VATICAN CITY — On the heels of a strong critique of the Holy See’s current communications structures by the head of a commission tasked with assessing them, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis has set up a new centralized body to better coordinate the Vatican’s media operations.
The Holy Father promulgated a motu proprio June 27 instituting a Secretariat for Communications in order to “respond in an ever more efficacious manner to the needs of the mission of the Church.”
The new dicastery will be headed by a prefect, Msgr. Dario Viganò, an Italian expert filmmaker and videographer, who currently heads Vatican Television Center (CTV).
The news comes just a month after Lord (Christopher) Patten of Barnes, the head of a Vatican committee on media reform, said the Vatican’s current media structures were unfit for the digital age and should have received the same amount of attention as Vatican finances, which are now centralized under the new Secretariat for the Economy.
In his apostolic letter announcing the motu proprio, Francis wrote that the “current communication context, characterized by the presence and the development of digital media, by the factors of convergence and interactivity, requires a rethinking of the information system of the Holy See.”
He also said it necessitates “dedication to a reorganization which, recognizing the history of internal development of the asset of communications of the Apostolic See, must proceed decisively towards integration and a unified management.”
Father Lombardi and Greg Burke Unaffected
The Holy See Press Office, led by Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, is likely to retain its role and may even be given others, while the Vatican’s strategic communications adviser, Greg Burke, is also expected to be unaffected. Vatican Radio will probably be cut at the same time to avoid redundancies, and L’Osservatore Romano is expected to be published mostly online.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll see a weekly Italian print edition and all the rest online,” said a Vatican official, speaking to the Register on condition of anonymity. “It’s about cutting printing costs and paper.”
It’s not clear what will happen to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, headed by Archbishop Claudio Celli, but insiders say it is likely to continue acting as the ethical backbone to the Holy See’s media operations and communications in general.
Vatican media personnel are aware that with today’s fast-moving technological innovations, there is a need to be flexible and adopt and adapt to new technologies.
But some observers have voiced concern that Msgr. Viganò and his three deputies are all Italian and closely linked to Vatican media. None is from outside the world of ecclesiastical communications, nor are they from Anglophone countries, where the world’s most influential media are concentrated.
A further criticism is that, with the secretariat, the Vatican has a new bureaucratic body that could stifle reform rather than promote it.
But, so far at least, Vatican communications employees are generally optimistic and pleased with the consultation and how the reform is likely to take shape.
More Centralized System
For years, officials have favored a more centralized system of communications for the Holy See. The Vatican has nearly a dozen separate communication outlets and offices, many of which duplicate each other’s work and operate independently of one another.
They include the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, Vatican Radio, Vatican Television Center, Vatican Information Service, the Vatican Press Office, Fides missionary news agency, the main Vatican website (Vatican.va), the News.va news aggregator, the Vatican publishing house LEV and the Vatican printing press.
Cardinal George Pell, a member of the C9 council of cardinals advising the Holy Father on Curial reform, said last year that the Vatican’s media operations needed to adapt to “changing media-consumption trends, enhance coordination and achieve progressively and sensitively substantial financial savings.”
The Australian cardinal, who heads the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy and appointed Lord Patten to lead a study into how media reform could be achieved, stressed that “the priority is not economic,” but about using resources more efficiently to reach the greatest number of people possible. He said cost-cutting must not “diminish our outreach.”
In a speech to English and Welsh bishops in May, Lord Patten, a former head of the BBC Trust, said it would be “bizarre” if the Vatican were to run its media without reference to how every other media organization is managed today. He also said it would be “beyond bizarre to deny the Vatican the sort of modern media operation that others — including existing national Church organizations — take for granted.”
Lord Patten’s committee produced its findings this year, after meeting several times in Rome between September 2014 and March 2015. As that committee wrapped up its work, Pope Francis established a new one in early May, also headed by Msgr. Viganò, charged with implementing the committee’s recommendations.
The British peer said his committee did not recommend making communications staff redundant, but that working practices needed to change. “They cannot expect (and they should not want) the job assurances they enjoy to become guarantees to do exactly the same jobs in the same way forever,” he said. “Nor can they expect to escape sensitive but effective and coherent professional management [changes in terms] of the way they operate.”
He spoke of the need for “more visual, multimedia content, especially if one wishes to reach younger people,” and to utilize modern-day media to dialogue with the public, not merely broadcast to it. “All of this requires greater convergence among the existing media operators,” he said.
Patten, a former government minister under British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, said unnecessary duplication is “wasteful” and that a kind of media one-stop shop is needed. He proposed merging all of the various communications bodies under a united management, with new departments covering pastoral, administrative, commercial and technological matters, and another in charge of media operations.
‘Exciting, Needed and Overdue’
The news of the secretariat is “exciting, needed and overdue,” said the Vatican official who commented to the Register. “It brings everything together and prepares the Vatican for the multimedia era.”
It’s not clear at this stage exactly how the new secretariat will operate. “It’s not going to be a quick or easy transition,” said another official close to the process, who suggested the secretariat will likely be run along the administrative lines of the Secretariat of the Economy. “What we do know is that the motu proprio means what it says and that there will be a ‘great unification’ of services.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.