Events last week suggest that the Vatican’s prefect of the Secretariat for Communication, Mgr Dario Edoardo Viganò, has a more complicated relationship with the truth than one would want in a man serving as one’s communications tsar.

The Vatican’s decision to release the letter Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote to Mgr Viganò is not the end of the embarrassing mess of a story dubbed “lettergate”, which continued to dominate headlines through the weekend and into this week. The full text of the letter does, however, resolve some of the story’s disputed points, and in a manner that does not reflect well on Mgr Viganò.

The story broke on Monday last week when Mgr Viganò read portions of a letter from the Pope Emeritus during a press conference presenting an 11-volume series of books on the theology of Pope Francis being brought out by the Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV) – the Vatican publishing house, once an independent outfit, now under the umbrella of the Secretariat for Communication – as a pricey limited edition box set (€100 per box).

Mgr Viganò wanted to nab several pigeons with one throw, but most of all he wanted a publicity bump for his books, on the back of an endorsement from none other than the Pope Emeritus, who in his letter responding to Mgr Viganò’s solicitation affirmed the “interior continuity” between his pontificate and that of Francis. That claim is frankly rather pedestrian: interior continuity is built into the Petrine office. Saying so sounds nice, but does not mean much. The Pope Emeritus in his letter also decried the “foolish prejudice” of those who see Francis as an intellectual lightweight and Benedict as a bookworm locked in an ivory tower. That remark doesn’t prove much of anything, either, except perhaps that a 90-year-old retiree can still knock down straw-man arguments.

For a few hours on Monday afternoon, it looked like Mgr Viganò was going to get what he wanted. Supporters of Francis were giddy, and critics of Francis momentarily in retreat, while befuddled and increasingly wary reporters scrambled to figure out what the story really was.

It quickly emerged that the prefect had read more fully from Benedict’s letter at the press conference than he had quoted from it in the press release accompanying the launch. Crucially, his press release also omitted a significant detail from the Pope Emeritus’s letter: namely, that Benedict had not read the books and was not inclined therefore to comment on their theological content.

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