Lettergate scandal finale: Vatican comms director resigns

How much spin is too much? Here in the US and other Western nations, the spin never seems to end, and there never seems to be any consequences for it. At the Vatican, however, an attempt to finesse a letter from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI into a full-fledged endorsement of a book series focusing on Pope Francis resulted in an embarrassment that has been dubbed “Lettergate.” The man in charge of communications has resigned his post for … selective editing, let’s say:

A letter from Benedict XVI praising Francis’ theological and philosophical formation was read aloud at the event, however, the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications later admitted to tampering with an image of the letter that was sent to media, blurring out lines in which Benedict said that he had not read the full series, and so could not give an in-depth analysis.

Days later another twist was added to the scandal when it was revealed that further paragraphs had been left out in which Benedict questioned the inclusion in the series of a theologian known for his “anti-papal initiatives.”

After receiving pressure from the media, the Secretariat for Communications published the full letter March 17, which they said was confidential and never intended to be published in its entirety.

The effort was clearly intended to emphasize the continuity of Francis’ leadership with that of Benedict’s. The irony is that Benedict’s full letter probably would have had the same impact, or the communications office could have chosen not to release it at all. Either would have been preferable to their fumbling attempts to conceal certain parts of the letter, which not only made the Secretariat for Communications look both inept and dishonest.

That might seem like a lark compared to the scandals of the day outside the Vatican, which revolve around porn stars, Playboy bunnies, and possibly imaginary Ukrainian hookers.  In France, they’ve arrested the former president for allegedly taking €50 million from a brutal dictator that he later had killed. Now that’s a scandal involving the chain of command, my friends, and those are just from the Free World. Russia’s assassinating former spies with designer nerve agents. Excerpting the best parts of a letter from one pope to another hardly stacks up.

And yet, in this case, a head has rolled:

After a very public controversy involving the use of a letter by retired Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Msgr. Dario Vigano as prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for Communication.

Announcing the move March 21, the Vatican published Msgr. Vigano’s letter to Pope Francis asking to resign and Pope Francis’ reply accepting it. …

In his letter of resignation, Msgr. Vigano told Pope Francis that although it was not intentional, his actions had “destabilized the complex and great work of reform” with which the pope had entrusted him.

“I think that for me stepping aside would be a fruitful occasion for renewal,” the monsignor wrote.

Ah, accountability. That’s what it used to look like! Monsignor Vigano made the right choice in resigning and taking responsibility for an embarrassing lapse of judgment and honesty.  In fairness, though, we expect a lot more honesty from the Vatican, the Pope, and the people who serve him. The larger question is why we don’t expect more accountability from the people who serve us.

Update: Or did it result in accountability? My old friend Father Z differs on that point, noting that the Holy Father asked Vigano to stay on as assessore, which would be a lieutenant to the post he just resigned. “These are the mysteries of mercy,” Father Z writes.