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Authors Examine the Assault on the Holy Father
BY Edward PentinRome Correspondent
Pope Benedict has frequently come under attack during his pontificate. Whether it has been his decision to revive the traditional Latin Mass, his 2006 speech in Regensburg which triggered Muslim protests, or the lifting of the excommunications of four breakaway bishops belonging to the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, the Holy Father has frequently been a target for sometimes vicious verbal assaults in the media and in the public square. So frequent have they been, at times, that some wonder if they’re being orchestrated. Or are they simply the result of poor Vatican communications and governance?
A new book called Attacco a Ratzinger: Accuse e Scandali, Profezie e Complotti (Attack on Ratzinger: Accusations and Scandals, Prophecies and Conspiracies) by the respected Italian Vatican watchers Andrea Tornielli and Paolo Rodari explores the possible reasons.
Tornielli spoke to the Register about his findings Sept. 29.
Where do you think these attacks are coming from, and why have they been so strong?
Firstly, they come from lobby groups — financial and political powers. In my opinion, there isn’t a conspiracy behind them; they are different groups with different goals, but this is the most important grouping. They have different positions [from the Pope’s] not only about ethics, sexuality and globalization, but also about war and, for example, a multilateral approach to international crises.
So, in my opinion, this is not only an attack from progressive lobbies, but also from those who are against the position of the Pope, the Church, on, for example, defense of the environment and globalization.
To me, it’s clear that during the first five years of his pontificate Benedict XVI has had to face these problems, and in our book we’ve tried to analyze them.
Yet he’s not saying anything different than John Paul II — why do you think he seems to receive more hostility?
In my opinion, there are two reasons for this. The first is the negative image that the media constructed around Ratzinger in the mid-1980s, at the time of the publication of The Ratzinger Report by Vitorrio Messori.
In that book, for example, Ratzinger presented for the first time his “hermeneutic of continuity” interpretation of the Second Vatican Council.
From that time, the media constructed a negative picture of Ratzinger. He was the Panzerkardinal — anti-democratic, anti-liberal, anti-progressive. This perception was maintained after the election, and it’s still alive. In my opinion, it provokes only a part of the Pope’s message, and it is that which the public hears. All the messages that do not coincide with this negative image are barely transmitted to the wider public. For example, the Pope’s words on the environment, poverty and globalization are more difficult for him to convey.
But there is also a second reason. I don’t agree completely with the view that Benedict XVI is attacked more than other popes. Still fresh in our memories are the years of John Paul II’s pontificate, a time which was very attractive to the media. The Pope was seen to be against the war and so forth. But it’s necessary to remember that John Paul II was also attacked very strongly when he published his encyclical about the protection of life and sexuality. The attacks were very strong.
Also Paul VI with Humanae Vitae — he was attacked very strongly from inside the Church by bishops, cardinals and Catholics. So I think it’s necessary to have a historical perspective, because the situation now is not so different from the past.
What would you say is different with this pontificate?
The novelty now has been a number of crises. I think there is a problem of governance in the Roman Curia, a problem of communication, and for that reason maybe a few attacks have been amplified. This is new. But, in my opinion, the position of lobby groups taking positions against popes is not new. It’s true there was a protest in Britain: allegedly 10,000 people on the streets of London. It was the biggest public show of protest against the Pope. But it’s also true that during the time of Paul VI and most of the pontificate of John Paul II there was no Internet and Twitter, and these communications offer the possibility to create social connections in a few days, to convoke people to publicly protest against the Pope.
And this Pope has also had to deal more with the scandal of clerical sex abuse.
Yes, for sure, the past year has been terrible. The protests have been very strong and bad for public opinion. I think the Pope knows the situation very well and believes it is important to come out strongly against pedophilia, but not to answer with statistics and a vigorous self-defense.
He speaks about penance, purification and transparency. I think this message is not well received everywhere, also inside the Church. In July, I stayed for one month in Ireland, and I noticed that miscommunications had influenced not only the negative public opinion of the Pope or the Church, but also the faith of common people.
I think this problem, and the fact that poor communications influenced directly the faith of common people, is not being properly acknowledged in the Vatican at the moment.
For the Pope, yes, for him it’s clear — he is totally humble.
Would you say there is a public-relations problem in the Vatican? Often, Pope Benedict seems to be simply speaking his mind; he’s being honest and frank. Should he have PR to spin his message?
I don’t think it’s mainly a problem of PR, because the Pope communicates very well.
In an interview, for example, or when he’s giving a speech — maybe better when he speaks without reading from a text — the Pope speaks clearly, and he knows how to surprise people. So it’s not a problem of PR for the Pope.
I think the real problem is a problem of governance at a high level. It’s about managing the media system of the Vatican, because there’s really no coordination. No one has been asked to study a global media communications strategy. It’s a high-level problem within the Secretariat of State; at that level it’s necessary to change the method of communication.
In my book, for example, we study the lifting of the excommunication of [SSPX Bishop Richard] Williamson. The responsibility there didn’t lie with Father [Federico] Lombardi, the Holy See spokesman, because the decision was taken by the Secretariat of State, and it was taken without consulting Lombardi. It’s a very good example not only of poor communications but also poor governance.
The Pope’s trip to the U.K. went very well with no mishaps after the Pope arrived. Might things be getting better?
I hope so. It’s true the visit was a success, but it’s important also to remember that his [September 2008] trip to France — the most secularized country in the whole of Europe, the most anti-Catholic country in Europe — was a success.
I also hope those working in communications at the Vatican are learning from the mistakes of the past. But the success of the U.K. visit was created by the “Ratzinger effect,” the presence of the Pope, and also the media campaign against him during months and weeks before the visit.
Scottish and English people, for example, were fully prepared to encounter another man, someone presented by the media who was completely different. When he arrived with his humility, warmth and speeches, not as a conqueror but as a humble servant, in my opinion, this changed his perception in the media.
But it’s also not true there were no communication mistakes. One problem was the day before, when Cardinal [Walter] Kasper said that when he arrives at Heathrow it seems like a Third World country. It was clear, the meaning of his words, but because of the sensitivities of the English people it was not a good idea to say it. These polemics were on the front pages on the day of the Pope’s arrival, but a day later they had disappeared because of the presence of the Pope.
What do you think is the best strategy for the Vatican? What advice would you give them?
The best media response is one that’s based on the facts. Give facts, not a polemical answer, one that could be represented as a sort of conspiracy against the Vatican or against the Church. The best answer is a factual answer, also for the problem of sexual abuse.
In many cases, the facts and documents presented in The New York Times, for example, are not presented in the best way — there’s a context. It’s the responsibility of the press office to answer these claims with facts, documents, and reconstructions without polemics.
I think when this crisis was at its height in the spring, Father Lombardi understood this very well, and communications over recent cases have been better, in my opinion.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.