One week after Pope Benedict XVI crashed onto the front pages with his controversial remarks on Islam, two central questions hang over the Holy See: How did that inflammatory quote get into the speech in the first place, and how do we get him out of this fix (and off the front pages)? The answers — tied both to the Pope's old habits and recent changes in the Roman Curia bureaucracy — are key to helping Catholicism's communicator-in-chief manage his message more smoothly and prevent another PR disaster like this one from happening again.
Benedict's speech last Tuesday at his old university in Bavaria was undoubtedly provocative and open to a range of interpretations. And for that reason, any course in Communication 101 — not to mention centuries of Vatican diplomacy — could have seen this coming. So much so that one wonders if the Pope didn't show his speech to even a single top collaborator.
Traditionally, key papal discourses would wind their way through several layers of checks and input from various offices in the Roman Curia — and particularly in the latter years of the previous papacy, bureaucrats actually wrote the speeches themselves. But the effective No. 2 man in the Curia bureaucracy, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, had been a lame duck over the last two months after Benedict announced his replacement as Secretary of State would begin this fall (Sep. 15, in fact, the day after the Pope's return from Germany). Insiders say the 78-year-old Italian hadn't had an effective working relationship with the German Pope since he became Pope (some believe he may have even tried to block the election of the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the conclave of April 2005). But more to the point, the Pope has long trusted his own writing touch for major documents and speeches — and no one was going to edit his grand return to the University of Regensburg where he'd taught theology in the 1970s.
If someone else had had a chance to examine the speech in advance, they might have made the point that it wouldn't be smart to cite the now infamous words of a 14th century Byzantine Emperor — "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached" — without some context or interpretation. One might even defend the Pope's use of the historical quote in order to pursue his intellectual point — but not his simply leaving it there to flap in the wind, without saying what he thought of its merits. At his Sunday Angelus prayer, Benedict in fact stated clearly that he did not agree with the Emperor, and that he respects Muslims — two points that should have been inserted in his speech right next to the emperor's black-and-white quote. Whether or not Benedict has learned his communication lesson, at least now he has in place several key advisors who can improve his approach on the world stage. Sodano's replacement, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, was Ratzinger's top deputy in his former job as the head of the Vatican's doctrinal office. From his first day on the new job last Friday, Bertone has led what for the Vatican has been a rather rapid response to the precipitous fallout from the Pope's speech. Benedict's public declaration Sunday of his regret, and his clarification of his remarks, was an unprecedented example of papal backtracking. Behind the scenes, Bertone has also launched a diplomatic campaign, as the Holy See's representatives — or nuncios — in Muslim countries have been dispatched to meet government representatives to try to calm the waters.
Aiding Bertone are two other new arrivals, key to getting out the right message. The Germany trip was the first for the new head of the Vatican press office, Father Federico Lombardi, already the director general of Vatican radio and television, who takes over for longtime papal spokesman Joaqu�Navarro-Valls. Though Navarro-Valls, a suave Opus Dei layman, was prized for his ability to shape John Paul's message for the modern media, he too had appeared to be biding his time since the start of this pontificate. The Jesuit scholar Lombardi, a much more low-key figure, must begin to help translate Benedict's lofty prose into the stuff of daily news copy. Also, just last week, the new head of the Vatican's foreign affairs office was named. It is Mons. Dominique Mamberti, a Moroccan-born Frenchman, who has spent much of his diplomatic tenure in Muslim countries.
Ultimately, though, it is up to the Pope to hit the right notes. Wednesday's general audience will be the pontiff's first chance to try to move the news cycle beyond the polemics. Security will no doubt continue to be high — and perhaps it will remain on higher levels for years to come on account of the current uproar. The Pope, in any case, does seem to believe that religious violence is indeed a "top story" of our times; but with a little more PR savvy, he might begin to help reverse the current storyline, rather than fuel it.