L’Osservatore Obama?

Catholics have been critical of recent articles about President Obama in the Vatican’s newspaper.

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican’s semi-official newspaper stands accused of being ignorant of American politics and scandalizing the faithful after it published upbeat assessments of the Obama administration.

L’Osservatore Romano’s editor in chief has defended his paper, saying it is fulfilling its task of informing and forming opinions.

In two articles, one to mark the president’s first 100 days and another on Obama’s speech at the University of Notre Dame, the newspaper, whose most important articles are cleared by the Vatican Secretariat of State, focused on what it sees as the administration’s better-than-expected record on the issue of abortion.

In a front-page article April 29, headlined “The 100 days that did not shake the world,” the paper said Obama had operated more cautiously than expected in most areas, including economics and international relations. “On ethical questions, too,” the article read, “Obama does not seem to have confirmed the radical innovations that he had discussed.”

The article’s author, Giuseppe Fiorentino, also said new ethical guidelines on embryonic stem-cell research were “less permissive” than predicted and that the policy doesn’t “permit the creation of new embryos for purposes of research or therapy, for cloning or reproductive ends, and federal funds may be used solely for experimentation with surplus embryos.”

However, observers pointed out that the article failed to mention Obama’s support of the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) and that the administration has fulfilled, or is to fulfill, 10 of 15 agenda items which more than 50 abortion-rights organizations asked Obama to support last December. These include reversal of the Mexico City Policy to allow federal funding of abortions abroad, restoring funding to the United Nations Population Fund, and choosing pro-abortion federal appointees.

On embryonic stem-cell research, observers said the newspaper’s assessment was inaccurate, as the guidelines do permit creation of embryos for research and go far beyond the use of surplus embryos. They also leave open the possibility of cloning embryos for research.

Notre Dame Speech

A second article, on Obama’s speech to the University of Notre Dame, dwelled on his appeal for “common ground” and focused mainly on its rhetorical passages. Although the May 18 report was accurate, some observers criticized it for giving a glowing assessment of the president’s speech, while failing to mention the more than 80 bishops who have vociferously opposed the university’s decision to honor the president.

L’Osservatore’s editor in chief, Gian Maria Vian, defended the paper in a May 20 interview with the Italian newspaper Il Riformista, saying the U.S. president’s Notre Dame speech was “respectful” and left him convinced that “Obama is not a pro-abortion president.”
However, the paper’s position was roundly criticized in two separate articles for National Review Online by papal biographer George Weigel and theologian Michael Novak. Weigel said the newspaper’s stance displayed a “sorry ignorance” both of recent American history and the president’s attacks on the Church’s teaching on life. He pointed out that L’Osservatore Romano does not automatically express the positions of the Holy See. However, its statements on this issue, he said, show a strong pro-Obama current in the Vatican.

Novak also accused the newspaper of not understanding the American reality, with the result that “it has sided with the pro-abortion forces and against the marginalized minority of faithful practicing Catholics.” It is as if the popes who defined abortion as an “intrinsic evil” had spoken in vain, he wrote. “We asked Rome for bread, and L’Osservatore Romano has given us stones.”

In comments to the Register May 23, Vian did not repeat that he felt Obama was “not a pro-abortion president.” Rather, he said he “didn’t sense” that the newspaper was expressing views different from those of the Holy See, “views which are opposed to any policy in favor of abortion, at a national and international level.” He reaffirmed that the Vatican newspaper “is fully behind the bishops of the United States” and expressed his “personal hope” that the radical statements expressed by Obama before his election “won’t be confirmed.”

“Any talk about a supposedly soft line in the Vatican newspaper is only a reconstruction by those who have an interest in dividing Catholics, those who imagine the Holy See is opposed to American bishops,” said Vian, who prior to being made L’Osservatore’s editor in 2007 was a professor of patristic philology at Rome’s La Sapienza university.

“Our task is to inform and form opinions.”

Since he took over the editorship, Vian has tried to make the paper a respected forum for debate (an editorial policy which some fear will mislead readers).


It should be stressed that L’Osservatore also carried a news story on the U.S. bishops’ campaign against the Obama administration’s policy on federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research — published in the same issue as its report on Obama’s speech. And on May 22, the newspaper ran a short article quoting two U.S. bishops who had criticized Notre Dame’s decision to honor the president.

However, to many American Catholics in Rome, the newspaper’s official line on Obama appears ill-informed. Father John Wauck, a professor of literature at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome and a former professional speechwriter for Republican and Democratic politicians, said he was “completely baffled by the colossal ignorance” in the newspaper, “ignorance of both American politics and the function of rhetoric.”

“In America, abortion is a bone caught in the throat of the political system,” he said, “but in Europe and in Italy, many people seem to have swallowed that bone and to be ready to live with the status quo — i.e., the systematic killing of hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings each year.

“In this regard,” said Father Wauck, a priest of Opus Dei who has lived in Italy for many years, “it’s important to recall that, in the U.S., legal abortion is a judicial imposition — a diktat of the Supreme Court, not a product of voting. In Italy, however, legal abortion is a result of popular legislation. This difference, I think, explains a lot.”

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.