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A plurality of voices

VATICAN CITY - The Roman Curia's headline-grabbing defense of Pope Benedict XVI's handling of the clerical sex abuse scandal has demonstrated that when it comes to Vatican communications, the pope is not a micromanager.

Twice during Holy Week liturgies, the pope was caught unawares when his aides spoke passionately about the barrage of criticism the pontiff and other church leaders have faced in recent weeks on the sex abuse issue.

One official compared the attacks on the church and the pope to "the most shameful aspects of anti-Semitism," while another said the church would survive the "current petty gossip."

What Pope Benedict thought of these interventions was not clear. But in both cases, the remarks had the unintended effect of upstaging his own spiritual message about the meaning of Christ's Passion and Easter.

From the outside, the Vatican's verbal rallying around the pope was viewed as an orchestrated campaign to counter his critics. If there was orchestration, however, it wasn't directed by the pope.

Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the papal household, basically has an open mike every time he steps up to sermonize for the pope and the Roman Curia. He also has a penchant for weaving in current events, so it was probably not a complete surprise when he began talking about the priestly sex abuse scandal at the pope's Good Friday liturgy April 2.

But when, quoting a Jewish friend, he likened criticism of church leaders to past efforts to pin "collective guilt" on Jews, he sparked an outcry heard around the world.

Amazingly, Pope Benedict and other Vatican officials had no inkling that Father Cantalamessa would put forward such a comparison.

"No one at the Vatican has ever demanded to read the texts of my homilies in advance, which is something I consider a great act of trust in me and in the media," Father Cantalamessa said afterward.

As usual, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, was assigned clean-up duty. Hours after the liturgy, he issued a statement saying the Capuchin's analysis "was not the position of the Holy See."

On Easter Sunday, at the beginning of the papal Mass in St. Peter's Square, another salvo came from Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals.

In an unprecedented salutation to Pope Benedict, Cardinal Sodano extolled the pontiff as the "unfailing rock" of the church, praised the 400,000 priests who serve generously around the world and then said: "Holy Father, the people of God are with you, and they do not allow themselves to be impressed by the current petty gossip, or by the ordeals that occasionally strike the community of believers."

The pope rose and embraced Cardinal Sodano. But in this instance, too, the pope was not informed ahead of time about a text that soon would be making headlines.

"I can exclude that the pope requested or saw in advance the text of Cardinal Sodano's greeting," Father Lombardi told Catholic News Service.

Whether in Rome or abroad, the pope simply doesn't have time to personally preview the many speeches or brief greetings that are addressed to him, Father Lombardi explained. Considering that this one came from the dean of the College of Cardinals, it was probably not subject to revisions by anyone else, either, he said.

Cardinal Sodano's remarks got more news coverage than the pope's own words, leading some to complain that the Vatican couldn't manage to stay on-message even at Easter. But that didn't bother Vatican officials, who said it was important to let the pope and the world know that his church supported him at this moment.

One source said the decision to add the greeting to the pope was reached the evening before, based on a growing sense that to say nothing might leave the impression that the pope was isolated in the face of criticism.

Critics of the Vatican's communications apparatus have long argued that not enough attention has been paid to the way comments by individual cardinals or other Vatican officials will play in the media.

But to date there have been no serious efforts to muzzle these officials or vet their public remarks. Indeed, for such a hierarchical organization, the Vatican has an amazing plurality of voices.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2010