Pope Francis warned against the “crafty serpent” of fake news last month. He called it a ”sign of intolerant and hypersensitive attitudes” and said it “leads only to the spread of arrogance and hatred.” But now, “fake news” has reached the Vatican door — leading to the resignation of a senior Vatican communications official.
Vatican officials admitted last week to doctoring a photograph sent to the media. The photo depicted a letter from the previous pope, Benedict XVI, to Vatican communications secretary Monsignor Dario Viganò, praising a new series of books on the theology of Pope Francis. Benedict’s letter noted the way the book “helps [readers] to see the interior continuity between the two pontificates [i.e., Benedict’s and Francis’s], with all the differences in style and temperament.” Benedict’s letter also dismissed those who see Francis as markedly different from his predecessor as suffering from “foolish prejudice.”
The letter was a welcome salve in the battle that has raged throughout Francis’s papacy thus far. To Francis’s critics, his unorthodox methods make him a dangerous figure for the future of the Catholic Church, one whose “liberalizing” tendencies and outspoken public persona set him apart from the methodical conservatism of Benedict XIV.
Last week, conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat articulated the worry of many Catholic conservatives when he wrote that “this pope has not just exposed tensions [between progressive and conservative camps]; he has heightened them, encouraging sweeping ambitions among his allies and pushing disillusioned conservatives toward traditionalism. Like certain imprudent medieval popes, Francis has pressed papal authority to its limits — theological this time, not temporal, but no less dangerous for that.”
Within such a paradigm, Benedict’s letter was vital. His seeming support for Francis, and insistence on Francis’s papacy’s continuity with his own, would have given the lie to conservative critics: implying rather that Francis’s papacy, far from being radical or extreme, lay safely within the Overton window of acceptable Catholic teaching and practice.
The Vatican seemed keen to perpetuate this narrative. Viganò, prefect of the Vatican’s communications department, presented the letter to journalists at a press conference Monday, seemingly as part of an effort to highlight Benedict’s esteem for his successor.
Except Benedict hadn’t actually praised Francis’s theology — or the books laying it out — with the degree of specificity the Vatican implied. Rather, the Vatican had blurred out the final two lines of the first page of the letter, which include an important caveat: that Benedict didn’t have the time to actually read the books in question, nor did he have the time to offer a full theological assessment of Francis’s papacy. Benedict’s remarks, therefore, carried at most the weight of a mild endorsement, rather than the full-throated approval the Vatican implied.
Last week, the Vatican admitted to the Associated Press that it had in fact blurred the photos following questions from Italian journalist Sandro Magister, who had been present at the Monday press conference, about discrepancies between the photograph and the longer version read out loud to journalists at that time.
According to the New York Times, a Vatican spokesperson refused to clarify why it had blurred the letter, except to say that it had never intended for the full letter to be made public. Because secular media and photographers are often barred from Vatican events (or invited in a limited capacity), it often relies on images coming directly from the Vatican itself, a trust that has now been broken.
The Vatican has not apologized for its actions, and conservative critics have called it evidence of Francis’s untrustworthiness. Damian Thompson of the right-wing UK newsmagazine the Spectator called it an “amateurish and shameful stunt,” and asked whether we should trust “the reliability, shall we say, of information coming out of the Vatican, including the Supreme Pontiff’s own statements.”
In the week following the initial scandal, Catholic conservatives called for the full text of Benedict’s letter to be released — launching the viral Twitter hashtag #releasetheletter — which the Vatican did on Saturday. The full letter revealed that Benedict had expressed serious concerns about one of the theologians involved in the book series about Francis, who he said had launched “virulent” and ’anti-papist” against both his theology and that of his predecessor, John Paul II.
Viganò resigned from his office this week, citing his handling of the controversy.
The digital manipulation of photographs for news media purposes is generally considered a breach of journalistic ethics. AP guidelines state, “No element should be digitally added to or subtracted from any photograph.”
While the blurring of Benedict’s caveat doesn’t totally change the tenor of the letter, it does significantly undercut the degree to which the letter should be read as unambiguous praise for Francis’s papacy. The incident, therefore, represents uncharacteristically poor optics from a pope whose relationship with and skill in handling the secular media has been all but unprecedented among modern-day popes. It’s ironic, too, because a reformation of Vatican media was also part of Francis’s wider reform efforts, with Vignanò’s secretariat of communications only established in 2015.
It also suggests that Francis’s supporters within the Vatican may be on the defensive, feeling the need to champion a perceived gesture of support, even when doing so toes the line of dishonesty. It may be this defensiveness, too, that has characterized some of Francis’s less popular recent actions, such as his dismissal of claims against a Chilean priest who potentially enabled child molestation by a colleague as mere “calumny.”