Media Reports about Pope’s Health:
Diligent Reporting or Duping of the Press?
(June 24, 2014)
During the past week there have been sporadic reports about health issues besetting the Pope.
One of the most prominent reports was a posting in The Daily Beast which is owned by media giant InterActiveCorp, and is a widely followed new-media electronic publication with expert reporters.
On June 17 its Rome-based contributor, Barbie Latza Nadeau, posted an article titled,
Why is Pope Francis Canceling Events?
Rumors are swirling that Pope Francis is ill after the Vatican canceled all of his July audiences and daily Mass.
But over the following week it was hard to find much pick-up of this story from other media.
Predictably, The Drudge Report ran the item, but not very prominently.
However, frequent scanning of several Italian newspapers with well-informed Vaticanisti reporters has not yielded corroboration of the Daily Beast item:
Not from La Stampa, known for its close focus coverage of the Vatican;
Not from Corriere della Sera, Italy’s highly respected newspaper of record;
Not even from La Repubblica on the center-left, whose founder/publisher Eugenio Scalfari (an avowed atheist) had a remarkable exchange of correspondence with the Pope last summer.
And on June 21, the Pope made headlines during his trip to Calabria. La Repubblica reported that during that trip he excommunicated anyone belonging to the infamous regional version of the Mafia, the ‘ndrangheta:
“[translated] they [the’ndrangheta members] are not in communion with God, they are excommunicated.”
OMG, and no irony intended. This form of excommunication is by latae sententiae, i.e. through a publicly promulgated sentence that comes into force automatically if it fits the transgressor, meaning that decrees do not have to be served – if you qualify, you are out. This is how Pope Pius XII excommunicated any and all members of the Italian communist party in the late 40s; it would have been too unwieldy (and expensive) to send out individual letters to each of the two million plus card-carrying members.
Meanwhile the Pope’s trips continue: preparations are underway for his viaggio to Campobasso (Campania) and to Isernia (Molise) in early July.
So WTF gives?
Is the Pope’s busy summer schedule consistent with the ominous overtones of the Daily Beast report, rumors of the Pope being ill…cancellation of all July audiences?
Admittedly he is 77 years old, seems to tire easily, and has bulked up over the past year by as much as 20 lbs – according to some reports.
But his pace of activity has not slowed down by much:
The local trips in Italy in June and in July, mentioned above.
And international travel to hot spots over the summer:
South Korea in mid August and Albania in September.
Neither trip will be a walk in the park
Travel to South Korea qualifies as long-range, with the stresses of the local summer heat as well as the risks of coming uncomfortably close to the most lunatic regime on the face of the earth just north of Seoul – in easy artillery range of Kim Jong-un’s military machine.
Albania might qualify as domestic travel since it is in fact closer to Rome than Sicily is, but Albania is a turbulent country with a restive Moslem population, and serves as one of the springboards for illegal immigration from the Middle East and South Asia, transiting through the Balkans and Albania into Italy and thus landing inside the European Union.
Not an easy schedule of events for the visiting Pope who will have to address the vexing issue of immigration during this trip, something which our elected officials in D.C. cannot get around to, these days.
Given the soaring popularity of Pope Francis, what is one to make of a potentially serious papal Health Warning that is met with the most lethal media treatment of all – indifference?
As discussed below, we may be going back to maneuvers by disgruntled factions within the Roman Curia, who are launching a subtle and orchestrated campaign of ‘concern’ about the Pope’s well-being.
Hence it might be useful to give The Daily Beast item a closer look, zeroing in on the reporter’s sources and the news hook derived from these sources.
There are three on-the-record individuals quoted, and the news hook is the curtailing of the Pope’s summer schedule
Edward Pentin is the first named source,identified as a “longtime Vatican correspondent.” He is quoted as saying,
“Some in the Vatican are beginning to openly discuss concerns about Francis’ conditions.”
Mr. Pentin is currently the Rome correspondent of the National Catholic Register, which is NOT to be confused with the National Catholic Reporter. The slant of the Register is clearly on the right wing, indeed the hard-right edge when it comes to doctrinal and social issues within the Church.
Dr. Peter Hibbert (not further identified) is the second named source, and is quoted as telling Newsmax:
“His [the Pope’s] repeated fatigue reports and weight gain suggest that he may be slipping into a form of chronic heart failure common among victims of significant lung disorders.”
It is entirely safe to assume that Dr. Hibberd is not one of the Pope’s attending physicians, otherwise the quote would be way out of bounds…even by World Cup refereeing standards.
While it may legit for the doctor to speculate on what could afflict a 77-year old who had a cyst removed from a lung almost six decades ago (more below), it is dubious for Ms. Nadeau to throw onto the web the doctor’s very speculative suggestion about chronic heart failure.
This is compounded by the reporter’s own comment, just after she quotes the doctor:
“There are no reports whether the pope has been forced to use an inhaler.”
Yep, and there are no reports of quadruple or quintuple coronary bypasses, either.
Perhaps she means, as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in another context,
“absence of evidence [of inhalers] is not evidence of absence.”
