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Reading Vatican's China tea leaves

There's a constant temptation to decipher what's really being said

  • Alessandro Speciale, Vatican City
  • Vatican City
  • July 11, 2012
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It is often said that covering the Vatican – being a vaticanista, as it is called in Italian – is a profession so specialized and arcane it is almost unique, like being a Kremlinologist or joining the burgeoning ranks of real and self-proclaimed experts who pronounce on the inner workings of the Chinese Communist party.

Having been on this beat for more than five years now, I cannot but agree. And as a highly unusual job, it carries some highly unusual professional risks. Chief among them is a temptation to overdo the reading of the Vatican’s tea leaves.

The Vatican can be an opaque institution  – to put it with British understatement – that requires more than a little reading between the lines. But sometimes it’s hard to tell when it's time to abandon the search through subtlety and nuance to discover what they’re really telling us.

This came to my mind today after I’d been covering the Vatican statement on the two recent bishop ordinations in mainland China: the illicit one in Harbin and the legit one in Shanghai.

The Vatican communique was quite punchy, taking China’s government to task for its continued enthusiasm for consecrating new bishops who have no Vatican sanction.

So I was quite surprised when I saw a different China story altogether, right there on the front page of today's Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper.

It was a photo-news feature on the final commissioning test of the controversial Three Gorges Dam. Unlike most Western media coverage of this colossal project, the story made no mention of protests and population displacements.

Meanwhile, the Vatican statement on the ordinations was – as is customary – on one of the inside pages.

The simplest explanation is that the editor wanted a good photo for the lower half of the front page – and it may well be true. But the thought lingers: Was it a kind of appeasing signal sent to Chinese rulers? Something along the lines of: “You see, we have our differences but we acknowledge your great progress and achievements.”

I know, I know.  I’m probably over-interpreting. But as a vaticanista, I can’t help it; it’s an occupational hazard.
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