On July 11, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Rev. Federico Lombardi, S.J., to be the director of the Vatican Press Office. Father Lombardi took over a position held for 22 years by Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, a numerary of Opus Dei. It is possible, however, that Father Lombardi may not even make it to the third anniversary of his appointment.
After the Vatican was pelted in the media for its handling of the Bishop Richard Williamson affair and the pope’s comment about condoms in Africa, there were press reports that Father Lombardi would resign following Benedict’s trip to the Holy Land. But the pope has been home from Israel for ten days, and there has been no change in the press office. Will Father Lombardi resign? Should he resign?
It is surprising that Father Lombardi, given his experience, would have allowed such high-profile blunders. He worked for the influential Jesuit-run magazine La Civiltà Cattolica and served as superior of the Jesuits’ Italian province. In 1991, he was named program director, and later general director, of Vatican Radio, and was also made general director of the Vatican Television Centre in 2001. He continues to hold all three directorships (though he does not manage L’Osservatore Romano).
In the beginning, Father Lombardi viewed his role at the press office differently from his predecessor. He explained that he does not want to be called the papal "spokesman": "I don’t think my role is to explain the pope’s thinking or explain the things that he already states in an extraordinarily clear and rich way." But, ironically, Lombardi’s stumbles began in 2007 when he began to do exactly what he said he would not: interpret.
What follows is an overview of the six major gaffs that have occurred during Father Lombardi’s directorship of the press office, and that may well lead to his departure.
1. On the way to Brazil on May 9, 2007, Benedict was asked by journalists whether he supported the excommunication of the Mexican politicians who had voted in April to legalize abortion. He answered: "Yes, this excommunication was not something arbitrary, but is foreseen by the Code [of Canon Law]. It is simply part of Church law that the killing of an innocent baby is incompatible with being in communion with the body of Christ."
"The Mexican bishops," he continued, "did not do anything new, surprising, or arbitrary."
The next day, the Vatican Press Office released the official transcript of the pope’s session with reporters. The pope’s opening "yes" to the direct question about excommunication had disappeared, and so had the references to the Mexican bishops. CNS reported on the "tweaked version of the pope’s remarks," with Father Lombardi explaining "that it was routine for the Vatican Secretariat of State to review the pope’s extemporaneous remarks and clean them up a little for publication." He justified the changes on the basis that no actual excommunication had occurred.
2. In November 2008, the Holy Father gave an address to the highly controversial international Organ Transplant Conference that had been co-sponsored by the Pontifical Academy for Life. The conference had been criticized by members of the Academy and prominent leaders in the international pro-life movement for its failure to critically examine so-called brain death, its accuracy as a death criteria, and its widespread use in the organ transplant trade.
The pope gave an address that was seen by the international press as a strong rebuke to the assembled organ transplant experts and, by extension, to the Academy itself. He strongly cautioned the scientists, "There must not be the slightest suspicion of arbitrariness. Where certainty cannot be achieved, the principle of precaution must prevail."
The Monday following the pope’s speech, the Vatican Web site, under Father Lombardi’s supervision, published a dissenting "minority report" from a January 2005 meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. The majority of members at the 2005 meeting had agreed that the brain death criterion was not sufficient for purposes of organ transplants, but the Web site posted only the opinion of the minority of dissenters, who had argued that brain death was acceptable. This posting was seen as a refutation of — or at best a deliberate effort to soften — the pope’s caution of the previous Friday.
3. Father Lombardi’s reputation was further damaged by the uproar following the lifting of the excommunications of four bishops of the Society of St. Pius X in January 2009, when the anti-Semitism of Bishop Williamson was revealed in the media. In the aftermath, it appears that Father Lombardi attempted to shift the blame from himself by publicly criticizing the pope and Castrillon Cardinal Hoyos, President of the Pontifical Commission "Ecclesia Dei." In an interview with the French daily newspaper La Croix, Father Lombardi said, "Undoubtedly, the people who managed this situation were not aware of the gravity of the opinions of Msgr. Williamson," adding, "If there was someone who should know it, it is Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos." The London Times ran a headline identifying Cardinal Castrillon as the "Vatican’s scapegoat for the Bishop Richard Williamson controversy."
The popular Catholic Web site Rorate Coeli pointed out the problem with this defense:
Father Lombardi is being disingenuous. If the pope did not know, many may be blamed; but if Lombardi did not know, even though his office was in charge of preparing the note presenting the decree, then he should blame himself. He is the pope’s leading man in all media-related matters. He, personally, or the scores of employees… could have just searched Google for any of the several problematic texts written by Bishop R.Williamson.
In the same article in La Croix, Lombardi appeared to fail to understand that, as head of the Vatican’s communications apparatus, he himself was responsible for Vatican communications. He said, "We didn’t control the communications."
4. The latest round of Fr. Lombardi’s stumbles began in March on the plane taking the pope on the first leg of his trip to Africa. Father Lombardi allowed a reporter to ask a question on the use of condoms in the prevention of HIV/AIDS. The pope’s response, that condoms only made the problem worse, ignited another firestorm reaction from the world’s media.
Later media coverage, however, gave conflicting reports on the actual words of the pope, and it was revealed that the Vatican had issued a different version that "softened" the statement. Journalists present on the plane to Cameroon reported that the pope had said that the problem of AIDS "cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics: on the contrary, they increase it."
Later versions of the comment, however, had changed the sentence to say that condoms "risk increasing" the problem of AIDS. Father Lombardi later denied having changed the pope’s comments on condoms, telling Zenit News Service that it had been done by an official of the Secretariat of State.
5. A few days later, on the same trip to Africa, Benedict met with government officials of Angola and said, "How bitter the irony of those who promote abortion as a form of maternal healthcare! How disconcerting the claim that the termination of life is a matter of reproductive health!"
At a press conference later, Father Lombardi appeared to distance the pope from an absolute condemnation of "therapeutic abortion." Instead, he insisted, "The pope absolutely was not talking about therapeutic abortion, and did not say that this must always be rejected."
Father Lombardi was attempting to keep the pope’s statement from being applied to a situation in Brazil where an archbishop had excommunicated all those responsible for procuring an abortion for a pregnant nine-year-old girl. Why? The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano,had just published an editorial by Archbishop Rino Fisichella, the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, strongly critical of the Brazilian archbishop.
Italian media picked up on the theme. Il Giornale ran the headline, "The Vatican does not condemn abortion for therapeutic purposes." Under Corriere della Serra’s headline, which read, "Vatican, Benedict XVI does not condemn abortion," the paper reported, "The clarification comes from Father Federico Lombardi, head of the Vatican Press Office."
6. The pope’s recent trip to the Holy Land was probably the last place on earth where the Vatican would want to launch a news cycle dedicated to Benedict and the Hitler Youth, but that is precisely what happened. In a May 12 press conference, responding to media commentary on the pope’s visit and speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, Father Lombardi vehemently denied that the young Joseph Ratzinger had been enrolled in the Nazi Hitler Youth program. "The pope has said he never, never was a member of the Hitler Youth, which was a movement of fanatical volunteers," he said.
Then-Cardinal Ratzinger himself, however, in a 1996 book of interviews, Salt of the Earth, said that he had been drafted into the Hitler Youth, because membership in the movement had been made compulsory by the Nazi regime. Father Lombardi’s clumsy attempt to deny something that the pope himself had already conceded long ago reawakened the story, prompting media agencies around the world to rehash the details.
Finally, there is the question of the editor of L’Osservatore Romano — Gian Maria Vian — and his recent comment in the Vatican paper that President Barack Obama is not pro-abortion. In my mind, there is no question that he should resign or be removed from the paper, but Father Lombardi has not yet released a statement correcting Vian’s comments, as he has done in the past.
This silence is disappointing, given the damage the Vatican newspaper is doing to the Church, but it may well presage a major announcement about the Vatican Press Office.