“We didn’t control the communications,” lamented Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Jesuit priest who heads the Vatican press office.
That was putting it mildly.
By now the whole world knows ”” or thinks it knows ”” the story behind Father Lombardi’s lament. On Jan. 24, Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunications of four bishops from a traditionalist group known as the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). Within hours of that announcement it emerged that one of those prelates, Bishop Richard Williamson, had questioned the severity of the Holocaust during a recent television interview. Jewish leaders and editorial writers erupted in understandable outrage, and what began as an effort to heal a rift within the church became an ugly public dispute.
Even today, more than a month after the original announcement, many people have not heard the Vatican’s side of the story. How can this be?
In an age of instant global access, when every blogger has a vehicle for his own opinions, no institution ”” from the White House to the Vatican ”” can “control the communications” entirely. The challenge of conveying a positive message is especially acute for the Catholic Church, though, as it must cope with a media culture that often is hostile to traditional expressions of religious belief. Even so, there is no reason why the Vatican cannot learn from this while employing the elementary techniques of public-relations management.