“Smart move.” That’s how many loyal Catholics reacted to the
announcement that the Vatican had hired a veteran American newsman as a
consultant to grapple with its communication problems.
In many respects, the reaction was correct. As an experienced professional with Fox News and Time,
and a serious Catholic, Greg Burke is an excellent choice for a tough
assignment. (Disclosure: he’s also an old friend.) But the question
remains: Will he be permitted to do the job? Neither Burke nor anyone
else can be of much help to the Roman Curia unless it’s open to being
Goodness knows the Vatican needs PR assistance. Recent disasters
have included an embarrassing series of leaked documents, seemingly
evidence of serious conflict within the Curia (the Pope’s butler is said
to have purloined the documents but few believe that he’s the only one
involved); the unceremonious sacking of the Vatican bank head amid a
jarring torrent of personal abuse; and fumbled communication about
apparently snarled negotiations with the Lebebvrist Society of St. Pius
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. As anyone even casually
familiar with the situation realizes, the underlying problems in Rome go
deeper and have existed for years.
Burke is eminently well qualified to tell his new employers what the
problems are and what should be done. What isn’t so clear is whether
they’ll listen and act.
During three decades spent directing public relations at the
national and international levels for several Catholic organizations
including the American bishops’ conference, I found that people at the
top not infrequently imagine that good public relations is a matter of
technique. Push a couple of buttons, do a little tweaking here and
there, and beholdyour previously tarnished image will glow.
Good technique is certainly important in communication, but seldom
are problems like the Vatican’s only or mainly failures of technique.
Instead they’re problems of attitude and philosophy. In the case of the
Vatican, the difficulties tend to be the bitter fruit of an entrenched
clericalist culture linked to a similarly entrenched reliance on secrecy
as a routine management tool. The result is a counterproductive
approach to communication and media that lies far beyond correction
simply by tweaking and technique.
Often, too, communication problems get blamed on the media: “The
journalists are out to get us.” In fact, some reporters really are
hostile to the Church, as are some news organizations. But most
professional journalists, including many personally at odds with
Catholic views, want only to do a good job according to the standards of
their profession, which means getting facts straight and correctly
explaining what they mean. Where these men and woman are concerned, the
explanation that “They’re out to get us” is neither fair nor helpful.
It’s a non-explanation that impedes solutions instead of encouraging
All that said, it must be added that there are many good, dedicated
people in the Vatican. One can only imagine how badly theyto say
nothing of Pope Benedict himselfhave been hurt by the recent
shenanigans. A serious effort to understand the underlying causes of
what’s happened as well as the more immediate ones would be a service to
them as well as to the rest of the Church.
Greg Burke has what it takes to give the Curia good advice. But the
problems run deep, and for Burke’s expertise to matter, he needs total,
unflinching support from the topfrom the Pope himself. Unless it’s
forthcoming (and here’s hoping it is) don’t look for much improvement.