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A year that began with the Holy Father performing a quick wedding on a plane in Chile ended with the Bride of Christ making an honest man out of longtime Vaticanista Andrea Tornielli.

Pope Francis appointed Tornielli “editorial director” for the Dicastery for Communication on December 18, from which post he will give editorial guidance to all of the Holy See’s media efforts. Under Francis’s pontificate, Tornielli has been less of a Vatican analyst and more of a spokesman. Greg Burke was the director of the Holy See Press Office, but Tornielli was the portavoce of the Casa Santa Marta. And what would the official spokesman do when the Holy Father’s confidant was charged with providing “editorial direction” to all Vatican communication? 

Head for the exit, that’s what. In dramatic fashion, on New Year’s Eve, both Burke and press office vice-director Paloma Garcia Ovejero announced their resignations, effective New Year’s Day. In a tweet, Burke said both of them had been praying about departing for months, but the sudden joint resignation clearly indicates something had become urgently untenable.

When I was in Rome to cover the synod last October, I was surprised at how factional the thinking in the synod office—and in the Vatican communications offices—had become. They spoke openly not about critics on this or that issue, but about “enemies of the pope.” Entire networks and newspapers and news agencies, filled with professional, competent, and devoutly Catholic journalists, were denounced as lacking fidelity to the Church. That there will be tension between the principal figures of a pontificate and the media that covers it is to be expected; to encounter a mindset reminiscent of Nixon’s enemies list or the Trump administration was startling.

Now Francis has installed a staunch loyalist to ensure that the official line is followed, well, religiously. The independent journalistic credentials of Burke and Garcia, praised when they were appointed in 2016, evidently were not a good fit. By their own account they were not pushed out, but the abrupt and dramatic departure was clearly intended to signal that things are headed in a troublesome direction.

Tornielli’s views will now guide the entire Vatican media operation. No doubt it is thought that installing a reliable ally in a senior post will serve the Holy Father’s interests. Perhaps. But on the communications front, 2018 demonstrated amply that it is not the supposed “enemies” of the pope who cause the Holy Father the most problems. It is his most enthusiastic friends.

In early 2017, Father Antonio Spadaro, the papal amanuensis and consigliere plenipotentiary, tweeted: “Theology is not mathematics. In theology 2 + 2 can equal 5. Because it has to do with God and real life of people....”

His intent was to defend Amoris Laetitia. But it had the opposite effect, as the pope’s inner circle gave off a creepy authoritarian vibe. Ever since George Orwell’s 1984, insisting that 2+2 can equal 5, or whatever the party line is, has become shorthand for totalitarianism. Indeed, in 1980s Poland a frequent anti-communist slogan was that, “For Poland to be Poland, 2+2 must always equal 4.”

While Spadaro’s tweet is likely the worst example of Francis being wounded by friendly fire, in 2018 the problem became more frequent. And if Tornielli’s appointment means doubling down on reliable “friends” in the face of supposed “enemies,” it is quite possible that 2019 will be worse still. 

Consider the following examples from 2018, which show that Pope Francis has less to worry about from “enemies” than he does from his “friends.”

Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the pontifical academies. Bishop Sanchez just celebrated his fiftieth anniversary of priestly ordination, and it is unlikely that in all those years he has ever had the prominence he gained last year. As part of the Holy See efforts to prepare the way for the agreement with China, Sanchez went on his first trip there and returned gushing with praise: “Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese.”

Bishop Sanchez’s obvious instructions were to talk up China so that Catholics would not reject the upcoming deal as capitulation to communist persecution. But he embraced his brief with too much zeal and too little sense, and instead made the Holy See appear easily duped. When the deal was actually made in September, followed by a ratcheting up of religious persecution, Sanchez’s friendly fire made it more difficult for other officials to offer any sustained defense of what strikes many as an utter capitulation, if not betrayal. Sanchez undermined one of the Holy Father’s signature diplomatic initiatives.

