“What’s wrong in the Vatican press office?”

That’s the question being posed by editor Robert Royal over at  The Catholic Thing — and it’s a good question:

The Vatican hired Greg Burke in June, an experienced journalist at Catholic and secular outlets, as a special consultant to help with press communications. Given the multiple stumbles and misfires in recent years, it seemed that – finally – Rome understood the need for a very different approach in the current global communications network.

So what happened this week after the violence in Libya? On Wednesday, well after the basic facts were known, Fr. Federico Lombardi, director of the press office, issued the following:

Profound respect for the beliefs, texts, outstanding figures and symbols of the various religions is an essential precondition for the peaceful coexistence of peoples. The serious consequences of unjustified offence and provocations against the sensibilities of Muslim believers are once again evident in these days, as we see the reactions they arouse, sometimes with tragic results, which in their turn nourish tension and hatred, unleashing unacceptable violence.

The message of dialogue and respect for all believers of different religions, which the Holy Father is preparing to carry with him on his forthcoming trip to Lebanon, indicate the path that everyone should follow in order to construct shared and peaceful coexistence among religions and peoples.

That’s it. You can find it on the Vatican’s official website here. Nothing about the four Americans killed, and the violence gets only that mildest of modern moral condemnations “unacceptable.” (By whom?)

After widespread criticism, Fr. Lombardi issued this:

“The very serious attack organised against the United States diplomatic mission in Libya, which led to the death of the ambassador and of other functionaries, calls for the firmest possible condemnation on the part of the Holy See. Nothing, in fact, can justify the activity of terrorist organisations and homicidal violence. Along with our sadness, mourning and prayers for the victims, we again express the hope that, despite this latest tragedy, the international community may discover the most favourable ways to continue its commitment in favour of peace.”

Unlike the Obama administration, the Vatican was actually able to say the words “terrorist organizations” and to suggest that the attack was planned – not the result of mere hurt feelings.

It’s understandable that, as a first reaction, a religious institution would be sensitive to insults to a faith as such, especially since the Vatican itself is often the target of such treatment. So we might cut the press office a little slack for that first response – but only a little.

This whole episode seems to confirm that the press office, and maybe people higher up, still have bad instincts. They’re missing the kind of fundamental realism that spokesmen have to display both to be taken seriously and to avoid PR disasters.

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