Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Answering to a higher authority: What’s the punishment for breaking a Vatican embargo?

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Many science and medical reporters may quake in fear of sanctions by journals and societies when they break embargoes. (Others just scoff.) But what happens when the Vatican is the one embargoing the material — and you’re the Vatican’s newspaper?

That’s the question here at Embargo Watch following the release of the Pope’s comments on condoms. In a new book, Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times, Pope Benedict XVI said that male prostitutes who use the prophylactics are acting responsibly. (Today, the Pope extended his comments to women.)

Problem was, the book was embargoed until today, and the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, ran the excerpt on Saturday.

None of this seems to have made many in the Catholic blogosphere happy. Edward Peters, who describes himself as a canon lawyer, wrote:

While many able others are scrambling to respond to the eruption over the pope’s remarks on condom use by male prostitutes, I want to ask a few questions about the occasion of this public relations fiasco, namely, the decision by L’Osservatore Romano to publish prematurely, out of context, and without commentary, the single most controversial paragraph of the pope’s book, Light of the World, in, if nothing else, apparent violation of the agreement in place between its various publishers concerning a coordinated release of the work.

I frankly wonder whether, even now, L’Osservatore Romano yet realizes what a serious disservice it has committed by arrogating to itself the role of introducing the pope’s book, Light of the World, and by its making that introduction in such a palpably incompetent manner?

Phil Lawler, founder of Catholic World News, called for the paper’s editor to resign:

Then, incredibly, the Vatican’s own newspaper violated the embargo. Betraying the publishers and breaking trust with all the other journalists who were fulfilling their promises, L’Osservatore Romano reproduced a passage from the Pope’s interview. And not just any passage. The Vatican newspaper reproduced—without explanation or comment—a passage in which Pope Benedict reflected on the possibility that in some extreme cases, the impulse to use a condom might show a flickering of unselfishness in a seriously corrupted conscience.

Moreover, L’Osservatore broke the embargo, and published the excerpt, during a weekend when the Vatican was happily distracted by a consistory. At a time when Church leaders should have been celebrating a joyous occasion—the elevation of 24 members to the College of Cardinals—top Vatican officials were scrambling to explain the Pope’s words, which had been published prematurely and outside of their proper context.

The launch of Light of the World should have been another joyful occasion. With appropriate planning, the publisher was poised to introduce the Pope’s book with a major publicity campaign. Now that publicity—which might have offered an accurate and favorable portrayal of the Pope’s book—will be nearly lost in the deluge of misinformation currently sweeping across the world.

[snip, to the punchline]

As a necessary first step to address the continuous public-relations bungling at the Vatican, Giovanni Maria Vian, the editor of L’Osservatore Romano should be asked to resign.

Losing your job because of an embargo break — or, as my Retraction Watch co-blogger Adam Marcus put it, premature genuflection — would be highly unusual. Still, the move has clearly inflamed a lot of people.

So why would the paper have done it? The Hermeneutic of Continuity blog offers an explanation:

In other words, the story is one of division within the ranks of officials at the Holy See with factions both for and against a “clarification” that condoms could be morally permissible as a prophylactic against HIV infection. It could reasonably be assumed, I think, that the current direction of L’Osservatore Romano would be on the side of the clarifying faction and this helps to explain why the paper broke the embargo of the Holy Father’s interview, publishing various extracts including his comments on condoms and HIV, thus ensuring that this would be the principal story in the world’s media.

For more on L’Osservatore Romano, Slate has a good backgrounder. Apparently, Giovanni Maria Vian,  named editor in 2007, was charged with making the paper relevant again, and his tenure “took L’Osservatore back to its roots, since the paper was originally meant to be a lightning rod for controversy.” So perhaps it’s not surprising that based on some of the blogs I’ve read, it seems the embargo break is actually just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Peters again:

Yes, again. L’OR’s panting after pop relevance (with pieces on, e.g., The Beatles and The Simpsons) is embarrassing enough. I’ve learned to ignore that. It’s mistreatment of Brazilian Abp. Cardoso Sobrihno should have been seen as the warning sign that it was. I said so at the time.

I’ll keep an eye out for word of any sanctions against L’Osservatore Romano. If there are any, I just hope they’re not of Biblical proportions.

Written by Ivan Oransky

November 23, 2010 at 11:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. At the risk of eternal damnation, that’s easy — excommunication, handled, naturally, by an excommunications officer.

    Couldn’t resist.

    Bill Silberg

    November 23, 2010 at 11:14 am


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