The pope's P.R. man

The new strategist hails from Fox News, belongs to Opus Dei, and lives in an all-male house cleaned by women

Published June 27, 2012 5:26PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

Let's say you're at the top of a large, right-wing institution; one with such a patriarchal bent that only men are allowed into leadership. Imagine that, in recent times, your once-powerful worldwide conglomerate is losing oodles of clout, thanks in part to media coverage of the scandals that have beset you: the leaking of your CEO's private correspondence to a reporter, that pesky decades-long epidemic of child sexual abuse by your branch managers, mutiny amid the ranks of the service wing of your organization, and the perception that you have played dirty with one of your competitors.


Where would you find a really savvy player in the media world with legendary message discipline on a range of issues that serve the interests of the moneyed, exclusionary, patriarchal elite? Who ya gonna call?

Why, Fox News, of course.

This weekend the Vatican announced its hire of Fox News correspondent Greg Burke for the newly created role of communications strategist. Since the beginning of Pope Benedict XVI's reign over the Roman Catholic Church, the Holy See, as the Vatican is known, just can't seem to catch a break in the media. Kicking off his papacy with hard-line rhetoric against Islam that resulted in rioting, Benedict now seems to have lost all control even of his own subordinates, as evidenced by the spilling over into the public sphere a round of internecine Vatican battles that resulted in the arrest of the pope's butler for allegedly leaking Benedict's private correspondence to a journalist.

That scandal took place just as the Vatican was earning black marks in American media for its jihad against U.S. nuns for not being mean enough to LGBT people, and for advancing such "radical feminist themes" as equality of the sexes. Instead of heading into the cloister to reconsider their radical views, nuns are taking to the airwaves to present their case, and in the eyes of Catholic laypeople, they appear to be winning the day.

Then there are recent attempts by state-level conferences of Catholic bishop to halt proposed state legislation in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts that would either lengthen or lift statutes of limitations for reporting sexual crimes against children, all in the service of further covering up thousands of such crimes by Catholic priests. Add to that the bishops' attempts to obstruct access to contraception to women who work in church-affiliated institutions such as hospitals and universities, and the moral authority of the church hierarchy is taking a major hit, encouraging media outlets to cover the church more objectively and aggressively than they have before.

That any media strategist could prevail in restoring the reputation of an institution whose leaders have behaved as has the Catholic hierarchy -- knowingly subjecting children to potential sexual abuse through cover-ups and transfers of abusers to new parishes, refusing to admit women into church leadership, and demonizing LGBT people even as the AIDS epidemic claimed the lives of a number of its priests -- is a dubious proposition. But it's easy to see why the Vatican turned to Greg Burke.

On paper, at least, Burke is well-suited to the job: much of the brutal political ideology advanced by Fox News is shared by the Holy See. But where Fox News has been successful in snookering regular people into believing that the brutal agenda somehow serves their own interests, the Catholic Church is not faring so well at selling its own exclusionary agenda to the Catholic faithful, many of whom support the nuns under attack by the Vatican. (See the AlterNet report, "Why the Pope Hates Nuns.")

Like the Vatican, the leaders of News Corporation, the parent company of Fox News, are secretive, vindictive and sneaky. Just look at the phone-tapping scandal that gripped the U.K. last year, in which News Corp. executives ordered and covered up the hacking of voicemail messages from the private accounts of celebrities and crime victims. And don't forget the stalking of Amanda Terkel (then of ThinkProgress and now at the Huffington Post) by Bill O'Reilly's producer, Jesse Watters.

But Burke's authoritarian bona fides hardly end with Fox News. He's also a member of Opus Dei, the secretive, misogynist, elitist Catholic cult embraced by the late Pope John Paul II. And he's not just a member, he's a special member -- a "numerary," a position described by the Religion News Service as "a celibate layman who lives at an Opus Dei center..." The Opus Dei domicile at which Burke resides is in Rome.

Both men and women can bear the title of numerary, but men enjoy a privileged position in their sex-segregated housing, where they are served by the women. A 1995 article in the Jesuit magazine, America, described the life of the female Opus Dei numerary this way:

According to two former numeraries, women numeraries are required to clean the men's centers and cook for them. When the women arrive to clean, they explained, the men vacate so as not to come in contact with the women. I asked Bill Schmitt if women had a problem with this. "No. Not at all." It is a paid work of the "family" of Opus Dei and is seen as an apostolate. The women more often than not hire others to do the cooking and cleaning. "They like doing it. It's not forced on them. It's one thing that's open to them if they want to do it. They don't have to do it."

"That's totally wrong," said [former numerary] Ann Schweninger when she heard that last statement. "I had no choice. When in Opus Dei you're asked, you're being told." According to Ms. Schweninger, it is "bad spirit" to refuse. Women are told that it is important to have a love for things of the home and domestic duties. "And since that's part of the spirit of Opus Dei, to refuse to do that when you're asked is bad spirit. So nobody refuses."

It's hard to imagine Greg Burke finding a way to sell that mentality to the media as a good thing -- never mind the fact that Opus Dei members are devoted to "mortification of the flesh" by wearing cilices, metal chains with spikey prongs that the wearer fastens tightly to the thigh, prongs to flesh.

With an apparent lack of self-awareness, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone "accused the media of trying 'to imitate Dan Brown' in their coverage of the VatiLeaks scandal," according to Reuters. In Brown's conspiracy thriller, The DaVinci Code, Opus Dei is a major player in a Vatican conspiracy. In hiring Burke, it's almost as if the Vatican was looking to feed the fantastic conspiracies of Brown and his fellow travelers. You could call that an epic PR fail.

By Adele M. Stan

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington correspondent.

MORE FROM Adele M. Stan

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Alternet Catholicism Conservatism Fox News Religion