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.