The Roman Catholic Church has announced that the Vatican has added Fox News journalist Greg Burke to their staff as “senior communications adviser.” Burke, 52 and a veteran journalist covering the Vatican for FOX, as well as a member of Opus Dei for you Dan Brown conspiracy fans, is now charged with helping shape the image of the massively powerful papal institution after a particularly rough patch of controversy and scandal. As Burke describes his job, “You’re shaping the message,” he says, and “you’re trying to make sure everyone remains on-message.”

While the “shaping” of messages, or the outright fabrication of them for the sake of ratings and the obfuscation of reality, is precisely what a veteran of FOX “News” is trained for, is it too idealist of me to feel that it doesn’t fit with the mandate of organized religion? I mean, if there ever should be an institution that at least in principle speaks truth to power, or merely popularity, it should be the church. Religion isn’t supposed to be about craft, it is supposed to be able the deeper fundamental realities that underpin our lives, isn’t it? While I understand and agree with the practicality of hiring a professional writer to handle your communications, perhaps it’s the fact that it is being described as essentially an activity of contrived persuasion that bothers me. Since when dpes the Pope need hired-gun PR?

Not that the Vatican doesn’t need the help.
Ever since Pope Benedict’s election in 2005, the Vatican has roiled on heaving seas. The leak of Vatican documents to Italian journalists, corruption scandals, sex abuse scandals, Benedict’s support of a Bishop who denies the holocaust and his speech about Muslim’s and violence have taken their toll on the image of the Catholic Church. The Vatican hasn’t been very quick to adopt new media, and is particularly lacking in English language communications support. From this perspective, having a professional consult on their communications strategy makes perfect sense, and it isn’t the first time the Church has hired an outsider to guide the way.

Pope John Paul II hired Joaquin Navarro-Valls, a Spanish journalist, to be his longtime spokesman. Navarro-Valls was also a member of Opus Dei, and had a great deal of access to the Pope during his tenure as an advisor. I’m not sure how opinion at the time smiled or frowned on Pope John Paul’s shrewd image positioning through a professional image-shaper, but several pundits of today are jumping on Burke’s appointment, perhaps all the more forcefully because of his resume with Fox.

“No one spins it like FOX,” some are quoted, and others go on to say that it makes perfect sense for an institution plagued by scandal to hire the very best whitewasher you can find. FOX News isn’t exactly known for the integrity of their work, seeming to prefer sensationalism and ratings-grabbing glitz to actual journalistic credibility. While it might be wrong to tar every member of the FOX staff with the same brush, only a complete idiot would ignore the fact that Burke had a healthy career with a news organization known more for the delivery of their message than its content. I doubt John Paul’s choice for spokesman came with quite as colourful a resume as Burke’s, though whether he was as effective in his mandate is currently up for grabs, whatever the merit of that mandate might have been.

Others are saying that the appointment of Burke is an attempt to “Americanize” the Vatican’s approach to the media, which at once makes sense and terrifies. Recently, the Vatican accused the Italian media of being in league with Satan because of their coverage of the leak of Vatican documents. That’s pretty much par for the course, since Satan can be found in just about everything from whip cream to Harry Potter, if you listen to the Church. But, this kind of outdated approach to the media doesn’t help their cause, so it makes sense that you bring in an individual steeped in media savvy to reform their strategy. I just find it scary to think of the Vatican becoming an American-esque media purveyer. We’ll have Sacrament on Sirius/XM, and the Pope Channel on sattelite, and any number of bizzare reality TV spawn like “Pimp My Rectory,” or “Sister Nuns.” American media is slowly putrefying in its own filth, so I don’t know if it truly represents the golden path for the Vatican. However, I suppose the saying “when in Rome” never applied to anyone better than his Holiness himself.

Maybe, though, for all that I would prefer to see the Church simply state its case for good or ill, this new move is an indication of the merit of their position itself. I’m far from religious, but not so callous as to think that the principles guiding relgion are so unsound. Religion is supposed to speak to the best of our human traits, even though I frequently think otherwise. So, if voicing your opinions and position results in such shame and backlash that you require a professional wordsmith to shape and massage their presentation, you have to think those opinions and positions are out of whack to begin with.

The problem isn’t the medium, it’s the message, and you can’t fix that simply by using different words and images. All that changing the presentation will do is clothe and disguise your message in such a way that, ultimately, it will look like a different message entirely.

When did the simplicity of peace, love and devotion to a higher order become so fraught with scandal that spin-doctors had to be commissioned to make sure the Holy See wasn’t tarnished? Well, truthfully, it happened the moment people became involved, because people are fallible and dirty and corruptible. This is why I am at odds with religion; not because I think the values of religion are fundamentally flawed, but because I think they have been perverted and interpreted and weakened by those who pass them down and mentor them for the rest of us. Maybe Greg Burke will be able to reform the image of the Vatican and return some of the glory to the papacy that it once held, but how much of the truth will have to be put in the cupboard in the process? How much of the papacy will really be represented by his efforts? Is Burke really working to improve the image of the Vatican in the world, or working to reimagine a new persona for the Vatican, devoid of the truth of its character?

I wonder if the Christian God of old would approve of the Church having a propaganda minister. Somehow it just doesn’t seem very right to me.

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