Can Greg Burke Save the Vatican?

“Smart move.” That’s how many loyal Catholics reacted to the announcement that the Vatican had hired a veteran American newsman as a consultant to grapple with its communication problems.

In many respects, the reaction was correct. As an experienced professional with Fox News and Time, and a serious Catholic, Greg Burke is an excellent choice for a tough assignment. (Disclosure: he’s also an old friend.) But the question remains: Will he be permitted to do the job? Neither Burke nor anyone else can be of much help to the Roman Curia unless it’s open to being helped.

Goodness knows the Vatican needs PR assistance. Recent disasters have included an embarrassing series of leaked documents, seemingly evidence of serious conflict within the Curia (the Pope’s butler is said to have purloined the documents but few believe that he’s the only one involved); the unceremonious sacking of the Vatican bank head amid a jarring torrent of personal abuse; and fumbled communication about apparently snarled negotiations with the Lebebvrist Society of St. Pius X.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. As anyoneeven casually familiar with the situation realizes, the underlying problems in Rome go deeper and have existed for years.

Veteran U.S. Journalist Greg Burke (AFP/Getty Images)

Burke is eminently well qualified to tell his new employers what the problems are and what should be done. What isn’t so clear is whether they’ll listen and act.

During three decades spent directing public relations at the national and international levels for several Catholic organizations including the American bishops’ conference, I found that people at the top not infrequently imagine that good public relations is a matter of technique. Push a couple of buttons, do a little tweaking here and there, and behold—your previously tarnished image will glow.

Good technique is certainly important in communication, but seldom are problems like the Vatican’s only or mainly failures of technique. Instead they’re problems of attitude and philosophy. In the case of the Vatican, the difficulties  tend to be the bitter fruit of an entrenched clericalist culture linked to a similarly entrenched reliance on secrecy as a routine management tool. The result is a counterproductive approach to communication and media that lies far beyond correction simply by tweaking and technique.

Often, too, communication problems get blamed on the media: “The journalists are out to get us.” In fact, some reporters really are hostile to the Church, as are some news organizations. But most professional journalists, including many personally at odds with Catholic views, want only to do a good job according to the standards of their profession, which means getting facts straight and correctly explaining what they mean. Where these men and woman are concerned, the explanation that “They’re out to get us” is neither fair nor helpful. It’s a non-explanation that impedes solutions instead of encouraging them.

All that said, it must be added that there are many good, dedicated people in the Vatican. One can only imagine how badly they—to say nothing of Pope Benedict himself—have been hurt by the recent shenanigans. A serious effort to understand the underlying causes of what’s happened as well as the more immediate ones would be a service to them as well as to the rest of the Church.

Greg Burke has what it takes to give the Curia good advice. But the problems run deep, and for Burke’s expertise to matter, he needs total, unflinching support from the top—from the Pope himself. Unless it’s forthcoming (and here’s hoping it is) don’t look for much improvement.

 

Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at RShaw10290@aol.comTo purchase Shaw’s most popular books, attractively priced, in the Catholic Exchange store, click here.

Russell Shaw

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Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at RShaw10290@aol.com.

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  • Pargontwin

    Keep praying those daily rosaries; at last we begin to see everying being put into place in the Vatican for the fulfillment of the “marching orders” God gave the Vatican through Our Lady at Fatima.

  • Kay

    What hogwash – for the most part.  I have RARELY read an article or seen a news story when it comes to the Church, that is even accurate about church teaching!  All a “good reporter” would have to do is open the Catechism to check his/her facts.  Putting dissident sisters, Nancy Pelosi, etc. as some kind of expert on church teaching, is incredibly disingenuous.  Rarely do I ever see the church put in her true light.  While I agree that Rome needs some help when it comes to PR, it isn’t because their being secretive is not warranted, it’s because the press gets it WRONG 9 times out of 10.  The Catholic church has done SO much good for this world, and that NEVER gets reported, not once.  So, sir, I absolutely disagree with your article, and if Mr. Burke is of your ilk, good luck to Rome, I say.  Reporters try to get it right when it comes to the Church…what a joke.  What planet do you live on?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1686745721 Joseph F Geleney Jr.

    The author implies that the Vatican needs “saving.” What does that say about his view on the Church?

  • Rakeys

    The views of the author are very clear! The words a person uses says a lot… “In the case of the Vatican, the difficulties  tend to be the bitter fruit of an entrenched clericalist culture linked to a similarly entrenched reliance on secrecy as a routine management tool.”  entrenched clerical culture, .. reliance on secrecy….wow!  this is truly a person with an agenda!

    It is not just the Vatican that needs good PR. Almost every article about the Catholic church in the St. Louis Post -Dispatch is negative The Archbishop can say 1000 words about all the good things the church is doing,,but the only thing talked about in the paper is the item which  the writer finds contoversial, whether it be about contraception, women priests, gay marriage, whatever. The “professional journalists, including many personally at odds with Catholic views, want only to do a good job according to the standards of their profession” always imply that the Church is outdated and wrong. The only thing that becomes clear in the article is that the writer is “personally at odds with Catholic views” This is not good journalism. A good journalist tries to present the truth and generally seeks both sides of an argument, or at least will talk to the people involved to get their side.

    Greg Burke and Cardinal Burke both have an uphill battle to fight. But Jesus said that we will be ” hated by all because of my name”  Remember, Jesus also could have used a good PR man. He was unjustly accused and condemned to death. All the apostles, except John, were killed because they spoke the truth and the authorities did not understand them. Jesus told his apostles not to water down the message, even in the face of persecution.

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