With few exceptions, English-language journalism doesn’t take the Vatican terribly seriously. The Vatican press office accredits dozens of English-speaking Romebased reporters, but most of them spend perhaps 25 percent of their time on the beat. A typical correspondent for an American or British media outlet is also likely to be responsible for European politics, business and culture, as well as the southern Mediterranean and the Balkans. These days, several Rome-based correspondents have been deployed to cover the possible war in Iraq. The Rome bureau chief for CNN, for example, just spent several weeks in Kuwait.

It’s not that the Vatican doesn’t merit coverage. The pope sets the spiritual and moral tone for one billion Catholics scattered in every corner of the globe, and the Vatican is an influential player in the critical political or cultural debates of the day, from the Middle East to cloning.

Yet full-time English-language reporters on the Vatican beat can be counted on two hands. The Associated Press and Reuters each have a Vatican writer, and Newsweek has a part-time correspondent whose primary interest is the Vatican. In the “trade press” of specialized Catholic news organizations, there are perhaps five or six full-time Vatican English-language correspondents.

The inevitable result of this neglect is that much reporting is superficial, driven by stereotypes and conventional wisdom. During the past year, this weakness showed up repeatedly as the American press too often missed the context necessary to account for developments in the emerging sexual abuse crisis. An example of this occurred in the reporting about the policy adopted by the U.S. bishops in Dallas; those who cover the Vatican knew it wouldn’t be accepted. Since the mid-1980’s, Vatican officials have repeatedly insisted on using church courts rather than a bishop’s administrative authority to remove priests from the ministry. More informed reporting would have prepared the public for what was likely to happen. Instead, most American news media outlets appeared to be blindsided by the Vatican reaction and, at least initially, they insisted on treating it as another example of “conservative Vatican vs. independent-minded American church.” (In fact, often the more liberal bishops and canon lawyers in the United States were the ones who hoped the Vatican would demand changes towards greater due process for accused priests.)

Challenges on the Vatican Beat

The greatest challenge I have as a Vatican correspondent is cutting through popular misconceptions that are reinforced by careless reporting. These misconceptions include:

Vatican “secrecy”: Few stereotypes are more enduring. Consider this lead from a story about the sex abuse scandals that appeared above the fold on the front page of a major American daily: “The sense of impenetrability begins at the Vatican gate just beyond St. Peter’s Square. Swiss Guards … lift their pikes to allow passage only after receiving orders. Farther inside, a gatekeeper checks his list before giving a reluctant nod for a visitor to enter a 12-foot door reinforced with steel and iron spikes to repel invaders …. Inside the fortress-like building, an air of secrecy and monarchical power wafts through elegant, marble halls like a thick plume of incense.”

Such imagery may make copyeditors salivate, but the truth about the Vatican is far more prosaic. The Swiss Guards are indeed colorful, but they’re no more adept at managing the information flow than Enron’s security force. As with any other bureaucracy, nothing remains hidden for very long. For example, since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), a body called the Synod of Bishops has met 20 times in Rome, bringing together some 250 bishops from around the world to advise the pope. They deliberate for three weeks, and at the end they adopt a set of propositions. The bishops are sworn to absolute secrecy about the content of the propositions and, every time, without fail, an Italian news agency called Adista publishes the propositions within a matter of days.

How? They do what reporters do—they gather news from their sources, without getting an engraved invitation from officialdom to do so. Indeed, many bishops at the Synods are actually eager to hand out the texts of their supposedly secret speeches, wanting to see their golden words in print. The problem with the Vatican is not that it is secretive, but that it is unique, and it takes time to become familiar with the system and its personnel. Once that’s accomplished, however, there’s very little an enterprising reporter can’t ferret out.

Why is the secrecy myth a problem?

