The Vatican Unsure How To Plug WikiLeak

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Francis X. Rocca
Religion News Service

VATICAN CITY (RNS) A U.S. diplomat’s confidential analysis of Vatican communication failures, recently published as part of the latest WikiLeaks release, highlights the unique challenges facing an ancient and traditionally secretive institution in the age of the Internet.

The cable was written amid heated controversy over Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to readmit an ultra-traditionalist bishop who turned out to be a public Holocaust denier. Benedict himself has called the move a mistake and a failure in “public relations.”

The Vatican lacks any “comprehensive communication strategy,” wrote Julieta Valls Noyes, the No. 2 official at the U.S. embassy to the Holy See in a February 2009 cable back to Washington.

Noyes characterized the Vatican’s approach to public relations as a “hit-or-miss proposition,” and said “decision making” is divorced from “public spin.” The result, she wrote, is that the “church’s message is often unclear.”

Events over the intervening two years show that not much has changed.

Last month, the official Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano published advance excerpts from a new book-length interview with Benedict, including remarks that seemed to indicate that condoms — long condemned by Catholic teaching — might sometimes be justified to
prevent the spread of disease.

The condom issue eclipsed all other news coverage of the 256-page book, in which the pope touches on a vast range of spiritual and worldly topics.

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the pope’s official spokesman, was blindsided by the newspaper’s coverage. Deluged with questions, he issued a statement the following day, and later tried to clarify the issue at a press conference. But Benedict himself has remained mum on the subject since then, and interpretations of his words remain highly controversial — and unclear.

“Leadership weaknesses at the top” also factor prominently in Noyes’ analysis.

Though the U.S. envoy alludes to faults in “Pope Benedict’s governing style,” most of her specific criticisms — attributed to Vatican sources whose identities have been concealed in the published version of the cable — are aimed at the Vatican’s No. 2 official, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the secretary of state.

Noting Bertone’s propensity for gaffes in speaking with the press, Noyes also points out his “lack of diplomatic experience” or foreign language skills.

“Bertone is considered a ‘yes man,”‘ who fails to bring “dissenting views to the pope’s attention,” she writes, adding that “not a few voices are calling for Cardinal Bertone’s removal from his current position.”

Vatican officials have no doubt found the exposure of such internal dissent acutely embarrassing. But as Noyes’s cable makes clear, the Holy See is far less vulnerable to a WikiLeaks expose than the U.S. government.

For one thing, the Vatican is much less dependent on digital communications, which can easily be reproduced or leaked, than the U.S. State Department. This is, after all, an institution that still produces official documents in Latin.

“Most of the top ranks of the Vatican — all men, generally in their 70s — do not understand modern media and new information technologies,” the American diplomat writes. “The BlackBerry-using Father Lombardi remains an anomaly in a culture in which many officials do not even have official e-mail accounts.”

More significantly, the internal back-and-forth correspondence that WikiLeaks is designed to disrupt is the sort of communication that the Vatican lacks most, in Noyes’ analysis.

As WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange explained to Time magazine last month, his leaks are intended to make “abusive” organizations “lock down internally and to balkanize,” and thus “cease to be as efficient as they were.”

But the Vatican as portrayed in Noyes’ cable is already a model of balkanization and inefficiency. Its decentralized decision making, she writes, stifles “horizontal communication by eliminating peer consultation and review (and) encourages a narrow focus on issues at the
expense of the big picture.”

One informed observer finds this part of the leaked cable’s analysis far more damning than its litany of public relations slip-ups.

“The gaffes were merely a consequence of the short circuit in communication inside the Vatican,” noted Massimo Franco, author of “Parallel Empires,” a history of U.S.-Vatican relations. Noyes’ comments have clearly touched a “raw nerve” at the Holy See, Franco said.

Ironically, the American diplomat’s assessment concludes that the leadership of the Catholic Church might actually benefit from just the sort of disclosures that are now causing the U.S. government so much grief.

“Under Pope John Paul II leaks were much more common,” Noyes writes, paraphrasing a source whose name has been redacted. “While damaging, those leaks did allow time for critics of pending decisions to mobilize and present opposing views to the pope in time.”

The source notes that “Pope Benedict and Cardinal Bertone run a much tighter ship … but at the expense of squashing coordination or allow (sic) dissenting voices to be heard.”

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