By now, the news that Pope Francis on Wednesday accepted the resignation of the Prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communication, Msgr. Dario Edoardo Viganò, has made the rounds. The resignation came in the wake of a major scandal and outcry over Viganò’s mishandling and misuse of a letter from the Pope-emeritus, Benedict XVI, as part of Viganò’s efforts to promote a series of books on The Theology of Pope Francis. Several questions remain, however, regarding the project of reform Viganò was tapped to direct, and regarding the broader project of reform in the Roman Curia.
The controversy and scandal that led to Viganò’s resignation unfolded all throughout last week, through the weekend, and into the first part of this week, as details emerged, and an already messy story became almost surreal and sordid.
Viganò, in his resignation letter, wrote:
In these recent days, a great deal of polemical discussion has arisen regarding my work, which, quite apart from my intentions, destabilizes the great and complex labor of reform with which you entrusted me in June of 2015 and that now sees, thanks to the contributions of a great many persons starting with the personnel, the completion of the final stage.
Pope Francis responded to Msgr. Viganò’s letter with one of his own, in which he accepted the Prefect’s resignation “not without difficulty” and asked Viganò to stay on with the Secretariat in a new capacity: “Assessor” to the Dicastery, “so that [he] might give [his] human and professional contribution to the new Prefect, to the project of reform desired by the Council of Cardinals, approved by me and regularly shared.” The Holy Father went on to write, “The reform has now reached the final stage with the imminent fusion of L’Osservatore Romano into the single communicative system of the Holy See and the absorption of the Vatican Typography.”
Issues of syntax aside — the sentence was a clunker in the original Italian — the affirmations it contains raise at least as many questions as they answer.
To start, why is Viganò being kept around at all? At best, his presence will be a nuisance to the new Prefect, whoever he is (though my nickel is on Bishop Paul Tighe, who was in to see the Holy Father on Thursday of last week, the day the story now dubbed “Lettergate” really began to go sideways for Viganò). At worst, he will “retard, damage, or even block” the reform — precisely the things Viganò said in his letter he wishes to avoid by his resignation — just by being there. In any case, the decision to make him an Assessor — whatever that is — does not seem to respect Viganò’s wish to “step back” and “step out of the way” so work can proceed, nor does it seem to accord, therefore, with the Holy Father’s acceptance of the resignation. Perhaps the appointment is designed to be temporary, meant to last only as long as absolutely necessary to bring the new head up to speed. That could have been accomplished without an official appointment to an ad hoc position.
Another noteworthy and frankly perplexing turn-of-phrase in the Pope’s letter is the one that speaks of “the project of reform desired by the Council of Cardinals” and only approved by the Pope. Almost from get-go, the leadership of the Secretariat for Communication has told staffers — of which I was one — that the reform they were enacting was “the Pope’s reform” and “the reform desired by the Pope”. Is the Pope distancing himself from the reform project, now that the man he chose to head it has resigned?
It does not sound like it, with all the talk of the reform’s being in its final stage, but there is no telling, especially since, “The great dedication,” and effort Msgr. Viganò has
poured out in recent years in the new Dicastery with the style of open and willing exchange of ideas [It. disponibile confronto] and docility that [Viganò] was able to demonstrate among collaborators and the organisms of the Roman Curia, has made clear that the reform of the Church is not primarily a problem of organizational charts but rather the acquisition of a spirit of service.
I’ve been reading curialese for nearly two decades now, and this letter might just take the cake.
It is not that it says nothing. Saying nothing is easy, and par for the course in Curial discourse. Its great achievement is in that it seems to say — in as literal a translation as comprehension will admit — everything, and also the opposite of everything. In Italian: Tutto, e il contrario di tutto. It seems to say the reform is in its final stage and can’t be stopped now, and also the specific shape of the reform doesn’t matter. It seems to acknowledge that Viganò’s leadership has been ineffective, and then praises Viganò’s leadership style (and so in frankly improbable terms, but leave that aside).
Taken in its whole complex, the letter from Pope Francis seems to say that Viganò must go, and also stay.
In any case, shortly after the news of Viganò’s resignation broke on Wednesday, the go-betweens for the SpC staff and the nocturnal council calling the shots from the SpC head office at via della conciliazione #5, called a meeting for 1pm at the building that used to be the headquarters of The Thing That Used To Be Vatican Radio, Palazzo Pio. The nutshell version of their message for staffers was: this changes nothing.
Time will tell, but there are at least two reasons to believe the reform of Vatican communications will continue apace, hence that things will get worse before they ever have a chance to get better. The first is that the real problems with Vatican communications are not located in the communications organs, nor have they ever been. The real problems are in the dicasteries and woven into the fabric of Roman curial culture.
The dicasteries — not just the new one for communication — are stepping stones for the ranking prelates who run them, especially for those who want to trade a purple hat for a red one. Msgr. Viganò’s was a particularly garish case-in-point, not only because he wanted a red hat and did not even have a purple one to trade yet, but also — indeed, primarily — because the whole embarrassing fiasco never would have happened had he not been so eager to boost his own stock, that he was willing not only to try and get Benedict to dance for his successor, but when he couldn’t was desperate enough to try and sell a Punch and Judy show for the real thing.
Pope Francis is right when he says that what is needed is a “spirit of service” in the Curia. The thing is, he will not get that spirit, or even create the conditions in which such a spirit (should he or anyone else happen to catch it) will ever be able to become the active principle of curial work, without destroying the bureaucracy as it exists — and that will leave the whole Church without the necessary machinery of governance. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: it is one thing to undertake the reform of bureaucracy, and quite another to undertake the reform of bureaucrats. Confusing the tasks leads to chaos, and so by a very much shorter route than anyone in such a confused state realizes.
To change the communications culture in the Vatican is perhaps feasible. It would, however, require creating communications staffs and budgets within each of the dicasteries. The heads of the communications staffs — ideally lay persons of long experience and significant accomplishment — would have to meet regularly and frequently with each other, and monthly with the dicastery heads all together. More importantly, the communications heads would have to be in the room, both literally and figuratively. They would need to be part of decision-making processes. They would need to have a free hand to work their work, and that would in turn require a commodity more rare and precious than gold in the Vatican: trust.
I’m sorry to say I’m not holding my breath.
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