Friendly Fire


First Things, 7 January 2019

A year that began with the Holy Father performing a quick wedding on a plane in Chile ended with the Bride of Christ making an honest man out of longtime Vaticanista Andrea Tornielli.

Pope Francis appointed Tornielli “editorial director” for the Dicastery for Communication on December 18, from which post he will give editorial guidance to all of the Holy See’s media efforts. Under Francis’s pontificate, Tornielli has been less of a Vatican analyst and more of a spokesman. Greg Burke was the director of the Holy See Press Office, but Tornielli was the portavoce of the Casa Santa Marta. And what would the official spokesman do when the Holy Father’s confidant was charged with providing “editorial direction” to all Vatican communication?

Head for the exit, that’s what. In dramatic fashion, on New Year’s Eve, both Burke and press office vice-director Paloma Garcia Ovejero announced their resignations, effective New Year’s Day. In a tweet, Burke said both of them had been praying about departing for months, but the sudden joint resignation clearly indicates something had become urgently untenable.

When I was in Rome to cover the synod last October, I was surprised at how factional the thinking in the synod office—and in the Vatican communications offices—had become. They spoke openly not about critics on this or that issue, but about “enemies of the pope.” Entire networks and newspapers and news agencies, filled with professional, competent, and devoutly Catholic journalists, were denounced as lacking fidelity to the Church. That there will be tension between the principal figures of a pontificate and the media that covers it is to be expected; to encounter a mindset reminiscent of Nixon’s enemies list or the Trump administration was startling.

Now Francis has installed a staunch loyalist to ensure that the official line is followed, well, religiously. The independent journalistic credentials of Burke and Garcia, praised when they were appointed in 2016, evidently were not a good fit. By their own account they were not pushed out, but the abrupt and dramatic departure was clearly intended to signal that things are headed in a troublesome direction.

Tornielli’s views will now guide the entire Vatican media operation. No doubt it is thought that installing a reliable ally in a senior post will serve the Holy Father’s interests. Perhaps. But on the communications front, 2018 demonstrated amply that it is not the supposed “enemies” of the pope who cause the Holy Father the most problems. It is his most enthusiastic friends.

In early 2017, Father Antonio Spadaro, the papal amanuensis and consigliere plenipotentiary, tweeted: “Theology is not mathematics. In theology 2 + 2 can equal 5. Because it has to do with God and real life of people....”

His intent was to defend Amoris Laetitia. But it had the opposite effect, as the pope’s inner circle gave off a creepy authoritarian vibe. Ever since George Orwell’s 1984, insisting that 2+2 can equal 5, or whatever the party line is, has become shorthand for totalitarianism. Indeed, in 1980s Poland a frequent anti-communist slogan was that, “For Poland to be Poland, 2+2 must always equal 4.”

While Spadaro’s tweet is likely the worst example of Francis being wounded by friendly fire, in 2018 the problem became more frequent. And if Tornielli’s appointment means doubling down on reliable “friends” in the face of supposed “enemies,” it is quite possible that 2019 will be worse still.

Consider the following examples from 2018, which show that Pope Francis has less to worry about from “enemies” than he does from his “friends.”

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