'Coded Language' and Yes Men Cables of Confusion from the Heart of the Vatican

US diplomats seem bemused with the hierarchical structures and the lack of sophistication within the Vatican. Not only do most Catholic Church leaders lack an e-mail account, only a few "are aware of imminent decisions."

Pope Benedict XVI: Few advisors are brave enough to deliver bad news.

Pope Benedict XVI: Few advisors are brave enough to deliver bad news.

By Ulrich Schwarz

A month after the German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope in the Sistine Chapel, on April 19, 2005, the US Embassy to the Vatican sent a cable to the State Department in Washington providing its first readings on what the United States and the world at large should expect from the new head of the Roman Catholic Church.

Pope Benedict XVI had been one of the closest associates of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. According to America's local Vatican watchers, it was "unthinkable" that he would at all deviate from the former's strict stances regarding ethical issues, such as abortion, euthanasia, contraception, cloning or homosexuality.

The profile drawn up by the embassy noted that the new pope had no political experience and that, owing to his age, he couldn't afford the luxury of acquiring it. But US diplomats in the Vatican could not complain about being underemployed. During the last 10 years, they've sent a total of 729 cables back to the State Department.

Sometimes, they merely tried to explain to the State Department how the Vatican functioned -- and in reports that depict a very curious world, indeed. According to a dispatch from 2009, although the church was "highly hierarchical," it was also chaotic. Likewise, it was usually the case that "only a handful of experts are aware of imminent decisions" and they normally just acquiesce to whatever their boss decides. If fact, the report continued, hardly anyone ever dared to criticize the pope or to deliver bad news to him. It was rare to find independent-minded advisers, they wrote.

Communication in 'Coded Language'

The Vatican's innermost circle is almost exclusively made up of Italian men in their 70s. The Americans wryly note that "most of the top ranks of the Vatican ... do not understand modern media and new information technologies," and that "many officials do not even have official email accounts." They also note how the Cardinal Secretary of State, the name given to the Holy See's equivalent of a prime minister, doesn't even speak English and was also considered a "yes man."

Those closest to the pope communicate among themselves "in 'coded' language that no-one outside their tight circles can decipher." The American diplomats joke, for example, about how the Israeli ambassador recently received a message from the Vatican that reportedly included something positive about his country. But since the message was written in such impenetrable language, the ambassador "missed it, even when told it was there."

Washington also seems to be particularly interested in the Roman Curia, the administrative apparatus of the Vatican, and its policies toward the Asia states it is currently at loggerheads with, including North Korea, Burma, Vietnam and, in particular, China. In a cable classified "secret" from Dec. 7, 2009, the embassy provides a detailed report on the activities of Caritas Internationalis, the confederation of Catholic aid organizations under Vatican control, in countries such as China, North Korea and Burma.

Working Quietly in China and North Korea

The regimes in these countries tolerate the work of Caritas within their borders, at least periodically, because they need the assistance. Even in North Korea, the organization quietly carries on with its charity work, which includes administering two Vatican-financed hospitals.

The US Embassy devoted a whole series of reports to the Vatican's relationship with China. Relations are reportedly very sensitive because there are two Catholic churches competing with each other in the People's Republic. On the one hand, there is the "patriotic" church supported by the communist regime. And, on the other, there is the underground church that is still loyal to Rome and is now tolerated by Beijing following years of persecution.

According to a senior Caritas official, the organization works with both churches. The Chinese government is aware of this, the official added, but the authorities still just "look the other way" whenever Caritas workers cooperate with members of the underground church.

Stonewalling the UN's Top Prosecutor

Thanks to its good ties to high-ranking Vatican officials, the US Embassy was able to provide an early and detailed warning to diplomatic headquarters back in Washington about a looming scandal involving Carla del Ponte, the Swiss woman who was then the chief UN war crimes prosecutor at The Hague.

