National Catholic Reporter ®

March 29, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 31

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Cultural gap: The extra hurdle
in covering the Vatican

. . . but many senior prelates simply “don’t get it” when addressing Western audiences. They either don’t understand, or refuse to accept, the rules of public discourse as they exist in Western, especially Anglo-Saxon, cultures. 

I spent much of the last week responding to requests from various media outlets, such as CNN, National Public Radio, NBC, and the BBC, to explain the Vatican reaction to the sexual abuse crisis currently traumatizing the Catholic church in the United States. 

     Making sense of the way a bureaucracy responds when threatened is always a journalistic challenge, requiring reporters to learn what officials are not saying, what the internal conversations are that indicate possible strategies. It’s a situation that tests the quality of a reporter’s sources and the depth of his or her understanding.

     When it comes to the Vatican, however, there is an extra hurdle reporters have to get across, a “cultural gap.” Senior personnel in the Vatican — not all, because there are differences within the Roman curia as there are anywhere else — but many senior prelates simply “don’t get it” when addressing Western audiences. They either don’t understand, or refuse to accept, the rules of public discourse as they exist in Western, especially Anglo-Saxon, cultures. 

     I don’t mean to imply by this that any particular Vatican position is wrong, or that a secular Western frame of reference is always the most helpful way of looking at things. For the most part, I find that Vatican officials are careful and reflective before taking public stands, and there is almost always much truth to what they say. God knows many Western taboos and matters of conventional wisdom virtually cry out for challenge.

     Still, it’s sometimes a four-aspirin journalistic headache trying to explain what the Vatican is saying, when the way they choose to express it communicates, at best, incomprehension, and, at worst, contempt for their public. 

     Two press conferences from last week make the point.

* * *

     On Thursday, March 21, the annual Holy Thursday letter from the pope to the priests of the world was presented in a Vatican press conference. As is the case every year, Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos, a Colombian who runs the Congregation for Clergy, was on hand to present the letter to the press.

     Off the record, Vatican officials had tipped several of us a couple of days in advance that the letter would contain a reference to the sexual abuse crisis. The New York Times hinted that something would be coming, and 24 hours before the news conference I said on CNN that the letter would contain an indirect papal comment. Hence media interest, especially from the United States, was strong.

     The Vatican knew what was coming. An official told me on Wednesday, the day before the press conference, that Castrillón Hoyos had been “briefed” about the sort of things reporters were likely to ask.

     One would think they would have been ready.

     Instead what happened, as I said on CNN afterwards, and as veteran Italian Vaticanista Marco Politi wrote the next day in La Repubblica, can only be described as “surreal.” 

     Castrillón Hoyos and his top aide, Archbishop Csaba Ternyák, read lengthy statements commenting on the pope’s letter, which was mostly about the sacrament of reconciliation. When they finished, the head of the Vatican press office, Spanish layman Joaquín Navarro-Valls, invited reporters to ask questions. 

     First up was John Thavis of the Catholic News Service, who asked what the Vatican response to the sex abuse crisis would be, and how the church would assure that such problems would not recur.

     Like most of the rest of us, John spoke in English, knowing that our radio and TV colleagues needed soundbites in English. I then put four specific questions, which I record here:

  • Will the Vatican support a “zero tolerance” policy, under which any credible allegation of sexual misconduct against a priest means he is automatically removed from ministry?

  • Will the Vatican support an “automatic reporter” policy, under which any credible allegation of sexual misconduct against a priest is automatically reported to the civic authorities?

  • What is the status of proposals, widely circulated and debated with the Vatican in recent months, to ban the admission of homosexuals to Catholic seminaries?

  • Does the Vatican still have full confidence in Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, or is there consideration of asking him to resign?
     So it went. One reporter after another offered similar queries. Robert Mickens of The Tablet, an English Catholic journal, wanted to know why the language in the papal letter about the sexual abuse problem was indirect. Stephen Weeke of NBC asked why the pope wasn’t speaking himself, rather than signing a letter and having someone else talk about it. The process must have taken 15 or 20 minutes. Castrillón Hoyos was taking careful notes, jotting down every question as it was asked.

     When we were finished, Castrillón Hoyos refused to answer the questions he had so painstakingly collected.

     “I don’t want to take more risks than are necessary,” he said, with a smile, and then produced a two-page prepared statement which he said would constitute the only response he could offer. It made two points: few priests are guilty of this sort of misconduct, and the Catholic church has long had strong policies against sexual abuse by clergy. He cited the 1917 Code of Canon Law as evidence.

     To most of the journalists present, the performance came off as evasive and insulting. Why waste our time soliciting questions if you have no intention of telling us what we want to know?

     Later, as Castrillon embarked on an unrelated topic, Bob Kaiser of Newsweek attempted to get things back on track: “Your Eminence,” he broke in, “could you please answer our questions?”

     A peeved Castrillón Hoyos responded: “I listened to your questions, and I would hope you’ll listen when I’m speaking.”

     Actually, Castrillón Hoyos did go beyond his prepared statement several times in the course of reading it aloud, adding small flourishes that only compounded the impression of being “out of touch.”

     First, when Castrillón Hoyos started to speak, he observed that most of the questions had been put in English. “That in itself is an x-ray of the problem,” he said, seeming to suggest that the sex abuse crisis is largely an English-speaking phenomenon. One could already hear teeth grinding.

