The evolution of Vatican communication under Pope Francis can eventually “rehabilitate” the Benedict XVI’ pontificate, which had been at least undermined by a certain kind of media narrative. There are two peculiar examples on how the Vatican communication became more pro-active, handling problems in the most proper way and trying to escape the narrative of the breach between the two pontificate that has been affecting for too much time Pope Francis pontificate. «This is the moment of being devotionally institutional,» an official who has been serving for years in a Vatican dicasteries mysteriously explained to mondayvatican.com.
The announcement of a consistory was expected. So it was that of the membership in the Cardinals’ Commission for the Oversight of the Institute for Religious Works (Istituto per le Opere di Religione, IOR), also known as the Vatican bank (misleadingly). Pope Francis, however, surprised everybody, almost accelerating timeframes.
Perhaps Pope Francis decided to play the surprise card: he never does what it is expected, also because – as he clearly wrote in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium – he does not want to be beholden to a «it has always been like this» maxim. Traditions – full of meaning – are not as important as the signals Pope Francis wants to project. Regarding the choice for new cardinals, Francis wanted to elevate the profile of the peripheries of the world, and at the same time show that there are no “class A” and “class B” dioceses. Regarding the IOR cardinals’ commission, there is the feeling that Pope Francis is following the path of Benedict XVI.
Benedict XVI’s huge effort for financial transparency was also marked by a change in the Holy See’s strategy at the international level. Benedict XVI was conscious that the Vatican’s borders were no longer just with Italy, but at the very least also with Europe, and that the privileged relationship with the Italian neighbor should not be a double-edged sword for the Holy See. The multilateral approach – together with a specific striving toward the truth, the “guiding light” of Benedict XVI’s pontificate – had to be pursuit at every level. This multilateral approach was carried forward according to the logic of collegiality.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of State until last September, had also called for more collegiality. Even before the Vatileaks scandal, as some leaks were already coming out from the Vatican corridors, Bertone underlined the need for more coordination in the drafting of documents, in the preparatory paper of one of the periodic meetings of heads of Vatican dicasteries. Bertone provided the example of the method used by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
This logic of collegiality was carried forward to every field, also to the financial area. For this reason, Benedict XVI appointed the president of the Administration for the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (also known by its Italian acronym, APSA) among the members of the IOR cardinals’ commission. When Benedict XVI had to renew the commission on February 16, just a few days before the end of his pontificate, he replaced the former president of the APSA Nicora with his successor Calcagno. On the other hand, Benedict XVI had to renew the commission to leave the house in good order, since its mandate was going to expire. But he also wanted to leave a free hand to his successor, and that is why he only replaced Nicora (who had become President of the Authority for Financial Information) and confirmed all the other members.
Pope Francis wanted to wait and study the issue. In the end, he opted for a radical change. Only Jean Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, kept his post within the commission, the only bridge between the old and the new management. Pope Francis appointed as a member of the new board: Santos Avril y Castellò, Archpriest of the Roman Basilica of Saint Mary the Major and a good friend of the Pope; Cristoph Schoenborn, Archbishop of Wien, Austria; Thomas Christopher Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, Canada; and Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State.
Neither Calcagno, nor any other APSA representative, have been included in the ranks of the commission. More than a “discontinuity” choice, or as an end to Cardinal Bertone’s era, Pope Francis’ decision should be read as one of strong continuity with Benedict XVI’s policy on finances.
Multilateralism brought the Holy See to look at international standards when dealing with its own financial transparency. Undergoing the evaluation process of the Council of Europe’s MONEYVAL committee, as the Vatican did, means engaging in a multilateral dynamic and peer-to-peer relations with other States, on the basis of international standards.
This is the reason why the collegiality policy cannot be applied anymore to the Vatican financial intitutions, since there must be a clear distinction between a public authority (APSA) and a financial institution (IOR), and this is exactly the reason why Cardinal Calcagno can no longer be part of the IOR Cardinals’ Commission.
Nothing extraordinary, from this perspective. Pope Francis merely took Benedict XVI’s work and carried it on, until bringing to a conclusion the reform of the Vatican financial system. The new anti-money laundering law, and the establishment of the Committee for Financial Security, enhanced and surpassed the first anti-money laundering law, which was drafted by external consultants and then completely rewritten by Vatican experts in order to fully comply with international standards.
It would have been perhaps useful if someone would have explained what was going on, in terms of financial reform. For months, newspapers wrote about an “examination” of the Holy See finances by the European commissioners; about the Vatican need to be included in a “white list” which in fact does not exist; and about a report which purportedly represented either an upgrading or downgrading of the standing of Vatican finances by European authorities, while it was merely a “peer review.”
These sort of clarifications seemed to come late, and were also obscured by internal feuds that led to many flawed characterizations of the transparency process. Misinformation often leaked to newspapers by Vatican individuals with an agenda.
