Can the Vatican Survive the Age of Digital Media?

Some institutions may not adapt to 21st-century radical transparency. The papacy's turn to inflammatory rhetoric while hit by a series of damaging leaks suggests that it's struggling.

Vatical-Banner.jpgAlessandro Bianchi/Reuters

Strange things have been happening at the Vatican this year. Beginning in January, documents written by high-level figures in the Catholic Church began finding their way into the Italian press, many of the letters to the pope denouncing instances of corruption and complaining about the direction and management of the Church.

When a book full of leaked documents, Sua Santità (His Holiness), was published in late May, the Vatican took the extraordinary step of arresting the pope's butler, Paolo Gabriele, a humble but trusted member of the papal household, and announced that officials had found numerous papal documents at Gabriele's apartment within the Vatican. At the same time, the Vatican Bank, under investigation for money laundering (charges the Vatican denies), fired its president, a respected Catholic banker, listing among the reasons for his dismissal allegations that sounded a lot like leaking: "Failure to provide any formal explanation for the dissemination of documents last known to be in the President's possession." Immediately after his firing, the former bank president hired his own bodyguard service and wrote a private memorandum to the pope, which he wished to disseminate "in case something should happen to him."

Power struggles and scandal are nothing new in the Vatican. Pope Alexander VI, for one, was accused of poisoning his enemies and sleeping with his daughter, the infamous Lucrezia Borgia. But until now the pope had been able to count on the loyalty and discretion of his inner circle and a hermetically sealed culture of silence, discretion, and secrecy that has often been compared with that of the Kremlin at the height of Soviet power. Now the last and most ancient of the world's absolute monarchies is suddenly in the fishbowl culture of the 21st century, where the most-trivial and the most-important details alike become transparent.

The job of managing this transition from secrecy to openness has fallen to Father Federico Lombardi, the pope's official spokesman, a Jesuit priest who wears a uniform of simple black pants and a black shirt with a white collar. When I met him this summer in Rome at the end of another long day at Vatican Radio, he had the deeply exhausted look of a man bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders. A thoughtful and kindly-looking man who trained as a mathematician, Lombardi now finds himself in the much messier world of media, in which appearance and reality, rumor and fact can all get mixed up in an impossible tangle.

For an organization famous historically for keeping its internal business as private as possible, the Vatican has gone out of its way since the scandal broke this spring to be as open and accountable as possible. Having been embarrassed by constant leaking, the Vatican has clearly decided to go on the counteroffensive, releasing information in anticipation of events so that it is not constantly caught off guard by embarrassing revelations. Lombardi has been giving nonstop press briefings since Paolo Gabriele was arrested on May 24; at an August briefing, he even took the extraordinary step of making public the indictment papers against Gabriele. The Vatican promised that his trial, set to begin September 29, would be made public (immediately after the May arrest, all the pretrial documents were posted on the Vatican press office's Web site). Also indicted but on lesser charges was a computer technician, Claudio Sciarpelletti, who is seen as a minor accomplice in the misappropriation of documents.

Suddenly, the word transparency, which was hardly pronounced during the first two millennia of the Catholic Church's history, is on everyone's lips at the Vatican, in what amounts to a kind of Copernican revolution -- an attempt on the part of an essentially medieval institution to join the Internet age. One medieval pope described himself as "the judge of all men who can be judged by none." The current Vatican has begun in recent years to accept, painfully, that this is no longer the case. If it does not want to be defined by others, the Church must respond to and even court public opinion, using modern media to shape its message.

Since he took the job as papal press officer, in July 2006, Lombardi has been dealing with one public-relations disaster after another. Just two months into the job and a year into the term of Pope Benedict XVI, born Joseph Ratzinger, Lombardi found himself in Germany, Ratzinger's birthplace where the pope was about to deliver a speech that contained this sentence: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman." The phrase was a learned quotation of a 14th-century Byzantine emperor in a long address on faith and reason, but journalists examining advance copies of the speech could see that, coming out of the mouth of a contemporary pope, the quote would seem like a frontal assault on Islam. They warned Lombardi, but the pope went ahead with his prepared speech, and a public firestorm followed, exactly as predicted. Then there was the 2009 fiasco in which the pope lifted the excommunication of four right-wing bishops, one of whom turned out to be a Holocaust denier.  

Lombardi had to endure 2010, known at the Vatican as the annus horribilis, during which hardly a week went by without new shocking revelations of child abuse by ordained priests and, perhaps far worse, complicity among higher-ups in the Church principally concerned with covering up the scandal, silencing victims, and transferring predator priests rather than removing them from positions in which they could do further harm. With some justification, people at the Vatican felt that Benedict was getting a bad rap: he was the first pope to deal somewhat forthrightly with the pedophilia issue, and the worst abuses had occurred during the reign of his predecessor, the soon-to-be-sainted John Paul II. Yet Lombardi had to stand up day after day and take his lumps, as the crisis risked defining Benedict's papacy and seriously undermined the Church's credibility.

* * *

Lombardi gets high marks from almost everyone in the Vatican press corps for his honorability, honesty, and integrity, but as he himself acknowledges, the Vatican has not ever had a media strategy: the pope does as he sees fit, and Lombardi tries to explain his words or actions after the fact.

