29 giugno 2002
(.pdf) »»»


ROME – “These cardinals,” said Joaquin Navarro-Valls with mock chagrin as he swept a visitor into his office just off St. Peter’s Square. “They come by without any appointment. You cannot say no. So it’s, ‘ Y es, your eminence, just have a seat.’ ”

Nineteen years into his career as papa! spokesman, Dr. Navarro-Valls, now 65, stili has occasionai headaches with the centuries-old papa! bureaucracy, the Roman Curia.

Last year, when the Curia decided to alter the norms for reporting sexual abuse committed by priests, it neatly buried the change in a document distributed without publicity, under a cover letter in Latin.

The norms did not become generally known unti) a reporter for the Catholic News Service stumbled across them in a conversation with a bishop.

Why do things like this stili happen?

Dr. Navarro-Valls winced.

“The Roman Curia is, historically, a very old organization,” he said. “We are talking in terms ofcenturies. lts formai organization goes back to Sixtus V.” Sixtus was a 16th-century pontiffknown as the “iron pope,” for creating the curia! machinery essentially to crush the influence of cardinals and bishops.

The subject of sexual abuse by priests has been especially sensitive for Dr. Navarro-V alls since March.

As to how Pope John Paul II and the Vatican will react to the zero- tolerance approach to abusive priests adopted by the American bishops in Dallas, he stopped, suddenly tentative. “I am not a technician in canon law,” he said, “but I think the main concem will be to reconcile the decisions approved in the United States with practices in other countries, to try to harmonize these decisions with the generai canon law for the whole church, to try to see where there may be contradictions.”

Dr. Navarro-Valls took up his work after a career as a physician and psychiatrist. Early on he saw religion, medicine and psychiatry as linked: religion would answer the questions that psychiatry could not. “I was fascinated at the time,” he said of himselfas a young man, “by those big questions, about !ife and death, and what makes man happy.”

In his dealings with the press, Dr. Navarro-Valls acknowledges that he finds uses for his psychiatric training. But he struggies with the question ofwhether to follow the suggestion that the church should “use the media.”

“l hate that formulation,” he said.

He sees his work as being essentially about “giving access to the process ofdecision-making- notjust distributing pieces ofpaper, but in terms ofexplaining why.”

A medicai doctor and professor ofpsychiatry at the universities of Barcelona and Granada in his native Spain, Dr. Navarro-Valls had published freelance articles for Spanish publications when in 1977 he was asked to cover the eastem Mediterranean for the Spanish daily ABC. He worked as a joumalist until 1983, and just as he had decided to retum to medicine, he received an invitation to Junch at the Vatican.

lt seems that Pope John Paul, then five years into his papacy, had heard praise of him from a number ofpeople – some belonging to the secretive Catholic men’s society Opus Dei, which the doctor had joined in his early 20’s. Severa! months Jater, the pope invited Dr. Navarro- Valls to overhaul the Vatican press service.

“My hobby became my profession,” he said, laughing. “And medicine became my hobby.”

He is not shy about bis own prowess. The example that pleases him most occurred at a 1994 United Nations conference in Cairo on population and development. He was a delegate, and the Vatican succeeded, thanks in part to a curious alliance with Muslim delegations, in introducing more restrictive language on abortion in the final declaration.

Dr. Navarro-Valls waved a copy of an unclassified cable relating to that conference – a message to the State Department from President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to the Holy See, Raymond L. Flynn. It described the irritation o f some delegates over perceived V atican obstructionism and manipulation, but added that the “skill and tenacity” ofthe Vatican’s diplomats “and the pubiic affairs virtuosity of its chiefspokesman – the Spaniard Joaquin Navarro-Valls, a close confidant ofthe pope – took many by surprise.”

While working toward a medicai degree in Barcelona in the 1960’s, Joaquin Navarro-Valls also gota degree in communications, a field he carne to from psychiatry.

“l began from the question that arises in psychiatry ofhow the media in generai, including advertising, influence human attitudes, both for better and for worse,” be said. In 1970, his first book, “Manipulation in Advertising,” appeared; three others have followed, on the media, education and the family.

He traveled widely, attending seminars at Harvard, including some on international politics by Henry A. Kissinger. Talking ofthose years, be

described a “pilgrimage” to the London house where Freud had lived.

He is the second offive children; his father was a Cartagena lawyer. A brother is a law professor in Madrid, another is retired director of Heineken brewery’s operations in Spain. He was especially close to his eldest sibling and only sister, whose death in her early 30’s moved him deeply. He is stili very much involved with Opus Dei, in which he now holds a senior rank that entails a commitment to celibacy.

“I took into account that the only way to find God was within the framework ofmy profession,” he said. “I don’t feel I was a Catholic physician. lnstead, you are a Catholic who happens to be a physician.”

Early on, the pope, whom he sees daily, assured him of access to the Vatican bureaucracy. “He opened doors,” Dr. Navarro-Valls said. “Without his approach to the media, without the mentality ofthe pope, change would have been impossible.”

He recognizes the physical handicaps ofPope John Paul, who turned 82 in May. Ofhis menta! faculties, he said: “From the point ofview of memory, or the capacity ofplanning far the future, those capacities are ali absolutely intact. The biggest strategie decisions- now, today- are being done by the pope.”

He cites the decision after Sept. 11 to convene an unusual gathering of dozens ofreligious leaders from Islam, Judaism and other Christian denominations to reaffirm the principle that God or religion never be invoked to justify violence. The meeting took piace in January in the ltalian town of Assisi.

More recently, it was the pope’s decision, Dr. Navarro-Valls said, to accept the request of America’s cardinals to come to Rome for two days of discussions on the priest sex abuse scandals.

Getting information from the Vatican can stili be laborious (though Dr. Navarro-Valls bridles at comparisons to Kremlin secretiveness). But one example ofrevolutionary openness that he introduced is the pope’s practice on his many travels ofspending airplane time chatting with reporters in a kind of impromptu news conference. John Paul has often used such occasions to make news. On trips to Chile in 1987 and Cuba in 1998, he criticized the Pinochet and Castro dictatorships; reporters had something substantial to file on landing.

He is highly regarded by the Vatican press corps, whose members appreciate what he has achieved given the peculiarities imposed by Vatican constraints.

To this day, for example, the pope does not hold news conferences or grant interviews. In part, Dr. Navarro-Valls says, this is because so many hundreds ofrequests come in from news organizations around the world that saying no to everyone becomes the only effective solution.

But is it also a question ofpapa! dignity?

In a way, yes.