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A mirror of the world

· From the book: “Singolarissimo giornale. I 150 anni dell’ ‘Osservatore Romano’ ” ·

In 1861, when L’Osservatore Romano came into being, there were three emperors in Europe: Franz Josef in Vienna, Alexander ii in St Petersburg and Napoleon III in Paris. Fifteen years later there were four. One of them, Napoleon III, had lost his throne but in 1879 unified Germany having acquired an emperor in the person of Wilhelm i and in 1876, Victoria, Queen of the British Isles, was proclaimed Empress of India. Then too, in this small group of sovereigns there was a certain person who, various aspects, could also be considered an emperor. We are speaking of Pius ix who had been Roman Pontiff since 1846. He had lost his tiny territory in 1870 and was an elective monarch, subject to the pleasure of the other European sovereigns (the last veto was proclaimed by Franz Josef against Cardinal Rampolla in 1903), but since 1870 he could claim a characteristic, infallibility that not even the Russian autocrat possessed.

From the strictly institutional point of view, there was a fundamental difference between him and the others. While those who wielded imperial power in Vienna, London, Berlin and St Petersburg (Nicholas II of Russia in 1905) were obliged to cede some of their traditional prerogatives to a new power, the dèmos who did not require divine approval, the Pope had actually consolidated and increased his authority. And yet, on the 15th anniversary of his reign, this Pope authorized the creation of a newspaper that would speak about the Church to the world and implicitly requested the world’s reaction to its words.

Although he did not say so openly, Pius IX understood that society was changing and that to avoid turning one’s back on it, it was necessary to adopt some of the tools of the modern age. But, without limiting itself to proclaiming and prohibiting, what could the newspaper talk about as the publication of an institution which three years after its foundation had condemned in the Syllabus 80 “errors, from pantheism to rationalism, from the separation between Church and State to marriages celebrated by civil authorities? The publisher of any newspaper seeks the consensus of its readers but must accept the possibility of dissent. Could L'Osservatore Romano unravel the [Gordian] knot of this contradiction?

For a long time the newspaper was, as it were, something between the Official Gazette of the Holy See and a news bulletin treating the main events of the Papal court. At the time of its founding its models were the other 19th-century papers that served similar functions, such as the French Moniteur Universel of the Second Empire. Even as recently as the 1960s the central pages of the Times preserved traces of the role it had performed in previous decades, although with greater independence. When the editor is the State, there is no newspaper that would not feel the reins about its neck. And if the editor is a Pope like Benedict XV, it is possible that each month the director would receive a list of points for him and his collaborators.

Of course, not everything in L’Osservatore Romano was “official”. If need be, something could be “unofficial” and hide interesting signals between the lines. During the years of Fascism there was even a time when the newspaper became polemical, caustic and in some cases satirical. After the Concordat, when there were harsh differences between the regime and the Church over the activities and responsibilities of Catholic Action, the director of L’Osservatore , Giuseppe Dalla Torre, ran the risk of being arrested outside the gates of Vatican City because of the frank severity with which he reacted to the articles in the Lavoro fascista .

Later, when foreign newspapers could no longer be found on the newsstands in the Kingdom of Italy, the “Acta diurnale” by Guido Gonella was a useful source of information, and some of its silences were more eloquent than words. However, the newspaper was interpreted more often than it was read and required a special mediator, a “Vatican journalist”, a reporter trained to understand all the nuances of thought that in many cases could not be explicit and direct, a person similar in certain aspects to the Cold War’s Kremlinologists, skilled in reading between the lines of Pravda .

What has been done in recent years to renew the newspaper is absolutely remarkable. Its editor-in-chief has certainly made the most of the many changes that have occurred in the Roman Church since the Council and, in particular, of the manner in which the most recent Pontiffs have tackled the difficult questions that the Church has to confront on a daily basis. And, the editor has been able to broaden the range of topics, to spark lively discussions and attract new readers who do not necessarily support the positions of the Catholic Church. There is certainly far less predictability of the kind that inevitably afflicts newspapers of this type.

However, it is impossible to change radically the nature of L’Osservatore Romano . If the newspaper talks about Italian politics, everyone will inevitably see that article as a position or message from the ecclesiastical authorities. Every newspaper has a certain “diplomacy”, but this paper has many more constraints than a daily that merely imparts information or expresses opinions. To my mind the section of L’Osservatore dedicated to international politics is particularly interesting and well-presented. The articles are informed, objective, descriptive and — thank heavens — lack that literary coloratura that is frequently the bad habit of Italian journalism. However, in many aspects this style is also the felicitous result of these constraints. The newspaper is accurately descriptive also due to the fact that every superfluous adjective would immediately be seen as a sign of the Church’s preferences. This would certainly not help the Holy See’s actions. Another fortunate result of its limitations is the general overview of news that can be found each day in the pages dedicated to current events.

In 1961, on the occasion of the newspaper’s centenary, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, Archbishop of Milan, wrote: “Think, for example, of the contrast between the issues to which the press usually dedicates its pages and columns, and the issues to which this newspaper offers its noble voice. One will notice immediately that L’Osservatore does not speak, for example, of theatre, sports, finance, fashion, judicial trials, cartoons, puzzles... or of anything that would seem to capture the curiosity, if not always the interest, of the so-called general public. Even in terms of advertising, how many reasonable, very reasonable limitations there are! And then, look at the news stories: these, too, are so carefully crafted, so sanitized, so dignified as to shelter the reader from any shock or thrill in the titles and in the texts, as if one wished to train him in serenity and good mental hygiene. A serious newspaper, a grave newspaper; who would ever read it on the tram or at the bar, who every strike up a discussion about it?”

I think that there is a tinge of irony in these words of Montini’s. By listing the things that the newspaper does not contain, he is actually indicating its involuntary virtues. Forced to maintain a severe self-discipline, every day L’Osservatore Romano eliminates a great number of short-lived news stories, irrelevant events, artificial discussions and the inconclusive gossip that fills the columns of the well-known popular newspapers. In other words it is especially readable as well because by their incontinence, the other newspapers have left a void that it is able to fill. It is not a mirror of the world, but (even for a layman when he does not find precepts with which he cannot possibly agree) it can be a mirror of the world in which we would prefer to live.

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