Two additional circumstances might give pause to the reader:
The comments by Dr. Hibberd had already been reported on May 24, posted on a website bearing the curious handle ‘propheciesoftheendoftimes.com’, (which has nothing to do with the Red Sox performance this year).
Also, Dr. Hibberd’s surname is just one consonant away from the surname of a recurring character on The Simpsons, Dr. Hibbert.
As Marge Simpson might say, hmmm.
Finally, Cardinal Telesphonre (sic, should be Telesphore) Placidus Toppo is quoted in the Daily Beast posting as saying, after spending time with the Pope,
“I honestly do not know how long he might be able to sustain this pace.”
As cardinal-archbishop of Ranchi, India, it may be assumed that this prelate’s day job keeps him busy and away from frequent contact with the Pope.
So one may wonder how often and how recently il cardinale has had the opportunity to observe il Papa.
The reporter picked up the cardinal’s comment about the Pope’s fatigue from an Italian newspaper, Il Libero. So far so good.
However, Il Libero’s reporting and the quote attributed to the Indian cardinal referred to a Mass concelebrated by the Pope and the cardinal “last summer,” i.e. in 2013, just a few months after the initial euphoria of the March, 2013 conclave, perhaps followed by a let-down.
More to the point, Il Libero is on the ridiculous right of the Italian political spectrum, with a tinge of nostalgia for the Italian monarchy which was voted out in the 1946 referendum.
So much for sourcing.
The News Hook: the Pope’s Summer Schedule
According to Ms. Nadeau, the announced curtailment of the Pope’s summer schedule involves suspending his Wednesday audiences and “skipping his daily Mass at Casa Santa Marta.”
If read too rapidly, this might seem to suggest that the Pope is skipping daily Mass altogether, but this is not the case.
What the Vatican Information Service posted on June 16 reads,
“The morning Mass at Domus Sanctae Marthae will be suspended during the summer.”
Which simply means that the Pope will be celebrating his daily Masses elsewhere.
Furthermore, it is widely known in Rome that the Santa Marta Masses have become burdensome, with prelates in residence jockeying to bring in family and friends to attend a private Papal Mass.
Less widely known, the Pope’s curial staff has a real fear of his a braccio (off-the-cuff) comments, some of which have come from the Santa Marta Masses.
A very recent example of the staff’s well-founded fear happened during his Calabria trip on June 21, with La Repubblica’s Vaticanista Andrea Tornielli reporting that the Pope’s phrase excommunicating the ‘ndrangheta members was not in the Pope’s prepared remarks distributed a short time before he began to speak
And finally, the Sunday noon Angelus in Piazza San Pietro is still on the Pope’s summer schedule.
More generally, a summer slowdown is not unusual for Rome, or indeed for the entire Mediterranean Basin.
Which is why the eruption of Vesuvius, in August towards the beginning of a by-gone millennium, caught so many vacationing Romans at Pompeii and Herculaneum.
In fact it is traditional for the Roman Curia to downshift, starting on June 29, the Feast of SS Peter and Paul, and then idling through the summer until il grande rientro in early September.
Some Vatican dicasteries go through the motions of being in business during July, but come August 1, in the words on Noel Coward,
“Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.”
No one else ventures outside.
Speculation aside, there are two papal trips scheduled within Italy, one recently completed and the other one imminent:
To Cassano all’Jonio (Calabria) on June 21; and
To Campobasso (Campania) and Isernia (Molise) in early July.
Having spoken very recently to someone involved in the preparations for the upcoming Isernia trip, it is business-as-usual with the advance work.
Deo volente, we will soon have an opportunity to see whether the Pope is on the road again.
So what have we here? A few distinct possibilities:
Reporting by the new-media, which stretches their coverage beyond the limits of legitimate inference, and doesn’t hold up enough for the mainstream media outlets to pick up; or,
The other side of this coin, namely an enterprising new-media reporter working hard with disjointed sources on a big story, which is then ignored by the legacy media fuddy-duddies; or,
Maybe something else: naïve reporters being played by Vatican bureaucrats through intermediaries on the far edges of the media, all part of a subtle campaign of dezinformatsia (disinformation, one of the favorite media weapons of the KGB during the Cold War).
Consider this: in his indispensable book published recently, Inside the Jesuits (available now on Amazon) veteran Rome watcher Robert Blair Kaiser writes:
“Just before the conclave of 2013 [which elected Cardinal Bergoglio], Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez heard the story during dinner one night – that Bergoglio only had one lung. Suspecting this was a little pre-conclave propaganda…he…told Bergoglio. Bergoglio laughed. “Forget it” he said. “I once had a cyst on my lung [when he was in his late teens]. They removed it and that was that.”
And that is how the game is played in the Curia Romana.
Before dismissing the dezinformatsia hypothesis, keep in mind that the proximate cause of Pope Benedict’s sudden resignation was a superbly orchestrated campaign implemented through the Italian media – Vatileaks.
That episode involved much more than the butler and an IT technician, who took the fall for what happened.
Hundreds of classified documents flew off Benedict’s desk and ended up in the Italian press, moving through a metaphorical conveyor belt of leaks.
