Jamming the Papal Message

NEWS ANALYSIS: Vatican communications mishaps may be hampering Pope Francis’ capacity to evangelize at full effectiveness.

Pope Francis had a smashingly successful first foreign visit to Rio for World Youth Day. Sadly, most of the world missed it. Even worse — it was largely the Church’s own fault.

It’s called stepping on your own story, and it has been a big problem this year. It started with the shoes. You remember all the press attention paid back in March to what shoes Pope Francis would wear? It was not just a harmless irrelevance. An ironclad rule of communications is that you can only write/broadcast/blog about one thing at a time. So if you are talking about the papal shoes, you cannot at the same time be talking about what it means to wear the shoes of the fisherman. If there are relevant matters you want covered, and the press is reporting irrelevancies, it is harmful — an error of omission, as it were.

This is well understood by any professional in communications. Sometimes it is the only thing they understand, as was the case in the infamous case of Jo Moore, an official in Tony Blair’s administration who was pilloried for advising, on Sept. 11 itself, that “it is now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury.” Moore knew the rule, even in service of an ignoble end.

The Rio trip began and ended with the World Youth Day story — a marvelous story of evangelical witness in the largest Catholic country in the world — being not only stepped on, but veritably trampled to death.

It began before the Pope got off the ground. Departure stories were dominated by the Pope’s hand baggage rather than the message he hoped to carry.

Then came the disastrous motorcade. For two days, the only images in the secular media — where the vast majority of Catholics get all their news about the Church — were of the Holy Father in the back of a car being jostled by the crowds. Francis enjoyed himself, but it caused pain to his Brazilian hosts, who were mortified that the whole world might think that they could not organize a simple motorcade. It is not the Vatican’s fault that the driver took a wrong turn, but in planning such trips, the more innovations that are introduced — putting the Pope in a Fiat, adding a new route at the last minute — the more potential irrelevancies arise, and, consequently, there was next to nothing reported in the secular press about what the Pope said upon arrival or even on his important visit to the Marian shrine of Aparecida. The motorcade ran over the story.

Catholic news online makes available everything the Pope does and says, but that is not where most people get their news. And when the story is not only stepped on, but stomped to death, even the Catholic world online is overwhelmed.

That’s what happened with the Holy Father’s interview on the papal flight back from Rio. It was not his intention to completely overwhelm all reporting on Rio with a discussion about the Church supposedly changing her teaching on homosexuality, but that is what happened. So complete was the communications fiasco that Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York had to go on NBC's Today show, literally on the fly, to clarify that the Church had not altered her millennial teaching on chastity. Cardinal Dolan is one of the Church’s most effective communicators. He should have been on Today in evangelical overdrive after the great triumph of World Youth Day, not playing defense on a papal interview.

Another aspect of the papal interview that got much attention was Francis’ remark that, while he reaffirmed Blessed John Paul’s teaching on the impossibility of women being ordained priests, the Church lacked an adequate “theology of women.” It is unwise to put a pope in a position where extemporaneous remarks are incomplete, in this case neglecting that the very same John Paul provided precisely that theology in the encyclical on Mary (Redemptoris Mater), the apostolic letter on the dignity of women (Mulieris Dignitatem) and his eponymous "Letter to Women."

The Church should have learned this lesson after the papal trip to Africa in 2009. Commenting on AIDS aboard the papal flight, Benedict XVI said that condoms not only were not the solution to AIDS, but could make the problem worse. The rest of the Africa trip may well have not occurred — it was all condoms, all the time. Clearly stung by that, Benedict returned to the topic in his next interview book, Light of the World, with similar results. It was all condoms, all the time, "The Sequel." Two important papal initiatives were lost to the larger potential audience by poor communications management.

The problem extends even to news that the Vatican entirely controls, as was the case earlier this month.

On July 5, Pope Francis was joined by Benedict XVI for their first public ceremony together, the dedication of a new statue of St. Michael the Archangel as protector of the Vatican city state. That itself — because of the unique picture — would have been a major news story with an evangelical dimension, namely that God gives us the protection of the angels and the intercession of the saints.

Yet the Holy Father’s first encyclical was released on the same day. So the Vatican had two stories to promote on that day, when either one would have sufficed.

Then even the encyclical was kicked to the margins with the news that John Paul II would be canonized. A third story. Then yet another shoe dropped — Francis had decided to canonize John XXIII, waiving the requirement for the necessary miracle.

Four stories? On one day? All of them good news stories that should not be buried, least of all by each other.

Imagine another scenario instead. The John XXIII decision is announced on the 50th anniversary of his death, June 3, 2013, with the canonization date set for the end of the Year of Faith. The encyclical Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith) takes the spotlight at the end of June. July is left for World Youth Day. The statue dedication is held over the summer on Sept. 29, the feast of the archangels, giving a supernatural complement to the Holy Father’s governance reforms then under way. John Paul’s canonization is announced on his feast day, Oct. 22, with the date set for the following Divine Mercy Sunday. Each would have had a day of prominence in the secular press and then several days more reaching people in Catholic media.

Effective communications is part of evangelization and mission. Pope Francis is gifted at both. He was evangelizing and being a missionary in his aerial press conference. Yet perhaps his message would have been clearer if he had said nothing, for what he had already said all week long was the story in need of being held up, not stepped upon.

 Father Raymond J. de Souza is editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

He was the Register’s Rome correspondent from 1998-2003.