There are rumours on a German traditionalist blog that Fr Federico Lombardi, the Pope’s communications chief, will stand down after the Pope’s Holy Land trip in May. I have no idea if they are true. But I do know that, whatever the Jesuit’s limitations, the Pope’s communications problem is not Fr Lombardi.
The key problem under Pope Benedict XVI is that Fr Lombardi is not part of his decision-making cabinet. The exact opposite prevailed under John Paul II: former comms director Joaquin Navarro-Valls was one of the key papal advisers -- to the constant annoyance of the Secretariat of State.
With Benedict XVI’s election and the retirement of Navarro-Valls, the notoriously clunky and out-of-touch State -- which best exemplifies the managerial culture panned by George Weigel in an interesting new essay, ’The Pope versus the Vatican’, in Standpoint - moved to reassert its traditional role as executor of the papal will. With Communications relegated to a technical, transmission-belt function, the consequences, time after time, have been disastrous, as curial departments have marched the Pope into the PR disaster zone and left him there, leaving Fr Lombardi to arrive on the scene late and out of breath.
As Weigel notes:
"Fr Federico Lombardi SJ, Navarro-Valls’s successor, was sadly unprepared for the informal press briefing he gave the day the story [about Bishop Williamson] broke, because he hadn’t been brought into whatever deliberations there had been about lifting the Lefebvrist excommunications."
I met Fr Lombardi in 2007, and he was clearly struggling back then to have a voice in the decision-making process. I have grown more and more sorry for him since. Communications is not what you do with the policy. In the Church, above all, it IS the policy; and in Pope Benedict, who is a brilliant conceptual communicator, it is also the man.
If -- after Regensburg, Maciel, Bishop Williamson and countless other eruptions great and small -- Pope Benedict does not realise by now that communications must be part of his decision-making, then he is not as innocent of these disasters as Weigel claims. If he does realise, and is unable to do anything about it, then he is a prisoner of the Vatican.
If neither of these statements is true, Fr Lombardi will soon be brought into the papal decision-making process -- and Catholics can stop apologising for their Church’s communications disasters. But if the blogs are right, and Fr Lombardi is to stand down, then I fear he is being scapegoated for ills which lie deep in the heart of the Vatican Curia. We shall see.