The ‘butler’ had a copying machine installed in his small apartment, located inside the 108-acre Vatican City State.
In retrospect, the Vatileaks episode was the public tip of the iceberg, a fierce under-the-surface power struggle within the Vatican that has not ended with Benedict’s resignation of 2013.
One of the recent gems from Pope Francis Unplugged, i.e. his candid comments to the media on return flights to Rome, came as he chatted for 40 minutes while headed back from the Holy Lands almost a month ago.
He covered a wide variety of topics, and gave his reaction to a pointed question about the ongoing financial scandal involving the Vatican Bank (sigh, here we go again), and accusations against Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone regarding a €15 million loss by the Vatican Bank’s.
As reported in La Repubblica on May 27, the Pope said [translated from the Italian],
“The question of these 15 million [euros, about $20 million] is still under study, it is not yet clear what happened.”
This was not a ringing vote of confidence in the former prime minister of the Vatican who held office for seven turbulent years, 2006 through 2013, and was effectively without adult supervision, given the detached management style of Pope Benedict.
During the summer of 1978 three-and-a half decades ago, we had a newly elected pope who put forward a reform agenda that did not sit well with many Curia Romana bureaucrats. And, surprise, there were credible background statements about an imminent shake-up of the Vatican Bank.
The successor to the Throne of St. Peter at the time, Albino Luciani, was 67 years old when he began his papacy, but his reign lasted all of 33 days. Perhaps his most memorable statement during his time in office:
“I have noticed two things that appear to be in short supply in the Vatican;
honesty and a good cup of coffee.”
There are striking similarities between the Vatican today and the Soviet Politburo of the early 1980s, so it is worth considering the dezinformatsia alternative.
After all, we are dealing with:
Faith-based systems of global reach, each with a doctrinal enforcer at the top:
Politburo Voting Member Mikhail Suslov and prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith Cardinal Gerhard Mueller;
Gerontocracies with no room for women at the higher levels of governance;
Monolithic unanimity on doctrine when facing the outside world, but under the surface fierce tensions;
Tight control over the public message (Pravda and L’Osservatore Romano), but with a hidden war of leaks and innuendoes – Samizdat and Vatileaks;
And would-be reformers ‘of-a-certain age’ in marginal health, trying to restructure the system; remember Yuri Andropov of the KGB, plugged into his dialysis machine for most of his 15-month tenure as secretary general of the central committee of the party, i.e. El Supremo of the Soviet Union?
Anyway…putting aside facile comparisons, the media ecosystem enveloping the Vatican is somewhat unique; it ranges from the mainstream, to the specialized Vaticanisti reporters, to talented stringers, to the blogosphere, and finally to a peculiar species: the small “news services”
I don’t mean the well-known news services you might imagine, AP, Reuters, ANSA, Agence France Press, and the like, who provide excellent coverage. I mean ‘news services’ that are not much more than one guy or one gal with a laptop.
And they sustain themselves either with the not-very transparent support of stake-holders (i.e. the Legion of Christ and that ilk), or by feeding off the swarms of journalists that descend on Rome when there is a sudden surge of interest in the Vatican:
A papal illness, a conclave, a consistory, a scandal a la Vatileaks, or even a papal flub (no shortage of those under the reign of the Pope Emeritus).
When the Vatican is suddenly newsworthy for assignment editors, dozens if not hundreds of generalist media types from print and electronic outlets land in Rome, all of them under acute pressure to file something new against tight deadlines.
For the Americans, this means being six to nine hours away from the home office time-zones, so the editing back-and-forth goes on until 3:00 am or 4:00 am Rome time. Strenuous.
And the competition can be fierce: there were thousands of media men and women accredited by the Vatican’s Ufficio Stampa, all after the same story (who will win?) during the March, 2013 conclave.
That is when some of the jet-lagged media visitors discover the local boutique news services. And that is how stories move from a solitary laptop in Rome to the front pages of an East Coast daily.
‘Cognitive dissonance’ is a familiar buzz phrase from Psychology 101, the discomfort that comes from harboring contradictory thoughts.
But this is probably the price of admission for following the drama of the Bergoglio papacy as it unfolds, and as information flows through a strange network of sources and intermediaries before it comes into the public view through clueless media.
The only safe conclusion is that the power struggles inside the Vatican continue.
As concerned American Catholics watch events unfold in Rome, it is important to have one’s BS detector carefully calibrated, because even an apparently straightforward piece of information may be the result of manipulators lurking off-stage, even when the information might in fact be accurate.
Elvis sang memorably about Suspicious Minds, and perhaps this mind-set is appropriate as the Pope takes on the Vatican’s special interests.
However, there is a gray zone between healthy suspicion and raging paranoia.
One of the textbook illustrations of this came during the Congress of Vienna, convened to reorganize Europe after the Napoleonic era.
During the proceedings, the Russian ambassador keeled over – dead.
The cynical mastermind of the post-Napoleon age was Austria’s Prince Metternich, Europe’s leading diplomat and the acknowledged role model for Henry Kissinger. When Metternich was informed of the Russian ambassador’s death he muttered:
“I wonder why he did that.”