Jun 24, 2012

Spinning the Vatican: Fox News to the Rescue

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As discussed, the Catholic Church needs a little help in the public relations department. The Vatican's response to reams of bad press has been, to a large degree, to create more bad press. Castigating the media hasn't helped. It turns out that being scolded by priests may work with observant Catholics but only seems to tick off a largely secular press corps. And having numerous cardinals and bishops making outrageous and ill-tempered statements, that just happen to make for great copy, doesn't really help either.

The Vatican has been fairly open about the need for a good spin doctor. They've been less open to the ideas generated by their own communications conference, which is to say, more openness and apology. Pope Benedict has, to some degree, but the Church certainly hasn't been either consistent or monolithic in that approach. And none of that contriteness and transparency has been displayed when it comes to scandals beyond the sex abuse issue they've been forced by circumstance to finally cop to. Instead, they've been prosecuting leaks and retreating to the cone of silence.

The announcement that the Vatican has tapped a new media adviser, and that he comes by way of Fox News, brings some assurance that they will at least be getting their act together in terms of message discipline. If there's anything Fox News does well, it's message discipline. (Ignoring for the moment the problem of Shep Smith. But he is a creature sui generis.) And it looks like Greg Burke is very much on it.

He defined his job, which he said he had been offered twice before, as being along the lines of the White House senior communications adviser: "You're shaping the message, you're molding the message, and you're trying to make sure everyone remains on-message. And that's tough."

Where the choice of Greg Burke gets a little weird is in his allegiance to Opus Dei. And here I'm not talking about the public perceptions of the organization -- largely thanks to Dan Brown -- or even that many of the strange rumors turn out to be true. I don't know if Burke is a self-flagellater or if he wears a cilice. It's none of my business... and I don't really want to know. But with the choice of an Opus Dei member as their public voice, the Vatican has also signaled that they will be sticking like glue to their conservative -- even regressive -- policies.

With special ties to the pope, Opus Dei takes a traditionalist approach and has been portrayed as an important counterforce to liberal reforms in the church since the 1960s and to concerns such as declining attendance.

But some Catholics express concern about Opus Dei's recruitment practices and what they say is Opus Dei's growing conservative influence in the church.

"Like many Catholics, I'm concerned about the apparent growth of Opus Dei in the Vatican, here, and among Latin American cardinals and bishops," says David O'Brien, a professor of Roman Catholic studies at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass. 

Burke says he doesn't know if his membership in that organization has anything to do with his selection but I tend to think that's a little disingenuous. Opus Dei has been enjoying favored status from the Vatican for some time -- and even more so since the Legionaries of Christ went down in flames.

He said he didn't really know what, if any, role his membership in Opus Dei played. Opus is greatly in favor in the Vatican these days, particularly as other new religious movements such as the Legion of Christ have lost credibility with their own problems. Currently, for example, the cardinal who is heading the Vatican's internal investigation into the leaks of documents is the Opus Dei prelate, Cardinal Julian Herranz.

"I'm an old-fashioned Midwestern Catholic whose mother went to Mass every day," Burke said. "Am I being hired because I'm in Opus Dei?" he asked. "It might come into play." But he noted he was also in Opus when he was hired by Fox and Time magazine.

I'm thinking anyone who was hoping for a change in the very doctrinaire pronouncements coming from the Vatican on everything from birth control, to homosexuality, to nuns, will be disappointed. The most that we can hope for with this announcement is that they'll be polishing those particular turds a bit better.

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