Calm down about the Vatican and James Bond Skyfall

Calm down about the Vatican and James Bond Skyfall November 1, 2012


It was three years ago that I read a really interesting story in the Christian Science Monitor about why the Vatican’s “famously staid semi-official mouthpiece” was suddenly doing movie reviews. The reporter explained that Pope Benedict XVI encouraged the paper to discuss cultural issues.

The big error in how the media covers this Vatican newspaper is by giving the impression that it’s the official mouthpiece of the Vatican. So we see stories with headlines such as this one from The Telegraph:

Vatican lauds ‘human’ James Bond, ‘licence to cry’

James Bond’s licence to thrill has been sanctioned by no lesser an authority than the Vatican, through its official newspaper.

Um, no. Now, the headline is completely in error. But the story itself is fine. This is what we’re talking about when we discuss how headlines aren’t necessarily written by reporters.

It is not true that the Roman Catholic Church has officially approved this film or anything. L’Osservatore Romano, the newspaper based in the Vatican State, wrote about the film. Its review didn’t go through doctrinal review and there is significant editorial independence.

So if L’Osservatore Romano gave a thumbs up to the film, that’s all it means. It doesn’t mean Pope Benedict XVI has given a thumbs up. Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be much daylight between a given newspaper and the head of state (please, no jokes about any particular American paper) but it’s an error to interpret the actual words published in L’Osservatore Romano as if they came from Pope Benedict XVI himself or the church’s broad teaching authority.

But the story itself doesn’t overstate nearly as much as the headline:

As the mouthpiece of the Holy See, L’Osservatore Romano, which was founded 151 years ago, used to run only turgid editorials on Catholic saints, articles on theology and notices of the Pope’s official engagements.

But since a new editor was appointed in 2007 and urged by Pope Benedict XVI to make the publication more relevant, it has ventured into popular culture, commenting on everything from Harry Potter to The Blues Brothers.

Under the headline “007 – license to cry”, the broadsheet said Skyfall contained all the classic ingredients of a Bond film, from “adrenalin-pumped action to exotic locations, beautiful Bond girls, and the inevitable vodka Martini – shaken, not stirred.”

Sam Mendes, the director, had taken all the familiar components of a Bond movie – “the legendary British Secret Service, MI6”, Miss Moneypenny and an Aston Martin DB5 – and given them a contemporary twist, L’Osservatore Romano said.

The paper said that for his third outing as Bond, Daniel Craig was “even more convincing” than in the first two films, Quantum of Solace and Casino Royale.

Craig’s Bond was “less clichéd, less attracted by the pleasures of life, more introspective and more vulnerable physically and psychologically”.

It’s still interesting that the Vatican newspaper devoted so much space and thought to the latest James Bond film. There’s just no need to overstate what’s happening.

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3 responses to “Calm down about the Vatican and James Bond Skyfall”

  1. But for me, it raises issues of whether or not LOR is overreaching. What’s it supposed to be about, anyway? And I think that’s what’s confusing to secular reporters. They’re not clear what it’s supposed to be — Pope Benedict’s mouthpiece or just another newspaper that happens to have the Holy See as its main beat? Until that’s cleared up, a lot more stories like this one will be coming down the pike.

  2. It’s my understanding that even in the old days there were always signs indicating the few articles that were coming from official Holy See thinking. Adding movie reviews and other culutural topics makes it more obvious that very few things have been run by the Secretary of State or the Pope. Neither the Pope nor the church as a whole has an official opinion on everything. Why is that so hard to grasp?

    A tip-off to Benedict’s attitude is in his introduction to the series on Jesus where he emphasizes that people are free to disagree with him and that he is writing as an individual. Prior Popes didn’t go to the trouble of doing that, but the idea that everything a Pope says or is said on his behalf is infallible is a huge mistake.