Letter from Rome
In response to a burgeoning controversy last week over the Vatican’s novel protest of a draft anti-homophobia law in Italy, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State, said June 24 the goal of the move wasn’t to interfere with Italy’s internal politics but rather to head off a potential problem.
Instead of waiting until the measure, known here as the “Zan bill” for the openly gay legislator who introduced it, was formally adopted, Parolin said the idea was to signal potential glitches so they can be solved before creating diplomatic, legal and even constitutional headaches, mostly related to religious freedom.
So far. So good. The problem is that from a communications point of view, the Vatican didn’t practice what Parolin was preaching, ie., getting ahead of a potential problem. It was always written in the stars that their note verbale, or diplomatic communique, on the draft law would go public and make waves, yet Parolin used the same interview to insist the note was “certainly not to be published” and seemed to suggest he was surprised when it leaked.
In the immortal ESPN catchphrase, “Come on, man”!
The note, which was delivered to Italy’s ambassador to the Vatican, Pietro Sebastiani, in mid-June, was then dutifully transmitted by Sebastiani to his superiors at the Italian Foreign Ministry, better known by locals as the Farnesina for the building in which the ministry is located. (It’s called that because the palace once belonged to Pope Paul III, whose given name was Alessandro Farnese.)
All in, some 5,000 people work for Italy’s foreign ministry, and many either have journalists as friends or are actually related to someone who works in the media. The idea that you could present an historically unprecedented, bombshell protest invoking the 1929 Lateran Pacts to the Farnesina without it passing to some Italian news outlet, and in fairly short order, was always a fantasy.
Either that portion of Parolin’s interview was disingenuous, or he was serious about being surprised to see the note in the press – and frankly, it’s hard to know which would be the more alarming prospect.
When the news of the note broke early Tuesday morning in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, calls to Vatican communications personnel to try to confirm it were fruitless, and it seemed clear they were caught off guard. Parolin’s interview represented the Vatican’s first official comment, and it came more than 48 hours into the arc of the story.
By that point, the spin cycle was already in high gear. Virtually every media outlet in the country had carried some exercise in what the Italians cheerfully call dietrologia, meaning the study of what lies behind things. Some of it cantered on whether Pope Francis actually supported the note, or even knew about it; Sant’Egidio founder Andrea Riccardi, for instance, told one Italian outlet that he believes the note came from “Italian circles in the Secretariat of State” and, hence, not the pontiff.
Others were more interested in trying to identify who leaked the document and why, often pointing to conservatives in the Secretariat of State or in Italian politics, especially the right-wing populist Lega party that’s been opposed to the Zan bill from the beginning.
How bad did things get? At one point the Vatican felt compelled to roll out the head of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), in effect its central bank, to respond to criticism about not paying its Italian taxes … from, of all people, a rapper. (The rapper in question, Fedez, once recorded a number titled “Beautiful Disaster”, which seems an apt summary of this week on the Vatican beat too.)
In the meantime, pressure built on Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi to issue a reaction, which he finally did Wednesday afternoon in a Q&A session with the Italian Senate. Despite the fact Draghi is a product of Jesuit formation and a serious Catholic, he gave the Vatican a bit of a verbal tongue-lashing, reminding everyone that Italy “is a secular state, not a confessional state”, and that its parliament must be free to do its work without outside interference.
All this might just be amusing – okay, okay, it is sort of amusing anyway – were it not for the fact that when a bomb like this goes off, it’s really not the Parolins of the world left to pick up the pieces. It’s bishops, even outside Italy, with no clue what’s going on suddenly fielding phone calls from reporters seeking comment; it’s pastors, fielding angry questions from parishioners; and it’s ordinary lay Catholics, facing puzzled looks and consternation from co-workers, friends and family.
In other words, the consequences of a Vatican PR failure fall disproportionately on people with no role in creating it. The tragedy is, all this could have been avoided.
How? Well, the best move would have been for the Vatican to make the note public the day it was presented to Sebastiani. Parolin could have given his interview then, with the following talking points:
We’re all for efforts to protect anyone from discrimination, including the LGBTQ+ community.
We respect the sovereign right of the Italian parliament to decide the law of the land for its people, and it’s not our role to try to dictate anything.
At the same time, we also know the Italian government and parliament are committed to upholding the guarantees of religious freedom contained in the Lateran Pacts and in the country’s own constitution.
This is an effort to work constructively with parliament and the government to ensure that whatever law is adopted doesn’t create new problems and achieves its desired effect.
That might not have satisfied everyone, but it certainly would have been preferable to the cacophony the Vatican’s silence actually created.
If the decision was that the Vatican couldn’t be the one to make the note public, at least the communications team could have been given a heads-up and been prepared to frame the story properly once it broke.
In the end, Parolin may well be right that it will prove better that these issues are aired now, and possibly resolved, rather than waiting to fight it out in bilateral commissions and court cases after the fact.
Now if the Vatican could just master the same lesson, not so much in what it says, but rather how (and when) it says it.