Whether it be the sexual abuse crisis, the Holy See’s recent landmark deal with China, or allegations raised in Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s testimonies, the Vatican is often being subjected to a barrage of important questions from the faithful eager to have convincing, official explanations and answers.
But usually these days, the Vatican’s response to these inquiries is obfuscation or, more commonly, silence.
When the Congregation for Bishops issued its unpublished directive to the U.S. bishops meeting in Baltimore this week, instructing them not to vote on two proposals on handling of clergy sexual abuse, the Register contacted six Vatican dicasteries, including the Holy See Press Office, to find out the reasons for their decision.
None responded, apart from Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, who gave a brief, one sentence statement most people felt failed to satisfactorily shed light on the reasons behind the decision.
This tendency to ignore questions from the media has increased in recent years. The issues are also not trivial, often concerning the very survival of a particular group of faithful, or even more importantly, the well-being of their eternal souls.
When a controversy breaks over a doctrinal matter, for instance, the Vatican often fails to reaffirm the Church’s teaching or refute the substance of the claims. An example took place in March this year, when reports emerged of an interview the Pope gave to atheist Eugenio Scalfari. Francis allegedly denied the existence of hell and the story spread rapidly around the world, but the Vatican responded late, and with a vague statement that failed to reassert the Church’s teaching in the face of the claim.
Despite, or some argue because of, the recent Holy See-China agreement, Chinese authorities have reportedly been brainwashing four priests into joining the state-run church, and for the fifth time in two years, Bishop Shao Zhuyin of Wenzhou has been arrested. But requests this week for comment or reaction from the Vatican have so far met with no response.
Silence Not Always Golden
Some examples of other inquiries that have gone unanswered include a request for an official clarification of the Pope’s goals for the Pan-Amazonian synod next year, especially with regard to clerical celibacy; why the Pope has continued to grant interviews to Scalfari, despite the 94-year-old's unreliable accounts of those interviews; why the final document on the recent Youth Synod contained very little on the Church’s moral teaching; and whether there have been any developments on the Vatican investigation into Archbishop Theodore McCarrick.
This silence also extends beyond issues concerning the faithful and relates to the well-being of the Pope himself. When Archbishop Viganò called on Francis to resign in his first testimony, the Vatican was silent, neither defending the Pope in the face of such a strong charge nor offering any reaction at all. (Cardinal Ouellet’s response did not appear until two months later, and was in response to Archbishop Viganò challenge to him, made in his second testimony.)
The Pope responded to Archbishop Viganò's claims himself when he called on journalists to investigate the veracity of the former nuncio’s allegations — efforts which naturally entailed Vatican cooperation — but the Holy See failed to either comment or be cooperative.
At least five possible reasons account for the Vatican’s silences and inadequate responses to the media: it wishes to ignore controversial issues knowing that, in today’s rapid news cycle, they are quickly forgotten; it is unable to provide a response because officials are not privy to the reasons behind whatever action has been taken; it doesn’t want to be transparent because it would expose a hidden agenda; the Vatican is unable or unwilling to defend the indefensible; or it simply does not have the capacity to provide timely and substantive responses to controversial news coming out of the Vatican. (A Rome truism is never underestimate in the Vatican how much can simply put down to incompetence.)
Whatever the true reason is, and it is possibly a mix of all of the above, the silence and dearth of adequate responses to the media on so many crucial issues cannot but have a detrimental effect on the Vatican, the papacy and the Church as a whole.
It is a truth of social communications that if an institution does not step in to provide a truthful and convincing official response to a relevant matter, particularly during a crisis, then others will fill the vacuum — and usually it will be those who shout the loudest, and may not always be sufficiently informed, who get heard.
It is therefore unsurprising that some in the Vatican perceive themselves as under frequent attack and often criticized. In the absence of creating an official and trustworthy narrative, the faithful cannot be blamed if they start to believe there isn’t one, and that the situation is perhaps as bad as it seems.