Here’s the thing about important historical reforms: They almost never happen all at once. Usually the turning points that matter unfold over protracted periods of time, and their contents are, frankly, often boring as hell at the level of detail.
We got another reminder of the point on Thursday, as the Vatican released a set of statutes for a new “Secretariat of Communications” approved by Pope Francis more than a year ago as part of his broader reform of the Roman Curia, the Vatican’s central administrative bureaucracy.
For decades, anyone with eyes could see there was a problem with the Vatican’s communications operation. There were too many cooks in the kitchen, with Vatican Radio, Vatican TV, the Vatican Press Office, L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican book publishing arm, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, as well as several other offices, all doing their own thing, with the thinnest possible veneer of coordination.
The result was both an administrative and PR disaster. There was widespread duplication of efforts and resources, as well as the perennial danger of mixed messages and internal contradictions.
(To be clear, I’m talking the structures of Vatican communications, not the people who work in them, who generally turn in heroic and high-quality effort for relatively little by way of material reward.)
As pope, Francis knows he was elected on a reform mandate, and he also knows that few would take the effort seriously if it didn’t address the communications problem. If he were in any doubt, the fact that his C-9 council of cardinal advisers from around the world, from the beginning, pressed him to take up the communications challenge would have resolved it.
That’s why Francis asked a reform study commission three years ago, called COSEA, to include a focus on communications, and it’s also why he created the new Secretariat for Communications last June, entrusting it to Italian Monsignor Dario Edoardo Viganò, who previously headed up Vatican TV.
The idea is to bring these previously disparate entities into alignment, saving some money along the way and also delivering a more incisive and coherent message. In an audience with an Italian association of journalists on Thursday, the pontiff said that “facing change in the media world, the Vatican has experienced and is still going through a process of renewal of its communication system,” calling the new department “the natural point of reference for your precious work.”
The fact that Francis is in earnest about communications reform is clear not only from creating the new secretariat, but also his more recent choices to head one of its most important offices: Veteran American journalist Greg Burke as director of the Vatican Press Office, and Spanish journalist Paloma Garcia Ovejero as his deputy.
If you’d taken a poll among the Vatican press corps for the best-liked and best-respected people they knew in Rome, it’s likely Burke and Garcia would have been among the top finishers, and the picks suggested to those in the know that Francis is taking this task seriously.
Yet one might legitimately wonder why, if it’s truly a priority, it’s taken so long to issue the statutes for the new secretariat, meaning the legal document governing its operations.
In truth, the lengthy interval probably suggests that Francis and his team are learning from experience. They quickly put out statutes for the new Secretariat for the Economy, which they’ve had to rethink a couple times in light of how they played out, and they also recently launched an audit which was suspended and then put back on track in a different form.
Reform is like that – intentions are one thing, the real world another. In this case, it seems Francis and his advisers wanted to put out a document they could live with, rather than rush something only to have to pull it back again, creating impressions of chaos and internal bickering.
Further, the Vatican’s communications operations are very different animals, with differing legal and financial profiles, and figuring out how to bring them together in something resembling a seamless fashion isn’t a walk in the park.
For Vatican-watchers, one unavoidable aspect of the new statutes is the way it confirms the supremacy of the Secretariat of State, the Vatican’s 800-pound gorilla. No fewer than seven times in the course of the eight-page document, the statutes stipulate that the new department will act only after having obtained a green light from the Secretariat of State.
At the beginning, it seemed that Francis’s intention was to clip the wings of the Secretary of State, transforming it from a “prime minister’s” position into a foreign ministry responsible primarily for international diplomacy.
Having found a figure of trust in Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, however, Francis has progressively reinforced the Secretariat of State’s role as the clearinghouse through which all major decisions must pass, and Thursday’s statutes will likely be seen as another chapter in that reconsolidation.
At the big-picture level, however, here are what probably ought to be the three major take-aways.
First, the Vatican recognizes that social media are fueling a communications revolution, and it needs a leaner and more efficient way to respond.
Second, the entire communications operation is placed within the context of the “evangelizing mission of the Church.”
Third, the prefect of the secretariat – meaning Viganò – is given full authority to bring the various departments in line, and so if he doesn’t succeed in implementing greater coordination and economies of scale, it won’t be because he lacked the power to do it.
Granted, a rejiggered bureaucratic structure for what amounts to the Vatican’s PR operation isn’t exactly the sexiest news story in the world.
However, Francis knows well that he wasn’t elected just to turn the world on with his smile, as critical as that is to the Church’s missionary fortunes. He was also chosen to resolve a cluster of long-standing administrative problems in the Vatican, which sometimes made the place an obstacle to evangelization rather than an instrument of it, and which require careful and patient labor to resolve.
We’ll have to see how the statutes released Thursday work out, and just as importantly, what Viganò does with the powers he’s been granted. What’s already clear, however, is that slowly but surely, Francis is doing more than talk about reform – he’s creating the legal and institutional structures to make it irreversible.