In the wake of the lifting of the papal excommunication of the SSPX bishops and other flaps this past winter, the way the Vatican handles public relations and communications has been the subject of much media scrutiny. Rightly so, says Father Raymond De Souza in a recent Daily Mail commentary -- but, he argues, the muddle is not wholly the Vatican's responsibility. As some of our GR commenters have also asserted, blame can also be laid at the door of some of the journalists, both Italian and foreign, who write about the Vatican, says De Souza.
The Italian vaticanisti often embroider their reporting with everything from reasoned guesses to rank speculation. Sometimes this style of reporting -- which is well understood inside Italy as not being the gospel truth -- leaks out into the other languages and creates confusion when Mediterranean equivocation is translated into Anglo-Saxon hard news.
You gotta love that last sentence, so descriptive of the cultural differences between the Italian reporters and journalists from English-speaking countries like America or Canada. But, as we've noticed, the British press takes subtlety or ambiguity and gives it a rather unique spin. Many of our commenters will not be surprised by De Souza's next paragraph.
Within the English-language world itself however, there is a more serious problem. Very few English news outlets have full-time correspondents in Rome, and so the few that are there have magnified influence. Among these, the most prominent secular reporters are from the British press, who routinely make mistakes. Their poor reporting finds its way into print because the editors back home are quite ignorant of the Vatican beat-- unlike say, cricket, where elementary mistakes would be caught before being put on the page.
De Souza has a point. Actually, it's a point that was made several years ago by the National Catholic Reporter's John Allen, urging the Brits to clean up their act. But it's clear that they haven't when De Souza describes a few of the recent gaffes made by one of our local favorites, Richard Owen, the Vatican correspondent for Times of London.
Yes, this is the 500th anniversary of the monarchy of Henry VIII -- but does anyone really feel that the Pope would want to return to the very touchy issue of that long dead monarch's divorce? Owen did, apparently.
This week, Richard Owen, long-time Vatican reporter for the The Times of London, wrote that when the Prince of Wales comes to see Pope Benedict next week, he will be given by the Pope "a luxury facsimile of the 1530 appeal by English peers to Pope Clement VII asking for the annulment of Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine of Aragon."
Before President Barack Obama presented Prime Minister Gordon Brown with a boxed set of DVDs, no one paid much attention to ceremonial gifts. But it would be rather odd for the Pope to give the Prince a document detailing the difficulties in regard to Henry VIII, especially given the Prince and late Princess of Wales' status as the most famous royal adulterers since, well, Henry himself.
Readers who have long been distressed at Owen's inaccuracies will perhaps enjoy seeing them dissected by De Souza. What is more disturbing is that Owen is not alone in his bent for sensationalistic stories based on Vatican whispers -- nuance-deaf in a land in which nuance, if not everything, signifies much. Two years after John Allen's heartfelt plea to the British press to paint a clear line between fact and fantasy, nothing much has apparently changed.
Henry VIII's picture by Holbein is from Wikimedia Commons