Let’s start with a loaded question. But it’s a questions that journalists really need to ask, because of trends during recent events in Catholic life.
So here goes: Is the Vatican’s press office helping to push a progressive agenda that could forever change the Catholic church?
Here’s the background: The Pan-Amazonian Synod that ended over a week ago wasn’t without controversy, to say the least. The recommendations put forth regarding bestowing Holy Orders to women in the form of making them deacons is something Pope Francis has to make a decision on by the end of the year. Toss in the theological debate over the Pachamama statues present at the Vatican and at a nearby Rome church and there was no shortage of fodder for reporters and columnists.
That takes us to the Vatican’s press office, the people on the front lines of getting out the pope’s message to the world’s media.
Like the White House in the age of Trump, so too does the Holy See’s messaging need some further examination. Former White House Press Secretaries Sean Spicer, followed by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, were all placed under the news media’s microscope for their statements and actions — and rightly so. The PR men and women behind Francis also deserve similar examination by the press.
Long gone are the days of Joaquin Navarro Valls. A “suave, silver-haired Spaniard,” as the Los Angeles Times described him in their 2017 obituary, Valls was both a close confidant of Pope John Paul II and served for more than two decades as chief Vatican spokesman. He defined what it was to be the pope’s press man. And he defended church teachings while doing it.
Navarro-Valls, a lay member of the conservative Catholic movement Opus Dei, had worked as a foreign correspondent for the Spanish newspaper ABC when the Polish pope offered him the job as director of the Vatican press office. He was the first journalist to hold the post. He was the right man at the right time for a globe-trotting pope at a time when mass media was growing.
Fast-forward to the present. The backlash to Francis by traditionalists is based on convictions that he has politicized the church, wanting to transform it into a social service agency.