Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Monday, November 22, 2010

The continuing mess at L’Osservatore Romano

While many able others are scrambling to respond to the eruption over the pope’s remarks on condom use by male prostitutes, I want to ask a few questions about the occasion of this public relations fiasco, namely, the decision by L’Osservatore Romano to publish prematurely, out of context, and without commentary, the single most controversial paragraph of the pope’s book, Light of the World, in, if nothing else, apparent violation of the agreement in place between its various publishers concerning a coordinated release of the work.

I frankly wonder whether, even now, L’Osservatore Romano yet realizes what a serious disservice it has committed by arrogating to itself the role of introducing the pope’s book, Light of the World, and by its making that introduction in such a palpably incompetent manner?

Light of the World is a remarkable book, being first, the fruit of a welcome papal willingness to share frank insights and opinions on the Christian message today, and being second, the product of much work by many people in several nations, all oriented to presenting the book in its best light. These latter groups had planned for months to introduce Light of the World as the holistic, positive, and integrated work that the pope intended it to be. A mid-week launch (and, in the vital US market, one day before an extended holiday that is typically slow in news) was carefully planned with writers, speakers, and resource persons briefed ahead of time, all ready to comment on the book and to respond to questions. It was a huge amount of work but, being undertaken by professionals who knew what they were doing, it promised to be effective.

Now, all of that planning has been shredded by the L’OR decision to launch Light of the World on its own.

Worse, L’OR chose to highlight what is probably the single most speculative and controversial papal paragraph in over 200 pages of print, and to offer that snippet out of context and without explanation. Unbelievable.

Instantly, of course, the world formed exactly the wrong understanding of that paragraph that anyone could have predicted. Now, instead of being able to present the pope’s interview as a positive and even vigorous affirmation of unified truth, Catholic theologians and spokesmen must respond defensively against secular attacks and distortions, resorting (for the most part) to a level of sophistication that befits a graduate seminar in moral theology, not a reader-friendly presentation of ideas. I mean, great scot, the book is not even published yet, and already the Vatican Press is Office is having to issue hasty corrections and unconvincing clarifications!

And it’s all because of L’OR.


Yes, again. L’OR’s panting after pop relevance (with pieces on, e.g., The Beatles and The Simpsons) is embarrassing enough. I've learned to ignore that. Its mistreatment of Brazilian Abp. Cardoso Sobrihno should have been seen as the warning sign that it was.
I said so at the time.

But, if this media fiasco is not enough to bring sweeping changes to L’OR, then, I don’t know what ever will. + + +

Update, 23 Nov: Check out Phil Lawler's commentary on L'OR, which contains the following gem, among several: "In past months L’Osservatore Romano has often embarrassed the Vatican, with puerile articles gushing about the merits of Michael Jackson, The Beatles, and The Simpsons. But this editorial blunder is far more serious. With its gross mishandling of this very serious issue, the Vatican newspaper has given rise to a worldwide confusion on a very important moral issue—damage that it may take years of painstaking work to undo."

Update, 25 Nov: John Allen's defense of L’Osservatore Romano is here. It occasions a couple of remarks.

First there is apparently a fact question as to whether L’OR had permission to publish what it did when it did. My sources indicated that L’OR did not have such permission, Allen’s suggest otherwise. Now, either L’OR had permission to publish, or it didn’t. But this should be easy: Simply ask L'OR who authorized them publish what they did, and then ask whoever they point to whether such permission was granted.

Of course, if L’OR had permission for doing what it did, my criticisms of it would fail in that respect. If it did not have permission, Allen's defense of it fails in that respect. In any case, my criticism of L’OR for how it did what it did, would stand.

Second, critics of L’OR come in a variety of shapes of sizes and they propose a variety of remedies. (That L'OR even has now a variety of critics in the Church itself says something, I think.) I hope Allen’s readers make that distinction and assess my criticisms and my remedies on their own merits. I’m no Vatican insider and I have no clue as to who is who’s enemy. I think L’OR’s comments on, say, Obama were inconsequential (I might be wrong about that). But I also think it only fair to observe that, if some L'OR critics operate with some biases, surely it's possible that some L'OR defenders operate likewise.

In short, I only know what I read in L’OR, and what I read there is frequently counterproductive, in my considered opinion, to the image the Church should be presenting to the world in its most-recognized newspaper.