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Rome conference studies the media

NCR Staff

At an Opus Dei conference in late April, 100 public relations specialists working for the Catholic church around the world heard that their first rule should be “Never, never, never tell a lie.”

They also heard the pope’s spokesman, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, declare that information about the church is a right of the people, not the property of the Vatican.

The April 26 and 27 conference was part of a program in “institutional communications” at Santa Croce, Opus Dei’s Rome university. The program aims to train communications professionals for dioceses, bishops’ conferences, and other Catholic institutions. Currently 66 students are enrolled from 37 countries.

The conference itself drew more than 90 participants from 29 nations to Rome. Most were not Opus Dei members.

In an opening address, American Archbishop John Foley, who heads the Vatican office for broadcast media, said that he has sometimes been asked to lie by church authorities (though not in his present position, nor as editor of the Catholic newspaper in Philadelphia). He said he has steadfastly refused.

Foley told a story from the period when he worked as the information officer for the U.S. bishops’ conference. In those days, reporters were not allowed into bishops’ meetings and relied on Foley’s briefings.

During one closed-door session, Foley said, a bishop denounced ecumenism. Another asked Foley if he planned to include the remark in his report. When he said yes, the bishop asked, “What if I asked you not to?” Foley said he replied, “You would be exceeding your authority.”

“Not only was what I was asked to do morally wrong; it was also dumb,” Foley said. “The truth will always come out.”

“Never, never, never tell a lie,” Foley said.

Francis Maier, a layman who serves as chancellor of the Denver archdiocese, spoke on his experience as chief communications officer for Archbishop Charles Chaput. He urged participants not to avoid the press, even when coverage seems hostile.

“Never run from the media,” Maier said. “Evasion implies guilt.”

The most anticipated moment came with the remarks of Navarro-Valls, the pope’s spokesman since 1984 and a member of Opus Dei. He attended graduate school at Harvard in 1969, and was a correspondent for the conservative Madrid daily ABC before his Vatican appointment.

Despite that background, Navarro seemed at times pessimistic about the media. He said the press presents ideas almost exclusively in terms of conflict, and tends to “oversimplify everything.”

Navarro also lamented the way certain stories get vast attention while others languish. As an example of articles that got wide attention, he cited recent reports of sexual abuse of religious women in Africa, “which ended up on the front page of all the world’s newspapers.” That story was first reported by NCR.

In general, Navarro said, the picture of the world that emerges from the mass media is often unreliable. “I have great fear of people who get all their information from newspapers,” he said.

Nevertheless, Navarro said that the church has an obligation to engage the media, since information “is a right of the people, not something that belongs to the Vatican.”

Navarro told the crowd that every public relations professional for the church should have a “mission statement” in mind when dealing with the press and try to bring interviews back to basic principles of that mission.

What would a mission statement for the church be? Navarro offered the anecdote of a BBC interview with John Paul II, in which a journalist asked the pope to sum up in a few words what the church is about.

“I can answer in one word,” Navarro quoted the pope as saying. “Salvation.”

Offering a rare glimpse into the internal politics of the Vatican, Navarro described how he spent at least 50 percent of his time early on convincing curial bureaucrats that the papal spokesperson should be at the center of decision-making.

Navarro said that if church leaders hire public relations people simply for damage control, they will lurch from one crisis to the next. The communications expert has to be in the inner circle, helping to frame the message and anticipating its resonance in the media, he said.

A panel of five journalists also offered perspectives. Some praised the Vatican for becoming more responsive to the press under John Paul.

Philip Puella of Reuters said that a journalist aiming to cover the Vatican “as I would cover the White House or the United Nations” is obliged to include critical voices, sometimes displeasing to church officials.

Puella challenged Catholic leaders to be more accepting of journalistic craft. He offered the example of a story he wrote about indulgences in which he made a play on the title of a famous rock song, “Stairway to Heaven.”

Some Catholics protested, Puella said, claiming he was trivializing church doctrine.

“Looking back,” Puella said, “the choice would have been: writing it in a boring way and reaching a tiny niche audience which has other sources of information, or writing it in an interesting way and reaching the world.”

Another journalist offered his own implied criticism of the press. Jacek Moskwa, Rome correspondent for a Polish television network, said he was about to lose his job because he had refused to circulate rumors about the pope’s ill health and resignation.

“Perhaps my successor,” he said wryly, “will be more cooperative.”

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, May 11, 2001