Left unanswered is the question about who in particular had wanted to undermine Benedict XVI’s pontificate. As is the question of whether Pope Francis’ pontificate is being rightly defended, by the Vatican institutions themselves.
Pope Francis loves to speak off-the-cuff, and his spontaneity has led to some misunderstandings and to more or less instrumentalized controversies regarding what he says. So, the Vatican felt obliged to deliver a note (posted Jan. 13 on the Facebook page for the Vatican’s “news.va”) in order to precisely enumerate every official websites where Pope Francis’ statements and comments can be read, in order to avoid any further misunderstandings.
It was a necessary measure. Today, many in the Vatican are profoundly aware that it is necessary to shed light on what the Church is really all about. These are Vatican officials that go beyond the business-like approach that consultants take. Consultants like McKinsey, which has already begun its meetings in the Vatican in order to see how to rationalize the Holy See’s media operations (in fact, the debate about a reorganization of Vatican media goes back to 1983, when a commission confidentially met in the Vatican).
Those who look at the Vatican as if it were just a big company, with a need for a rationalization of its structures and a good press office to communicate innovations, can never fully grasp the issues. Many Vatican officials, on the other hand, have dedicated their whole life to the Holy See and are thus fully aware of the need to shed light on the Church’s reality.
It may be true that, regarding Vatican finances, clarifications had come late. However, Father Federico Lombardi, Director of the Holy See Press Office, was really timely in delivering a note explaining in detail why the Holy See was presenting a report on children’s rights to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on January 16.
In 1990, the Holy See signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Two optional protocols, on “the involvement of children in armed conflict” and on “sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography” complement the convention. Ratification of these kinds of conventions generally require its states parties to present periodic reports on their implementation.
Every state party must report about its implementation of the convention, but the media did not underline this. The media wanted to exploit a “juicy” target of opportunity. After a state submits its written report to the committee, the independent experts who comprise the committee may submit questions in writing to the state party, which also answers them in written form. These questions and answers in some ways guide the dialogue in Geneva. Among the questions, there was one about children sex abuse by the clergy.
The Holy See gave an articulated answer, explaining the differences between the Holy See, the Vatican City State, and the Catholic Church; and about Penal Canon Law and criminal domestic laws. The Holy See briefers stressed that the Vatican encouraged every local bishops’ conference to establish guidelines to address cases of abuse on the basis of their domestic law, emphasizing the commitment of popes to fight the abuses, from John Paul II on.
In his intervention, Silvano Maria Tomasi, the Holy See Permanent Observer to the UN Office at Geneva, listed the most recent Vatican initiatives, not included in the written answers because these initiatives had taken place after the written responses were delivered. Tomasi also stressed the Council of Cardinals’ decision to establish an international commission for the protection of children.
From all of the above, the only thing that the media focused on, yet with a superficial perspective, is the Holy See’s admission that «there are no excuses» for the abuse cases. This despite the fact that Father Lombardi issued a long note clearly explaining that the report is part of a continuous evaluation process, and how to read the Holy See’s answers. Father Lombardi wanted to clear up any possible doubts.
In the same days, Associated Press published a Holy See statistics proving that Benedict XVI defrocked nearly 400 priests for raping and molesting children. The report finally shed light on Benedict XVI effort in combating the clergy sex abuses. The Associated Press got the Vatican analysis statistics, and this was not presumably by chance. In 2010, when another milestone in the sex abuse saga came out with hundreds of cases reported in the media across Europe and beyond, Associated Press quoted a 1985 letter by the then prefect for the Congregation of the Faith Joseph Ratzinger in which he reportedly resisted pleas to defrock a California priest with a record of sexually molesting children, citing concerns including «the good of the universal Church.»
In fact, Vatican communications seem to be evolving around Pope Francis, sensitive to his particular approach and also giving a wider perspective to his comments, and at the same time it is also working to change the narrative for what concerns the Benedict XVI’s pontificate. There is also a clear message that there has not been a breach with the past. There is a continuity in pastoral action, even if there are, as could be expected, differences in style between Benedict XVI and Francis. The report presented in Geneva is a testament to that continuity in diplomatic action.
Ultimately, the statements of Vatican diplomats show that the Church is the largest “values agent” in the world. While keeping a consistent stance (that of the common good and of the defense of human dignity), Vatican diplomats know how to enshrine, in the best possible ways, every papal comment. The same is true of Vatican officials charged with drafting official documents. In this way, the Pope’s worldviews and concerns are preserved and his guiding principles are embraced by the people.
The Catholic Church is still alive precisely because of the completeness of its content. No professionalizing of her communications will ever be able to displace this expertise. The Church has been nurturing this expertise for several millenniums.