Debate: Is L’Osservatore Romano undermining the Church?

Giovanni Maria Vian, editor-in-chief of L'Osservatore Romano (Photo: CNS)

L’Osservatore Romano, the only newspaper based in the Vatican, faced strong criticism last month for its publication of Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks about condoms. It reproduced the most controversial extract of Light of the World without any commentary and before any other outlet – apparently breaking the embargo. It seemed to many to bear some responsibility for the media furore that followed.

Its editor-in-chief Giovanni Maria Vian has defended his decision to publish the extract in an interview with Vatican reporter John Allen. He says the paper did not break the embargo – it pre-empted other outlets because its Sunday edition comes out on Saturday afternoon – and presented the remarks in a clear way that would not mislead readers:

Some people said we published the extracts without enough context, but in my opinion, if you read the parts we selected, they speak for themselves perfectly clearly. That’s also true, by the way, of the famous section on condoms.

Many commentators would argue, however, that if L’Osservatore Romano had clarified the comments, emphasised that they did not represent a shift in Church teaching, the media would not have got it so wrong.

Plus, this is hardly the first time that L’Osservatore has come under fire recently. Since Mr Vian took over as editor-in-chief in 2007, it has produced a steady stream of articles praising pop culture figures such as the Beatles, the Simpsons, and Michael Jackson. Critics say they are gushing and puerile. They can be embarrassing for the Vatican, since they are invariably interpreted as official Vatican policy (as in “Vatican forgives Beatles”). And they sow confusion about Church teaching.

On the other hand, the paper is livelier now and appeals to a much broader audience. It is, as John Allen puts it, a “must-read” for journalists, diplomats and Vatican officials.

So, is L’Osservatore undermining the Church? Or is it a breath of fresh air in the fusty world of Vatican communications?