VATICAN CITY — The news yesterday that cardinals preparing for the upcoming papal election had agreed to a gag order — after two days of increasingly popular press briefings by U.S. cardinals — immediately aroused protests that the Vatican had stifled a salutary move toward greater openness.
But the very manner in which the news broke illustrates why church leaders (like any other person or group under media scrutiny today) can no longer hope to manage news coverage by 20th-century means.
Hundreds of reporters were sitting in the Vatican press hall for the regular mid-day briefing led by the director, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, when many of us received a brief email message on our smart-phones. Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, had written to announce that a press briefing with two U.S. cardinals scheduled for one hour later had been canceled.
As soon as Father Lombardi began taking questions, one of our colleagues, Philip Pullella of Reuters, asked if the cancellation had been requested by the Vatican or discussed by the assembled cardinals at their meeting that morning.
Father Lombardi, who had not mentioned the matter in his presentation, was obviously prepared for the question, which he answered with a careful explanation of the need for increasing levels of privacy as a conclave draws nearer. But he did not specify whether a new policy had been established, or if so by whom.
Reporters were still in the press hall when Sister Walsh sent another email, 19 minutes after her first, in reply to a query from Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times, explaining that the assembled cardinals had agreed to stop giving interviews as a precaution prompted by “leaks of confidential proceedings reported in Italian newspapers.”
This message arrived in time for John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter to ask the penultimate question of the briefing, a request for confirmation and clarification of Sister Walsh’s statement. Father Lombardi demurred, essentially confining himself to repeating his earlier remarks.
The U.S. bishops’ spokeswoman was clearly not seeking to disrupt or distract from the work of her counterpart at the Holy See, but needed to act quickly to prevent a stampede of quote-hungry journalists from arriving at an empty dais.
Nevertheless, thanks to 21st-century information technology, the result was that a Vatican press briefing had been taken over by the simultaneous back and forth between reporters and Sister Walsh. Just a small incident, but one that epitomizes the communications challenge the church faces in an age of merciless transparency and vanishing privacy.