Friday, February 13, 2009

RE: Church PR and the SSPX "Kerfuffle" (w/ thanks to Fr. Zuhlsdorf for the term, 'kerfuffle' )


Not that he needs it, but go and pay him a visit at WDTPRS.

Now, I am assuming everyone agrees that the Vatican badly fumbled the handling of the Bp. Williamson affair.

The following observations are general - they are not meant to be directed at any individual. In fact, as Fr. Lombardi has said, the problem is cultural, and the failure systemic.

So, what follows is not an autopsy of the failure, but some unsystematic thoughts on the gravity of the situation, and (eventually) what I think are some elements of a broad vision of what needs to be done in order to avoid similar debacles in the future.

  1. First, regarding the gravity of the situation: it is very grave, indeed. The move to lift the excommunications of the SSPX bishops remains a laudable act of mercy on the part of the Holy Father and an important step in the healing of a deep wound in the Church's body. Peter's office exists for the unity of all Christians, and so Peter is duty-bound to work for the restoration of full communion. That said, the "PR aspect" of the situation created by the airing of Bp. Williamson's (+W) anti-semitic remarks just days before the announcement of the remission, and the Vatican's failure to foresee the inevitable reaction in the mainstream media (MsM), is not a matter of secondary importance. Indeed, it is of primary importance, even theologically.
    • When people receive a distorted image of the Church, and are revolted by the distorted image, they are driven away from the very source of the abundant life that all people constitutively crave - from the salvation that only She can offer. The more these distortions are reinforced, the harder it is for people to see the Church for what She truly is, and so the harder it is for them to reach Her. The stakes are infinitely valuable: human souls. The losses are eternal. When the Church does not do everything She can to present a true image of Herself, indeed, when her easily preventable failures in this regard provide the Enemy with amunition, the only word for it is scandal.
    • If it helps, think of it in terms of Trinitarian theology: God is essentially self-communication so perfectly loving that He eternally generates His Son, and from their perfection proceeds His Holy Spirit. Their mutual self-communication is so perfect as to be ineffably blessed unity of being in trinity of persons. God's self-communication is so great that it makes a whole universe and a creature, Man, to be in love with Him; He sends His Son to draw His creature into His perfection. The way this is accomplished - the way we are brought into this life, is incorporation through baptism, and the verb we use to indicate the act of participation in the Sacrament of this incorporation is "communication". The Church is the vehicle God uses to involve us in His self-communication.
I'll have more later. Please continue checking this entry today and through the weekend.

UPDATE: more regarding what there is to learn

  1. The dicastery responsible for the negotiations with the SSPX almost certainly knew of +W's positions vis à vis the holocaust (i.e. that he is a holocaust-denier), and certainly knew of certain currents of thought present to one degree or another among the membership of the SSPX (frankly, they are currents that are present in the broader membership of the Church, as well, and this is alarming, indeed as Pope Benedict XVI and all his recent predecessors have said repeatedly, unacceptable), the mildest of which are most charitably described as ambiguous. The good folks at PCED - and they have some very good people, starting with the President of the Commission, Dario Cardinal Castrillon-Hoyos, who is a courageous and extraordinarily capable Churchman - have been dealing with the SSPX for so long that they have become de-sensitized to them - someone described Williamson (and by extension, those of his ilk in the SSPX) as the "crazy uncle". I like the metaphor: if one lives with one's crazy uncle (I think of an Archie Bunker type, just in case this helps), one does get used to his rantings. This is why one's wife or mother, father or brother, or someone, anyone, really, in the family needs to be permanently on guard just to make sure one does not accidentally decide it would be a good idea to bring Uncle Harry to the Hunt Club membership dinner. The importance of this role being "in-house" cannot be emphasized too much. There is absolutely nothing wrong per se with the inward-lookingness of a given dicastery - indeed, the institutional capacity to grind on, heedless of the outside world is often a necessary one; the problems are created when there is no one on staff at PCED (or any other dicastery, for that matter) specifically and explicitly tasked with thinking about the potential PR pitfalls - and teaching opportunities - in each and every decision, major and minor.
    • At present, the Sala Stampa is responsible for managing announcements like the remission of the SSPX bishops' excommunication. Here is what the folks there needed to supply: (1) a clear, concise statement explaining what the lifting of an excommunication does, and does not do - it does mean people can regularly go to confession and receive communion in any Catholic Church, while it does not in any way, shape or form "rehabilitate" the person from whose shoulders the penalty is lifted (1a) a person on hand from Legislative Texts to answer questions from the press corps - ideally the person would be a lawyer with experience explaining canonical concepts to the uninitiated (2) a clear, concise, written statement explaining that the Holy Father and the Congregation for Bishops were aware of +W's holocaust denial, and were lifting the excommunication despite his scandalous positions, because of considerations having entirely to do with the internal order and discipline of the Church, and that (2a) +W would never, ever, under any circumstances have any role of responsibility within the Church (2b) a clear, concise statement from the Director of the Press Office reiterating the Church's abhorrence and repudiation of anti-semitism in all its forms (2c) a one page summary with the "money quotes" condemning anti-semitism from the last 6 popes (2d) a larger Press Packet with lenghtier excerpts from Papal and magisterial pronouncements on the same subject.
    • The above would not have been able to stop all the lies and distortions. It would, however, have created a record to which both Church representatives and other, more responsible journalists could point and turn for clarification. Said simply, it would have given the Church control of the record, thereby obviating the need for the Her to correct the record.
  2. Basically, in order to complement the necessarily inward-looking staff that deal with the sorts of things for which a given dicastery exists within the Curial universe, every dicastery needs to have people on staff to look outward, and help the decision-makers craft their messages. The Press Office needs to be pro-active, demonstrating a desire to be open, clear, straightforward and helpful in parsing the often complex and unfamiliar language of official statments, documents and acts- the PO also needs to let it be known throughout the corps that those who treat the Pope and the Holy See fairly will get scoops every once in awhile; in the vision that is beginning to take shape in my head of what Vatican communications might be, I am imagining the Press Office in the role of PR coordinator anong the various dicasteries, as well.

3 comments:

Clayton said...

Well said. I like the connection with Trinitarian theology.

Lazy Disciple said...

Many thanks, Clayton. I'm just getting started.

LD

Clayton said...

There is absolutely nothing wrong per se with the inward-lookingness of a given dicastery - indeed, the institutional capacity to grind on, heedless of the outside world is often a necessary one; the problems are created when there is no one on staff at PCED (or any other dicastery, for that matter) specifically and explicitly tasked with thinking about the potential PR pitfalls - and teaching opportunities - in each and every decision, major and minor.

That's an interesting observation. It have noticed that some dioceses have a similar problem. It's a very critical role.