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Inside NCR: New style of papal PR meets old-style intrigue

The current Synod for Asia and the unfortunate killings in Vatican City prompt some thoughts on the church’s public relations. We knew the Vatican was more than usually concerned when we saw press spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls himself on the TV evening news saying the suspected member of the Swiss Guards had gone temporarily “mad.”

In a bureaucracy where, if the term éminence grise did not exist we would have to invent it, Navarro-Valls has become that rare Vatican phenomenon, a lay gray eminence. Nowadays he steps before the cameras only for big occasions, but observers have no doubt he is still pulling the PR strings.

Navarro-Valls may yet rank as one of the great image-builders, doing for this pope what Michael Deaver did for Ronald Reagan. Granted, he had better material to work with than Deaver. Yet it takes more than John Paul’s charisma or sanctity or world travel to explain how he came to be the preeminent world leader late in the second millennium. Whatever people, including church people, might say against the media, it was the media that brought this pope into all our homes, usually looking good.

It was not the staid old Osservatore Romano, which one seldom hears mentioned nowadays. Nor Vatican Radio, still on the air in many languages but lucky to get a seat on the papal plane. Navarro-Valls either took the Catholic press -- and by implication the regular faithful -- for granted, or concluded they wouldn’t count ultimately in delineating the wide sweep of history.

Thus, Archbishop John Foley, with the grand title of president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, does color commentary for papal Masses and appeared at the Catholic Press Association recently to talk on advertising, a worthy theme but scarcely central to Vatican aspirations.

Navarro-Valls, meanwhile, who is a member of Opus Dei, and obviously high in the pope’s favor, went after the bigger fish, the major secular media. However important a pope, it doesn’t happen automatically that he gets good press. John Paul has been Man of the Year for Time and on the cover of Newsweek, Parade and other magazines.

The authors of major papal biographies of recent years have likewise not been closely associated with the Catholic press: Tad Szulc (Pope John Paul II); Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi (His Holiness); Jonathan Kwitny (Man of the Century); Darcy O’Brien (The Hidden Pope). This proliferation of titles testifies to how papal PR has been going out on a different limb.

These books and cover stories invariably view the pope as world leader rather than church leader. They present John Paul in expansive fashion, a towering moral force for justice and peace. What they rarely deal with is the pope’s more domestic role as leader of the Catholic church, an area in which he might not get the same high ratings.

It has been a master strategy. Only history will determine whether the globetrotting pope or the rigid restorationist will have made the most lasting impact.

It is NCR’s custom to tell our readers who’s writing what. We have bylines at the top of nearly every article, except editorials, which are regarded as the voice of the paper. We believe this lends credibility to the material and implies responsibility on the part of the editors.

We make one of our rare exceptions on page 11. Church leaders have managed to keep a tight lid on the story of the killings within Vatican City. A reading of the page 11 article will quickly indicate a more intimate than usual knowledge of how things are done and how the thinking goes at the Vatican. The writer’s position is such that to disclose the name would be to jeopardize the position. We hope for further contributions from this same source. In due time we also hope to be able to reveal the source.

National Catholic Reporter, May 15, 1998