August 6, 2010


The Vatican’s P.R. blunder

The Vatican really needs a good public relations consultant with clout.

As we reported on page 7 of the July 23 issue of The Criterion, the Vatican has revised its procedures for handling clergy sex abuse cases, streamlining disciplinary measures so the Church can deal with abuse faster and more effectively. This was all good, and normally the Vatican could have expected praise, even perhaps from its critics in the secular media.

But then it combined these new procedures with an updating of its list of “more grave crimes” against Church law, called “delicta graviora,” and it included in that list for the first time “the attempted sacred ordination of a woman.”

Wasn’t there someone in the Vatican who said, “Let’s not announce these two things together”? Couldn’t they have had a press conference just on the sex abuse procedures and perhaps release the updated list a week or so later?

Anyone who understands the secular news media could have predicted what happened: Stories in newspaper across the United States gave the impression that the Vatican was equating the ordination of women with child sexual abuse.

This was despite the fact that the Church’s spokesmen at the news conference had to emphasize that simply because the two matters were treated in the same document didn’t mean that the two acts were equivalent in the eyes of the Church.

At the news conference, as we reported, Msgr. Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s chief prosecutor of clerical sexual abuse, had to explain that there are two types of “delicta graviora”—those concerning the celebration of the sacraments and those concerning morals.

The attempted ordination of a woman is seen as a serious violation of the sacrament of holy orders while sexual abuse of a minor concerns morals.

“The two types are essentially different and their gravity is on a different level,” Msgr. Scicluna said.

But he wouldn’t have had to give that explanation if the two issues had been kept separate. And the explanation didn’t do a bit of good. Although the matter of the attempted ordination of women was only a small part of the list, The New York Times online story devoted 11 of its 22 paragraphs to it.

Furthermore, it wasn’t even new. As our story reported, the norms essentially restated a 2008 decree from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that said a woman who attempts to be ordained a Catholic priest and the person attempting to ordain her are automatically excommunicated.

It is particularly unfortunate that these two issues were linked because the ordination of women is such a hot-button issue with many women and men. Polls consistently show that most Americans who call themselves Catholics favor women’s ordination. This is despite the fact that in 1994 Pope John Paul II said the Church’s ban on women priests is definitive and not open to debate among Catholics.

Maureen Dowd is one of those women who call themselves Catholics. In her column in the July 18 issue of The New York Times, she referred to the fact that ordination is reserved to men “misogynistic poppycock.” She also referred to Pope Benedict XVI’s sincere efforts to address the sexual abuse crisis as just so much “spin.”

A Time magazine columnist, Tim Padgett, stated that the Church was putting the ordination of women as a “sin on par with pedophilia.” He, too, was most concerned about the ordination of women issue, saying that the Church “is threatened by claims of Mary Magdalene’s ministerial status.” He accused the Church of homophobia and misogyny.

It is hardly news that some Catholics disagree with certain Catholic teachings, and we are not trying, in this editorial, to defend the belief that only men can be ordained priests. The point we are making is that the Vatican brought this on itself this time by including the two issues in the same press conference. It could have announced the latest revisions to procedures regarding clergy sex abuse of minors and let it go at that. Those revisions are important and thorough, going beyond the norms established by the U.S. bishops in 2002.

However, that fact got lost in the controversy which ensued. It was a blunder that could have been avoided.

—John F. Fink

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