Published May 21, 2009
The newspaper published by the Vatican, L'Osservatore Romano, has created more than a little mischief recently, featuring essays by ill-informed European journalists who imagine that they understand American history, the American political scene, and the grave moral issues being contested in these United States. Pro-administration American journalists and activists have leaped with barely concealed glee on several unfortunate articles in this genre, claiming that they demonstrate that “the Vatican” believes the U.S. Catholic bishops overreacted to Notre Dame's award of an honorary doctorate of laws to President Obama, and that “the Vatican” is taking a wait-and-see, so-far-so-good attitude toward Obama after the horrors of the arch-demon Bush.
About which, several points must be made.
1. The first thing one learns in Vaticanology 101 is that there is no such thing as “the Vatican.” The Holy See is as complex and confused a bureaucracy as one finds in national governments. Many points of view coexist within the Vatican walls, and there are more than a few curialists who like to talk to reporters. Very few if any of these chatty people count, in terms of expressing the settled judgment of the senior leadership of the Catholic Church. That leadership, when it wishes to make a serious point, does so through its major figures, not through the bureaucratic munchkins and not via commissioned essays in a newspaper that, while published by the Holy See, is not taken all that seriously there. The last is a shame, for it suggests yet another facet of the Holy See's communications problems; but it's the truth, nonetheless. As for the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, what counts is what is said by the Bishop of Rome, who does not exercise his teaching office through some generic institution called “the Vatican” but in his own unmistakable voice. And he lets you know when he's doing it.
2. In the normal course of events, L'Osservatore Romano does not speak authoritatively for the Church in matters of faith, morals, or public-policy judgment. The exceptions are when a senior churchman offers a commentary on a recent papal document (an encyclical, for instance), or on those exceedingly rare occasions when an editorial in the paper is followed by three dots, or periods, a traditional convention signaling that the opinion being expressed is from “high authority.” No knowledgeable or responsible analyst of Vatican affairs would regard commissioned essays in L'Osservatore Romano, even if they appear on page one, as somehow reflecting an authoritative view from the Holy See or the Pope. The same is true for statements by the paper's editors or editorials without the dots.
In other words, without those dots, there is nothing here but opinion, to be weighed and judged as any opinion is weighed and judged — on its tether to facts and its argumentation. It is unfortunate that several recent pieces on the Obama administration in L'Osservatore Romano have been both factually questionable and analytically dubious. That is a problem for the senior officials of the Holy See to address, and they ought to address it soon. Any American commentator trying to spin these articles as a “Vatican” attempt to tell the bishops of the U.S. to “chill out” (as Time's Amy Sullivan put it recently, in an article whose spin was similar to that of the Washington Post's E. J. Dionne) is playing political games.
3. It is true, however, that the offices of the Holy See are replete with middle- and lower-level officials who are enamored of Barack Obama. Why? In most cases, because they are Europeans who share the typical European Obamaphilia and whose sources of information and analysis are manifestly skewed. On the other hand, no one in a serious position of authority in the Vatican can doubt that the Obama administration poses the gravest challenges to the Holy See's positions on the life issues since the Clinton administration tried and failed to get abortion-on-demand declared a fundamental international human right. The Obama administration will also be at loggerheads with the Holy See when the defense of marriage rightly understood is contested in international institutions.
Moreover, several officials at very high levels — men I can say with confidence are not in conversation with E. J. Dionne, Amy Sullivan, or Obama administration fronts like Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good — spoke to me last fall of their deep appreciation for the Bush administration's positions on the life issues, AIDS prevention in Africa, AIDS and malaria relief, and religious freedom. Indeed, one very senior official told me that, at his level, it was understood that no American administration of the immediate future was likely to be as supportive of Holy See positions as the Bush administration had been — and this, despite the obvious and serious disagreement over the administration's 2003 decision to enforce the resolutions of the United Nations and depose Saddam Hussein by force.
It would, of course, be helpful if the newspaper published by the Holy See did not display a sorry ignorance of recent American history (including the history of the civil-rights movement) and a fideist credulity about the magic of Barack Obama. To assume that the pope and his most senior advisers have drunk the Obama Kool-Aid and wish the American bishops would chill out is, however, another story altogether, and not a very credible one — no matter what foolishness finds its way into the pages of L'Osservatore Romano.
–George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow at Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.