Any foreign correspondent who ever covered the old Soviet bloc remembers how the official press seemed to print only news-free communiques and bland official photos. Scanning newspapers like Pravda or Scînteia or Neues Deutschland, the skilled reader looked for subtle changes from the norm as hints of possible shifts in official thinking. Once a slight deviation was sighted, readers would watch to see if it was just a flash in the pan or whether it became a normal feature.
That style of reading came to mind when L’Osservatore Romano published on Sunday what may be its first article ever by a Jewish writer. With its columns of papal speeches and discretion about internal Church issues, the Vatican daily has an unmistakable stylistic likeness to those old party organs. Not in content or purpose or inspiration, I hasten to add (hold the emails, I’m not saying the comparison goes that far). But as newspapers go, it’s as daunting as those other papers and its regular readers develop the same keen sense of small differences. So what does this change mean? Is the official voice of the Catholic Church opening up to views from other faiths? Will Muslims, Hindus or others follow?
The article was a review of a new book Brutti Ricordi (Ugly Memories), an Italian translation of two essays by Israeli academics Anita Shapira and Ephraim Kleiman on the departure of the Palestinians from Israel in 1948-1949 (review here in Italian). The author, Anna Foa, is a history professor at La Sapienza University in Rome. “The byline is not the only significant element,” writes veteran Vatican watcher Sandro Magister of L’Espresso magazine. It was also interesting, he said, that the book dealt with the dispute in Israel about whether the Palestinians left in 1948 “of their own will or were forcibly banished by the victorious Jews.”
Corriere della Sera Vatican correspondent Luigi Accattoli asked the Vatican daily’s new editor Giovanni Maria Vian whether this was the first Jewish author published there. “It’s hard to say, given that our newspaper has a 146-year-long history. There may have been exceptional cases of hospitality, but this is probably the first time that a Jewish voice has been invite to provide a cultural article,” Vian answered. He said he wanted to cover cultural issues more broadly, inviting “authoratative voices of various backgrounds” to contribute. He also plans to have more women writers and beef up the paper’s Internet site.
For more on this unique newspaper, check out a recent entry on Magister’s www.chiesa site (in English this time!) reprinting a witty article “The difficulties of “L’Osservatore Romano” that Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini — the future Pope Paul VI — wrote in 1961. It’s down the page, below a portrait of Vian. Two short excerpts: