By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
In the abstract, if one were to choose some aspect of Roman life least likely to scorch the "buzz meter," meaning least likely to set tongues wagging and cause eyebrows to shoot up because of some bold new direction, a terrific candidate would have been the "gray lady" of the Italian journalistic scene, L’Osservatore Romano, “the pope’s newspaper."
The paper's Pravda-esque reputation for boring predictability has long seemed as much a constant of the Roman scene as wildcat strikes and good table wine. That profile makes the recent sweeping changes at L'Osservatore Romano all the more remarkable – so much so that some observers speak of nothing less than a “revolution.”
Today’s graphic overhaul, including the use of color on L’Osservatore’s legendarily gray first and last pages, marks another stage in this transformation. In just 100 days, L’Osservatore has metamorphasized into a paper widely seen as creative, provocative, and a virtually indispensable resource on church affairs.
If this continues, Benedict XVI’s appointment last October of Gian Maria Vian, a lay Italian journalist, as the editor-in-chief may actually end up being remembered as among the more consequential personnel moves of his papacy.
To be sure, the editorial line of L’Osservatore remains firmly anchored in the teaching of the Catholic Church and in the thought of Pope Benedict XVI, who is the paper's official publisher. Vian’s innovation, however, in the eyes of many observers, is to make that line relevant, commanding a far larger audience than has normally been the case for official Vatican publications.
Aside from today’s changes in layout, typeface, and the use of color, L’Osservatore Romano has broken new ground in several content areas over the last 100 days:
•tThe paper has begun to carry Q&A-style interviews on the issues of the day, often with cardinals and other church officials. Sometimes these interviews actually break news about coming Vatican documents and decisions, while sometimes they provide the Vatican’s first comment on major social and political developments. One senior Vatican official told NCR this week that cardinals are now “developing a taste” for taking part in these interviews, so much so that on a number of occasions L’Osservatore has actually “scooped” both official communications channels and other media on looming Vatican developments.
•tIncreasingly, these interviews are also giving voice to important figures outside the Catholic Church, especially leaders of other Christian churches and other religions. During the week of Prayer for Christian Unity in late January, for example, for the first time ever L’Osservatore carried an interview with the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, the main umbrella group for Protestant and Orthodox Christians; today, the paper has a Q&A with the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni. Interestingly, the interview with Di Segni focused on a recent letter from Benedict XVI, in which the pope referred to an “educational emergency,” an idea Di Segni appeared to play down, arguing that things were even worse during the Fascist era. It’s an indication that voices which do not simply parrot the papal line will not be scrubbed out of L’Osservatore’s pages.
•tBylines in L’Osservatore Romano are also increasingly from women, including the Jewish historian Anna Foa, the editorialist Eugenia Roccella, the historian of law Giulia Galeotti, the scientist Assuntina Morresi, and the historian Lucetta Scaraffia. In a January interview with a secular Italian paper, Vian said the effort to increase the presence of female writers, editors and commentators had been “explicitly requested by Pope Benedict XVI and the Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.”
•tThe paper has also beefed up its coverage of international affairs, dedicating its second and third pages each day to a round-up of news from around the world, often with a special focus on Africa and the Middle East.
One veteran Italian vaticanista, or expert on Vatican affairs, summed up the cumulative effect of these changes this way: “L’Osservatore is now more journalistic than l’Avvenire,” he said, referring to the official newspaper of the Italian bishops conference – long regarded as a more sleek, modern version of its staid, conservative rival.
“I never thought I’d live to see it,” he said.
Vian has a strong academic background, serving as a professor of Patristics at Rome’s secular “La Sapienza” University. (That’s the same campus where Benedict XVI recently pulled out of a scheduled visit following protests from students and professors who objected to comments then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made in 1990 about the Galileo case.) A former contributor to L’Avvenire, Vian cut his journalistic teeth with the Italian daily Il Foglio, founded by the popular conservative Italian political commentator Guiliano Ferrara.
Ferrara is often considered a leading exponent of what Italians call gli atei devoti, or “devout atheists,” meaning non-believers who are nevertheless sympathetic to the social positions and moral values defended by the Catholic Church. (In fact, Ferrara has said that while he doesn’t consider himself Catholic, he nevertheless is a theist.) At the annual “Meeting” sponsored each year in Rimini by the Catholic movement Communion and Liberation, for example, Ferrara enjoys near rock-star status, drawing huge crowds and enthusiastic applause.
Ferrara’s genius, many observers believe, is to make conservative social and cultural positions “sexy,” delivering them with panache and wit, and never shrinking from debate. Many see some of those same traits in L’Osservatore under Vian.
Yet for Vian, the primary point of reference for his “100 days” revolution lies elsewhere. He frequently quotes Pope Paul VI, who called upon L’Osservatore Romano to be “a newspaper of ideas.”
To date, Vian’s revolution has rocked Rome but it’s largely invisible elsewhere, since only the front page of L’Osservatore Romano is available in PDF format on the Internet, and that only in Italian. Vian has let it be known that soon he hopes to have the entire daily edition available, eventually in multiple languages.
When that happens, the entire global Catholic church may well have its own daily newspaper – a communications revolution indeed.