  • It leads to a tolerance of speculation, and this means that a lot of frankly ridiculous reporting ends up in print or on the air. Then, everyone else has to respond, and time and energy gets tied down in doing nonstories. (The best current example is the theme about an “aging, out of touch” pope manipulated by his aides that cropped up repeatedly in reporting on the sex abuse scandals).
  • It creates an impression that there is no hard information about the Vatican; hence one guess is as good as another about what’s happening. This confusion obscures the distinction between correspondents who make it up as they go along and those who carefully cultivate sources and handle information responsibly. The result is that some people regard covering the Vatican as a half-step up from a gossip column.

Hence, an appeal to editors: Declare a moratorium on the “ultra-secretive Vatican” rap. You’ll be doing the journalistic enterprise a favor.

There are several other difficulties facing a Vatican correspondent (what the Italians call a Vaticanista), created by the unique nature of the assignment. Time: To cover the Vatican well, one must master at least three foreign languages: Italian, because it is the working language of the papal bureaucracy; the language of the Catholic Church, because without a knowledge of church history, scripture, theology, liturgy and canon law, a Vatican reporter will be lost; and the language of the Roman Curia, the pope’s civil service, which has its own history, culture and argot.

It’s a beat where personal contacts outside official channels make an enormous difference and that takes time to cultivate. It requires taking Vatican officials to lunch and dinner, attending the sometimes tedious symposia and book presentations and embassy parties, where contacts are made and impressions formed, and reading theological journals and news services in several languages where intelligence on the Vatican is found. A reporter needs the phone numbers and e-mail addresses of theologians and church historians and diplomats, with the understanding that these folks are disposed to be helpful.

With English-language journalists, coverage of the Vatican thus amounts to a mismatch: Most reporters are constrained to do less than full-time work on a beat that demands more than full-time competence. News organizations need to free up the time and resources to do the job right.

Cultural Gaps: While Italian is the default working language of the Roman Curia, people who deal with the Vatican use any of six European tongues: Italian, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese and English. “Vatican documents” are prepared in any or all of these languages (English is not always among them). Moreover, the reporting, theological discussion, and correspondence important to understanding the Vatican goes on in all six of these languages and many more. This places a premium on linguistic competence, leaving many Anglo-Saxon journalists disadvantaged. The result is that American and English reporters covering the Vatican tend to depend on English-speaking officials, thereby limiting their range of sources.

Language is the doorway to culture, and reporters covering the Vatican face the challenge of crossing the gaps that divide Anglo-Saxon readers from other cultures. For example, southern Mediterraneans have a very different attitude towards law than Anglo-Saxons. Mediterraneans see law as an expression of an ideal, understanding that most people in most circumstances will fall short; Anglo-Saxons regard law as the rule to be obeyed. Hence, when the Vatican inveighs against birth control, Anglo-Saxons are scandalized because many Catholics simply disregard the rules; in Rome, the attitude is, “What else is new?”

There are also Latin Americans, Asians and Africans in the Vatican, as well as northern Europeans and North Americans. In order to cover the beat, one has to know something about the cultural background, both social and ecclesiastical, of all these regions, be able to apply them to specific debates in the church, and then explain the impact of those differences to readers. This amounts to an exercise in cultural anthropology that doesn’t come easy.

This cultural gap became clear in coverage of the sex abuse scandals. For example, Vatican officials repeatedly expressed caution about policies obliging bishops to report accusations of sexual abuse against priests to the police. Americans, by and large, saw this as a cover-up. For churchmen (such as Pope John Paul II himself) from cultures in which the police and criminal justice system have frequently been tools of oppression, however, there was a very different outlook. Good reporting means providing the cultural context necessary to help the readers understand.

Lack of Spin: As much as journalists complain about spin doctors, the truth is that when a major story is breaking, it can be helpful if an institution puts public relations people in the field. At the very least they can provide basic information and, in the rush to file stories or assemble TV packages, the institution’s view gets into the mix. For whatever reasons, the Vatican doesn’t spin its own story very well.

