ROME – Under Argentine Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences has become one of the Vatican’s primary beachheads for advancing the pro-immigrant, anti-“savage capitalism” vision of the world articulated by Pope Francis.

Because that vision is controversial, so’s the academy, which means it often needs some PR help. In response to that perceived lacuna, Francis made a move Saturday – and, to say the least, it’s a doozy.

The pontiff named 57-year-old Italian Monsignor Dario Edoardo Viganò to the apparently brand-new position of “Vice Chancellor” for both the Academy for Science and the Academy for Social Sciences, which are jointly led by Sanchez Sorondo. Francis assigned Viganò special responsibility for communications.

Many familiar with Viganò’s record might be tempted to quip that’s a bit like making Barry Bonds your special advisor on steroid use in baseball, or akin to putting Bernie Madoff in charge of your financial reform.

For those who may have forgotten, or who weren’t paying attention at the time, Viganò is the official who presided over one of the most egregious PR debacles in recent Vatican memory back in 2018, when it turned out he had cooked up a digitally altered photo of a letter from Pope emeritus Benedict XVI in an effort to leave out portions considered embarrassing.

Inevitably, the ruse fell apart and generated huge embarrassment – among other things because it fed the very narrative of tensions between the two popes that Francis, from the beginning, has strived to avoid.

In effect, the Viganò appointment is thus another triumph for what I’ve termed the Vatican’s “Ironic Employment Division.”

That ever-nimble outfit already has brought you such classics as the “Bling Bishop,” Franz-Peter Tebartz-van-Elst, who alienated a broad swath of German opinion with his spending on his residence, now working in the Vatican’s office for evangelization, and Argentine Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, who resigned his post heading the Diocese of Oran in August 2017 amid charges of both sexual and financial misconduct, now serving as assessor to the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), the Vatican’s financial powerhouse.

Granted, Francis may regard the 2018 debacle as an aberration, perhaps hoping that Viganò can recapture some of his old magic, such as the remarkable Fellini-esque footage of Benedict’s helicopter ride to Castel Gandolfo on the day of his resignation. It was that imagery, actually, that helped catapult Viganò to the head of the Vatican’s new department for communications – just as it was his hubris in thinking he wouldn’t be caught doctoring Benedict’s letter that led to his exile.

In all fairness, Francis is hardly the first pope to carve out a made-up Vatican job for a cleric perceived as a problem, either in his diocese or in some other role in Rome. It’s such a time-honored custom the Italians even have a word for it – a parcheggio, meaning a “parking spot.”

Still, for a pontiff who came in vowing a sweeping reform of the Vatican, such maneuvers can’t help but seem a bit of a head-scratcher. Actually, this is the second time Francis has invented a position for Viganò, since after the 2018 scandal he was assigned to a new and ill-defined role as “assessor” of the communications department.

Perhaps Viganò’s first PR project at the twin academies, actually, could be to explain what in the world he’s doing there in the first place.

Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr

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