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Why is Vatican paper reviewing Avatar, the Simpsons?

L’Osservatore Romano, the famously staid semi-official mouthpiece of the Catholic Church, has been seeking to remake its image, panning the blockbuster 'Avatar' but praising Homer Simpson and forgiving John Lennon for his 'more popular than Jesus' comment.

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Some readers have been disconcerted by the changes. “There have been one or two comments on Catholic blogs making fun of the attempt to be more hip, to drag it into the 21st century. But they want to make it a newspaper that people will want to read, so they’ve been doing lots of popular culture,” says Mr. Rocca.

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Mixed reviews of 'Harry Potter'

In November 2008 L’Osservatore Romano attracted attention around the world when it absolved John Lennon of his notorious boast that the Fab Four were “more popular than Jesus.”

“After so many years it sounds merely like the boasting of an English working-class lad struggling to cope with unexpected success,” the newspaper said in a lengthy editorial marking the 40th anniversary of the Beatles' famous White Album.

Lennon made the infamous claim in 1966 in an interview with London’s Evening Standard. “Christianity will go,” he said. "It will vanish and shrink. We're more popular than Jesus now - I don't know which will go first, rock and roll or Christianity. Jesus was alright, but his disciples were thick and ordinary."

The boast provoked outrage, particularly in the US, where conservative Christians burned piles of Beatles albums. The band received death threats and radio stations, particularly in the South, stopped playing Beatles records.

But L’Osservatore Romano buried the hatchet, praising Lennon and the Beatles for giving the world “some of the best pages in modern pop music.”

One of the paper’s first forays into popular culture was in 2008, when it criticized the Harry Potter books of J.K. Rowling for supposedly encouraging children to learn about the occult. Under the headline "The double face of Harry Potter," the newspaper wrote: “Despite the values that we come across in the narration, at the base of this story, witchcraft is proposed as a positive ideal.”

The newspaper called the teenage boy wizard “the wrong kind of hero,” comparing the books unfavorably with two other British children’s classics, "The Chronicles of Narnia" by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien’s "The Lord of the Rings."

But last summer L’Osservatore Romano appeared to have a change of heart, praising the film adaptation of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" for its clear depiction of the eternal battle between good and evil and the struggle between Harry and his nemesis, the sorcerer Lord Voldemort.

L’Osservatore Romano has developed a sharp eye for the kind of topic that will make a good story.

“People used to have to try to read between the lines with L’Osservatore to try to discern subtle shifts in the Vatican’s position on issues,” says Vatican correspondent Rocca. “But they’ve really shaken it up. It’s a lot livelier, their foreign coverage is more opinionated, they have more women writing and they have had Jewish and Muslim guest writers.”