Public Relations for the Pope

I say this with respect: Pope Benedict XVI has a public-relations problem. You need only remember the 2000 visit of John Paul II to Jerusalem—which earned wall-to-wall cable coverage and produced the unforgettable image of the frail pope praying by the Western Wall—to know it’s true. Pope Benedict, by contrast, visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial last week and in so doing turned what should have been a moment of transcendent grief into a small international brouhaha because he did not refer to his own German past and appeared to some in the Israeli press to be insensitive to the fates of 6 million Jews. Otherwise, Benedict’s Holy Land visit was largely ignored by the U.S. media.

Benedict makes international news only when he does something thoughtless (like “reconciling” with a Holocaust-denying bish-op) or when he fumbles in public, as he did on the plane to Cameroon in March when he awkwardly noted that AIDS “cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics; on the contrary, they increase it.” This remark, though in keeping with his theology, reverberated in the media echo chamber for a week—overshadowing other stops that might have served him better, such as meeting with representatives of Cameroon’s Muslim community and a mass for as many as a million people in Angola. Benedict will never be John Paul, but why don’t he and his people do a better job—to be perfectly crass about it—marketing their message?