Monsignor Dario Viganò, former prefect of the Dicastery for Communication. For the Holy Father’s fifth anniversary in March 2018, Msgr. Viganò brought out a series of booklets on the theology of Pope Francis. He asked Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to write a page or two praising the series and, by extension, Francis’s theology. Benedict declined, and noted that he refused because some of those praising Francis were long-time dissenters from Catholic orthodoxy. It was all very embarrassing, but would have remained unknown if Msgr. Viganò had not thought to lie about it, telling journalists that Benedict had written an endorsement letter after all. Viganò produced an altered photograph of the letter, and only released the part of the letter which appeared to support his project.

The whole matter quickly unraveled, and the chief of Vatican communications was revealed to have deliberately deceived the press and falsified documents from the pope emeritus. A project meant to flatter Francis revealed instead an entourage insecure about his theological sophistication. Justice was swift but not so terrible: Msgr. Viganò resigned as prefect, only to be restored the same day to something akin to deputy prefect. He will be supervising Tornielli in his new post. 

Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago sent a most unusual missive to all his parishes in September. In an interview with Chicago’s NBC station, Cardinal Cupich had said that the testimony of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò (no relation to Msgr. Viganò) was not really worthy of a papal response: “The pope has a bigger agenda. He’s got to get on with other things of talking about the environment and protecting migrants and carrying on the work of the Church. We’re not going to go down a rabbit hole on this.” 

Elsewhere in the “rabbit hole” interview Cupich said that “there is a small group of insurgents, who have not liked Pope Francis from the very beginning … And, quite frankly, they also don’t like him because he’s a Latino and that he is bringing Latino culture into the life of the Church.” 

The “rabbit hole” interview achieved the exact opposite of what was intended. It made Pope Francis’s inner circle look dismissive and out-of-touch. The accusation that the Holy Father’s critics don’t like Latinos—or at least Italians from Argentina—was race-baiting of the worst Chicago kind. So Cardinal Cupich put out a press release correcting his remarks and accusing NBC of false editing, and ordered all his priests to read a damage control letter from the pulpit on Sunday. The remedy for the friendly fire was more of the same, as the inner circle that was dismissive now also came off as thin-skinned and self-referential, commandeering Sunday Mass to correct the media mishaps of the cardinal.

Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh was on the ground in Chile for the Holy Father’s disastrous visit there in January. Ivereigh was all-in on the plan to discredit those opposed to the appointment of Bishop Juan Barros, including the unsatisfied victims of Chile’s most notorious priest predator Father Fernando Karadima, Barros’s mentor. Ivereigh argued that the critics of the Holy Father were illustrating the “scapegoat mechanism of René Girard.” Support like that from friends might have explained why the Holy Father kept accusing his critics of being both stupid and guilty of the sin of calumny—until he did a complete reversal and agreed with them. He may have even found a scapegoat or two in having the entire Chilean episcopate resign.

Father Thomas Rosica, former English-language attaché to the Holy See Press Office and founder of Salt and Light TV in Canada.  His network does tremendous service in Catholic broadcasting, and Rosica is an enthusiastic evangelist. This enthusiasm got the better of him in a St. Ignatius day encomium to the Holy Father.  

“Pope Francis breaks Catholic traditions whenever he wants because he is ‘free from disordered attachments,’” wrote Father Rosica. “Our Church has indeed entered a new phase: with the advent of this first Jesuit pope, it is openly ruled by an individual rather than by the authority of Scripture alone or even its own dictates of tradition plus Scripture.”

That appeared on the Salt and Light blog and was reposted on Zenit. When it was observed that no pope can put himself as an individual above the authority of Scripture and tradition, Zenit axed the offending paragraph. It’s still there at Salt and Light. To all those who had been defending the Holy Father against the charge that he was breaking with Scripture and tradition, Father Rosica aimed this friendly fire: It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. 

Catholics, including Catholics who have criticisms of this or that decision of Pope Francis, ought not delight in the Holy Father’s difficulties. But as his inner circle is tightened to include Tornielli and exclude Burke, it is likely that his problems will increase. “Enemies” do not do nearly as much damage as his friends do.

Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario. 

Photo by Alfredo Borba via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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