When the American cardinals were in Rome in April 2002 for a special summit with the pope on the sex abuse crisis, an army of American reporters occupied the square outside the Vatican press office. They were desperately hoping for any scrap of information or comment. While the American bishops did a creditable job of making themselves available, little was forthcoming from the Vatican, to the point that many reporters were still desperate to find someone who could tell Rome’s side of the story.

This absence of spin can be seen as either a symptom of an unaccountable institution that disdains the press or a charming lack of concern for public relations. Either way, it creates a real headache for journalists. The Vatican press office closes most days at 3:00 p.m.; if news breaks later in the afternoon, reporters are basically on their own. There is also no such thing as a daily briefing, and top Vatican officials almost never give news conferences. When they want to communicate with the world, they typically grant an interview to one Italian news outlet, counting on the rest of the press corps to pick it up.

Sourcing: The Vatican employee handbook specifies that only the officials at the highest levels in a given office are allowed to speak with the press. Technically, this would mean only three people in each of the nine congregations and 11 councils—a grand total of 60 people—can deal with reporters. In fact, Vatican reporters talk all the time to the desk officers who actually do the work. This rule means, however, that most Vatican sources can never be quoted by name.

Even for those officials who can theoretically speak to the press, many prefer to do so only on background. For one thing, in Vatican culture the emphasis on someone’s “competence” is very strong, so that if it’s a particular official’s job to speak on an issue, colleagues are reluctant to be seen as invading his area of responsibility. For another, Vatican officials often see the press do a lazy job of reporting, so they are understandably wary about attaching their name to information that might be misused.

The result is that Vatican correspondents are frequently constrained to write stories on the basis of unnamed sources. Good reporters find this a frustrating, dangerous practice, and do everything they can to get voices on the record. The problem, of course, is the potential for abuse. Who are these unnamed sources? How does the reader know they’re real or how seriously to take their information? In the end, only the journalist’s reputation offers a reliable guide.

Lack of Editorial Critique: If a White House reporter filed a story claiming that George W. Bush was about to resign, it wouldn’t make it very far up the copyediting chain before somebody raised questions. Most editors know enough about the White House to realize how improbable such an event is and have their own sources from whom they could get an independent read of what’s going on. That kind of familiarity with the Vatican doesn’t exist inside most English-language newsrooms. Copyeditors and assignment desks don’t have much sense of who John Paul II is, how the Vatican works, or the internal politics of the Catholic Church. The result: Stories that would never make it past the editorial filters on other beats can sail through when it comes to the Vatican. Correspondents thus have to find other sources of feedback and critique for their coverage of the Vatican and, like any self-imposed discipline, there’s always the tendency to get lazy.

Lack of Editorial Commitment: It’s a well-documented reality that editors and reporters in the American media tend to be less religious than the general population, at least as measured by participation in institutional churches. Many editors regard religion as a less serious beat than politics and finance. The Vatican seems a bit like Buckingham Palace: good theater, but the real news is at 10 Downing Street.

The wake-up call in the sex scandals of 2002 for the American press was that the Vatican is an enormously consequential player in the lives of 65 million American Catholics. News organizations scrambled to get people into Rome to do stories on how the Vatican makes decisions, how it views the American situation, who is actually in charge, and which policies are likely to be pursued.

That interest, however, was episodic and has already diminished. There is little sustained commitment in many news organizations to getting the Vatican right. Even when reporters do produce serious, well-sourced, groundbreaking stories, they sometimes find little editorial interest in their own newsrooms. Aside from occasional bursts of frenzy related to planning coverage of the death of the pope, there’s been little new investment of resources to bring a more attentive, deliberate focus to the beat.

Until this neglect changes, the English-speaking world will get the uneven Vatican coverage it deserves. We can’t blame that on Vatican secrecy.

John L. Allen, Jr. is the Vatican correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter, an independent American newsweekly, and a Vatican analyst for CNN and National Public Radio. He is also the author of “Conclave: The Politics, Personalities and Process of the Next Papal Election” (Doubleday, 2002).

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