What I am about to propose, for those of you who might be interested in a plausible explanation, is a hypothetical scenario that might explain the missing paragraph from the original news reports on Pope Emeritus Benedict’s letter, as well as the deliberately blurred text in the accompanying photograph.
If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve already read a more than a handful of papal critics claiming that this is “proof” that there’s a conspiracy afoot to make it appear that Benedict approves of Francis. I generally don’t do conspiracy theories; I find that 99.9% of the time, the banal is much more realistic than the sensational.
Consider this an anti-conspiracy theory. Or better yet, an incompetence theory.
There are a few things I want to make clear from the outset:
- This analysis does not address the question of whether the third paragraph significantly changes the meaning of Benedict’s letter. I already addressed that here. (It doesn’t, by the way.)
- I have no inside information about how or why the text was left out and the portions of the letter were blurred.
- I am writing as someone who worked in book publishing (specifically Catholic book publishing) for seven years. I know where lapses in communication can lead to disastrous results in this line of work. I am familiar with the varying levels of expertise on internal Church matters that exist within such an organization. I have seen honest oversights become PR nightmares. To put it succinctly, I have seen how the sausage is made.
- I was initially hesitant to post this, because I know it will be shot down as “papolatry” or desperate excuse-making.
- I decided to go forward with this thought exercise because
- As someone with experience in the field, as soon as I saw the AP story, I immediately began to put myself in the publisher’s shoes, asking, “How could this have happened? Why would they ever think it was a good idea to omit a large portion of the letter? What lapses in communication might have led to this?”
- Given my questions above, I thought it might be helpful to present a clearer picture about how disastrous oversights and errors in publishing and Church bureaucracy can happen despite good intentions. These errors can then appear malicious to conspiracy-minded people.
- It’s interesting to me.
- I believe that regardless of how the decisions were made, they clearly made a huge mistake. The subsequent PR has borne that out.
On Tuesday, March 12, the Vatican Publishing House (LEV) announced the release of a collection of books on the Theology of Pope Francis. The collection is made up of 11 slim volumes, written by 11 different authors. Upon the release of the books, Msgr. Dario Edoardo Viganò, prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communication, described portions of a letter written by Pope Emeritus Benedict, in which the former pope praised both Francis’s theological formation and the interior continuity between the two pontificates.
The widely-circulated story contained two passages from Benedict’s letter and was accompanied by a photograph of the letter flanked by the books, tastefully arranged on a wooden table with a curtain in the background. None of the news stories contained the full text of the letter, which led many papal critics to wonder if there was more to the story. And yes, the story continued to develop.
First, Vatican journalist and papal critic Sandro Magister published the letter in its entirety on his website. Then, the Associated Press released a story stating that the Vatican admitted to deliberately blurring the last two lines on the first page of the letter. They wrote (in part),
“The Vatican admitted to the Associated Press on Wednesday that it blurred the two final lines of the first page where Benedict begins to explain that he didn’t actually read the books in question. He wrote that he cannot contribute a theological assessment of Francis as requested by Vigano because he has other projects to do.
“Most independent news media, including the Associated Press, follow strict standards that forbid digital manipulation of photos.
‘No element should be digitally added to or subtracted from any photograph,’ read the AP norms, which are considered to be the industry standard among news agencies.
Vigano heads the Vatican’s new Secretariat for Communications, which has brought all Vatican media under one umbrella in a bid to reduce costs and improve efficiency, part of Francis’ reform efforts. The office’s recent message for the church’s World Day of Social Communications denounced “fake news” as evil and urged media to seek the truth.”
It’s a fairly damning allegation, and could easily lead one to believe the Vatican is engaging in a sinister, albeit amateurish, cover-up of information they don’t want to reach the public.
But are there other explanations, ones that point to incompetence or miscommunication rather than a deliberate effort to withhold important information from a news story? Hanlon’s Razor reads, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” That might well be the case in this instance.
My own experiences in Catholic book publishing and marketing suggest that the mistake was likely made innocently, and the decision-makers were oblivious to the impact that omitting the full contents of the letter would have.
