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Why Doubleday as the Pope's publisher? February 01, 2007

Why is Doubleday publishing the Pope’s new book?

In Italy, journalists have intrigued by the irony: A new book by Pope Benedict XVI will be brought out in the US by the same publisher who gave us The Da Vinci Code. After Vatican officials condemned that novel for conveying “hatred and gratuitous defamation” against the Catholic faith, why would they choose the same publisher for the Pope’s work?

That’s a good question. But here’s another: Why did the Vatican allow sale of the publishing rights to Doubleday, when Pope Benedict already had a publication agreement with an eminently respectable Catholic publisher in America?

Shortly after his election to the papacy, the Holy Father signed over all the rights to his writing to the Vatican publishing house, Librarie Editrice Vaticana (LEV). But since he had published widely before his election, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Pope’s agreement with LEV stipulated that all existing contracts with publishers would be respected.

Pope Benedict has long had an exclusive contract with Ignatius Press, the San Francisco publisher headed by his former student, Father Joseph Fessio, to publish his works in the US. When he heard that the Pontiff was working on a new book, the American Jesuit met with Pope Benedict, and secured the Pope’s agreement that this book, too, would be published in America by Ignatius.

Now it seems that won’t happen. Vatican officials have chosen the big-name American commercial house, rather than the thriving Catholic publisher. LEV sold the rights to the Pope’s book to Rizzoli, a major Italian firm, and Rizzoli in turn made the deal with Doubleday.

Ignatius Press would have featured the Pope’s book alongside other works by Joseph Ratzinger, and dozens of other books by orthodox Catholic scholars. Doubleday-- a division of the Random House publishing empire-- will put the Pope into a catalogue that features not only The Da Vinci Code but other such unseemly titles as The Catholic Girl’s Guide to Sex (a book that tells how to “enjoy your inevitable fall from grace”) and Talk Dirty to Me.

The Pope’s book, entitled Jesus of Nazareth: From His Baptism to His Transfiguration, aims to eliminate widespread confusion about the figure of Jesus Christ. On the Doubleday/Random House list, it will compete with books that have contributed to that confusion, such as The Jesus Mysteries: Was the ‘Original Jesus’ a Pagan God?

In defending the decision to use Doubleday, the Vatican has said that the giant American publisher has a “respectful editorial curriculum”-- whatever that means. It is true that Doubleday has published many fine books, and years ago the Image imprint (a division of Doubleday) was justifiably famous for producing inexpensive Catholic classics. But today, no one could possibly think of Doubleday as a publishing house committed to advancing the cause of Catholicism, as Ignatius Press is.

Given a choice between a massive commercial enterprise with no discernible sympathy for Catholicism, and an energetic smaller house dedicated to supporting the faith, which do you think Pope Benedict would have chosen? Actually we don’t need to ask that question, because we know which publisher the Pope did choose.

The Pope’s decision, it appears, will not be carried out.

Is this an isolated blunder? Or is there an unhappy pattern emerging at the Vatican?

In his appointment of a new Archbishop of Warsaw, in his plan to allow broader use of the Latin Mass, and now in the American publication of his book, Pope Benedict has encountered trouble with his own staff. The duties of the Roman Pontiff are heavy enough in themselves; the Holy Father shouldn’t be forced to battle through opposition within the Vatican.

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