Like Slate, but Infallible?

A peek inside L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper.

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI has indicated that condom use may be acceptable for certain people, such as male prostitutes, to reduce the spread of HIV. The pope’s comments, which were published Saturday in the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, represent a break from the 42-year-old Catholic ban on artificial contraception. Other than significant papal statements, what kinds of stories are in the Vatican newspaper?

Movie reviews, interviews, and travel articles. L’Osservatore has always been, first and foremost, a sort of papal fanzine. Benedict XVI’s views, travel schedule, and official pronouncements dominate the publication, and until three years ago, there wasn’t much to entice casual readers. But, in 2007, the Holy See gave Editor Giovanni Maria Vian the task of making the paper relevant, and he has paired the Benedictine fare with general-interest pieces. The pope is still the main attraction, of course—the Nov. 17 English-language edition has five stories on the front page, four of which relate to papal activities. But the inside pages break roughly into three departments: international politics, culture, and general religious content like interviews with bishops. Vian also added color photographs to the paper.

Vian has demonstrated his savvy by running headline-grabbing pop culture stories. L’Osservatore writers have declared Homer Simpson a Catholic (mistakenly), celebrated that famous Catholic flickThe Blues Brothers, forgiven John Lennon’s heresies, and trashed James Cameron’s Avatar as bland. The political editorials also generate debate, as when Vian published consecutive pieces commending and attacking President Obama. The Vatican goes out of its way to emphasize that cultural commentary and political statements do not necessarily represent the pope’s views.

Vian’s overhaul took L’Osservatore back to its roots, since the paper was originally meant to be a lightning rod for controversy. The first edition, published in 1861, was jam-packed with searing polemics against the Italian unification movement. Pope Pius IX had just seen his ragtag band of 10,000 pan-European fighters routed at the Battle of Castelfidardo, and the papal states he once ruled had fallen almost completely into the hands of secular Italian rulers. L’Osservatore Romano was founded with the express purpose of defending the papacy and soon replaced the less fiery Giornale di Roma as the Vatican’s publication.

Unlike the Gideons or the Mormons, the Roman Catholic church isn’t about to give its literature away gratis. The first edition of L’Osservatore sold for five baiocchi. (In the old papal states, 100 baiocchi made up one scudo.) Today, you can buy the newspaper at Italian newsstands for one Euro. If you really can’t get enough pope news—and you read Italian—you can have every issue of the paper from 1861 through 2008 formatted digitally on CD-ROM for $2,815.

L’Osservatore publishes daily in Italian and weekly in several other languages and employs around 25 full-time writers. For the first time, under Vian’s leadership, some of those writers are women.

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