The Pope’s ‘Four Cat’ Problem

The Italian national television network’s news channel, TG3, has removed its Vatican reporter from his beat for making a mild joke about Pope Benedict XVI´s shortcomings as a public speaker. On Sunday, Roberto Balducci mentioned in a report that two cats awaited the pope at his summer vacation venue in the Aosta Valley, in northern Italy. Cats happen to be Pope Benedict´s favorite pets, Balducci said, before adding that only quattro gatti (or four cats, a rather disparaging Italian expression used to describe a very small group of people) had “the courage and the patience” to listen to the pontiff’s speeches.

Balducci then underlined his point by zooming in on a sparsely populated St. Peter´s Square in the Vatican as the pope wound up his usual Sunday address from the window of his study.

But the reporter´s mild attempt at humor misfired. The Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombadri, publicly complained that reporters should show “more respect for the church and the pope.” Balducci apologized to the Vatican, and expressed his regret to his boss for embarrassing the network. But that didn´t save his assignment. According to reports, he has been removed from the Vatican beat, and will presumably be reassigned.

Because TG3, in the Italian political scheme of things, tends to have a left-wing viewpoint, it immediately came under fire from the right for irresponsibile reporting. The incident, however, also highlights the unusual nature of the Vatican´s relationship with Italy. The pope is the spiritual head of the Roman Catholic Church, but he is also the bishop of Rome, and the city is sensitive about how he is treated in the media.

In addition, the Vatican bristles at talk of the German-born pope´s lack of charisma. The Vatican is pefectly aware that despite being a formidable intellectual, Pope Benedict doesn´t have the same popular appeal as his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who filled St. Peter´s Square every Sunday. But Italy’s Vatican reporters — Vaticanistas — are to some extent insiders, and not expected to rub it in.

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