That all-too-fallible Vatican newspaper

William George Ward was a mid-19th century English Catholic convert from Anglicanism and a controversialist of the take-no-prisoners variety. Having been intellectually convinced of the truth-claims of the Catholic Church, Ward’s approach to Church authority might be characterized as “in for a dime, in for a dollar”--or, in his case, “in for a tuppence, in for a pound.” Thus, in his most famous locution, he wished he “had a papal Bull to read every morning with [the] Times at breakfast’’--a one-liner frequently cited by progressive Catholics as the epitome of the mindless authoritarianism we were all supposed to have gotten over, after Vatican II.

How odd, then, to find the Catholic left citing the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, as if its op-ed pieces were the 21st century version of William Ward’s daily papal decree.

Thus E.J. Dionne Jr., in a recent Washington Post op-ed, cited an April 29 essay in the L’Osservatore by an Italian journalist, Giuseppe Fiorentino, as decisive evidence that “the Vatican” (presumably including the Pope) was nowhere near as upset with Notre Dame’s award of an honorary doctorate of laws to President Barack Obama as the American bishops who had criticized Notre Dame’s decision. Time’s Amy Sullivan, who once attempted the intellectual card trick of arguing that you could be pro-life and pro-choice at the same time, wrote in Times’s Web edition on May 16 that the Fiorentino article, having appeared in an “official newspaper published under the authority of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State,” suggested that “the Vatican” (presumably including the Pope) was telling the American bishops to “chill out.”

Mr. Dionne, Ms. Sullivan, may I introduce Mr. Ward?

The notion that everything appearing in L’Osservatore Romano is a) vetted by the Secretariat of State and b) reflects the settled views of “the Vatican” (presumably including the Pope) is so transcendentally silly that it is barely worth refuting. Yet refuted it must be. L’Osservatore Romano has a time-honored way of signaling when an editorial reflects the view of “high authority,” placing three dots, or periods, at the end of the editorial in question--which happens only on the rarest of occasions. Otherwise, the only “authority” in question is the argumentation of an article’s author. Mr. Dionne and Ms. Sullivan may or may not know this--although Dionne, who once did some good work for the New York Times in Rome, certainly ought to. However that may be, the fact remains that, unless and until something is signaled as official and authoritative in L’Osservatore Romano, it is neither. Commentary appearing in the Vatican paper does not operate (to borrow from Justice William O. Douglas) within a “penumbra formed by emanations” from the papal magisterium.

Take, for example, the case of an editorial in L’Osservatore Romano that appeared shortly after John Paul II’s second pilgrimage to Poland, during martial law in 1983. The editorial claimed that the Pope’s trip had been a valedictory for Solidarity and Lech Walesa; that was all over, and the Church in Poland would now sidle into position as the quasi-official opposition to the Jaruzelski government. The papal apartment was furious and did everything possible to signal in the weeks following that the editorial in no way reflected John Paul’s own views about Solidarity, Walesa, or the appropriate role for the Church in a post-martial law Poland. L’Osservatore Romano, in other words, completely misrepresented the Pope’s convictions--and in an editorial, not in some commissioned essay like Fiorentino’s.

That notorious editorial did, however, reflect the views of some papal diplomats in the Secretariat of State, who thought Solidarity was destabilizing and dangerous--a fact that completes the rough analogy to the Fiorentino article and the current situation. It is no secret to anyone familiar with the Holy See that the default positions at the lower levels in the Secretariat of State reflect the default positions in western European foreign ministries on matters American. Today, that default position is Obamaphilia. To confuse this default position with the judgment of the Catholic Church and the Pope on the Obama administration’s policies, however, is to make a very serious analytic error--and a cheap political point.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.