Vatican’s New Ministry of Information

Charles Collins, the managing editor of Crux, recently wrote an article about the Vatican’s new Secretariat for Communications (here), designed to integrate various parts of the Vatican’s propaganda machine. Mr. Collins previously spent 15 years working in one of them, Vatican Radio. He offers a rare glimpse into this part of the Vatican.

Some may object to the term “propaganda.” The Catholic Church invented the term propaganda in 1622, as part of its name for a new organization to propagate the faith in non-Catholic countries. Propaganda was an adjunct to its holy wars. The Church has more experience with propaganda than any other organization.

Pope Francis created the Secretariat of Communications two years ago. He recently addressed its first plenary assembly, calling for “a little violence, but good, good violence.” Presumably this is pope-speak for shaking things up. To date, the new Secretariat has not made visible progress in controlling and streamlining the diverse segments of the Vatican machine.

The article only mentions parts of the bureaucratic apparatus within Vatican City, such as “Vatican Radio, Vatican TV, the newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, the press office, the printing office, and the previous Council for Social Communications.” This is an incomplete list. For example, some of the “content” groups within the Vatican have their own newspapers and printed media. The article only presents a cursory overview of parts of the Vatican’s propaganda machine. It omits many parts, and provides almost no quantification in terms of budget and personnel. Still, this is more information than I have seen before.

Vatican Radio

The biggest piece is a surprise: “Vatican Radio takes up the largest chunk of the communications budget, with a staff of over 300 people.” In today’s world, radio is hardly an ideal way to disseminate messages. Vatican Radio’s staff is enormous. But Collins assures us that they do more than just radio: “it has the most advanced website at the Vatican; and it has been, for years, experimenting with different forms of social media.”

He admits Vatican Radio leaves something to be desired: “It goes out in nearly 40 languages, but linguistically, it’s still a Cold War institution: It broadcasts in a multitude of Eastern European languages, while several major Asian languages - including Thai, Bengali, and Malay - are not represented.”

Collins notes that the Vatican does not know how many people it is reaching in any of its target countries. More importantly, how many non-Catholics do they think are listening to Vatican Radio? It is hard to imagine pagans or Protestants converting as a result of these radio programs. Vatican Radio is preaching to the choir. But that choir attends church. Important messages can be conveyed far more effectively and efficiently via local priests. The Web is also far more efficient.

It is interesting to compare Vatican Radio to IHeartmedia (formerly Clear Channel Media), which operates 855 radio stations in the U.S. and employs 14,300 people. IHeartmedia is also in the outdoor advertising business, which is almost as large as their radio business. Unfortunately, they don’t break out employment by division. But even if you allocate all employees to radio, it amounts to 17 employees per station. Furthermore, many employees sell local advertising, something the Vatican does not attempt. I note that IHeartmedia also has a presence on the Web and social media, not to mention mobile apps, etc.

In short, the largest component of the Vatican propaganda machine is grossly inefficient, consuming enormous resources while accomplishing little. But this is not news. While Collins worked in Vatican Radio, a Vatican official told him, “You guys are not a lot of bang for the buck.”

There is no way to determine the ‘bang for the buck’ of any part of the Vatican apparatus. Or even to identify the bucks involved. The Church refuses to provide its flock any accounting of how it spends their money. It is far less transparent than any U.S. charitable organization. This is no accident. The Church is anything but a good steward.

What is the function of the Secretariat for Communications?

According to Collins, “the communications office has been given the primary task of making sure what the pope says and does is made known to the world as quickly as possible.” If this is really its function, the press secretary and his office is key. Neither Vatican Radio nor Vatican TV nor L’Osservatore Romano are good ways to inform the world. A couple of calls to Reuters and Associated Press gets the word to far more people than these Vatican channels. Most major media, and many minor ones as well, have a Vatican correspondent, who are easily reached by the press secretary.

Note that the organizations folded within the Secretariat for Communications are primarily direct channels to the public. But the Vatican’s direct channels reach few people, and almost no non-Catholics. They do almost nothing to meet their stated goals, and waste millions of dollars. Web sites are far more useful than these channels, at a fraction of their cost.

What is outside the Secretariat of Communications?

Collins notes, “the new communications office does not have any horizontal reach, and has no power to compel other Vatican offices - such as the ones on Doctrine, Integral Human Development, and Culture - to share information, or have trained communications staff, especially ones able to work in languages other than Italian.” More to the point, it has no content. In principle the pope is providing the content, though in fact other organizations are, presumably under some degree of papal supervision. As outlined by Collins, there is no process for managing the flow of content from the originators to the channels of the Secretariat.

More importantly, all this just pertains to Vatican bureaucracies. The vast bulk of the Church’s propaganda machine lies outside the Vatican, in the worldwide dioceses and sundry religious orders. These are far more important, not only for disseminating messages, but also for spinning and suppressing information. When Pope John Paul was faced with the sex abuse scandal in the 1980’s, he used the Vatican communication channels to announce that only a few immoral Americans were involved. But more importantly, he secretly sent letters to the bishops ordering them to suppress the problem, with harsh penalties for releasing embarrassing information.

The dioceses have their own propaganda and PR machines. They control the boots on the ground, and have ties to local elites in government, media, industry, and society. But they are totally outside the Secretariat of Communication, and must be managed by a different part of the Vatican. The same is true for religious orders.

Finally, a very large part of the propaganda machine lies outside the Church. For example, the Knights of Columbus generate about $2 billion annually in support of various Catholic concerns. The National Catholic Reporter, Crux, and numerous other publications that support Catholicism are outside the Church. Some of these will interact with the press office of the new Secretariat, but others won’t. The Vatican almost certainly has alternative means to coordinate with them.

 

In short, the new Secretariat of Communication is just a tiny part of the Church’s propaganda machine. It is poorly designed and very wasteful. But the sheer bulk and resources of the Catholic propaganda machine is enormous, and highly effective. While the Church is hardly thriving, how many organizations would remain relatively unscathed after being implicated in abusing thousands of children, and more importantly, in covering up that atrocity. How many organizations could get away with claiming divine inspiration with that record?