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L'Osservatore Romano: at least we're paying attention

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Aug 21, 2009

Just over 20 years ago, I took over as the editor of an archdiocesan newspaper that had, I'm afraid, acquired a reputation as a sleepy house organ. My short tenure there was very controversial; it's an understatement to say that not everyone liked my approach. But people did pay attention to the paper, and that was something new.

John Allen, who is (or certainly should be) acknowledged as the best Vatican-watcher in the English-speaking world, has some very complimentary things to say this week about the new editor of L'Osservatore Romano. I don't entirely agree with his judgment; CWN readers may recall that L'Osservatore Romano has been roundly criticized on this site recently. But it's not too surprising that John Allen and I would differ on a point of editorial perspective, and anyway that's not really the point. The point is that we've noticed the editorial policy of the Vatican newspaper, for the first time in many years.

When I was being interviewed for the editorial position at that archdiocesan newspaper, the first question was a predictable one: I was asked to give my thoughts on the proper goals of a Catholic newspaper. That question was an easy one to anticipate, and I was ready with my answer. I replied that the first goal of a Catholic newspaper is the same as the first goal of any other publication: to be read. If you can't capture the attention of readers, it doesn't matter a whit how good or bad your articles might be. The first duty of the editor is to produce an interesting publication. Everything else flows from that. 

So I have to admit that, although I've been critical of the editorial decisions that Gian Maria Vian has made since his appointment as editor of the Vatican newspaper-- and I don't apologize for that criticism, nor do I intend to mute it--  still I appreciate the fact that he had injected new life into the publication. John Allen tells the story:

Among veteran Vatican-watchers, what Vian has accomplished is considered nothing short of a miracle. Prior to his arrival, one read the Vatican paper for the same reason that Kremlinologists used to read Pravda: for subtle, sometimes inscrutable clues to the thinking in the halls of power. Under Vian's direction, L'Osservatore has instead become a compelling journalistic product in its own right -- unpredictable, provocative, with something fresh and incisive to say about the big stories of the day. The editorial team isn't simply sitting around waiting for officialdom to pronounce on an issue before wading into the waters.

That's enormously commendable, and Vian isn't the only one to merit kudos. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Secretary of State and the man who appointed Vian, as well as his boss, Pope Benedict XVI, deserve credit for allowing L'Osservatore to flower. Despite perceptions of the Vatican as a rigidly controlled environment, here's a case where the pope and his team have allowed talented subordinates to chart their own course in full public view.

You understand that this is only a very qualified endorsement. I'd much prefer to see a Vatican newspaper that was both interesting and reliable in its editorial approach. But half a loaf is better than none. And frankly, if you can only have one of those characteristics in a publication, I'd rather have something interesting and unreliable than something reliable and dull.

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