Pope Benedict miscast in condom controversy

  • March 26, 2009

{mosimage}With just 18 words Pope Benedict XVI ignited an international fury that dominated headlines, dwarfed his good works in Africa and raised serious questions about the Vatican’s media savvy in a media-mad world.

The 18 words were extracted from a comment made by the Pope about  AIDS during an in-flight press conference, as follows: “The problem can not be overcome with the distribution of condoms: on the contrary, they increase the problem.”

Those 18 words became a lightning rod for scorn and derision directed at the Pope by the secular media and governments from around the world. At last count, he was being vilified and/or ridiculed in English, French, German, Dutch, Flemish and Spanish. Closer to home, the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star both provided snide coverage, with the Star running an editorial cartoon depicting the Pope, a crucifix and a condom in a crude tableau the likes of which the paper would not dare run of leaders from other world religions.

Media and political reaction to the Pope’s comments raise serious questions about fairness and accuracy among his critics. But it would be mistaken to focus solely on those concerns and ignore another important question: Why does the Pope continue to fall into these public relations quagmires?

In 2006 the Pope sparked world-wide Muslim protest when he delivered a lecture at the University of Regensberg in Germany that was interpreted as an attack on Islam. And this year he rescinded the excommunication of renegade bishop Richard Williamson and was later forced to apologize when it was revealed the bishop was a Holocaust denier.

Those two incidents should have sounded sirens to awaken the Vatican communications office to the dire need to overhaul its communication protocols. Instead, en route to Africa, the Pope was sent seemingly ill prepared to meet the press. The cornerstone of public relations is effective communication, controlling and delivering the message. The complete opposite to that golden rule occurred on the Pope’s flight.

Questions from reporters had been submitted in advance and six were selected to receive a reply. This was not a media ambush. The Pope and his staff knew what was coming. The incendiary question about AIDS did not even include the word condoms. Yet the Pope, in an otherwise judicious response, broached the hot-button issue of condoms with an unprompted throw-away line that, ultimately, drowned out everything else he said.

The Pope’s communication team should have prepared him with a carefully scripted response that reaffirmed in a positive way church teaching about sexuality and humanity, and also highlighted the abundant good work the church does in support of AIDS victims in Africa. Instead, he delivered a thoughtful 200-word reply that included 18 unfortunate words that were distorted and interpreted in a way that made the church appear disconnected from the modern world and without compassion for AIDS victims.

It was a failure of communication that should not have happened.

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