A Papal PR Problem?

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Despite its institutional torpor in the waning days of John Paul II's papacy, the Vatican could still keep a secret. Trusted insiders like the Pope's personal secretary Mons. Stanislaw Dziwisz and his press spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls (as well as several key Cardinals) did remarkably well at keeping the Curia speaking with one voice even as the pontiff grew ever weaker.

Seven months into Benedict XVI's papacy, however, some Vatican watchers have noticed that the Vatican PR machine is not exactly purring along. Tuesday's official release of the Vatican's long-awaited document reinforcing a ban on gays from the priesthood concludes a messy chapter on how not to do damage control.

After the New York Times reported in September that the languishing document was being pushed to the top of the new Pope's agenda, there had been a steady flow of leaks to Italian news outlets capped off last week when a progressive Catholic newswire posted the entire paper on its website. The controversial and carefully worded document is just the sort of news story the Vatican prefers to land in one fell swoop, launching desired changes internally while minimizing the duration of the public reverberations. Instead, the new "instruction" from the Congregation for Catholic Education has remained in the news for weeks, with flip-flopping interpretations that managed neither to limit criticism nor to clearly articulate the pontiff's purpose. And that, despite some optimistic interpretations by progressive Catholics, seems to be to sound a loud "No" to new gays entering the priesthood, with the caveat that defining who is a homosexual is not always a simple task.

The gays-in-the-priesthood saga was not the first troublesome episode of poorly managed information flows from the Curia since Benedict took over. Most notably, a leaked version of the Vatican's reaction to the July 7 terror attacks in London erroneously included the Pope using the highly charged phrase "anti-Christian" to describe the bombing. Several sources have traced the incorrect draft to Secretary of State Angelo Sodano's office. Navarro-Valls, who reportedly is at odds with Sodano, is still running the press office, but is less and less visible. Meanwhile, Benedict himself doesn't seem particularly preoccupied with playing to the mass media. Some Vatican officials have expressed growing frustration that there has not been a predicted major shakeup in the top Church hierarchy. Perhaps further leaks to the media will prompt an end to Benedict's heavenly patience.