In August 2005, del Ponte made a personal appearance at the Vatican to ask the Roman Curia to help in the apprehension of Ante Gotovina, a former Croatian general, who was being sought by The Hague for war crimes. Though he is still celebrated in Croatia as a hero, Gotovina is believed to have been responsible for atrocities against ethnic Serb civilians as part of an August 1995 offensive during the civil war that attended the breakup of Yugoslavia. Del Ponte told her hosts that Gotovina was hiding out in a Franciscan monastery in Croatia -- and accused the church of protecting him.

Del Ponte, however, was brushed off by Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the Vatican's foreign minister at the time. Outraged, del Ponte said that the Curia "refuses totally to cooperate with us." She claimed never to have received a response to a letter she sent to Pope Benedict XVI. Moreover, it would appear that the negative sentiments went both ways: Already on August 22, the head of the Vatican division responsible for overseeing Balkan affairs complained to the US Embassy about del Ponte's "very undiplomatic" behavior. In a cable the diplomats sent home soon thereafter, they reported on the "very ugly impression" del Ponte had made on the Vatican.

Originals: The Key Vatican Cables
Click on the headlines below to read the full texts...
Feb. 20, 2009 -- Vatican: "the holy see: a failure to communicate"
XXXXXX: Redacted by the editors. Important note on the dispatches...


2/20/2009 16:00


Embassy Vatican



P 201600Z FEB 09














C o n f i d e n t i a l vatican 000028

E.o. 12958: decl: 2/20/2029

Tags: prel, ecps, phum, pgov, kpao, kirf, vt

Subject: the holy see: a failure to communicate

Ref: vatican 25 and previous (notal)

CLASSIFIED BY: Julieta Valls Noyes, CDA, EXEC, State.

REASON: 1.4 (b)

1. (C) Summary: Together with other flaps, the recent global

controversy over the lifted excommunication of a Holocaust

denying bishop (reftel) exposed a major disconnect between Pope

Benedict XVI's stated intentions and the way in which his

message is received by the wider world. There are many causes

for this communication gap: the challenge of governing a

hierarchical yet decentralized organization, leadership

weaknesses at the top, and an undervaluing of (and ignorance

about) 21st century communications. These factors have led to

muddled, reactive messaging that reduces the volume of the moral

megaphone the Vatican uses to advance its objectives. This is

especially true with audiences whose view of the Vatican is

informed largely by mass media coverage. There are signs that

at least some in the Vatican have learned their lessons and will

work to reshape the Holy See's communications structure.

Whether they'll prevail remains to be seen. End Summary.

A centralized hierarchy making decentralized decisions

--------------------------------------------- ---------

2. (SBU) The Vatican is highly hierarchical with the Pope

ultimately responsible for all important matters. Yet it is

also highly decentralized in its decision-making. This

structure reflects belief in the principle of "subsidiarity":

leaving decisions to those closest to, and best informed on, a

particular matter. On a practical level, however, subsidiarity

can limit horizontal communication by eliminating peer

consultation and review. This approach also encourages a narrow

focus on issues at the expense of the big picture.

3. (C) In discussing the recent crisis with CDA and PAO,

Archbishop Claudio Celli, President of the Pontifical Council

for Social Communications, described the Church's current

communication style as being focused on the content of a

decision, rather than its public impact. xxxxxxxxxxxx, noted that this phenomenon is compounded

by the fact that officials from the various Church organs see

themselves as advocates for their issues, without considering

their impact on the Church as a whole. The result is a process

in which only a handful of experts are aware of imminent

decisions -- even major decisions with broad implications -- and

those who are become proponents, rather than impartial advisors

to the Pope.

4. (C) A series of missteps during Benedict's Papacy have made

the lack of information-sharing in the Church painfully clear.

In 2006, the Pope made a speech in Regensburg that was widely

decried as insulting to Muslims, though he later explained he

had no such intent. In 2008, the Pope himself baptized (i.e.,

converted)a prominent Muslim during the 2008 Easter Vigil

service at St. Peters, an event broadcast worldwide; the

Cardinal who runs Inter-Faith Dialogues for the Church knew

nothing about the conversion until it happened. This year,

Father Federico Lombardi, head of the Vatican press office, and

Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for

Promoting Christian Unity, which includes relations with Jews,

learned only after the fact about the decision to reinstate

communion with schismatic Lefebrvist bishops who included a

Holocaust denier (reftel). In the midst of that scandal,

meanwhile, the Pope proposed promoting to auxiliary bishop a

priest who said Hurricane Katrina was "divine retribution" for

licentiousness in New Orleans. The resulting outcry led the

cleric to decline the offer.

A tin ear at the top


5. (C) These public missteps have intensified scrutiny of the

small group of decision-makers advising the Pope. Normally

reserved Vatican commentators have directed withering criticism

their way. George Weigel, editor of a conservative US-based

Catholic monthly, recently wrote that "curial chaos, confusion,

and incompetence" had made clear "how dysfunctional the curia

remains in terms of both crisis analysis and crisis management."

Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone -- who is tasked with

managing the Curia and is its highest ranking official after the

Pope -- has been a particular target. xxxxxxxxxxxx, said Cardinal Bertone had "distinguished

himself by his absence" during the Lefebrvist controversy, and

that the curia had become "more disorganized than before" under

his leadership. Yet xxxxxxxxxxxxmay have understated the problem.

At the height of the Lefebrvist scandal, Bertone referred

publicly to the offending bishop by the wrong name, then

denounced the media for "inventing" a problem where there was

none. Other critics note Bertone's lack of diplomatic

experience (he speaks only Italian, for example), and a personal

style that elevates "pastoral" work -- with frequent foreign

travel focusing on the spiritual needs of Catholics around the

world -- over foreign policy and management.

6. (C) More broadly, critics point to a lack of generational or

geographical diversity in the Pope's inner circle. Most of the

top ranks of the Vatican -- all men, generally in their

seventies -- do not understand modern media and new information

technologies. The blackberry-using Father Lombardi remains an

anomaly in a culture in which many officials do not even have

official email accounts. xxxxxxxxxxxx (strictly protect)

laid even greater emphasis on the Italo-centric nature of the

Pope's closest advisors. Other than Archbishop James Harvey, an

American and head of the Papal household, there is no one from

an Anglophone country in the Pope's inner circle. xxxxxxxxxxxx few had exposure to the

American -- or, indeed, global -- rough and tumble of media

communications. The Pope's Italian advisors, xxxxxxxxxxxx, tend

towards old-fashioned, inwardly focused communications written

in "coded" language that no-one outside their tight circles can

decipher. (The Israeli Ambassador, for example, told CDA that

he recently received a Vatican statement that was supposed to

contain a positive message for Israel, but it was so veiled he

missed it, even when told it was there.)

7. (C) There is also the question of who, if anyone, brings

dissenting views to the Pope's attention. As noted, Cardinal

Bertone is considered a "yes man," and other Cardinals don't

hold much sway with the Pope -- or lack the confidence to bring

him bad news. And if bad news rarely filters out, leaks never

spring. xxxxxxxxxxxx said that under Pope John Paul II leaks

were much more common. While damaging, these leaks did allow

time for critics of pending decisions to mobilize and present

opposing views to the Pope in time. Pope Benedict and Cardinal

Bertone run a much tighter ship, xxxxxxxxxxxx, but at the expense of

squashing coordination or allow dissenting voices to be heard.

Not spin city


8. (C) As has become evident throughout the controversies, much

of the Vatican hierarchy greatly undervalues external

communication. Structurally, the Pontifical Council for Social

Communications and the Vatican Press Office are weak. The

former applies the Church's teachings to the field of

communications and is not involved in shaping the Pope's

message. The latter has the writ, but not the influence.

9. (C) Father Lombardi, the spokesman, is not part of the Pope's

inner circle. He has little influence over major decisions,

even when he knows about them beforehand. And the poor man is

terribly overworked: Lombardi is simultaneously the head of the

Vatican Press Office, Vatican Radio (which broadcasts in 45

languages), and the Vatican Television Center, literally moving

from one office to the other over the course of the day. It's a

grueling schedule on good days, and debilitating during crises.