And Lombardi speaks for an elderly and not particularly charismatic pope: a 78-year-old theologian at the time of his election, now 85 and increasingly infirm; a scholar with more-solitary habits than his predecessor. Lombardi is also dealing with a new media environment. Dozens of Vatican news Web sites named Whispers in the Loggia, Vatican Insider, and the like, pick up and report on Vatican scuttlebutt that traditional media rarely, if ever, did. Victims of priestly sexual abuse have their own Web sites and can organize online; copies of court decisions, grand-jury reports, and compromising documents make their way around the world instantly.

In this environment, not having a media strategy is no longer a viable option -- a reality the Vatican implicitly recognized this summer when it appointed a journalist, Greg Burke, the Fox News correspondent in Rome (and a member of the Catholic religious order Opus Dei), as the Vatican's director of communications, a position that never existed before. It is one of a series of decisive moves the Vatican has made in response to "Vati-leaks": The new director of the Vatican Bank took the unusual step of inviting journalists to the highly secretive institution's offices and discussed the intentions to comply with modern banking norms. Father Lombardi began his regular press briefings -- another novelty. During the past year, Benedict opened a Twitter account. Moreover, since the Vati-leaks scandal broke, the pope has been calling in a range of Church leaders for much wider and more regular consultation. The scandal has clearly served as a wake-up call: a sign that the pope is trying hard to regain control of a Church that has begun to seem badly adrift. The pope has even made some effort to seek out the views of people outside the Roman curia -- the Vatican equivalent of going beyond the Beltway.

* * *

The Vati-leaks scandal is fascinating on a number of levels. First, there is the mystery element: Did the butler do it? And if so, why? Did he have accomplices? Were they inside or outside the Church? Then there are the contents of the documents themselves, which provide a glimpse into the exercise of power within the normally closed world of the Vatican's highest levels.
"One way to understand this situation is to think of the Vatican as a medieval or Renaissance court," says Father John Wauck, an American priest with the Opus Dei movement and a former student of Renaissance history. It is a world in which one person, the pope, makes the important decisions and people jockey for the ear of that one person.

The scandal has strained some of the odd contradictions of the Vatican: it is the smallest independent nation in the world, with a territory of 109 acres and a population of more than 800 people, and yet it is nexus of a transnational Church present in virtually every nation, with an estimated 1.2 billion adherents. It is thus simultaneously one of the largest and most important entities in the world and one of the smallest.

But is a tiny medieval court capable of governing an institution of such great scope and complexity in the current age? "I wouldn't bet against it," Father Wauck said. "Find me another institution that has lasted 2,000 years."

The Vati-leaks scandal has accentuated the already serious problem of the chasm between the Church and its people, between the hierarchy composed almost exclusively of elderly white men in their 60s and 70s living in the isolation within the Vatican walls and the 1 billion Catholics in the world contending with much more basic, day-to-day problems of life and of faith.

The anxiety in the Vatican in the wake of Vati-leaks is palpable. One interview subject insisted that I remove my computer and my tape recorder from his office before we began talking for fear, I suppose, of being surreptitiously recorded. Another source insisted on the phone that he knew nothing about Vati-leaks, but agreed to see me if we might discuss other topics -- then, as soon as we sat down, he launched into a highly knowledgeable discussion of the scandal. There are rumors that Vatican security -- after all of these embarrassing revelations -- is at an all-time high. People are nervous about communicating anything of substance on the phone or through email. "Remember, you can't quote me by name!" one priest told me. "If you do, they'd send me to Central Africa tomorrow!"

Although there is much we still don't know about Vati-leaks, several things are already quite clear. Among the likely speakers at the trial are high Church officials who testified for and against Gabriele, who in the indictment papers are identified simply as X or Y. The court proceedings should give us a look at the inside workings of the papal court in a trial that appears to be without precedent at the Vatican. "The Vatican tribunal is open and has handled other cases, a small theft or something, but nothing of this kind that I'm aware of," Lombardi told me in a phone interview in September. The tribunal is likely to deal in a circumscribed fashion with the legal position of Paolo Gabriele. But the mere fact of a public trial is an expression of the Vatican's desire to show its new spirit of openness. As for showing the inner workings of the Vatican itself, the documents may tell us much more.

No one disputes the authenticity of the documents themselves. No one I spoke with believes that the butler acted principally on his own initiative. And no one believes that he was simply being bribed or manipulated by members of the press into stealing documents. If the press had been controlling this operation, you would expect lots of juicy details about the pope and his personal life: his favorite TV programs, whether or not he falls asleep in meetings or has to wear adult diapers at night. "But there is none of this among the documents released, in fact nothing against the pope at all," one priest told me. "This suggests that Paolo Gabriele did not think he was acting against the pope, to whom he is very attached. The documents released were almost certainly chosen by someone -- or a group of people -- highly knowledgeable within the church, for they all pertain to church policy." Gianluigi Nuzzi, the principal journalist who broke the story in Sua Santità, insists that he spoke with several Vatican officials, not merely one, and that it was they, not he, who took the initiative. The other journalist who has published the most leaked documents, Marco Lillo of the daily newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano (The Daily Fact), told me the same thing.

Presented by

Alexander Stille, the San Paolo Professor of International Journalism at Columbia University, is the author of several books about Italy, including Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic and The Sack of Rome: How a Beautiful European Country with a Fabled History and a Storied Culture Was Taken Over by a Man Named Silvio Berlusconi. His family memoir, The Force of Things: A Marriage in War and Peace, will be published next February.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Global

Just In