The essay on sexual abuse by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI merits attention for its analysis of the ecclesial and cultural trends that led to the sexual abuse crisis. But the manner of the essay’s publication also illuminates the current compromised state of Catholic media.
Columnist Ross Douthat of the The New York Times wrote that “portions of the document were edifying, but there was little edifying in its reception. It was passed first to conservative Catholic outlets, whose palpable Benedict nostalgia was soon matched by fierce criticism from Francis partisans.”
Indeed the increasingly partisan nature of the Catholic press, combined with the tattered credibility of the Vatican own’s media, explains why Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI released his essay in such a strange way.
The essay, written in German, was consigned to a small journal in Bavaria for priests, a rather unusual place for an essay that would be of global interest. At the same time, the essay, rather expertly translated into English, was made available to various English outlets friendly to Benedict.
Not only was it not released through official Vatican channels, it appears that it took Vatican media organs by surprise when it was released. (Benedict wrote that he had “contacted” Pope Francis about his essay, but not that the Holy Father had approved its publication.)
Why might Benedict and his household have chosen to release the essay in that manner?
The first problem is that Vatican communications have proven dishonest, to Benedict’s own particular pain. It was just 13 months ago that the then chief of Vatican communications, Mgr Dario Viganò (no relation to Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò) misled the Vatican press corps about a letter of Benedict, complete with a doctored photo of the letter. Viganò was spinning a tale about Benedict praising the theological sophistication of Pope Francis, which he had declined to do.
Viganò resigned after his mendacities were revealed but Pope Francis re-appointed him – the same day – as a senior deputy in the same Vatican department of communications.
More broadly, Vatican communications has had a rough year since Viganò’s deception. In December, Pope Francis approved the removal of L’Osservatore Romano’s editor-in-chief and the installation of a dedicated partisan, Andrea Tornielli, to provide “editorial direction” to all Vatican communications. This was followed by the resignation of the papal spokesman, Gregory Burke, and his deputy, Paloma García Ovejero. More recently, the entire editorial staff of the Women Church World supplement of L’Osservatore Romano resigned. Those who work inside Vatican communications lack confidence in it; it would be rather much to ask Benedict to trust it.
Given that Pope Francis considered doctoring a text by Pope Emeritus Benedict to be, at best, a minor offence, is it at all surprising that Benedict would not entrust his essay to Mgr Viganò’s department? Who knows what changes Viganò might make and pass off as the original? Indeed, only a foolish Benedict would give Viganò and company another chance to manipulate him.
It was also wise to ensure that a reliable English translation was ready to go immediately. Had the essay been released only in German, its initial reception would have been shaped in an environment dominated by the well-funded German bishops’ communications presence. The German bishops’ website, katholisch.de, did indeed criticise the essay, but a global audience did not have to rely on the German reaction, given that the document was widely available in English.
Commenting on the negative coverage of the essay, former Vatican doctrinal chief Cardinal Gerhard Müller said: “It is brutal when in the name of the bishops – and on a website funded by them – such obscene articles are being commissioned which demean personalities like Benedict XVI as not even the most ignorant enemies of the Church would venture to do it, for, they still have more respect and decency.
“Our progressivists have, after throwing overboard the sexual morality, also lost the commandment to love one’s neighbour. It is naked hatred that is here given a platform. I hope that bishops will exercise their responsibility, in order to implement a change of course of this platform or otherwise to end the abusive use of Church taxes.”
When a German cardinal says that about the German bishops’ news service, it is safe to conclude that it would be foolish to address the universal Church through the medium of the German Catholic media. And Benedict is no fool.
Why did Benedict employ the means that he did to release his essay? Because he knows that neither those in Rome nor in Germany are trustworthy.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca