The Vatican’s “Own Goal”

The Telegraph’s (UK) Damian Thompson is once again lamenting the seemingly tone-deaf Vatican PR “machine:”

If I’d been put in charge of the Vatican press office with a specific brief to provide ammunition for the Church’s enemies, I don’t think I could have come up with anything better than this. Increase the penalties against abusers in a way that might have generated positive headlines – but make sure you bundle them up with separate penalties involving invalid women’s ordinations. That will allow the anti-Catholic media to proclaim: “Catholic Church condemns priestly paedophilia and women’s ordination” – and imply “Catholic Church equates priestly paedophilia and women’s ordination”.

As Thompson notes in his post, there is a logical reason for including these two updated penalties — they are both connected to changes in Canon Law. But, he adds, there is also a very good (and obvious, one would have thought) PR reason for announcing them separately, even if they are connected in “fact.”

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t have a problem with the Church taking a tougher line against those “ordinations” of smug women in comedy rainbow stoles. From Rome’s point of view, these parodies of the sacrament of Holy Orders cruelly mislead the faithful by allowing Tabletistas to suggest that the teaching of the Church that only men can be ordained will eventually change. It won’t. But allowing this problem to be discussed in the same breath as grave offences against children? I despair. There’s a line from the Vatican today explaining that the two things aren’t equally serious, but too late.

As Russell Shaw’s article yesterday points out, there are many people willing and eager to jump on just this sort of blunder and use it to their own ends, whether the facts justify that use or not. There have been ample opportunities to lament the work of the Vatican’s PR folks over the last year or so. I’m sure they are both hard-working and sincere. But since the climate of criticism (both fair and unfair) is unlikely to change any time soon, it seems imperative that the Vatican consider a bit more carefully the ways in which they are interacting with that climate.

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Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. Currently residing in Lander, Wyoming -- "where Stetsons meet Birkenstocks" -- he is a columnist for Crisis Magazine and the Patheos Catholic portal.

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