By John L. Allen Jr.
An early draft of Pope Benedict XVI's telegram of condolence for the London bombings referred to the terrorist strikes as "anti-Christian," Vatican sources told NCR July 9.
That draft, however, was prepared by the Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, and not by the pope. In the telegram as it was released by the Vatican Press Office mid-afternoon July 7, after the pope had reviewed it, Benedict instead defined the bombings as "barbaric acts against humanity."
The phrase "anti-Christian" seemed to evoke images of a "clash of civilizations" between Islamic radicals and the Christian West, perhaps signaling a stronger line on Islam from the Vatican. It would have made Benedict the first, and only, Western leader to signal a specifically religious dimension to the attacks that left more than 50 people dead and hundreds more wounded.
Confusion over the wording of the telegram produced a Vatican mini-drama Thursday and Friday.
Early afternoon July 7, the Italian news agency ANSA, generally considered the leading agency in Italian journalism, carried a story indicating that Benedict XVI had termed the London bombings "anti-human and anti-Christian." In short order, most other Italian agencies followed suit.
When the Vatican Press Office released the text of the pope's telegram at 2:33 pm on July 7, however, the phrase "anti-Christian" did not appear.
In response, the Italian agencies did not issue corrections, but instead simply presented the official text as it had been issued. For much of the day, therefore, journalists continued to repeat the "anti-Christian" phrase, leading to a spate of mostly critical commentary about the pope's supposedly incendiary language in Italian newspapers on Friday.
Most English-language news services awaited the official text; only United Press International carried a story quoting the pope as calling the bombings "anti-Christian."
On Saturday, July 9, Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls told NCR that the pope never had any intention of using the phrase "anti-Christian" with respect to the bombings. Navarro-Valls said he has sent a letter to the director of ANSA requesting clarification.
A senior Vatican official told NCR on July 9, however, that the phrase "anti-human and anti-Christian" had indeed appeared in a draft of the telegram prepared by Sodano. It was Sodano's office, according to this Vatican official, who gave the draft text of the telegram to ANSA before the pope had approved it.
In this sense, the official said, ANSA would have been on firm ground to report that an early draft of the telegram contained this language. The agency's mistake, he said, was to present the phrase "anti-Christian" as if the pope had actually said it, when in the end he did not.
An evening news program on RAI-2, one of the Italian state television networks, referred to the premature report, without citing ANSA by name, as "an incredible journalistic gaffe" on its Friday broadcast.
According to the senior Vatican official, Benedict XVI was unhappy with the outcome.
"Sodano is a good man, but when it comes to communications, and understanding the impact that certain phrases are going to have in public discussion, he's sometimes a disaster," this official said.
As another example, the official pointed to last February, when, in response to questions from reporters about a possible resignation of John Paul II, Sodano replied, "We must have great faith in the pope. He knows what to do."
In context, it seemed to leave the door open to resignation, setting off a brief firestorm in the global media.
Observers say the telegram episode may increase the possibility of a shake-up in the Vatican's communications operation, building on long-standing concerns that too often the Vatican does not speak with one voice.
Rumors of such a shake-up have long been in the works. The Pontifical Council for Social Communications, responsible for relations with the broadcast media, has been without a secretary (the number two official) since February 22, when Bishop Renato Boccardo was reassigned to the government of the Vatican city-state. Some observers have interpreted the failure to fill his slot as an indication that a consolidation or realignment of media operations may be in the offing.
John L. Allen is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is
July 9, 2005, National Catholic Reporter