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Friday, October 10, 2014

Blind Optics

By:   Megaera Erinyes
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Blind Optics

There is an old political axiom that has apparently been totally lost on the people in charge of the Synod: how something looks is often more important than what it is. In our times, the question asked most often by smart political advisors is "How does this look?" Optics, and how to avoid other people manipulating it for you, is particularly now in the age of Twitter at the heart of modern political life, but also seems to be one thing the Vatican simply can't grasp.

But what outsiders need to remember is that this is a very common problem in Italian politics in general. For centuries, Italian rulers have just done whatever they wanted, and whoever didn't like it could just go jump. The Italian national characteristic most abhorred by the other races is certainly their arrogance and total disinterest in anyone who does not seem immediately useful. Anyone who has ever taken a walk in Rome and had to stop and specifically ask the Romans crowded around the outside of the coffee bar to please move over the three inches required to pass on the sidewalk - and received the cold, blank Roman stare in response - will be familiar. They will often simply treat other people as though they are not there, and will pretend to be surprised when a person magically appears out of nowhere asking them to get out of the way.


One thing that often puzzles (and then enrages) many Vatican journalists raised in Northern Europe and N. America is this pervasive attitude that "the people" and what the people might think, is totally and utterly irrelevant. The other day, I met a priest of Italian extraction but raised in Minneapolis, who, disregarding all social rules, started ranting about his frustration with the Vatican machinery about five seconds after we were introduced, so furious had he been made by their Italianate indifference. But, as an Italian, he recognized its provenance immediately.

It is this ancient Italian national characteristic of total indifference to what others think - and their instinctive outrage whenever anyone holds them to account for their actions or words - and not really any particular stupidity about the use of modern social media, that is the Vatican's biggest handicap when dealing with the outside world. Regular Vatican watchers see it every week; the complete astonishment that their words have been transcribed accurately and shot around the world five minutes after they were uttered - even though that is what a press conference is for - may seem comical and pathetic to the rest of us, but it is not because they don't know about the internet.

So, the question, "What does the Synod *look like*?" is something that it has simply never occurred to any of them to ask.

And what does it look like to the rest of us? It looks like a carefully manipulated, tightly controlled but ultimately ham-fisted and bumbling PR exercise run by people who think that what the Church does is no one else's business. It looks like the kind of affair beloved of the old Soviet regimes where press conferences were understood to be one-way communications, and any effort to get at the truth by asking awkward questions was met with blank incomprehension and hostility.

Is that what they wanted by their refusal to allow meaningful information to be released? Is this the intention when they respond to every question with "no comment"? Honestly, what they actually want to accomplish is anyone's guess, since another problem they seem to have in there is maintaining even the vaguest pretense of a unified front.

But then, I suppose we're getting used to outrageous and brazen contradictions coming out of Rome every day, aren't we?

Robert Royal notes at The Catholic Thing Synod Day 2 – “Openness,” Leaks, and Fear of Frankness
, that such is the chaos created by the current regime that even the softly middle-of-the road bishops and inside officials are treading on eggshells as though they think any one of them could be a landmine in disguise. His "inside source" is repeating what everyone who has any contacts inside is saying: it's chaos and the normal work of the Church has almost ground to a halt.

"According to one quite reliable source on site, it’s not only the 'Ratzingerians' like Cardinal Burke who have been feeling an icy wind. It’s also more 'moderate' Cardinals and members of the Curia who simply don’t know what to make of what’s going on. And fear what might happen if they say the 'wrong' thing – difficult to avoid when things are so unclear.

"... the responses to the pope in private – again, beyond the usual conservative suspects and into more neutral, mainstream figures – has been equally tart: 'a Latin dictator,' 'a Peron,' someone who likes to be center stage in the limelight. And perhaps the most shocking comment of all from more than one person: 'His health is bad, so at least this won’t last too long.'"

Royal also addresses the Vatican's blindness to this optics problem, politely calling it "puzzling":

He writes:

"A Church concerned to carry out its proper teaching function today cannot fail to recognize the importance of assuring that its work is perceived as clearly as possible – in an age when every word of a pope, president, prime minister, even sports figures gets merciless scrutiny. Further, social media is everywhere – even the pope takes selfies now, and they get sent around.

"All that may be regrettable, but whatever the intention of the primary actors, people inside and outside the Church now believe, given media spin, that questions that were settled and largely known to be such during the past two papacies are now regarded as “open” again. And the unholy conspiracy between the heterodox and media outlets who smell a big story will make sure it’s hard for the Vatican to keep the message focused.

"That’s one reason why the decision to limit the information the Vatican releases daily about the Synod is puzzling. You could read it is as a way of “controlling the message,” to keep various groups from spinning a phrase here and there, and trying to influence the Synod participants. Or maybe it was thought that the participants need a certain privacy to carry out their work more frankly. Who knows which?"

Last modified on Saturday, October 11, 2014