     Then, in arguing that the Catholic church has never ignored the problem of sexual abuse, Castrillón Hoyos added that this was true “even before it ended up on the front page of newspapers.” Citing provisions of the Code of Canon Law that fix penalties for sexual misconduct with minors, Castrillón Hoyos issued a challenge: “For the non-Catholic world, I want to know what other institutions have laws like this for defending children from the behavior of officials? What other great institution?” he asked.

     In noting that the church has recently adopted a statute of limitations of 10 years from the date when an alleged victim turns 18 for prosecuting sexual misconduct cases against priests, Castrillón Hoyos noted again: “I would like to know, has this been legislated elsewhere?”

     Still later, in describing new Vatican norms that insist priests should have a right of reply to charges of abuse, Castrillón Hoyos said: “We live in an era of human rights, not totalitarianism. This is an era of law.”

     At the end, Castrillón Hoyos defended the church’s preference for “keeping things within the family,” which does not, he said, mean that the church refuses to cooperate with the state, except when it comes to its sacramental secret. He then expressed the pope’s solidarity with the priests and bishops of the United States, but not (in what I can only assume was an unintentional omission) with the victims.

     Had I been asked for advice by Vatican spin doctors before the press conference, I would have made just one point, given the present atmosphere of hurt and shock in the American church: “Whatever you do, don’t seem defensive or unresponsive.” 

     Castrillón Hoyos managed to do both. 

     (A quick aside about Castrillón Hoyos, before readers rush to judgment about him as an uncaring bureaucrat. When he was bishop of Pereira in Colombia, he had the guts to confront notorious drug baron Pablo Escobar, demanding that he end a cycle of violence that was claiming civilian lives. When Escobar condescendingly asked who Castrillón Hoyos represented, he replied: “I represent He who one day will judge you.” Escobar backed down, and offered to negotiate with the government.)

     So, why did Castrillón Hoyos not offer a similarly courageous, pastoral response on March 21? The unspoken truth is that like many Vatican officials, he suspects that there are a couple of hidden agendas behind the present outcry.

     First, some Vatican officials believe the crisis is being exaggerated and manipulated by liberal Catholics pushing for change in church teaching on issues such as celibacy and the ordination of women. The fact that progressive commentators such as Eugene Kennedy and Richard McBrien have been quasi-ubiquitous in the press since the story began reinforces these perceptions.

     Second, Vatican officials are also convinced that money is at the root of many of the current charges. The desire to tap the deep pockets of the Catholic church, combined with a tort law system that makes it relatively simple to establish corporate liability, has generated a whole legal subspecialty focusing on sexual abuse by clergy.

     Are Vatican officials wrong to think these things? Probably not. No doubt some activists are trying to exploit the crisis to push their agendas, and a few lawyers are probably eager to profit from it.

     But in a moment of hurt and shock, it’s not “opportune,” to use a favorite Vatican word, to express pique or to defend the status quo. What people want to hear is compassion, heartsickness, and a resolve to fix the problem. When Vatican officials fail to read the situation appropriately, it makes explaining their concerns, legitimate as they may be, much more difficult.

* * *

     Another example, on a much smaller scale. The day after the Castrillón Hoyos fiasco, the Vatican hosted another press conference, this one to present the new Roman Missal, the book that contains the prayers for the Mass.

     On hand were Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, the Chilean who heads the Congregation for Divine Worship; his Italian secretary, Archbishop Francesco Pio Tamburrino; Monsignor Mario Marini, an under-secretary; and Fr. Anthony Ward, the congregation’s top English-speaking official.

     Medina has a reputation as one of the strongest traditionalists in the Vatican, and in keeping with his image, he insisted on starting the press conference with an “Our Father” in Latin, something that is definitely not normal practice.

     Medina is actually a pleasant man, with an unexpectedly robust sense of humor. One thing journalists appreciate is that he does not follow the dull habit of reading a prepared statement at a news conference, the text of which we already have, but he offers extemporaneous remarks that are usually helpful. In this instance, he had a list of some of the changes in the new Missal that would likely be of greatest journalistic interest.

     It was in the course of presenting this list that he threw in a comment that, for contemporary Western audiences, could raise eyebrows and blood pressures.

     Medina mentioned that the new missal restores several elements from the older, 1962 missal (the one embraced by the Lefebvrite Latin Mass movement), elements that had been dropped from the 1970 post-Vatican II edition. One of them is a prayer “for the remission of sins.”

     He said that since the concept of sin is “disappearing,” restoring this prayer is important. To illustrate the point, he cited a television program he had watched the night before in which someone spoke of marriage as an “agreement” that could involve two men as well as a man and a woman.

     “But this is a great sin,” Medina insisted, referring to gay marriage. “This is sodomy, one of the greatest sins in the Bible.”

     That a senior Vatican prelate is opposed to homosexual marriage is, of course, hardly a news flash. But the offhand manner in which Medina referred to “sodomy” and “great sin” could, to Western ears, sound bigoted and offensive. The Catholic church has over the last 25 years developed a different vocabulary for speaking to gays and lesbians, one that does not approve of homosexual genital acts but that understands people with a homosexual orientation as “always our children.” It’s language that expresses church teaching in a more humane, pastoral fashion.

     The press conference was not carried live, and nobody has yet reported Medina’s comments. Yet his use of language associated, at least in some parts of the world, with hate crimes and gay-bashing underscores the gap that can stretch between Catholic leaders and the public they’re trying to address.

     The medium is, after all, the message.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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