BustedHalo: Whispers in the Loggia has experienced huge growth in the past year and a half. When did you realize you were being read by more than a small group of friends?
Rocco Palmo: Right around this time last year, the newly elected Pope had just appointed the archbishop of San Francisco, William Levada, to his old job of being in charge of the Vatican doctrine office. I had the scoop about ten days out, which in the Vatican’s tightly held world, they’re like, “how did this kid in Philly get it?” I got a call on the morning of the announcement saying pop your champagne, so I thought, “people must know about this blog now.” And I’ve gotten various blurbs, again almost in spite of myself from the New York Times, Andrew Sullivan in Time and elsewhere. And again, it’s something that’s just taken on a life of its own. It’s been a complete shock.
BH: Who do you think your audience is?
RP: I know at the core are priests, people who are lay pastoral ministers. People in Rome. People around the world. It never ceases to amaze me where they come from. I found that with church people, lay ministers, for all they give and all they do, the one great indulgence they have is finding out what’s going on. If it’s six degrees of separation in the big world, it’s maybe two and a half in the church world. Everybody knows everybody. So, they’re the core. And then you have people who have a casual curiosity about it, who feel for some reason that I can guide them in the way of things and the protocol of how it’s done. And it’s so rewarding. I get these emails from readers and I know they read me but they don’t let on [to others] that they do because their jobs might be in danger. This is definitely the director’s cut of Catholic life.
BH: You talk to a lot of priests through your work. What is your sense of their morale since the sex abuse crisis?
RP: It’s not pretty. The church in Italy will be there forever and nothing will ever change, but in America because of the abuse crisis, the relationship between priests and bishops is a shell of what it once was. It wasn’t even good before 2002 in many cases, but priests don’t trust bishops, and a lot of priests feel a lot of guys have been hung out to dry in the investigation of cases. They feel that the priority in a lot of cases is not being just and fair but just to get the best PR result, “OK, an allegation comes in – Gone.” The preference of canon law and emphasis is always on the rights of the accused. One old priest, a great man, once said that on the day a priest becomes a bishop, he leaves the priesthood. And there a lot of guys out there who, sad to say, have seen that and learned it the hard way.
BH: Do you have bishops who are readers who you are in contact with?
BH: What’s their reaction to what they’re reading in Whispers?
RP: I know I say some things that people don’t like, but there has to be, especially within the dialogue of the church, there has to be a recovery of civility. And that’s what I always practice, or try to. I don’t always see eye to eye with a lot of these guys, but for one thing, I respect their office. I wouldn’t want to be a bishop right now, and I have an incredible amount of respect for these guys. They’re good people and most of them don’t want to be where they’re at right now. Most wanted to be parish priests.
BH: Really? They don’t have higher ambitions?
RP: Not all of them. I know one bishop who sobbed for weeks after [his appointment] happened and was like, “God, why are you doing this to me?” And if anything, now more than ever before, we have this phenomenon where these men are named bishops, their names are given to the Pope and the Pope approves and they’re notified and they turn it down.
BH: Where do you get this sort of information? Who are your sources?
RP: I hold my sources under the seal of confession (laughs).
BH: You’ve taken no vows Rocco.
RP: (laughs) I know I’ve taken no vows. I’ve given my vow of journalistic credibility to them, so as long as my information is credible, it shouldn’t matter who’s talking.
BH: Can you at least give us a sense of whether your sources are pretty high-placed people?
RP: Yeah. They’re people who get to see a lot. I’ve never desired to be a Catholic journalist. People keep telling me that “you’re wonderfully enriching as a source of faith.” And I tell them, one, I’m a horrible Catholic and two, my core principle is just to be accurate. To give everyone the straight story, even if it isn’t pretty for them. The church likes everything pretty, let’s be clear about that, especially in Philadelphia (laughs). But I’ve always said I want to give my readers the straight story in what they need to know. Not to be salacious about it or sensationalistic about it. It’s like telling them, “OK, people, here’s what’s going on.” And to be straight with them about it. And that’s always what I wanted to do.
BH: Why do you call yourself a bad Catholic?
RP: Because I’m the idiot who says the church can do better than this. And this makes me a bad Catholic because I’m ungrateful, unappreciative. I know so many people out there in whom a lot of trust, colors, and high office have been placed and I just look at them and think, “What are you guys doing? You’re losing a generation and you’re losing people beyond my age. People in their 40s and 50s that feel like you just don’t care about them.” And, the church has fallen prey over the last thirty or forty years to cannibalizing itself and the root of that is this self-absorption. In so many places I don’t see the church caring about the outside world, but about the continuation of its influence and its ability to control things instead of giving people what they need to live a rich and fulfilled life in Christ within the context of the Catholic Church. People are fleeing in droves, not just in Boston where the change has been particularly painful but in so many other places. And people look at these debates and think, “The church doesn’t want me, it doesn’t need me.”
Some of Palmo’s critics are concerned more about his practice of journalism than his Catholicism. “Rocco Palmo has garnered some interest in Catholic circles” says Susan Gibbs spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington DC “but his lack of experience shows in his writing.” She cites an article Palmo wrote for Beliefnet in April 2005 about the elevated role Pope Benedict’s trusted assistant, Ingrid Stampa, was playing in the new pontificate. In the piece, Palmo stated that “for centuries, women working for the Catholic Church…seemed destined to function solely as cooks, clerks or, more recently, public relations mouthpieces.”
Gibbs, who has held leadership positions in the Church for eleven years, believes Palmo’s generalization greatly misstated women’s contributions to the Church down through the ages. Echoing the concern many in the media have about the explosion of commentary on the internet, she adds “there is a difference between a journalist and a blogger.”
