Say a little prayer for Lord Patten — the Vatican works in mysterious ways

Lord Patten has joined a multinational mission to modernise the Vatican’s media operation, and it won't be easy

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Let no one accuse Chris Patten of opting for an easy retirement. Fresh from a peculiarly bruising spell with the BBC – “10 times more difficult than I expected” as he confessed – and from which he was liberated only by the need for a heart bypass operation, he has now been recruited to head an 11-person commission – with experts from France, Germany, Mexico, Singapore and the US – to modernise the Vatican’s handling of the media. Your lordship, good luck with that.

Let no-one accuse Chris Patten of opting for an easy retirement. Fresh from a peculiarly bruising spell with the BBC, “10 times more difficult than I expected” as he confessed, and from which he was only liberated by the need for a heart bypass operation, he has now been recruited to head an 11-person commission – with experts from France, Germany, Mexico, Singapore and the US – to modernise the Vatican’s handling of the media.

Your lordship, good luck with that.

It has long been the custom among the Vaticanisti, the reporters who cover Catholic Central, to describe it as analogous to the work of Kremlinologists before Glasnost, or Pekingologists today. That’s because you can’t get close to the Vatican, and nothing that happens within it is clear.

As the Vatican correspondent of this newspaper 10 years ago, an ex-Anglican employed by an atheistical rag from beyond the Roman pale, it quickly became clear that my chances of getting on first name terms with the Vatican hierarchy were going to be poor.

This was confirmed during my first (and only) meeting with the head of the Vatican press office, when it emerged from our chat that while I rode a scooter, he drove a car. “So we’re natural enemies,” he remarked with a chilly smile.

But even Catholic reporters from Catholic media struggled to unearth anything about the Church which you could dignify as a fact. Why was it so difficult? It’s a vast, opaque, multinational, multilingual bureaucracy, dedicated to the propagation of sweetness and light and brotherly love, and where no voice may be raised against another.

But they are also human beings, each with his own more or less secret loyalties and ambitions, loves and hatreds, and with a collective horror of bad publicity. The church’s customary way of dealing with priestly paedophilia was to transfer the offender and keep the whole affair secret. That was symptomatic of the culture of the institution as a whole.

 

This approach, doing everything humanly possible to avoid bad publicity, is why such a terrible stink arises from the Vatican, and why the general public, especially the Italian public, believes it capable of venality of every description, from mass orgies to money laundering for the Mob. In this way the Church has become locked into a vicious cycle whereby it can only emit the most anaemic and unbelievable sort of happy stories about its doings, while the outside world chooses to believe the exact opposite.

The only reporters able to break through the omerta of the Vatican are Catholics from specialist publications (often failed priests) who stuck to the beat year after year after year, slowly gaining the friendship and trust of certain relatively outgoing cardinals and the like. But the unwritten precondition for the friendship was that nothing really hostile ever got out. The organisation remained hermetic.

After the death of Pope John Paul II, accredited Vaticanisti like me received formal invitations to view the late pontiff’s laid-out body and attend the funeral. We were referred to on the invitations as ‘dipendenti’ of the Vatican – dependents; not objective observers but forelock-tugging serfs, expected to show our respects and toe the line, or else. There was no compunction about expelling hacks who broke the unwritten rules.

That was my worm’s eye view of reporting the Vatican: the only people one could hope to interview and quote, outside of the usually anodyne press conferences, were Vaticanisti marginally better-connected than oneself. No wonder we paid more attention to the dissidents, the outsiders, the fallen angels with an axe to grind.

But in addition to the dysfunctional, counter-productive, Kremlin-esque approach to news dissemination within the Vatican, Chris Patten and his colleagues will also have to address the Babel of official voices that issues from the place, each with its own clan loyalties, histories and opaque agendas.

The Pope’s daily paper, L’Osservatore Romano, “The Roman Observer”, surely the most dignified broadsheet in the world, printed on very large and luxuriously thick paper; Avvenire, “The Future”, the daily of the Italian Bishops; Vatican Radio, the multilingual radio station based on the fringe of Vatican City which was for a long time a lonely liberal beacon (run by Jesuits, from the same order as Pope Francis) within the church; and the Vatican Information Service, the media arm of the Press Office whose boss it was announced himself as my ‘natural enemy’, and which is responsible for the Vatican’s website (Vatican.va). In addition there are the people responsible for the pope’s tweets, his Facebook page (690,442 likes and counting) and much else besides.

As a glance at any of these media will confirm, the Vatican’s media operation is dedicated to churning out propaganda, like the Pravda of old; yet at the core of the propaganda is a claim of commitment to telling the truth – about the universe and everything else, too.

Telling the truth means facing unpleasant facts. By his determined efforts to reform toxic church institutions like the Vatican Bank, Pope Francis has convinced many that he is more serious than any pope for a long time about obliging the church to face the often ugly truth about itself, and to deal with it.

The next challenge is to persuade the Vatican’s vast media operation that their job requires telling the truth, too, even when it makes people squirm. That’s Chris Patten’s latest task. It should keep him busy for a while.

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