It is entitled Jesus of Nazareth. The Infancy Narratives and it is the last book written by Joseph Ratzinger. Today, Ratzinger is Benedict XVI. But the Pope wanted to delink his theological book from the Papal magisterium. «In order to promote a freer and lively discussion,» Ratzinger said when the first of the three books he wrote on Jesus was published. This third and last book will invite debate not only on theological issues. Benedict XVI himself maintains that the small book (only 130 pages in the English version, edited by Image, of the RandomHouse group) is just an «anti-chamber» of the other two books. This third book will invite debate because its international rights have been sold to the Italian publishing house Rizzoli.  This cuts out Catholic publishing houses, since Rizzoli will obviously work with its own partners.  The debate turns to a «philosophical» question:  can a non-Catholic publishing house really value a theological text of a theologian Pope?

The story goes back very far. Once elected Pope, Joseph Ratzinger announces that he is yet to complete his scholar theological works.  He wants to conclude them by writing the story of Jesus, as told in the Gospel.  Ultimately, the evangelists – Ratzinger writes in The Infancy Narratives – «are not in search of stories. They want to record history.» This announcement came in 2006.  Publishing houses from all over the world start to compete to acquire the rights to the Pope’s book. A book by the Pope willsell by itself.  This is a very appealing prospect for any publishing house, a great opportunity to write off losses with guaranteed and easily obtained revenue.

Italian publishing houses are in some ways privileged. The book’s editio typica is obviously in German, the Pope’s mother tongue.  It is however the Italian translation that the Vatican Publishing House, which holds and manages the exclusive rights of anything the Pope writes or says, will work on. The Pope ponders and handwrites text notes, which, every evening, he then dictates to Birgit Wansing, his long-term collaborator.  The book’s rights are sold on the basis of the Italian version from the Vatican Publishing House.

In 2007, don Claudio Rossini is the director of the Vatican Publishing House.  A Salesian priest, Rossini is not known for being an “aggressive publisher”.  In the end, Rizzoli acquires the right to publish the Papal book in Italian and to sell its international rights.  As could be expected, these rights are sold to Rizzoli’s partners in the U.S.A., Spain, and France. In Germany, nevertheless, the book is published by Herder, as it must. Herder Publishing House has always published Joseph Ratzinger’s books, and it is now publishing his opera omnia (curated by Msgr. Gehrard Ludwig Mueller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith).

The 2007 decision is controversial, considering a Vatican Secretariat of State decree signed in 2006, when Benedict XVI was already “reigning” and Card. Angelo Sodano was Vatican Secretary of State. This decree had immediate and retroactive effect. It stated: «The perpetual and global trusteeship and use of all the copyrights and all the exclusive rights for economic purposes over all the acts and documents through which the Pope wields its magisterium are entrusted to the Vatican Publishing House, as an institution linked to the Holy See. In fulfillment of the this responsibility, the Vatican Publishing House, in the person of the director and legal pro tempore representative, acts in the name and interest of the Holy See, with the right to carry out any act for the fulfillment of the mentioned rights, to take legal and judicial steps, to propose any action in order to fully protect and execute these same rights, and to oppose any demand or claim from a third party, in conformity with the norms of treaties and international conventions which the Holy See has adhered to.»

When in 2010 the second book on Jesus is ready – covering the life of Jesus from the entrance in Jerusalem to the Resurrection – Rizzoli sought to acquire its international rights again. But the Vatican Publishing House had a new director, Don Giuseppe Costa. He is a publisher with international experience and he is also a journalist. He was called to revamp a «weak» publishing house, uncompetitive at international levels.  Hitting the ground running, Costa works hard to distribute the Papal encyclical to «lay» bookshops, which usually do not showcase religious books in their shop windows; he promotes the books by the Pope through roundtables and meetings, and publishes special series of works that encompass the Pope’s catechesis and speeches; he manages the Vatican Publishing House as a business, moving away from the typical,informal, in-the-family Vatican management style. «Costa’s shock therapy» is widely applauded, including by the Association of American Publishers, which recently conferred him an award.

Above all, don Costa is deeply committed to his mission as Papal publisher, which is to broadcast the Pope’s thought and words. Costa states that it is the Pope’s publishing house which should publish the Pope’s book. True, in the past other Popes published books with “lay” publishing houses. For example, Paul VI’s «Dialogues with Jean Guitton» was published by the Italian publishing house Mondadori. And John Paul II’s autobiography Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way was published by Mondadori, too. But – even in light of the Secretariat of State decree mentioned above – this should not happen anymore.  Also because Catholic publishing houseshave expanded, and are now able to guarantee a broaddistribution of the book.

Costa presents these arguments to the Secretariat of State, which agrees with him.  Thus, the second of the Pope’s books on Jesus is published by the Vatican Publishing House, which is equally responsible forselling the international rights.  The Vatican Publishing House sells these rights to Catholic publishing houses: Encuentro in Spain, Ignatius Press in the U.S.A. (headed by Father Joseph Fessio, who was Ratzinger’s pupil), and Paròle et Silence in France. None of these publishing houses is part of the international publishing mainstream. Yet, they have many things on their favor. First of all, they are Catholic, so they are interested in cherishing the Pope’s book. Moreover, they are free from the chains of the «perfect market» logic, which guides the publishing industry worldwide.

