Vatican slams Halloween (not really)

Big BenDevilAll together now, religion-beat pros (and fans), let’s chant this together: L’Osservatore Romano does not equal the Vatican.

You’ve seen the headlines, right? L’Osservatore Romano runs an article on some controversial issue in Italy, or somewhere else in the world, and some journalists jump the gun and produce stories that say the Vatican, or even the pope, has released a statement that changes its stance on some crucial doctrinal, moral or cultural issue. You know, something like: “Vatican says that Dumbledore isn’t really gay.”

So here is a classic that is just right for today, care of the Telegraph. You’ll get a kick out of the headline, for example:

Vatican condemns Hallowe’en as anti-Christian

The Vatican has condemned Hallowe’en as anti-Christian, saying it is based on a sinister and dangerous “undercurrent of occultism”

As a regular reader noted, does the Vatican ever take a stance that is more nuanced than “condemned”? You’d never know it from most mainstream news coverage.

But that’s besides the point. Read the story and see if you can find a single statement in it that comes from the Vatican, let alone from a Vatican office that is charged with making pronouncements about holy days, liturgical questions, church traditions, etc.

First there’s the headline. Does the Vatican ever take a more nuanced
stance on anything besides condemning?

But that’s beside the point. Read the story and see if you can find any material that is actually from the Vatican. Instead we get:

The Vatican issued the warning through its official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, in an article headlined “Hallowe’en’s Dangerous Messages”. The paper quoted a liturgical expert, Joan Maria Canals, who said: “Hallowe’en has an undercurrent of occultism and is absolutely anti-Christian.”

Parents should “be aware of this and try to direct the meaning of the feast towards wholesomeness and beauty rather than terror, fear and death,” said Father Canals, a member of a Spanish commission on church rites.

OK, in addition to the problem with identifying the newspaper with the teaching authority of the Vatican, the article also misses a key point: Is the Vatican warning parents about Halloween, or about certain types of costumes and celebrations linked to Halloween? After all, the language — from a priest on a Spanish, not Vatican, commission — suggests that there are beautiful and wholesome ways to celebrate the holiday. Right?

Read on. There are other voices quoted and none of them are Vatican officials, let alone Vatican officials who make pronouncements on doctrinal matters.

As they say on ESPN: Come on, man!

Photo: How some Vatican critics view the current pope.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Will

    Sometimes TheVatican “endorses”.

    If some monsignor ordered spaghetti carbonara for his lunch with a journalist, the “reporter” would write “Vatican endorses carbonara”.

    Now, if an assistant to an assistant makes some remark, we don’t read “White House slams Harry Potter”… or do we?

  • Julia

    What Will said.

    No wonder people think Catholics are subject to mind control. There doesn’t seem to be any subject on the face of the earth about which “the Vatican” hasn’t been reported to have made a binding pronouncement. Sometimes condemning, but also (as Will says) – endorsing.

    Movie producers love to have “the Vatican” condemn their movies.

    I wonder what the Pope gets paid for all his “endorsements”. That would make a good story.

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  • Frank

    If you have absolute power to censor, to fire, and to deport newspaper staff, you are utterly responsible for the opinions expressed therein. There is no way to weasel out of it.

  • R.Porter


    Every news organization in the United States, as they are private companies, has the ability to censor or to fire a reporter or commentator. Are all of the commentary pieces then “official endorcements or condemnations” of those organizations owners?

    “New York Times Condems Catholism as an intolerant, bigoted Organization” — Playing by the rules you just outlined this is a valid Headline based on Maureen Dowd recent rant in that paper.

    Lastly, the assertaion of being “deported” is almost laughable . . . A quick Wikipedia examination of what constitutes vatican “citizenship” would explain that. Worse case scenerio, said reporter has to move accross the river . . .

  • Martha

    I suppose it was a moderate headline; after all, they used “condemns” rather than “slams” :-) Though I see that our old friends at “The Daily Mail” did indeed use that verb in their “Halloween is ‘dangerous’ says the Pope as he slams ‘anti-Christian’ festival” headline!

    This site has a good track of how one paper picked up the story, another paper copied the first paper and put their twist on it, and so on (link courtesy of the Boar’s Head Tavern):

    But yes, much too often “Vatican slams!” stories turn out to be “Our stringer in Rome talked to some guy who looked like a priest for five minutes while they were waiting for their espressos”.

    Except in this case, it doesn’t even look like “talked to the guy” but “had a read of the paper over his morning coffee and sent this story to us rather than the one about the Pope’s pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii because he didn’t think we’d be interested in that.”

