The Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, has been undergoing something of a transformation over the past year. Not only has the layout been altered, it has also been provoking debate on a number of issues, both inside and outside the Church.

Much has to do with the newspaper’s new editor, Giovanni Maria Vian, who is not only a journalist but also a professor of Christian literature at Rome’s La Sapienza University. Vian — the paper’s first new editor in chief in more than two decades — was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI and was given instructions by the Holy Father on how the paper could be improved.

He spoke Dec. 5 with Register correspondent Edward Pentin from his offices in the Vatican about these changes and the challenges of being editor of “the Pope’s newspaper.”

What were the Pope’s requests regarding changes?

The request was that the newspaper should be more international. Until now, L’Osservatore Romano never really had an international “breath.”

In the last 15 months, the space for international news has doubled. I was also asked to pay particular attention to the Eastern Catholic Churches. Of course, we’ve complied with these wishes and also with the most recent one: to give more space to the feminine voice.

Women, in reality, have always been present at L’Osservatore Romano: For example, the weekly English edition is entirely published by women. But in the daily edition, there were no women employed as journalists. So at the first opportunity, I employed the first woman journalist, Silvia Guidi, for the daily edition.

Another request was to give space to intellectuals and academics for particular articles, such as the one written by [Lucetta] Scaraffia, dealing with the subject of brain death. We also issue articles written by economists.

When I was appointed by the Pope, he wrote me a letter, stressing that L’Osservatore should be a place for discussion, debate, open to confronting ideas both among believers and non-believers. So we are trying to do that with a newspaper written not only by Catholics but also by non-Christians, by Jews and Muslims.

Many have welcomed these changes, but some are uneasy. The Vatican watcher Sandro Magister wrote recently that some in the Vatican are unsure of the newspaper’s new direction. What do you say to these criticisms, in particular that it seems to be becoming more secular than Catholic?

To me, these criticisms are unjustified, because the newspaper obviously remains the Pope’s newspaper. It would be crazy if the paper lost its specificity and character. What we stand for is very clear and coherent with the tradition of the Church’s teachings.

Obviously, L’Osservatore Romano expresses those points essential to the doctrinal line of the Church, the thoughts of the Holy See. But the newspaper isn’t the official publication of the Vatican. The official part is only a small section of the paper called Nostre Informazioni (our information) that deals with the audiences and the appointments of the Pope.

All the papal discourses are included?

All of them, but not only them, even though they constitute the most important part of the newspaper. For example, we have doubled the section dealing with cultural subjects, and we give a lot of space to interviews.

The recent piece on brain death provoked a big debate. [Lucetta] Scaraffia, a guest writer, reopened a debate on whether brain death really establishes the end of life, and therefore whether current transplant practices are permissible. The Church has usually been understood to believe that it did, but the teaching has never been fully defined.

This is a disputed, open question. Professor Scaraffia drew attention to the debate, started at Harvard 40 years ago, which has always been problematic. She said that brain death is not a dogma but a criterion that can be discussed, even though this point sounded offensive to many.

The Pope himself invited the scientific community to be open to this debate when, on Nov. 6, 2008, he addressed a conference on the subject, quoting the compendium of the Catechism that doesn’t speak of brain death but of real death.

Is this is an example of the kind of discussion you want to promote?

Yes, this kind of discussion which is “in progress,” one might say. Certainly, the newspaper is very clear in expressing that human life begins at conception and ends at death, and we defend the human being from abuses in the same way in which we defend the right of religious freedom.

Do you have plans to invite similar such discussions?

I would like to continue in this way, in producing a newspaper as interesting as possible. L’Osservatore has always been a newspaper that has to be read in its totality. We hope to continue in this tradition, making it even more interesting.

Does the Secretariat of State monitor closely what you write?

Yes, certainly great attention is paid to our editorials, and the Pope himself pays great attention to them. They seem happy enough with what we publish.

Until now, there have been only some small mistakes. But, I repeat, we must pay particular attention to certain international issues, particularly nuclear weapons, the Middle East and China. We must be very careful about these three topics, but we have a lot of freedom with the rest of the newspaper.

I understand what is appropriate, and I can work with autonomy, and, for example, do many more interviews than before.

The interviews are an innovation of yours?

Yes, this is an innovation. For example, we’ve had an interview with Italy’s head of state and a wonderful interview with the editor in chief of Corriere Della Sera on the question of Pius XII. He is Jewish and defended Pius XII in a way no one else would have done. I know him very well, and I knew that he had a good opinion of Pope Pacelli, but I didn’t think he would defend him with such determination.

We commemorated the 50th anniversary of Pius XII’s death with many important articles. For example, we published a very important discourse pronounced by the Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone on Pius XII and his time as secretary of state and as Pope.

All these texts will be published in a book by an Italian non-Catholic editor in the spring.

Are you concerned, though, that bringing in so many voices of writers from different religions, you are giving an image of relativism?

All the writers hosted in L’Osservatore Romano — believers or non-believers — must express respect for the Church’s teachings and for the human person.

So is the Pope very happy with the paper?

I hope so. Every time I seem him, he seems happy with what we’re doing and tells me to carry on. To me, the Pope is a very kind person, but if he wasn’t happy with anything I was doing, I would know.

What have been the highlights for you so far as editor? What are the best changes you’ve introduced, in your view?

At the moment, the newspaper is very neat and simple. There are only eight pages total, and the paper’s layout and graphics are very nice.

The first and the last pages are printed in color, and this is something new. We always look for symbolic and original photos. All the color photos are reproduced on our website. The Pope specifically wanted more photos to be issued in the paper.

In July 2007, we also started translating the English weekly edition into Malayalam, the language used in Kerala, India. We also produce a monthly Polish edition. We have no plans to publish a daily English edition — we would need good translators and many of them. But we have an extensive archive available online, and each year we record all our editions on CD-ROM. All the collection of the newspaper, starting from 1861, are recorded on CD-ROM.

Do you have any other projects for the future?

I’ve mentioned almost all of them. We’d like to develop the paper still further, first of all because as a paper we can defend the Pope in a better way.

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.