By Hilary White

ROME, June 18, 2009 ( – According to the editor-in-chief of the Vatican’s quasi-official newspaper, US President Barack Obama in his pre-presidential voting record may have “made decisions that certainly cannot be defined as pro-life,” but this does not make him “pro-abortion.”

“He was, rather, pro-choice,” said L’Osservatore Romano’s Gian Maria Vian.

Vian told the National Review Online (NRO), “We have noticed that his entire program prior to his election was more radical than it is revealing itself to be now that he is president. So this is what I meant when I said he didn’t sound like a pro-abortion president.”

The interview comes amid growing concerns that the Vatican has been attempting to downplay the US president’s vehemently pro-abortion voting record and the pro-abortion record of his current administration. A series of articles in L’Osservatore Romano praising Barack Obama and soft-pedalling the opposition of the US bishops have been heavily criticised by pro-life leaders. But those concerns turned to shock when Vian recently told an interviewer, “It is my clear conviction: Obama is not a pro-abortion president.”

Vian told NRO’s Delia Gallagher that his statement had been given “on the fly” and was based only on his appraisal of Obama’s speech at the University of Notre Dame.

Vian said, “He considered abortion, at least in his speech at Notre Dame, as something to prevent and, above all, he said, we must proceed in the attempt to widen the consensus as much as possible because he realizes that it is a very delicate issue.”

In her introduction to the extensive interview, Gallagher wrote that it is a mistake to believe, as some have suggested, that Vian is anything other than a well-connected Vatican insider who has the total trust of his bosses in the Secretariat of State and even higher up.

“U.S. commentators may take umbrage at what he says but they are wrong not to take him seriously … Gian Maria Vian is firmly ensconced in the Vatican inner circle.”

Gallagher asked Vian if he had heard anything from the pope or the secretary of state about the comment or on the article judging Obama’s first 100 days. To both questions, Vian responded, “No.”

“Naturally we spoke about it because it created a lot of noise but [Cardinal Bertone] did not say that it was an article that wasn’t right or should not have been printed.”

Vian said, “I admit that it is legitimate to be diffident in the face of the words of a president who previously has demonstrated a pro-choice line, but I hope that he changes.”

Many Catholics and other pro-life advocates have been heavily critical of Vian’s understanding of the US political and ecclesiastical scene. Michael Novak described the Vatican paper’s string of pro-Obama articles as “star struck” and “teenage,” and said that Vian’s political perspective seems “like a blind observer of faraway events — completely ignorant.”

Vian, however, said that the paper is adopting a “waiting and seeing” policy. He said, “We hope that Obama does not follow pro-choice politics; not because we want him to follow Catholic politics, but because we hope and want Obama to guide politics at the service of the weakest, and the weakest are the unborn, the embryos.”

Despite his apparent insouciance, observers have noted that Vian must be under pressure for the remark and for his consistently upbeat reporting of Obama’s presidency. In a note at the end of an unsigned article on the US bishops’ reaction to new embryonic research rules, the paper declared, “Obviously the Holy See and L’Osservatore Romano have been, are, and will be standing side by side with the bishops of the United States in their commitment to the inviolability of human life in whatever stage of its existence.”

Other commentators have also noted that being a “Vatican insider” does not necessarily mean being a spokesman for the views of Pope Benedict, or a reliable representative of the “official Catholic line.” Alessandro Zagrando, Culture and Arts editor of the Venice edition of Corriere della Sera, has suggested that the confusion created by Vian’s apparent ongoing support for Obama may be the result of a power struggle within the Vatican.

Zagrando, Rome correspondent for Latin Mass quarterly magazine, writes of the existence of “Secretariat of State within a Secretariat of State,” composed of prelates “whose views differ from those of the Pontiff.” Taken together, Zagrando writes that these prelates, including William Cardinal Levada, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, represent the extreme “liberal” wing of the Vatican machine, who are trying to move the Church in a direction opposed to Pope Benedict’s attempted reform. These include an attempt to abolish “the celibacy law” for priests and “the appointment of more liberal bishops in North America.”

Read related coverage:

L’Osservatore Romano Takes Half a Step Back from Obama Support

Novak Fed Up with Vatican Newspaper: “We asked Rome for Bread they Give us Stones”