because this idea has almost completely disappeared today. We’ve heard so much about what is not allowed that now it’s time to say: we have a positive idea to offer … I believe we need to see and reflect on the fact that it’s not a Catholic invention that man and woman are made for each other, so that humanity can go on living: all cultures know this. As far as abortion is concerned, it’s part of the fifth, not the sixth, commandment: “Thou shalt not kill!” We have to presume this is obvious and always stress that the human person begins in the mother’s womb and remains a human person until his or her last breath. … But all this is clearer if you say it first in a positive way.
That, ladies and gentlemen, strikes me as a winning strategy indeed for Church communications.