A case for incompetence
Let’s take a step away from the news angle of the story. LEV was focused on marketing and selling a box set of books. Writing, editing, translating, and producing eleven perfect-bound books, boxing them together in one set, storing them, and shipping them is an expensive project, a huge investment. For reference, here’s a limited edition set of these books posted on LEV’s website. It’s listed at €100.00 per box. If these don’t sell, they’re going to be in a lot of trouble.
Let’s say you are in charge of marketing and selling these things, and you think to yourself, “Who can we get to endorse this book?”
You send off a bunch of letters and emails to a number of heavy hitters, including (hey, why not?) the pope emeritus.
Much to your surprise, a few weeks or months later, you unexpectedly receive a letter from his holiness. It’s short, and the third paragraph doesn’t exactly lend itself to your marketing strategy, but you know that those first two paragraphs, from the mind of Benedict himself, are gold.
Maybe you don’t realize the full implications of what you have in your hands, or what it means to the most important intra-Church debate of our time, but you have two solid paragraphs from Pope Benedict praising the initiative and Pope Francis’s theological acumen. This is good stuff. It can be the center of your marketing strategy.
You’re probably a little annoyed that it’s so short, and probably wish he hadn’t elaborated so much in that third paragraph, so you (unwisely) decide to act as if the third paragraph isn’t there.
You write up a press release highlighting the parts of the letter you want to highlight. Next, you snap an attractive promotional photo, touch it up so it’s as attractive as possible, and frame the image in a way that highlights the message you want to send.
Then you send off the press release and accompanying photo and pray that you get good press and a lot of it.
Here’s the problem: when they see what you have received, no one really cares about the books. They care about the letter. They want to know what the missing portions of the letter say. They want to know why you didn’t release the entire letter. And then the bomb drops. You are called out for having blurred out part of the letter in the promotional photo. You are living a public relations nightmare.
Why do I think something like this happened?
- The photo was obviously meant to be a promotional image – not a matter of journalistic integrity. Look at how it is set up. The image is staged and arranged carefully. It was meant to be illustrative, not journalistic. When dealing with books, “doctored images” are par for the course. (When dealing with letters from former popes, not so much.)
- The “cover-up” of the final paragraph was so blatant and so casual that it suggests they were unaware they were doing anything wrong. If they anticipated any controversy at all, they would have released the full letter.
- Presenting only the “positive” elements of the letter with only a weak attempt at hiding the third paragraph suggests they were thinking with a marketing mindset, not trying to break the “Earth-shattering” revelation that Benedict thinks highly of Francis as a theologian.
- Communication between offices in these bureaucracies can be very poor. The creative and marketing staff might not completely understand all of the audiences and issues that a particular decision might affect.
Probably 80% of promotional book images are a jpeg of the front cover, maybe with a drop shadow if you’re lucky. (The LEV website being exhibit A.) A level of expertise higher than that, there are templates where you can superimpose your cover image onto a blank book cover, to make it look more “real.” Finally, if you want to go high-class, you use photography. For an 11-book series this was the right choice. A photographer will take a photo of the books in good lighting, arranged tastefully.
Afterwards, the image will be touched up to make the image as attractive as possible. If there’s something distracting in the image, you’d simply remove it digitally. You might tweak the colors a bit. The process is not unlike how they style the food in McDonald’s ads to make it appear more appetizing.
Once you have an appealing picture, out it goes with the press release and it will be published with articles about your publication. What makes this promotional image different is the letter. If the image was simply of books, there never would have been a news story.
I don’t think the promoters of the book collection considered the fallout that blurring part of the papal letter would cause. If they had, they wouldn’t have done it.
LEV failed to recognize that the media and the public were going to care much more about the story behind the letter than the books they are trying to sell. This reeks of organizational dysfunction and lack of communication. Workers in Church organizations often become isolated and content to inhabit very small spaces, content to restrict their interactions to a limited circle, completely unaware of what the person in the office next door is working on.
Hopefully this sort of stagnation and lack of collaboration will be corrected in the curial reform, but I am not holding my breath.
Someone should have foreseen the reaction. Someone should have been aware that not revealing the contents of the letter would result in a backlash. It was irresponsible of LEV not to hold wide-ranging discussions internally and externally to seek out the feedback that could have prevented this gaffe.
But they didn’t. And now some people think they are agents of deception.
And they will have to live with the consequences.
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.