Were bishops – and the Vatican – blindsided by the pope’s interview?

As the dust slowly begins to settle from last week’s papal interview earthquake, complaints have begun to surface from bishops and other Church officials about what they perceive as a lack of communication regarding the interview’s release. Many Vatican communication officials knew nothing about the interview until they had to field media inquiries from reporters after its publication, according to John Allen:

In an especially juicy irony, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Social Communications – arguably, its primary think tank for communications strategy – was conducting its plenary assembly last Thursday, the day the interview appeared, and virtually no one taking part had any idea it was coming. …

In the middle of a working session, participants in the plenary assembly suddenly found themselves distracted by vibrations and alerts on their iPhones and BlackBerrys as news of the interview broke. …

Most senior Vatican officials, including some of its top communications personnel, also did not have advance notice. That’s especially striking given that CiviltÀ Cattolica enjoys semi-official status and is typically read by the Vatican’s Secretariat of State prior to publication.

In this case, however, editors reportedly decided that since they had direct papal approval of the text, there was no need to pass the interview through the normal channels.

Speaking on background, some bishops who happened to be in Rome last week expressed irritation that a handful of secular media outlets apparently had advance copies of the interview, but not them.

One prelate told NCR that he began getting phone calls from reporters seeking comment on Thursday, before he even knew that an interview existed, and felt ambushed.

Allen points out the near-impossibility of distributing advance copies to the world’s 5,000 or so bishops without having parts of the interview leaked, which could have led to even more out-of-context quotations and highly misleading early media reports.

Our Sunday Visitor publisher Greg Erlandson was at the plenary assembly in Rome last week when the news broke, and describes the scene:

It appears that hardly any bishops had a head’s up that this was coming. News organizations had advance copies that were embargoed. That means that they promised not to publish anything before 11 a.m. EDT.

The result is that at roughly 11:10, the news alerts started coming: CNN Breaking news alert: “Pope Francis says religion does not have the right to interfere spiritually in the lives of gays and lesbians.” New York Times news alert: “Pope Bluntly Faults Church’s Focus on Gays and Abortion.”

And as quick as you can say “Gotcha,” bishops and communications directors were suddenly fielding interview requests for a story they had not seen and were unprepared for.

Erlandson concludes: “Communications is tough these days, but self-inflicted wounds are really inexcusable. And even with a sense of humor, such self-inflicted wounds still make one want to cry.”

Father James Martin, SJ, who serves as editor-at-large for America, tweeted earlier today: “Since people were curious: Key USCCB officials and bishops, and the Vatican spokesperson, were given advanced notice of our papal interview.” America’s editor-in-chief, Father Matt Malone, SJ, also used Twitter to thank “the messengers & USPS who got early copies of the interview to key Bishops, officials & peers in the Catholic Press.”

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About Catherine Harmon 577 Articles
Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.