Father Lombardi is the deliverer, rather than a shaper, of the

message. In the wake of the Lefebrvist controversy, he openly

said that the Vatican press office "didn't control the

communication." Without a comprehensive communication strategy

in which he plays a central role, he is dependent on individual

Church organs and leaders seeking his advice. It's a hit or

miss proposition.

10. (C) There is another cost to divorcing decision-making from

public spin: the Church's message is often unclear. xxxxxxxxxxxx

candidly said that the Holy See rarely considered how best

to explain dogmatic, ecclesiastical, moral or other decisions to

a broader public. He emphasized that the content of the message

should not/not be different -- the Catholic Church would often

take positions contrary to public opinion -- but the Church

hierarchy needed to think more about how to present positions.

Cracking the real da vinci code?


11. (C) The communication culture of the broader Catholic Church

is diverse, however, with many Church-affiliated organizations

now excelling at communication. One example of a Church

organization that is using modern communications strategies to

deliver its message, interestingly enough, is Opus Dei. (Pope

John Paul II was widely perceived as being more adept at public

communications than Benedict; his communications director,

Joaquin Navarro Valls, famously belongs to Opus Dei.) CDA and

PolOff recently met with xxxxxxxxxxxx, and discussed how Opus Dei

responded to the "Da Vinci Code" - a novel which pilloried the

group. Sanchez said that Opus Dei realized it could respond in

one of three ways: (1) ignore the controversy; (2) adopt a `no

prisoners' approach and refute every error; or (3) treat the

controversy as a chance to explain Opus Dei to the world. Opus

Dei chose the third option, holding regular briefings for

journalists and others, and the organization's membership has

actually increased as a result.

Fixing what's lost in translation


12. (C) There is a growing urgency within the Vatican about the

need to change the current communication culture. The rare

public criticisms offered by Father Lombardi and Cardinal Kasper

of their colleagues' roles in the Lefebrvist scandal are an

extremely strong indicator of internal disquiet. There are a

number of proposals circulating to help fix the problem.

xxxxxxxxxxxx have confirmed privately to

the Embassy that discussions are underway about having the

Pontifical Council for Social Communications assume a greater

coordinating role on major decisions. Father Lombardi has

privately proposed to his leadership the possibility of creating

an office in the Secretariat of State to flag potentially

controversial decisions and has asked for resources to prepare

translations of major statements more quickly. Other Vatican

insiders close to the Pope have suggested bringing more native

English speakers into positions in the Pope's inner circle. And

not a few voices are calling for Cardinal Bertone's removal from

his current position.



13. (C) Behind closed doors, our Vatican contacts seems to be

talking about nothing but the need for better internal

coordination on decisions and planned public messages. Most

Church leaders recoil at the notion that they could be seen as

anti-Semitic or endorsing Holocaust denials, yet are confronting

the ugly reality that many people actually believe these notions

because of their own poor communications culture. But if or

when change will come remains an open question. The structural

and cultural roots of the current situation are deep, and will

not be easily uprooted as they are closely connected to Pope

Benedict's governing style. Similar criticism after the

disastrous Regensburg speech led to little or no change. The

percolating discussions regarding the creation of a policy

coordinating body within the curia - and other possible

solutions -- are hopeful signs. But they are not yet guarantees

that change is coming. Stay tuned. End Comment.

The Curia justified its refusal to assist The Hague in its manhunt for Gotovina by pointing out that it was extremely unlikely that the former general would be hiding out in a Franciscan monastery. Nevertheless, a source from within the church acknowledged to the Americans that there had been ongoing tensions with the Franciscan monks -- though the members of the order still enjoy a very high degree of recognition for their heroic resistance of communist efforts to persecute Christians.

According to the high-ranking official, del Ponte was very aggressive when she demanded to have an audience with the pope. Even years later, the former prosecutor was still livid. In her memoirs, first published in 2008, del Ponte described how Archbishop Lajolo responded to her request: "Just come to Saint Peter's Square," Lajolo reportedly told her. He was referring, of course, to the general audience that the head of the Catholic Church holds there each Wednesday -- before tens of thousands of visitors.


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