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John Paul II Takes Italian Catholic Media Giant To Task

BY Berenice Cocciolillo

April 06, 1997 Issue | Posted 4/6/97 at 2:00 PM

 

HOW FAR CAN a Catholic magazine go in the name of freedom of the press? That is the question that lies at the heart of the current struggle between the Vatican and the Society of St. Paul, whose Italian publications have been accused of being too liberal on issues like sexuality, abortion and divorce.

Last month Pope John Paul II appointed an Italian prelate, Bishop Antonio Buoncristiani, as the papal delegate in charge of overseeing the Society of St. Paul's media efforts. In a letter issued by the Vatican Feb. 28, the Pope told the Pauline superior general, Father Silvio Pignotti, that because “a delicate situation has recently occurred within the religious family, disturbing harmony in the community,” he was appointing Bishop Buoncristiani of Porto and Santa Rufina, a diocese just outside Rome, to take over the governance of the order's apostolic works in Italy, including the Pauline publications.

At the center of the controversy is Famiglia Christiana, a glossy magazine founded in 1931 that, with sales of more than 1 million copies a week, is Italy's best-selling weekly. Besides being sold on newsstands and by subscription, it is also sold inside many churches. Several editions published in other languages make it one of the largest circulation magazines in Europe.

One of the magazine's most popular features is a column entitled “conversations with Father,” in which the editor, 69-year-old Father Leonardo Zega, answers readers' questions on a variety of issues. In recent months, Father Zega's replies, considered courageous by his admirers and shocking to his critics, have shown that no problem is taboo for Famiglia Christiana.

For example, a few months ago Father Zega, who has edited the magazine since 1980, told the parents of a homosexual that they should “respect their son's choice.” In another recent issue he responded to a couple concerned about their adolescent son's frequent masturbation. He told them not to worry, because masturbation, he said, is part of the process of maturation toward a more fulfilling sexual life. “I'm not saying that it's not a sin, but it's certainly not the worst sin a teenager can commit,” the priest-editor said.

Just a few weeks ago, the priest received a letter from a young woman who was distraught after having discovered that her fiancé was secretly reading pornographic magazines and renting X-rated videotapes. Although Father Zega affirmed that he “did not want to banalize the damage that pornography does to the dignity of human beings, to the beauty of love and sex and or good taste,” he exhorted women to be tolerant and understanding with men who are immaturely attracted to pornography.

To make matters worse, Italy's mainstream press has gotten into the habit of quoting extracts of the articles under fire, thus fanning the flames of the controversy.

John Paul II's recent action is the latest chapter in the long struggle between the Pauline editorial group, one of the largest Catholic communication holdings in the world, and the Vatican. In 1986 Pope John Paul II had urged the Paulines to “not be confused by the ideologies of the modern world” and to “strongly feel the duty to always enlighten souls, to never instill doubt and to never spread confusion.”

In 1989, the Society of St. Paul was criticized by authorities like Cardinal Jozef Tomko, the prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, for plans to publish the Koran for educational purposes and to make it available on video in cartoon form. In the past few years, Vatican authorities, including Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Cardinal Camillo Ruini, president of the Italian bishops' conference, have tried, with little success, to steer the Pauline publications toward a more moderate course.

During a meeting with the cardinals last fall, the Paulines' superior general, Father Pignotti, defended the magazines' editorial independence and said that it was his order's duty to guarantee that autonomy. Father Pignotti also dismissed Cardinal Ruini's request that a panel of theologians approve articles dealing with moral or sexual issues before publication.

According to the superior general, the controversial articles “have not at all been in contrast to Catholic doctrine and morals.” As far as the appropriateness of some issues and how the lay press might report on them or distort them, he said that “this danger exists in every type of communication, even in homilies. But by overestimating this objection, one runs the risk of not being able to write or say anything ever again because there will always be ill-disposed individuals who misunderstand our words and twist their meaning.”

In his letter to Father Pignotti announcing the appointment of Bishop Buoncristiani, Pope John Paul did not refer directly to any specific incidents. He did say, however, that “various items published in the Pauline periodicals have brought about not a little perplexity.” In describing the tasks he had entrusted to Bishop Buoncristiani, the pontiff added: “I hope this will contribute to resolving the current difficulty for the good not only of the Society of St. Paul, but also in the interest of the Church, in which the Paulines are called to develop a vast and challenging mission in the specific area of the mass media.”

The Society of St. Paul was founded in 1914 by Don Giacomo Alberione, who is now in the process of being beatified. The Pauline fathers and brothers are active in social communications; the order is known all over the world for its publications and work in mass media.

Bishop Buoncristiani (his name means “good Christians”) told the Corriere della Sera daily that he considers his new position “a very delicate task.” In effect, he will be taking over the duties that normally belong to the superior general. In carrying out his tasks, however, Bishop Buoncristiani will report directly to Pope John Paul II.

A statement signed by both Bishop Buoncristiani and Father Pignotti affirms that the Paulines have “welcomed the Holy Father's letter with deference and intend to adhere to its contents without reservation.” The latest issue of Famiglia Christiana, however, makes no reference to the Vatican intervention.

The controversy between the Holy See and the Paulines is complicated by the internal conflicts and power struggles that have plagued the Society in recent years. On one end of the tug of war there is Famiglia Christiana editor Father Zega, who is supported by Superior General Father Pignotti. On the other end there is Father Paolo Saorin, provincial of the Italian Paulines, who is allied with Father Stefano Andreatta, former editor of the Pauline cultural monthly Jesus. The latter two hold positions closer to the Vatican and the Italian espiscopal conference.

Last year, Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo, the prefect of the Congregation for Religious and Cardinal Vincenzo Fagiolo, president of the Disciplinary Commission of the Roman curia, intervened but did not manage to resolve the conflict. Ultimately Pope John Paul decided to call upon Bishop Buoncristiani to find a long-term solution.

The Vatican's intervention was criticized by some lay and religious commentators as an example of authoritarianism and intolerance. A high-ranking prelate at the Vatican Secretary of State, who spoke on condition of anonymity, replied to critics: “even if this were a decision by the Holy See to call the Paulines to order and to a greater fidelity to Catholic doctrine, I don't see why it should have caused such an uproar: if magazines are sold inside churches, it seems to be more than justified that the ecclesiastical authorities oversee things in order to prevent the publication of material that is in contrast with Catholic doctrine.”

Berenice Cocciolillo is based in Rome.