At 150 years, the pope's newspaper raises eyebrows

Vatican City - The headline was an eye-grabber: "Homer and Bart are Catholic."

That this homage to The Simpsons was splashed across the Vatican's newspaper was odder still, hinting that as it nears its 150th year of publication, L'Osservatore Romano was trying to be relevant, hip, even a bit controversial.

It wasn't always so, and the pope's newspaper is still full of dense treatises on obscure 15th century saints, papal discourses and appointments of bishops around the world - the stuff that makes L'Osservatore the Vatican's official newspaper of record.

But thanks to editor Giovanni Maria Vian who took over in 2007, the once sleepy, eight-page imprint has become a must-read for anyone curious about the papacy and its unique world view.

It has always been a newspaper not so much of news but ideas. As the future Pope Paul VI wrote in 1961 to mark L'Osservatore's centenary - "It's not enough to report the facts as they occurred: It wants to comment on them to show how they should have happened, or not."

The new popular slant, however, remains a radical departure from tradition. And while circulation and advertising are up despite the global downward trend for newspapers, not everyone is pleased - especially on the other side of the Atlantic.

American Catholic conservatives have trashed L'Osservatore's editorial changes under Vian, saying the newspaper disserves the faithful.

"All the confusion fit to print," commentator Michael Novak wrote in the conservative National Review about what he said was the newspaper's ignorance of the abortion debate in the U.S. after its sympathetic coverage of Barack Obama's 2009 speech in which he asked for common ground on abortion.

Most recently it was L'Osservatore's handling of Pope Benedict XVI's book "Light of the World" that riled the American right.

In the book-length interview that came out in November, the pope said male prostitutes who use condoms to prevent HIV might be showing a first step toward a more moral sexuality because they're looking out for the welfare of another.

L'Osservatore ran excerpts of the book four days before the Vatican's own release date, sparking a media frenzy. It didn't help that translation errors made it seem like the pope was justifying condom use for heterosexual couples. He wasn't.

But it all outraged the right, which said the newspaper was trying so hard to be relevant that it was no longer serving its publisher: the pope.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver accused L'Osservatore of wronging Benedict by breaking the Vatican's own embargo and publishing the condom quotes without context or commentary.

Philip Lawler, editor of Catholic World News, called for Vian's resignation.

"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," he wrote. "But this editorial blunder is far more serious."

Even Edward Peters, the Vatican's expert witness in U.S. sex abuse cases and an adviser to the Holy See's high court, wrote: "If this media fiasco isn't enough to bring sweeping changes to L'OR than I don't know what ever will."

Vian, 58, dismisses the criticism and says Americans don't actually read the newspaper but just media reports about it.

He acknowledged that L'Osservatore was in part to blame, because it's only a daily in Italian (it has weekly editions in English and seven other languages). But he said the paper did nothing wrong in running the excerpts.

"This is something I absolutely reject with great tranquility," Vian said in a recent interview inside L'Osservatore's newsroom, inside the walls of Vatican City. "It's a text that speaks for itself. You don't need any context. You understand that he's talking about the fight against AIDS."

He noted the controversy helped sales: The pope's American publisher said the first 30,000 English editions of the book sold out immediately and a second run of 30,000 is nearly gone.

And Vian's changes are paying off for L'Osservatore's own numbers: circulation for its weekly imprints is jumping from 350,000 to 400,000 this year thanks to a deal to include a weekly insert in an Italian paper.

Advertising in 2010 was up 68 percent from a year earlier for the Italian daily edition, which has a circulation of about 13,000 to 15,000, Vian said.

Like other Vatican-owned media such as Vatican Radio, L'Osservatore is a net drain on the Holy See's finances, though Vian said its losses were contained. In all, it employs about 90 people, lay and religious.

And Vian expressed no concern for his job. He comes from a family with solid Vatican connections: his father and grandfather were both friends of popes. His own credentials include historian, journalist, and professor in the study of early Church writers at Rome's La Sapienza University.

As a result, Vian seems to have the trust both of Benedict and his No. 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, to whom he reports. Vian said he had never once run an editorial by Bertone's office and had never been asked to submit an article for clearance.

He said he knew what his editorial limits were: L'Osservatore tends not to write much about the Catholic Church in China, for example. Too touchy. Yet it writes frequently about Pope Pius XII, the World War II-era pope criticized by Jews for having stayed too silent on the Holocaust.

The German-born Benedict has made clear he thinks Pius has gotten a bad rap and that history will prove he did everything possible to save Jews.

"We aim for confrontation, for debate, but always with moderate tones," Vian said of his editorial vision. "We don't fear polemics, but we don't look for them, either."

Vian said Benedict had asked for three things when he named him to the job in 2007: a more global outlook, greater attention to the Orthodox and churches of the eastern rite, and more space to women's issues and women writers.

For the first time, L'Osservatore has a woman on staff in its Italian daily edition, a culture writer. Women also make up the bulk of the staff for the English and Polish editions, and the German edition is headed by a woman.

"It's no mystery that if the pope had found the right person he would have named a woman as editor of L'Osservatore Romano," Vian said.

The new focus on popular culture responds to Benedict's express request that L'Osservatore be relevant to contemporary readers and show that there can be an "opening to God" even in secular, contemporary culture, he said.

"Certainly we're interested in Shakespeare and Gregorian chant," Vian said. But it's equally important to write about the Beatles, the Blues Brothers and, yes, The Simpsons since they too can have a Christian message.

The Simpsons headline, he acknowledged, was a bit over the top even though the story was legitimate: It described the recurring story lines in the cartoon of the Christian faith, religion and the question of God.

"We exaggerated it a bit," Vian said, breaking into English. "We 'sexed up' the news a bit. We had fun doing it. But the argument was not banal."