Pope Benedict XVI has left the scene and I want briefly to look at his performance as a communicator. A past anecdote may be instructive here. I worked in communications with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) for four years in the early 1990s. Those were not easy days for the church. Issues regarding the sexual abuse of children by clerics and the church’s role in residential schools were becoming hot topics and causing great angst. I recall asking one of the bishops if we should do some public opinion polling. He was amused and replied, “Bishops don’t ask for advice, they provide it.”
When Benedict succeeded Pope John Paul II in 2005, much was made of their different personalities. John Paul had been widely hailed as a great communicator while Benedict was considered to be more cerebral and introverted. John Paul was indeed a charismatic man but his communication was mostly all one way. He believed, as popes and bishops have over the centuries, that they are the repository of God’s wisdom and it is their duty to share it with the rest of us.
In that fundamental way, there was virtually no difference between the two popes. Now, on the threshold of a new papacy, we are being told that we should not expect the message to change, no matter who is elevated. Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto likes to say that Moses did not descend from the mountain with Ten Suggestions in hand. The church’s message apparently is fixed. What is at stake in communicating that message is not a change in substance but rather in the style of delivery.
Pope Benedict made a series of breathtaking communications blunders during his tenure. Some commentators assumed the reason was that he was too bookish and not worldly enough. This seemed an odd conclusion about someone who had spent decades as John Paul’s enforcer against liberal theologians and anyone else suspected of straying from Catholic orthodoxy. I wondered, and still do, whether Benedict received any decent communications advice, or if, perhaps, he believed that a pope does not need any such advice.
In a university lecture in September 2006, Benedict quoted from a 14th century Byzantine emperor who said this about Islam: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” When news of these remarks spread, it caused widespread anger, even riots and some deaths in the Muslim world. The pope appeared surprised and distraught and the Vatican said that he had been misinterpreted. Later, he offered a qualified apology.
While on a trip to Africa in March 2009, Benedict told journalists that condoms were not the answer to the continent’s fight against HIV and AIDS and could even make the problem worse. His comments caused widespread outrage. A year and a half later, Benedict retreated subtly from that position, telling an interviewer that in some limited cases the use of condoms might be morally justified where the intent is to prevent the transmission of disease rather than to prevent pregnancy – an odd, if not impossible distinction.
Also in 2009, Benedict lifted excommunications on four schismatic bishops who belonged to the ultra-conservative Saint Pius X Society, which had been founded as a protest against the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council. One of the four was British Bishop Richard Williamson, who had told a Swedish television interviewer that Nazi gas chambers didn’t exist and Jewish deaths during World War II did not exceed 300,000. Jewish people and groups were offended and again the pope tried to mend fences, this time by making a clear statement against anti-Semitism during a trip to Israel.
Then, the Vatican announced in 2009 that it would welcome dissident Anglicans into the Catholic church. These were traditionalists unhappy with their church over its decision to ordain women and gays. Rome agreed that it would accept as priests (on a one-by-one basis) those Anglican clergy who wished to become Catholics, even if they were married — a status that the Vatican staunchly opposes for its own priests. This move looked decidedly like poaching and it blind-sided Anglican Primate Rowan Williams, who was scheduled to attend events in Rome shortly after the announcement. The move also came as a complete surprise to German Cardinal Walter Kasper, who was ostensibly in charge of the church’s relations with Anglicans. So much for ecumenism.
It may be, as seasoned Vatican watchers say, that the Vatican civil service is too riddled by infighting and dysfunction to provide good advice. It may be that Pope Benedict was too unworldly, but behind each of these communications gaffes one is left with the discomfiting suspicion that there was also some intent.
What appears to be a communications problem actually cloaks a way of thinking and and the governance that arises from it. The esteemed American historian Garry Wills, who is also a knowledgeable Catholic, says that popes once ruled as absolute monarchs. When that status was taken away from them by the rise of nation states in the 19th century, Wills says popes attempted to establish a “moral monarchy.” In 1870, Pope Pius IX called a Vatican council that formally declared him and succeeding popes to be infallible. “A gift for eternal truths is as dangerous as the gift of Midas’s touch,” Will writes. “The pope cannot undo the eternal truths he has proclaimed.”
Pope Paul VI, for example, appointed an expert commission of Catholics to reconsider the church’s teaching on birth control. They advised that they could not find grounds to defend the existing position. But Wills says Vatican officials convinced the pope that he could not possibly change the teaching after so many years of the church’s telling people that using contraceptives was a sin. What would happen to his moral authority if he were to say that? Paul VI not only refused his commission’s recommendation; he issued an encyclical in 1968 reaffirming the church’s ban on birth control. Then, as now, there appears to be little room for reinterpretation or nuance in church teaching.
Made for television
Pope Benedict’s resignation and the process for elevating his successor have attracted massive and generally uncritical media coverage. The choosing of a new pope is, like royal weddings, football games or natural disasters, an event made for television. There is a great visual backdrop in St. Peter’s square, along with drama, pageantry, intrigue, a contest and the guarantee of a clear winner. For the next several weeks, normally hard-bitten television hosts and reporters will nod sagely when spokespersons put up by the church insist that the Holy Spirit will ensure the cardinals choose just the right man among them to lead the church and that God will then continue to guide him in making the right choices for all of us.
This is a communications strategy born in heaven but one wonders how well it can work on the ground.