ROME, November 23, 2010 (LifeSiteNews.com) – For perhaps the first time, mainstream journalists are joining with conservative Catholics in criticizing the editors of the Vatican’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano for having created this weekend’s media maelstrom over Pope Benedict’s comments on condom use for AIDS prevention. The pope’s brief comments were a small section of a new interview book, released in Rome today, by German journalist Peter Seewald
Catholic commentators and mainstream journalists alike are denouncing L’Osservatore Romano for what they identify as its “betrayal” of the Pope and of accepted standards of journalistic ethics.
Christine Vollmer, a founding member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life and president of the Latin-America Alliance for the Family, told LifeSiteNews.com that the action by L’Osservatore Romano to leak the comments prior to the launch date was a betrayal of Pope Benedict, and called for its editor-in-chief, Gian Maria Vian, to be sacked.
“The big mistake,” she said, “for which Vian would be fired from any normal employ, is that, knowing there were those phrases in the book, they had no explanations ready.” This failure to prepare adequately for the media onslaught that was certain to follow, Vollmer said, is “utterly inexcusable.”
“So much so, that normal incompetence is not credible. It would seem that, as with the Fisichella article, the editorial line is to incite doubt on moral matters.” Vollmer was referring to the uproar that ensued last year when the paper published, and refused rebuttal on, the notorious article by Archbishop Rino Fisichella on the abortion of twins of a nine year-old rape victim.
“They obviously feel that it stimulates interest in the publication and that seems to be the idea. If the paper were to publish articles that shed doubt on the Assumption of Our Lady, what would happen? But they have no compunction to shed doubt on moral matters,” Vollmer said.
U.S. Catholic journalist and author Philip Lawler wrote that “today millions of people around the world believe that the Pontiff has changed Church teaching, has opened the question of contraception for debate, and has justified condom use in some circumstances. How did that happen?”
Lawler pinpoints the Vatican paper as the cause, saying, “Yet again, Pope Benedict has been badly served by his public-relations staff. In this case, the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano bears most of the blame for a truly disastrous gaffe.”
The Vatican had meticulously prepared for the launch of German journalist Peter Seewald’s new book-length interview with the pope. A press conference was scheduled for this morning and selected experts around the world had been vetted and prepared to give knowledgeable comment to media.
But on Saturday, all those plans came to naught when the pope’s paper, three days in advance of the official launch, broke the Vatican’s own embargo and published a selected excerpt – from the short section dealing with the Pope’s comments on condom use in Africa last March. Many are saying the “gaffe” was deliberately calculated to create the current global media feeding frenzy.
Headlines exploded into cyberspace through the weekend claiming that Pope Benedict XVI has “changed” Catholic teaching, either on the use of condoms in AIDS prevention or more generally on contraception. Although today news stories are appearing with more nuanced and contextualized claims, the media continues to report that the pope has opened the door for debate on the use of condoms in AIDS prevention. International organizations such as the World Health Organization, which have long promoted condom use for AIDS prevention, are congratulating Benedict on his “new” stand.
A prominent theme among Vatican-watchers in the last few years has been the role played by the Vatican communications offices in the string of media outbursts over the pope’s various comments, speeches and acts such as the lifting of the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying British traditionalist bishop. Some are now asking if the Vatican can be trusted competently to follow the accepted rules of journalistic ethics.
At the press conference this morning, officials declined to answer a pointed question from Frank Rocca, Vatican correspondent for Religion News Service and a mainstream journalist with the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Time and the Boston Globe. Rocca asked whether L’Osservatore Romano’s publication of the excerpts on Saturday “without informing the Sala Stampa [Holy See Press Office]” was an indication for the need for “better coordination” by the Vatican’s communications office.
Italian journalists have been especially blunt, with Paolo Rodari of Il Foglio, calling this weekend’s affair a “debacle.”
Veteran Italian journalist, Vatican expert and author of the 1987 interview book, The Ratzinger Report, Vittorio Messori, said that L’Osservatore Romano had “not even met the minimum requirements of prudence” in its decision to publish just the one small section on condoms that would ensure the media uproar that followed.
“Yet another failure of communication leads us to note once again that the Pope is not helped at all by those in the Vatican who should help.”
Lawler said that the action by L’Osservatore Romano has completely undermined the Vatican’s own plans to promote the book.
After this weekend’s consistory in which the Church welcomed 24 new cardinals, Lawler said, “the launch of Light of the World should have been another joyful occasion.”
“With appropriate planning, the publisher was poised to introduce the Pope’s book with a major publicity campaign. Now that publicity-which might have offered an accurate and favorable portrayal of the Pope’s book-will be nearly lost in the deluge of misinformation currently sweeping across the world.”