    I wish the papers would do even five minutes’ thinking about the stories they run; Hallowe’en in America (due to its roots in Irish emigrant culture) is (or was) the ‘kids dress up for candy’ time of the year, with harmless ghosts and goblins and horror stories tacked on. It wasn’t even a big festival in England, let alone the rest of Europe.

    It has been introduced over here (or re-introduced, in the case of Ireland) as the big commercialised American holiday, complete with pumpkins (where never a pumpkin was seen before) and decorating the house as for Christmas (again, a custom never seen before, and we *invented* the thing!). It’s come into mainland Europe as an import, and there is a definite occult association that just isn’t present in America (or Ireland, for that matter).

    So a Spanish priest may have legitimate concerns over what is not a children’s holiday in his country. But of course, that doesn’t make for scare headlines.

  • Martha

    I see from following links that the story originally appeared in the Spanish daily newspaper “La Razon”, so that seems as if “L’Osservatore” was only reporting what another paper said itself.

    Of course, it’s harder to make a Spanish paper the “official voice of the Vatican”, isn’t it? :-)

  • Martha

    Here’s a Babelfished version of part of the article from “La Razon”; any Spanish-speakers can read the original here:

    “The celebration of Halloween is not as innocent as to disguise themselves of sorceress and to take pumpkins illuminated with disquieting forms of faces. Thus, at least, they see the Christian churches it. The custom, concerned of the United States via Hollywood with films that reaped a great success in years 80 like “the night of Halloween, John Carpenter, entered with force Spain several years ago and it is celebrated at night of the next Saturday. The stores of disguises and “everything to 100” are making their August for several days, with the bookcases of their establishments filled with suits of zombies, vampires, ghosts, druidas, skeletons, devils and until extraterrestrial beings.

    And, what has of bad in a simple celebration going it well? “That has a antiChristianity and occultism background”, it indicates to Joan Maria Canals, director of the secretaryship of the episcopal commission of liturgy of the Spanish Episcopal Conference (the EEC). The priest is butcher on the matter: “The parents must be conscious and to channel the sense of celebration towards good and the beauty, instead of towards the terror, the fear and the same death”.

  • Stoo

    Is it just me, or does the Telegraph crop up here a lot? I’d have thought they’d get catholic stuff right at least, what with having the editor of the Catholic Herold on their staff (damien thompson).

    Anyway I thought this point of tmatt’s

    Is the Vatican warning parents about Halloween, or about certain types of costumes and celebrations linked to Halloween?

    was splitting hairs a bit. The warning seems to be all about the fun-spooky-stuff we associate with halloween nowadays. If he’d limit celebration to a trip to church he’s not really talking about halloween as we know it (regardless of whatever the historical roots might be).

    Finally, the best way to make Pope Benedict look sinister is to give him a Darth Sidious style cloak and cowl!

  • Stoo

    er by “he” I meant the bishop, not tmatt

  • Davis

    Is it just me, or does the Telegraph crop up here a lot?

    I’m surprised by how many threads here originate from the British press (especially the conservative Telegraph). Given the differing press traditions and the general lack of famliarity Americans have to the known-biases of British news outlets, it seems an odd place to find examples of news.

  • Stoo

    Yeah I’d expect the Torygraph to pop up on the Getreligion radar less often than say the Guardian.

  • Clifton Carl


    We didn’t see the headline “New York Times Condems Catholism as an intolerant, bigoted Organization” because their archives are available to anyone (some for a fee, some not.)

    But we don’t know if the slam against Halloween was or wasn’t from “the Vatican” because we (at least I) don’t know the byline of the L’Osservatore Romano article. One can’t check the source when the source is L’Osservatore Romano.

    So we saw the story in USA Today and even on Drudge. Millions of Americans getting the message that the Church thinks Trick-or-Treat should be abolished. Gee – that’s good for evangelization.


    The fact that so many American Catholic parishes uncritically ran this European story on their blogs is a bit frightening.

  • Will

    As the Curt Jester remarked (“Blogger slams slams”), future historians may conclude that at the turn of the century there was a Pope Slams on the throne. “Pope slams this, Pope slams that.”

  • Martha

    Stoo, it wasn’t even a bishop who made the pronouncements.

    It looks like a Spanish paper ran a story about “Christian alternatives to Hallowe’en” (they mention Paris and Santiago, Chile as well), got a quote from a Spanish PRIEST who is director of the liturgy committe for the Spanish bishops’ organisation; it got picked up by “L’Osservatore Romano” and from there – all over the English papers as “Vatican condemns!” and “Pope slams!”

