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The Vatican: The Pope’s Bulletin Board

5 minute read

If L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s daily newspaper, were the only source of information about Roman Catholicism, the world might have a rather strange picture of the contemporary church. Students of Christianity would scarcely be aware, for example, that there had been any major differences between liberals and conservatives at the Second Vatican Council. They would assume that Pope Paul’s encyclical Humanae Vitae had been almost universally acclaimed by the faithful. They would have no inkling that last month 40 of the church’s best-known theologians issued a historic Magna Carta demanding greater intellectual freedom within the church.

Largely because of the widening gulf between the reality of Catholic turmoil and L’Osservatore Romano’s version of it, the paper has lately come in for some strong and pointed criticism. The editor of an Australian Catholic paper recently branded L’Osservatore “the Pravda of the Vatican.” An editorial in the Tablet, Britain’s leading Catholic weekly, complained about L’Osservatore’s myopic coverage of the debate over birth control. “It is doing a great disservice to truth and to the health of the church,” said the Tablet, “to ignore or gainsay this controversy, or, even worse, to convey the opposite impression that all is well.”

In the Drawer. Critics all complain that because L’Osservatore is widely regarded as the “voice of the church” its interpretations give outsiders a distinctly one-sided impression of Catholic opinion. Actually, the “official” journal is the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, a sort of Vatican City Congressional Record in which major papal pronouncements must be printed before they are considered promulgated. Although L’Osservatore is owned by the Holy See and supervised by the Vatican Secretariat of State, it is classed as only “semiofficial.” Material in L’Osservatore is deemed official in only three cases: when it is listed under the column “Nostre Informazioni [Our Information],” which reports the Pope’s private audiences and appointments, or when it carries the datelines “Holy See” or “Vatican City.” The Vatican can disclaim official responsibility for all other stories.

Archbishop Giovanni Benelli, deputy secretary of state, acts as an informal link between L’Osservatore and Pope Paul. Benelli meets twice a week with the current editor in chief, Raimondo Manzini, 67, to plan articles for the paper, and consults the Pope on major points of editorial policy. Paul himself maintains a close personal relationship with L’Osservatore. He occasionally telephones Manzini, and sometimes reads proof on exceptionally important stories. When doing so, the Pope makes corrections in red ink and adds his personal comments, also in red ink, in the margins.

Paul carefully reads L’Osservatore every day, after his usual afternoon prayer in his private chapel. He makes comments on the margins, and afterwards sends the marked copy to Manzini. Paul once caught the misspelling of a curial prelate’s name. Wrote the Pope: “These are errors that L’Osservatore should not make. He is one of our own people.”

Country Weekly. Located in a three-story, stone-and-brick building just inside the Vatican City’s walls, L’Osservatore exudes less the atmosphere of an afternoon daily than of a country weekly. The paper normally goes to press around 3:30 p.m. but will hold for an hour or longer if a papal announcement is expected. The twelve editorial staffers, who include both laymen and priests, rarely worry about deadlines; if they miss one day’s edition, they merely put their copy in a drawer until the morrow.

All of L’Osservatore’s editorial staffers are Italian and, except for the priests, are considered career journalists. They are chosen mainly through personal contacts with the Vatican. L’Osservatore practices little beat reporting as such. If the occasion arises, such as a special papal appearance, a staffer may be sent to cover it. But generally L’Osservatore’s commentaries are put together without benefit of firsthand reporting.

Manzini, a veteran Catholic journalist and former Christian Democratic member of Italy’s Parliament, was appointed to the job by Pope John. Under his leadership, the paper has made a few changes in style. Stories about papal pronouncements now read “the Pontiff said” rather than “as was heard from the august lips of the illuminated Holy Father.” In appearance, though, the paper has changed only slightly since it was founded in 1861. Its long, grey columns of type are filled with stultifying ecclesiastical newsnotes under such headlines as FIRST CATECHISTS OF THE MARUDI TRAINING CENTER IN SARAWAK.

Lack of Impartiality. Far more serious is the fact that L’Osservatore has not changed to reflect the new, mercurial character of modern Catholicism. During the Second Vatican Council, L’Osservatore generally carried only the official communiqués issued after each day’s session, which were masterpieces of noncommunication. The paper has not published the full texts of the resolutions on Humanae Vitae adopted by the episcopal conferences of the U.S., Canada, France, Belgium and The Netherlands—all of which cited the role of individual conscience in the question of birth control. Instead, L’Osservatore has published excerpts from the statements praising the encyclical, thus giving the impression that the episcopal conferences were in full agreement with the Pope. Other manifestations of Catholic ferment, such as the theologians’ petition for freedom, are simply ignored or referred to obliquely in articles by conservatives of the Roman Curia attacking Catholics who challenge papal authority.

The paper’s editors readily admit to their lack of impartiality. “Freedom of the press is one of the natural and fundamental rights of the human person,” declares L’Osservatore’s second-in-command, Federico Alessandrini, 63. “But the church does not admit the same degree of liberty for the true and the false, for the moral and the immoral.” Editor in Chief Manzini defends his approach to the birth-control controversy with a particularly beguiling argument. Criticism of HumanaeVitae has been played up so much elsfewhere, he maintains, that L’Osservatore must be one-sided in order to strike a balance.

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