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Second Catholic news agency critical of Vatican communications

A second high profile Vatican columnist with one of the major Catholic news agencies has published a report critical of the way information is being distributed to the world by the Vatican at the moment. Last week it was John L Allen in NCR. This week it is John Thavis in CNS.

The trigger to this present disenchantment has been a relatively minor story concerning an alleged quote by the Pope concerning Mel Gibson's forthcoming film. However both of these highly respected reporters, presumably backed by their respective news agencies, are drawing attention to other recent serious difficulties with communications from the Vatican. CNS, in its report cites a number of cases that have caused recent concern:

Cardinal Renato Martino's comments in December about deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein offered another example of mixed messages from the Vatican. At a press conference, the cardinal spoke of the crimes of the captured Iraqi dictator and said he deserved to be put on trial. But the cardinal said he was disturbed by TV images of a disheveled Saddam undergoing a medical examination.

"What caused me pain was seeing this ruined man, treated like a cow whose teeth are being examined. They could have spared us those pictures," said Cardinal Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

That prompted the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, Jim Nicholson, to go to the Vatican Secretariat of State, where he said Cardinal Angelo Sodano assured him that Cardinal Martino was merely expressing his own opinion.

At the same time, some reporters began receiving phone calls from a Vatican official who – on condition of anonymity – offered the same message as Cardinal Sodano's. The result was a round of stories about the Vatican distancing itself from Cardinal Martino's remarks.

At a reception in Rome Jan. 13, Cardinal Martino smiled about the episode and said he felt confident he hadn't sung out of tune. He said he had dined with the pope in early January and discussed the matter, and that the pontiff agreed with what he had said.

The cardinal also said his words were given a twist by the media that made him come off as an apologist for Saddam. He said his problem was not with Saddam's medical examination, but that it was shown on TV, in apparent violation of international conventions on treatment of prisoners.

Another Vatican official, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, has a well-earned reputation for making waves, and he did not disappoint British Broadcasting Corp. viewers last fall. In an interview, he said condoms were not an effective barrier against the AIDS virus and suggested condom packets should carry a warning to that effect.

Cardinal Lopez Trujillo heads the Pontifical Council for the Family, which years ago encouraged Catholic parents to pull their children out of classes that promote the "deluded theory" that condoms can protect against AIDS. It said the only real answer was abstinence outside of marriage and fidelity in marriage.

Privately, other Vatican officials said it was unfortunate that Cardinal Lopez Trujillo's recent comments were being allowed to stand as the "Vatican" position on condoms. The issue is much more complex than that and is the subject of nuanced discussion among Vatican theologians, they said.

Cardinal Lopez Trujillo's statements are sometimes downplayed at the Vatican because he heads a pontifical council, not a congregation. The reasoning is that pontifical councils are "promotional" Vatican agencies, compared, for example, to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which pronounces authoritatively on doctrinal issues.

That may be too subtle a distinction for anyone outside the Vatican's inner circle, however. Most people figure that when a Vatican cardinal steps in front of the TV microphones he's got his superiors' approval.

When journalists seek official clarification on these kinds of questions at the Vatican press office, they often go away empty-handed. The Vatican is not like the White House, where daily press briefings are routine. The papal spokesman, Navarro-Valls, rarely appears in the journalists' room of the press office, and it is not easy for most reporters to get him on the phone.

Also worth reading this week, as it is every week, is John L Allen's latest report from Rome in NCR. He is reporting a significant shift in Vatican foreign policy: "In a subtle but potentially significant shift, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the pope's new foreign minister, has signaled openness to the Bush doctrine of preventive force against terrorism but under United Nations auspices, not the United States or a 'coalition of the willing'." Allen also has more to say on the comments of Cardinal Danneels. The impression is now strong that the Vatican is endeavouring to undo some of the damage caused by Cardinal Lopez-Trujillo's comments on the BBC Panorama program last October. We provide links below to Allen's latest column as well as the previous one where he was commenting on the difficulties with Vatican communications.

CNS - When Vatican officials speak, things are not what they appear to be
NCR - John L Allen, 09Jan2004 - U.S. bishops issue abuse report; More on 'The Passion'; Religious diversity debate; A memoir of Ernesto Cardenal; Differing diplomatic and political visions
NCR - John L Allen, 16Jan2004 - Archbishop Lajolo on preventive war; The pope's 'State of the World' survey; Cardinal Danneels on condoms; Changes in the liturgy; The pope on parish councils; Chief rabbis of Israel visit the Vatican

19 Jan 2004