BH: You’ve mentioned that one of the initial inspirations for the blog is that you felt like the larger media was getting things wrong. Has that been one of your defining principals, to get things right?
RP: Yeah, that was definitely one of the first things I came to. Even in the details, how careless they could be. But they’re not small details, and it’s not rocket science. Here I am, 23 years old and I spent a couple of years of my teens reading some of this. I know the beat but I don’t claim to be a theologian or a liturgist or canonist. I just try to have a good grasp of the facts and the personalities at play; the face of the church, the credibility of it. When you have little details that are wrong or taken out of context or people don’t understand, it can put the church in an undeservedly bad light. Not that the church should be immune from bad press. If it does something that is out of key, it needs to pay the consequences for it. My dad worked for the Philadelphia news papers for thirty years, so I sort of grew up in the newsroom as a kid. And what I realize now more than ever is the greatest thing your readers can give you is your trust. They won’t always love you or agree with you, but if they trust you as a fair arbiter, they will always be there.
BH: Trust you yes. But I’m sure you’ve upset some people.
RP: Yes, it’s happened. I’ve found that some things have pushed people’s pressure points, not that I’ve wanted to, but it’s been one of my many excesses and that’s been the result. And you realize the underside of the power, the clout that this institution still has, not just as an institution but over people. That when you get a message saying, basically, “You watch out,” it’s not a kind of “Take care of yourself” concern, it’s “You watch out,” to get you afraid, to scare you off, to say “we will get you,” destroy you, whatever. So whether it’s been backroom attempts to silence, bullying or “you watch out,” it’s been tough, because you know this comes from The Church, or nameless people connected with it who are supposed to be working for the good as opposed to doing this, whatever this is. It’s tough, and you think to yourself, “Isn’t the church supposed to be all of us?” It hurts to even think about it.
But to give you a lighter example, there’s one church office where, let’s just say, they haven’t been so friendly [toward what I do on Whispers], and one morning I get a call from a guy with contacts there saying, “Your voodoo doll is getting a workout this morning.” And you laugh it off. By the time the eighth person called within a couple days to talk about this unfriendly office and the voodoo doll that everyone seems to be hearing about, you just think to yourself, “Good God, is this for real?” That’s one of the lighter bits. Who knows, there might be more than one place with a Rocco or Whispers voodoo doll. I should sell ‘em, just in case anybody else wants one.
BH: What’s some of the wildest stuff you’ve heard?
RP: That’s publishable? For everything I do say and can say, there’s about 95 percent that I choose not to.
BH: Why not?
RP: It’s not appropriate because it doesn’t fit the public news sphere. In my vision it’s something that has a reliability to it. An integrity to it. It’s not something that’s used to grind axes, or defame somebody people are gunning for. And there’s so much of that right now in journalism, especially in the Catholic blogs. I don’t consider myself a Catholic blog. I consider myself a news blog that covers the church among other things. I’m not a doctrinal organ of the church. I am not a valid authority to excommunicate people and impose sanctions on people as many Catholic blogs feel they have the right to do. I’m not the valid authority of the church and I think that’s one important point of seeing all this demonization and destruction that some Catholic blogs partake in. It’s painful to watch and highly unfortunate.
And even beyond that, it’s not what we’re called to do. I mean, the people of God are called to be leaven in the world, to lift it up. Not spending their days cannibalizing each other. We’re in this bad moment. We have the sex abuse scandal. And for all glimpses of the light at the end of the tunnel, it never looks like it’s actually going to end. I really think it’s going to be two or three generations before the credibility of the church is restored. But it doesn’t help when you have this readily available form of the internet and people are looking for something Catholic and what they find is not one beautiful Church but many warring fiefdoms. It’s painful. I don’t intend to do it, but if people feel that I can give them some sort of uplift or refuge from all that’s going on right now—that there’s a real joy and beauty to this and we’re not here to eat each other alive—then that’s the most surprising blessing of all.
BH: A lot of people would think that if you’re so interested in the Church, you must have a vocation?
RP: (laughs) Uh, that died a slow death a long time ago. Just as the church needs good clergy, it needs good laypeople. One, I’m not an early riser.
BH: (laughs) That’s why you don’t want to be a priest?
RP: Number two, any seminary I went to, it wouldn’t have been pretty. I realize in seeing these heroic figures around me, these good priests and these good lay people. They give so much and love so much. They have so much faith. They don’t think of themselves to the extreme. And I just saw what they were doing and said, “I don’t have it.” And seeing these people commissioned with this, I wouldn’t be able to live up to it.
The other thing too, I was once on a trip on church business and I met this amazing girl. And it was this amazing moment and it’s tough to describe in a short space and I still have to write about it, I have yet to. And I just saw her, and that moment changed my life; I thought “Even if it’s not her, this girl right here, there’s some girl out there. And I can’t live without this and I can’t be the best of myself without this.” And that was that.
I don’t believe in changing the teaching on priestly celibacy, on mandatory celibacy. The nature of the Catholic priest is such that it is more than being married to the job, you’re married to the people. You have to be open at all hours of the day and night. I’ve heard from a lot of priests that if they had to do it over again, they realize they wouldn’t be able to do it unless they were married or partnered. And their experience is worth a hell of a lot more than my own because they’ve actually lived it. I have an uncle who’s a Baptist minister and he has eight kids. And I don’t see how if you have to go on a sick call at two o’clock in the morning and you have a sick kid, I don’t see how you can do it. When you have those two realities, ministry and a family, I don’t see how you can do it. I still have to find that girl. Doing this kind of job doesn’t give much time for a social life.