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.

Avatar's groundbreaking visual effects have wowed audiences on both sides of the Atlantic but the science fiction blockbuster has received a frosty review from an unexpected quarter – the Vatican newspaper.

While James Cameron’s futuristic 3-D adventure has taken more than $1.1 billion at the box office in the US and Britain, it was described by the Holy See’s semi-official mouthpiece as sentimental, derivative, and bland.

The epic movie, which revolves around a struggle by the tall, blue-skinned aliens of the planet Pandora to resist environmental destruction wrought by humans, received a lukewarm review from L’Osservatore Romano (the Roman Observer) ahead of its release in Italy this week.

"So much stupefying, enchanting technology, but few genuine human emotions," said the newspaper. "Cameron, concentrating on the creation of the fantasy world of Pandora, chooses a bland approach. He tells the story without any profound exploration."

The plot descends into sentimentality, the Vatican newspaper complained, and "a rather facile anti-imperialist and anti-militarist parable.”

The review of what could turn out to be the biggest grossing movie of all time is part of L'Osservatore Romano’s efforts to shrug off its previously staid, stuffy image and strike a more contemporary tone.

Making a newspaper 'that people will want to read'

Founded in 1861 as the Vatican’s paper of record, it still has to cover weighty theological issues and the Byzantine workings of the Roman Catholic Church. But it has also expanded into the world of popular culture, passing judgment on subjects varying from the Harry Potter films and the rock band U2 to the deaths of Michael Jackson and Paul Newman.

The paper, which is sold at news stands for one euro and has a modest circulation of about 15,000, has also started using color photographs for the first time. The makeover was ordered by Pope Benedict XVI, who – despite his rather austere image – has shown himself keen to explore new ways of spreading the Church’s message, including new technology.

Previously only of interest to devout Catholics and the cloistered residents of Vatican City, the newspaper has gone out of its way to explore subjects removed from its traditional patch.

Last month an editorial congratulated The Simpsons on the TV series’ 20th anniversary, even going so far as to praise its often irreverent take on religion.
Homer's religious confusion and ignorance were "a mirror of the indifference and the need that modern man feels toward faith," said the article, entitled "Aristotle's Virtues and Homer's Doughnut."

The radical change of tack was introduced in 2007, when Giovanni Maria Vian, a career journalist known to staff as "The Professor," was made editor-in-chief. “It used to be pretty indigestible,” says Francis X. Rocca, the long-time Vatican correspondent for the Washington-based Religion News Service.

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.

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.”

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