The year opened with a major shake-up in Vatican media — and another communications development that will likely be more important.
Jan. 1 was the last day on the job for Greg Burke, the director of the Holy See Press Office, and his deputy, Paloma Garcia Ovejero. Their joint resignations, with only a day’s notice, were clearly intended to signal their dissatisfaction with the direction of Vatican communications.
The immediate cause of their dissatisfaction would seem to be the appointment of Andrea Tornielli Dec. 18 as “editorial director” of the Dicastery for Communication, from which post he is to supervise the editorial direction of all Vatican media.
Tornielli, a longtime Italian vaticanista, has been something of an unofficial spokesman for Pope Francis; his most recent book was a lengthy response to the “testimony” of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, expressing the thinking of the Holy Father’s inner circle, even as the Pope himself has kept quiet.
The vast array of Vatican media — radio, television, news services — has been brought together under the new Dicastery of Communication as part of Pope Francis’ curial reforms. But the daily newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, and the Holy See Press Office remained outside of effective control of the new dicastery, reporting instead to the Secretariat of State.
On the same day that Tornielli was appointed, a new editor was installed at L’Osservatore Romano, over which Tornielli will have control. It appears that his new remit also includes the Holy See Press Office, an arrangement that neither Burke nor Garcia apparently found acceptable.
All the communications offices of the Vatican are now under a single central authority, guided in their editorial line by a reliable ally of Pope Francis. It would seem then that the Holy Father has more complete control over Vatican communications, with no competing center of authority in the Secretariat of State.
At the same time though, another significant development suggests that a new era in Vatican media may be dawning, one that gives no particular authority the capacity to control the flow of information.
The Associated Press published the letters that Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, sent to Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The leaked letters gave the reasons why the Vatican told the U.S. bishops not to vote on new measures dealing with sexual abuse and accountability at their November meeting.
While the content of the letters is important, more so is the fact that they were leaked. Unlike the press corps in various political capitals, the Vatican news beat does not usually involve leaks. There are plenty of off-the-record conversations, which journalists use to provide a more complete account than revealed in official statements alone. But actual leaked documents that contradict official statements are rare. Leaks give more control to those who do not possess official authority.
That’s why the “Vatileaks” of the last years of Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate caused more trauma in Rome than similar “WikiLeaks” in other political capitals. Such was the upheaval that many observers argued that it was a significant factor in Benedict’s abdication, though the Pope emeritus himself has explicitly rejected that explanation.
Leaks are part of the standard media culture in political coverage going back to early 1970s with the Pentagon Papers and before. A major Hollywood movie was even made about The Washington Post’s decision to publish the secret military documents that contradicted the official statements about the Vietnam War.
Leaks are a relatively new part of the Vatican news beat. And they can be significant.
The last major leak shaped the dominant Catholic news story of 2018, the conflagration of the Church in Chile.
The Holy Father’s disastrous visit to Chile last January is thought to have marked the turning point on the way to Pope Francis’ great reversal. He went from defending his bishop appointments in Chile and accusing his critics of calumny, to castigating those same bishops and having them offer their resignations en masse.
But the real turning point was an Associated Press story on the eve of the visit, which depended upon leaked letters from 2015 between the Chilean bishops and the Holy Father.
That story revealed that Pope Francis was very well-informed about the case of Bishop Juan Barros. In 2014, the apostolic nuncio in Chile was already attempting to get him to resign, which he agreed to do.
In early 2015, after Pope Francis transferred him to the Diocese of Osorno, the leadership of the Chilean bishops wrote an urgent letter to the Holy Father, begging him not to do it. Those letters undermined the credibility of the Pope, who had said for years that the critics of the Bishop Barros appointment were either “stupid” or “politically manipulated” or guilty of “calumny.” The leaked letters revealed that the Holy Father was in fact defying the advice given to him from the beginning of the matter.
Pope Francis attempted to continue his line of attack on his critics in Chile, even doubling down on accusing them of the grave sin of calumny, but the leaked letters made it unsustainable. By the end of visit, Pope Francis was publicly criticized by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the head of the papal commission on sexual abuse, and was forced to change course.
If the letters from 2014 and 2015 had been leaked at the time, three years of pain would have been spared in Chile, and the solution now adopted — to burn down the entire Chilean episcopate — would not have had to have been so severe.
Who leaks and why always remains in the shadows. We don’t know who leaked the Ouellet letters. Was it Cardinal Ouellet himself, seeking to correct what had been reported? Was it an official of the Congregation for Bishops, frustrated at the attacks on its decision to order the Americans to stand down? Was it Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, a member of that congregation, who tried to usurp Cardinal DiNardo at the November meeting, and would have an interest in weakening his position? Was it an official at the USCCB, who thought that Cardinal DiNardo’s account was not entirely true and so decided to become a whistleblower?
We won’t find that out, as we don’t know who leaked the explosive correspondence in the Barros affair. We also don’t know who will leak documents about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
The Vatican has promised to reviews its McCarrick files and share its findings. But the leak of Cardinal Ouellet’s letters makes it more likely that leaked documents will be as important in providing an accurate picture of what happened.
Whoever is in control of Vatican communications should keep that in mind when deciding what the agreed “editorial direction” should be.