    Which is a bit like having a story about, I dunno – the local pumpkin harvest versus imported pumpkins in a New England paper (apparently the weather has been bad in the Midwest and New England, which means that the local growers may not have a good harvest and there may be imports from places such as Texas and California*), with quotes from a Department of Agriculture employee about the value of the national pumpkin market, which is then picked up and turned into “Congress condemns!” and “President slams!” the importation of foreign fruits and vegetables :-)

    *Did you know that “The market value of the 2008 U.S. pumpkin crop was $140.7 million, with 43,400 acres harvested, the Department of Agriculture says”?

  • Maureen

    What sorts of Autumn festivals used to go on in Spain? Were they stamped out, and did Halloween take their place? Why does Spain celebrate “Halloween”, by that untranslated name, and not “Dia de los Muertos” or something else? Why is Halloween offensive and dressing up for Carnival not?

    Lot of questions that this article didn’t answer.

    Also, they missed the Our Lady of Pompeii/ex-Satanist turned priest angle. At Halloween! Sad.

  • Julia

    I’m surprised by how many threads here originate from the British press (especially the conservative Telegraph). Given the differing press traditions and the general lack of famliarity Americans have to the known-biases of British news outlets, it seems an odd place to find examples of news.

    Mainly because it’s these British stories about the Vatican that are picked up by papers here in the US. So – the British papers, on this particular topic, have a great influence on what we read about the Vatican here in the States.

    There seem to be full-time Vatican-watchers emplyed by a few of the British papers. Like 24hour cable news stations these guys sensationalize minor stories when no big stories
    are happening.

    “Dia de los Muertos” is derived from the Indian culture in Mexico – so it doesn’t occur in Spain. Spain doesn’t have a Carnival like the ones in Rio, the Caribbean and elsewhere in this hemisphere. Spain does have people in robes called Penitants that march in procession during Holy Week in Lent.

    Google images: Holy Week in Spain
    [the link was incredibly long]

    Link to article about holy days & fiestas in Spain.

    It seems that the creepy slasher movies the US exports around Halloween time are influencing European attitudes about what Halloween in the US is like. They are therefore mimicking something that doesn’t really exist here – other than those “haunted houses” that are now part of our scene.

  • Davis

    Like 24hour cable news stations these guys sensationalize minor stories when no big stories
    are happening.

    Well, they do that with a lot of stories, which is why using them as examples of “why isn’t anyone writing about this story” anecdotes is dangerous. The Telegraph’s coverage of the Muslim community and Muslim controversies is horrendously biased, yet it is regular fodder on conservative websites as “proof” of something happening that’s significant.

  • R.Porter

    From my experiences of European Halloween (in both Spain and southern France) about four years ago, the European adaptation of Halloween is, indeed, much more focused on the significance given to the holiday by the neo-pagan/new age movements in North America and the Hollywood fiction of it’s importance in witchcraft or satanic rituals.

    As such the truly innocent Halloween traditions from our side of the pond, don’t exist as the “core underpinning” in the European adaptation of the holiday. From how I read the Vatican newspaper article quoted above, it is for the ascendance of those innocent community building traditions that the paper is arguing.

    In the History Channel article on Halloween (sorry I don’t have the direct link, but is was featured on their website recently) this is the same argument made in the 40′s and 50′s leading to its widespread acceptance here in the US.

  • Clifton Carl

    “Like 24hour cable news stations these guys sensationalize minor stories when no big stories”

    But why does “these guys” include portions of the American Catholic church.

    The hoax was perpetuated not just by mainstream media, but by Catholic news services. I see it on Drudge, I see it on my parish website, goodness – it must be true!

    Many American Catholic parishes had this hoax on their websites through a newsfeed called, which linked to and included the Telegraph article as a source. Some of those parishes have now pulled the story down and has edited and retracted the sense of its original story, giving us this update:

    “update Although the summary above gives a reasonably accurate sense of the article in L’Osservatore Romano, the story in the Telegraph gives an overly dramatic impression of both the article’s argument and its authority. (The London Times offered an even more sensationalistic account.) The Vatican did not condemn Halloween celebrations. A single priest– writing, it is true, in the official Vatican newspaper– made some strong cautionary remarks.” The link “Hoax- Pope condemns Halloween (Catholic Key)” is a recent addition to the page.

    Some ardently WANTED to believe that the “Pope condemns Halloween” (in America). Apparently since no one could or would check the source, L’Osservatore Romano, what we got was a hoax.

  • Julia

    “these guys” referred to the English reporters on the Vatican beat who write the stories, not the papers and newsfeeds etc. that didn’t check out the story before using them. The problem is exactly that – news outlets down the line don’t fact check “these guys”. Probably because the articles are from legitimate newspapers – the Telegraph and the Times (of London).