For centuries, the papacy has operated with the conviction that it answers to no earthly power. Many in Rome still believe that to be the case, but nowadays the church's faithful also believe in the sanctity of a free and vigorous press, with its unrelenting questions and nose for controversy. This all makes running modern media relations for the Vatican, in polite terms, a job from hell.
The current pedophile-priest scandal — what the Catholic writer and papal critic Andrew Sullivan pointedly refers to as "child rape" by clergy — has transfixed Catholics around the world, particularly with the allegations out of Germany that Benedict XVI, then Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger of Munich, may have allowed a transferred priest accused of sexual abuse to work again with children. The scandal has had a telling effect on the tradition-bound Holy See. High-ranking clerics have complained of media bias and a conspiracy against the Pope. One well-placed Vatican official who worked closely with the Pope when he was a Cardinal says "a sense of confusion" is spreading throughout the church hierarchy. "And the Pope himself is confused," the official says. "You can see it in his face. He is pained and saddened."
But the person who must bear the brunt of the siege is not Benedict, who does not give press conferences. It is Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman. An Italian Jesuit, he is credited with trying to bring the papacy into the 21st century, at least in terms of social media, setting up the Vatican's Twitter feed and YouTube channel. Amid the current furor, Lombardi has, albeit in opaque Vaticanspeak, adopted a somewhat more engaged and cooperative stance with the media. On March 27, on Vatican Radio, he said, "The nature of the question is such as to attract the attention of the media, and the way in which the church deals with it is crucial for her moral credibility."
Lombardi acknowledged that the church is often too suspicious and too slow to react to criticism. "We must be aware of the criteria under which the media react, the speed and the vastness, as well as the expectations for a response," he told TIME. "We have been late in learning this within certain ecclesiastical quarters. Yes, there are problems with some of the [news] reports, but we shouldn't see it as a conspiracy or part of some calculated attack."
The trouble is that within the Vatican, the lines of communication are more constricted than ever. Benedict holds far fewer face-to-face meetings than did John Paul II. Lombardi succeeded Joaquín Navarro-Valls, a dashing Spanish layman and former psychiatrist who enjoyed a close personal relationship with John Paul. Lombardi does not appear to enjoy the same intimacy with the current Pontiff. Asked about their interactions since the latest series of scandals began to spread across Europe, Lombardi said he consulted with Benedict on the text of the Pope's March 20 letter on sex abuse to the Irish faithful. Otherwise, he has had no direct conversations with the Pope about the spiraling crisis.
Lombardi says he does not want to "jump over" the established chain of command, which requires him to report to the office of the Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's No. 2 man and an exponent of the conspiracy-against-the-Pope perspective on the crisis. During a 30-minute interview in his modest, book-cluttered office just off St. Peter's Square, Lombardi stuck to the official line about Ratzinger's role in the Munich transfer, saying "it was normal" that the assigning of priests — even those with serious problems — was handled by deputies without the knowledge of the Archbishop. "I believe the communiqués from Munich are sufficient," he said, referring to the statements of the German church hierarchy.
The Pope's spokesman, who juggles his current responsibilities with his previous job of running Vatican radio and television services, understands the broader perspective of his work — and perhaps the limits of his ability to effect change. Says Lombardi: "My role is to try to help the world to understand the reality of the church, which is a very different entity than a typical multinational company or organization. Its character is that of a spiritual governance." That kind of otherworldliness is fine. But, says a senior Vatican official, "you can only have so much insulation of the Pope from those on the front lines. The bureaucratic logic ends up blocking your message and only creates confusion in the end."