Friday, 16 July 2010

Vatican PR machine hoist by its own petard

According to Andrew Brown it was a "Vatican PR disaster". Damian Thompson, who one suspects would like to be Ratzinger's chief spokesman himself (a role he has long fulfilled, after all, in a voluntary capacity) was typically splenetic about the Rome-based functionaries who, yet again, Let Benedict Down. "If I’d been put in charge of the Vatican press office with a specific brief to provide ammunition for the Church’s enemies," he writes, "I don’t think I could have come up with anything better than this."

What has happened? If you believe some of the Catholic Church's apologists, a welcome move to clamp down on priestly child-molesters has been overshadowed by a clumsy decision to incorporate it in the same document as a restatement of the church's traditional view on the male-only nature of the sacerdotal office. If you listen to the church's enemies, who can scarcely believe their luck, the Vatican now officially ranks ordaining a woman and sodomising an altar-boy as deserving of the same level of opprobrium. So irresistible was the story, indeed, that it swiftly escaped from behind the Times paywall where it was originally hidden. Caitlin Moran's Tweet summed up a general mood: "The Catholic Church: they hate women and gays, and f*** kids. On a day-to-day level, that’s a tough sell."

Another in a long line of Vatican PR fails, obviously. But what caused it and what, if anything, does the controversy say about the Catholic Church's attitude towards child abuse, women or, for that matter, its handling of the international press?

First, let's take a look at the document highlighted in a Vatican press release. The first thing to note about it is that it is of no conceivable interest to anyone who isn't a canon lawyer. It is a purely technical tidying-up of some procedural rules, specifying which priestly offences are considered serious enough to be referred automatically to Head Office (the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger's old stamping-ground). These include various sexual offences, which are referred to in the peculiar euphemistic language of the document as "delicts against the Sixth commandment of the Decalogue" ("Thou shalt not commit adultery", as you won't need me to remind you) but a variety of other more specifically doctrinal offences as well. Here's the full list, translated from Vatican legalese into something approaching normal English:

1. Heresy, apostasy and schism
2. Stealing, throwing away or retaining for "sacrilegious purposes" a consecrated communion wafer. You might want to use it in a Black Mass, for example.
3. Purporting to celebrate mass without having been properly ordained
4. Celebrating the eucharist together with a minister of a fake "church", for example an Anglican or a Lutheran
5. Consecrating a communion wafer for a "sacrilegious purpose". The difference between this and (2) is subtle, but I think it means that you intended to use it for the Black Mass at the time you consecrated it, whereas in the first case you took some spares left over from a proper Mass to offer to Satan.
6. As a priest, offering absolution for having illicit sex, when the person they have been sinning with is you. This might be a mistress, or it might be a child you've been abusing and then made to feel guilty about it. It's equally sinful either way.
7. Simulated sacramental absolution, when you pretend to be hearing a confession but, for some reason, either aren't allowed to or don't really mean it. I must admit I struggled making sense of this one.
8. Using the confessional as an excuse for chatting someone up. "Say three Hail Marys and then come round to my place for some special spiritual exercises I've been working on."
9. Breaking the seal of the confessional - for example, telling the police about a crime someone has confessed to or informed you about. Potentially, this could include child abuse.
10. Bugging a confessional box, or sharing the juicy bits on Twitter.
11. Ordaining a woman as priest - alternatively, as a woman, being ordained
12. Sexually abusing a minor (below the age of 18) or "a person who habitually lacks the use of reason"
13. Distributing or possessing child pornography, but only where the children concerned are below the age of 14. If they're over 14, it's probably OK as long as the police don't find out.

It's an interesting list, especially as a statement of the sorts of offences the Vatican regards as most serious (and, perhaps, as evidence of some of the naughty things wayward priests get up to). Andrew Brown is understanding:

Obviously, if what you are trying to do is to maintain a functioning priesthood, then ritual or sacramental crimes are just as capable of destroying it as moral ones. So from that perspective it is makes perfect sense to have a list which combines the two, and I don't think (though I may be wrong) that any official Catholic would maintain that assisting at the ordination service of a woman is morally comparable to child abuse. It's just that both are absolutely incompatible with the Catholic priesthood.

For me, though, the real question is why this technical revision of canon law should have made the news at all given that it changes almost nothing, at least as regards the treatment of child-abuse allegations. The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith has had sole jurisdiction over these cases since 2001 - although whether this has helped or hindered the rooting out of paedophile priests is a matter of debate. At most the document amounts to a clarification of the pre-existing position. It would have passed unnoticed had not the Vatican PR people attempted to portray it as a new attempt to get tough on the abuse crisis. Inevitably, some journalists picked up on the apparent equation of women priests with child rape and the story blew up in the Vatican's face - and rightly so, for as far as I can tell the specific measures against ordaining women are new. Unlike Andrew, I've no sympathy. The Vatican press office might be incompetent spinners, and act like naive innocents from time to time, but that doesn't mean they're not in the game of media manipulation as much as any other corporate PR department. They're just not very good at it.

There's an amusing passage in Nick Davies' Flat Earth News about how the Vatican tried to spin the death of Pope John Paul, in particular by making up his supposed last words. The departing pontiff was in no position to say anything, but that didn't stop the press office from providing no fewer than three different official versions. To begin with it was a simple "Amen" - just about plausible, if improbable (more likely it was "Arghhhh", transfigured by the ear of faith). Then it was the more considered "let me go to the house of the father". Finally it was claimed in all seriousness - and dutifully noted by reporters - that the comatose Pope had issued the following deathbead press release:

"It is love which converts hearts and gives peace to all humanity, which today seems so lost and dominated by the power of evil selfishness and fear: our resurrected Lord gives us his love, which forgives, reconciles and reopens the soul to hope".

Yeah, right.