If you are waiting for the Vatican to make clear, immediate and transparent responses to the ongoing global sexual abuse crisis ... well, don't hold your breath, two Vatican experts said Monday at a media seminar.
Neither can you expect anything to come from the 30 minutes or so that the world's cardinals will address this topic, among five topics on their agenda at their business meeting in Rome on Friday.
The frankly grim visions of Vatican structure and function -- in crisis moments and daily governance of a church of 1.2 billion people -- came from George Weigel, biographer of Pope John Paul II and author of numerous books on the Church and John Allen, the National Catholic Reporter Vatican specialist for 15 years and a biographer of Pope Benedict XVI.
They agreed there is, essentially, no media strategy, no war room, no one with a handle on reforming communications or, worse, reforming the governing structure itself.
They spoke to reporters and columnists at this week's Faith Angle conference sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center on how the media has covered the 2002 explosion of the abuse crisis in the USA and the Spring 2010 sweep of the crisis across Europe.
Vatican officials, Weigel said, "can appear to be dissembling or disinterested when there is no well-formed intent to deceive, they just don't know what's going on," said Weigel. And their default position -- no story is a good story -- "is completely dumb."He bluntly reminded the media that the pope is not a monarch, the bishops are not "branch managers," that he can appoint them but, realistically, he can't dump them for incompetence or malfeasance.
The Vatican's internal system of information is so antiquated that Pope Benedict XVI was blindsided by the failure of his staff to discover the common knowledge on the Internet that the renegade prelate he wanted to reel back into the church, Bishop Richard Williamson, was "a world class lunatic," said Weigel."
Weigel's answers: "The Vatican communications debacle has to end" and the Church must find a way to dump bad bishops, which he called, "...the single biggest management problem in the church today... and the single biggest fix that can affect the life of the Church."
Allen echoed Weigel's' points and added the obvious problem of the culture gap between the Americans and the Italian-dominated Vatican. Americans expect leaders to pounce on problems, "act and act now" but the Vatican culture is one of ruminating, often for years, simmering and studying and, in some corners of the curia (the church government in Rome) fretting about conspiracies.
Allen walked through the most controversial cases Benedict had a hand in when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and confronting the abuse crisis. The argument by supporters of Benedict is that he was the reformer who read every vile case of clerical abuse of a minor and kick started the church's response, finally, between 2001 and 2003.
But, says Allen, "If you want to say Benedict is the reformer, you have to explain the opposition he faced in the Vatican, what he did to overcome other officials and what those others did wrong. They have no way in their culture, no vocabulary, for saying anything critical about each other."This governance mess is why a great teaching pope's legacy -- brilliant speeches, letters and books -- could be lost in coverage of the schoolhouse on fire, he said. Allen concluded, "The papacy is adrift and has been for a long time...(It is) a papacy defined by its train wrecks."
Allen quoted a favorite Italian newspaper headline printed after the Vatican took 19 days to debunk a false rumor: "The Vatican denies everything. No one believes it."
Thus the irony. When Ratzinger was elected pope, some in the media, including USA TODAY, revived the image of him as John Paul II's enforcer, as the Rottweiler. Said Weigel: "It turns out he's not a Rottweiler after all. People thought he would dramatically reform the Roman curia and that turns out to be an inadequate expectation. I think he thought he would die soon, so he would focus on what he knew best and leave the institutional rebuilding to the next guy."
And when that day comes, Weigel and Allen agreed, expect a long, long conclave as the cardinals look among themselves for someone with a demonstrated track record of managerial talent in the Vatican swamp.
While Benedict seems likely to be pope for years to come, what qualities would you want to see in his successor? Does the Church need a theologian with a CEO set of skills?