Vatican’s paper goes pop

I’m always curious to see how the Vatican will take on pop culture, as it did in its recent comments celebrating the 20th anniversary of TV’s “The Simpsons.”

But more recently, the official Vatican newspaper went after “Avatar,” calling the blockbuster sci-fi film “a rather facile anti-imperialist and anti-militarist parable” that contains “stupefying, enchanting technology, but few genuine human emotions.”

I wanted to know more about what’s going on at L’Osservatore Romano (that’s Italian for “the Roman Observer”). Thankfully, Nick Squires of The Christian Science Monitor’s wrote an intriguing and helpful article about recent changes at the once-stodgy paper.

In “Why is Vatican paper reviewing Avatar, the Simpsons?” Squires investigates deeper changes at the paper, which is going pop under orders from Pope Benedict XVI to reach a broader audience.

Founded in 1861 as the Vatican’s paper of record, it still has to cover weighty theological issues and the Byzantine workings of the Roman Catholic Church. But it has also expanded into the world of popular culture, passing judgment on subjects varying from the Harry Potter films and the rock band U2 to the deaths of Michael Jackson and Paul Newman.

The paper, which is sold at news stands for one euro and has a modest circulation of about 15,000, has also started using color photographs for the first time. The makeover was ordered by Pope Benedict XVI, who–despite his rather austere image–has shown himself keen to explore new ways of spreading the Church’s message, including new technology.

…The radical change of tack was introduced in 2007, when Giovanni Maria Vian, a career journalist known to staff as “The Professor,” was made editor-in-chief. “It used to be pretty indigestible,” says Francis X. Rocca, the long-time Vatican correspondent for the Washington-based Religion News Service.

Squires shows that L’Osservatore Romano’s strategy for increasing its coverage of pop culture largely mirrors the mainstream press’s embrace of pop in recent decades. At the same time, he also shows that the Vatican’s critiques of pop culture reflects the Church’s deeper theological concerns.

Instead of glorying in the unbearable lightness of pop, the Vatican provides readers with cultural analysis that goes deeper and seeks for signs of eternity in today’s cultural currents.

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  • Jerry

    I have a question about the comment that the paper is a paper of record or perhaps which definition of paper of record in wikipedia applies here

    The first type of newspaper of record is often formally defined by a statute or other official action of a governing body. Such a newspaper is supposed to be available to the public, and publication of notices in that newspaper is considered sufficient to comply with legal requirements for public notice…

    The second type of “newspaper of record” is not defined by any formal criteria. The use of the term implies that a newspaper is a reliable institution that publishes trustworthy descriptions of events…

    This has come up before when the paper has published something that some took as an official Vatican statement and others did not. As it’s often called “Semi-official” is it really warranted to call it a paper of record? Maybe someone explicated this but I don’t remember so could someone speak to this point?

  • Brett

    the Byzantine workings of the Roman Catholic Church.

    Somewhere, Cardinal Humbert is going, “He wrote what?”

  • Steve

    Perhaps L’Osservatore Romano will re-instate Father Guido Sarducci as its gossip columnist…

  • Jimmy Mac

    When I saw the word “Pope” on the artwork, I thought of it as a call and response invitation.

    My response? Cope, don’t Mope.

  • Brian Walden

    I’m always curious to see how the Vatican will take on pop culture…

    L’Osservatore Romano is the official newspaper of the Vatican, but that doesn’t mean everything it publishes represents the Vatican’s position. Unless the paper is publishing an official Vatican document, I don’t think you can consider the article’s views to be the position of anyone but its author.

  • Kenny

    Brett – that was the first thing I saw too. It made me laugh.

  • Eliza

    Having seen Avatar, I don’t think the observer from L’Osservatore Romano was very “observant” at all. Talk about human emotion! When the soldier whose wounds caused paralysis stood up and walked and ran … when those who loved each other said: “I see you” as they gazed into one another’s eyes … the excitement of the scientists, the greed and rapaciousness of the businessman, the crazed fury of the military man, the sheer exhiliration of FLYING on those magnificent creatures, the beauty of the seeds floating in the theatre (it seemed from the 3D effects)… whoever went to see this from the Vatican was asleep at the switch and dead at heart.