All right, let’s switch the conversation up here.
The reactions are in, most very predictably focusing on Williamson and ignoring the complexities of the situation.
I’m going to try my best to stay out of the prediction business, but I think a realistic understanding of the issues and the people involved indicates that this is a long, long way from finished. SSPX adherents have varying attitudes towards the Church since Vatican II, and varying attitudes about the Popes since Pius XII, but there are enough of them at all levels whose stances range from “contemptuous disdain” to “heresy-hunting” to make any real rapprochement either very far in the future or having the consequence of splitting the movement and leadership.
What interests me more are three other issues:
- What this prompts in any Catholic’s thinking about his or her relationship to the Church. Is our motto, “diversity for me, but not for thee?” or perhaps even, “obedience for thee, but not for me?” Do we profess experiencing the vapors when others do what we’re doing, but in relationship to other issues?
- Our thinking on the Second Vatican Council. This became public, not only in the Week of Christian Unity, but on the 50th anniversary of John XXIII’s announcement of the Council. VERY significant. The Pope wants us all, on all sides, to reflect on the Council and consider what it was really about, the fruit, and where we can go from here.
- The miserable tragedy of Vatican public relations.
Things are not as bad as they could be, nor as bad as they used to be. But the folks in the Vatican, despite their website, radio, television and YouTube channel, are still not grasping the RAPIDITY of communications in the modern world and how intense and deep the dispersal of information is and what power the means of communications beyond traditional venues like wire agencies and such have in pushing stories and determining storylines.
We’ve talked about this before in relation to other issues – other documents and decisions. The Vatican releases it, maybe has a press conference with a few experts, Father Lombardi is available…and that’s it.
The first thing that needs to happen is to involve people who can anticipate reactions. Any of us reading this blog are qualified for that job. It should be blindingly clear, with Williamson doing his thing recently, as well as his history, that that was going to be the story. It would be the story, not just because of Williamson, but because Benedict is a German and already bears the burden of the caricature of being a hard-nosed hater of all that is modern.
The second thing to do is have a more intense PR presence totally available in Rome.
The third is to bring in the national churches. This is tricky because quite often those national churches and their episcopal conferences are not thrilled about what the Vatican is doing, or at the very least have no interest in it. Too bad. At this point, I don’t understand why there is not (at least why there doesn’t appear to be) an organized network in which heads of communications in the various local Churches are informed ahead of time what is coming down, given talking points and guidance, and told to make themselves available. This story is huge right not, whether it deserves to be or not, and if things were working correctly, the communications people from episcopal conferences would contact media outlets themselves, and said…doing a story? Contact us. We’re ready to explain and discuss.
This is a price worth paying, hopefully, for the sake of closing unnecessary divisions, but the price wouldn’t be nearly so steep if the Vatican had a better sense of how to do public relations in a controversial case like this. The average reporter or commentator isn’t going to understand the nuances of canon law, the history and background of the SSPX, the context of the excommunications, the status of these bishops post-excommunication, and so forth. What the average journalist does understand, though, is how to write this headline: “Pope Rehabilitates Holocaust-Denying Bishop.” And while the potential for bad publicity shouldn’t prevent the Vatican from showing mercy to excommunicants when appropriate, it should incentivize wrapping any such mercy in a forceful, detailed, “Catholicism and canon law for dummies” explanation of what such an action doesn’t mean: In this case, an endorsement of poisonous anti-semitism and conspiracy theorizing.
And this is exactly what hasn’t been forthcoming. Oh, the Papal spokesman said that Williamson’s Holocaust-denying remarks were “completely indefensible,” and L’Osservatore Romano had an editorial (not yet translated into English, of course) stating that the decision “should not be sullied with unacceptable revisionist opinions and attitudes with regard to the Jews.” But in the contemporary media environment, that’s not good enough. If the Pope de-excommunicates a Holocaust denier, the Vatican press office should be working around the clock, with press releases flying, to provide context and do damage control. What’s more, if the Pope de-excommunicates a Holocaust denier, the Pope himself needs to say something about it, and not just obliquely nod to the decision in his latest homily. Yes, the Church’s primary business is saving souls, not public relations – but in this day and age, public relations is part of the business of saving souls. And nobody in Rome, from Benedict on down, seems to have figured that out.