Big publishing houses can make a best-seller of any given book, and then have it replace from the spotlight and the bookstores’ shelves six months later with a new best-seller.  But a Catholic publishing house’s mission is to publish quality books (according to doctrine), and to cherish them, even by keeping themfor more than a year in the bookstores’ windows and on the bookshelves. The goal is to make of any book a long seller, even more so if it is a book by the Pope. They are attentive to detail, and to translations that are true to the theological language of the original. These are talents that other publishing houses lack.

A decision to sell the Pope’s book rights to a Catholic publishing house is not only sound. It also allows the Catholic publishing world a financial respite. According to data released by the Buchmesse – the Frankfurt Book Fair –  religious publishing in the world has increased by five per cent. But it is also true that Catholic publishing houses are in need.  They find it difficult to carve out a space in the midst ofvery largebook-distribution systems, and are relegated to a sort of ghetto. The Pope’s books, indeed, raise their profiles. Thanks to the Pope’s books, Catholic publishing housescan make enough profits to invest in what has always been called «the good press». The perfect-market competition system cuts out Catholic publishing houses, which are rich in expertise but small in size.  Clearly, there is a need to invest on this kind of publishing houses to broadcast thePope’s words properly.

This is clear to those in the Papal apartment. Vatican Publishing House,under the stewardship of Giuseppe Costa,is recognized for its good work and for being the only «media» with a black balance sheet among Vatican media outlets. But the Monsignors don’t agree, and they are the ones who sit at the wheel.  Most likely, someone was not happy with the decision to have the second of the Pope’s book on Jesus of Nazareth published by the Vatican Publishing House. This somebody backed Rizzoli, and welcomes the fact that Rizzoli was charged with the distribution of Vatican Publishing House books in bookshops. Even in this  peculiar case, Rizzoli operates according to the logic of the market. It keeps the Pope’s book on the bookshelves for the months agreed, not one more. It distributes the Pope’s book to Catholic bookshops only when it is no longer selling in its own bookshops. This approachleads to a delay in the distribution of the book in the right circuits, and coincides with a decline inits sales. Sales decrease also because the «average» reader might have been disappointed with the Pope’s first book: many bought the book thinking it would be an «easy» read, and found themselves struggling to understand a precious (and difficult) treaty on theology.

After the publication of the Pope’s second book, an internal war is waged in the Vatican Publishing House. It comes at a delicate moment. The new statues of the Vatican Publishing House – which had been in the works for several years – come into effect. The president of the new Superintendence Board is Msgr. Giuseppe Antonio Scotti, who was already the president of the old board.  It was Scotti – rumors have it – who concluded the agreement to sell the first book’s rights to Rizzoli. It is also rumored that he promotes,in the Papal apartment, selectingRizzoli for this last book as well.  He does so by leaning on his friendship with Msgr. Georg Gaenswein, the Pope’s private secretary. In fact, Scotti’s actions effectively ran counter to the interests of the very publishing house which board he presides over.

That there is a war – more a guerrilla, without open attacks but with vexing pin jabs – is understood looking at some little fact that occur between the publication of the Pope’s second  book on Jesus and the announcement of the sell to Rizzoli of the third book’s international rights. For example: among the new advisors of the Pontifical Council for Social Communication are enrolled all the directors of the Vatican media outlets, and even Antonio Preziosi – director of the radio-news of the Italian State Tv and radio, RAI – is named advisor. Everyone is there, except don Costa, director of the Vatican Publishing House. This fact does not go unnoticed, especially in the Apostolic Palace, particularly because Costa had just been confirmed as director of the Vatican Publishing House for five more years. One month after, the appointment of don Giuseppe Costa as advisor of the Pontifical Council for the Social Communication is announced.

The question is: who threw a wrench in Costa’s work? It is noticed that the added secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communication is Msgr. Giuseppe Antonio Scotti. Yes, the president of the Superintendence Board of the Vatican Publishing House. He is also the president of the Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI Vatican Foundation. So, Scotti is in charge of three posts, and there is the suspicion of a possible conflict of interests – at least because in two of these posts he has to manage money. He wanted – it is rumored – to give the rights to Rizzoli for the first book. He would have wanted the same for the second book. He succeeded in selling the rights to Rizzoli for the third book.

Scotti complains about a gross mischaracterization of his role.  He maintains that Benedict XVI himself wanted to sell his third book to Rizzoli.  What was Benedict XVI told?  Sources very close to the Holy Father say that he was told that the book distribution of Catholic publishing houses is not widespread, and that – if this responsibility was bestowed on the Vatican Publishing House – his book would not reach everybody. Peter Seewald views were also sought. The German journalist has authored a book of interviews with the Pope, Light of the World.   It has been published by the Vatican Publishing House.  Seewald was disappointed.  He maintains that this book should have sold better.  Is it just a matter of revenue? Perhaps.

Obviously, Seewald’s opinion – together with other ones – contributed to portrait a not well- organized Vatican Publishing House. This portrait is rough, and even a little far from reality, but in some ways it influenced the Pope’s choice.  At the same time, the Pope is made to look as if he is  a greedy person, wishing to get the biggest income he can from selling the book’s rights. This characterization is very far from reality.

Yet, Rizzoli invested a lot on the Pope’s book. The Joseph Ratzinger Foundation is reportedly going to have in its financial annual records a 350,000 euro donation from Rizzoli. Rizzoli also paid more than 2 million euro to purchase the international rights of the book. An immediate profit for the Vatican.

This profit has not come without paying a price in other aspects. The Italian edition of the book, for example, was not printed in the Vatican print shop. Rizzoli considered too expensive the price of 1,20 per copy requested by the Vatican Printing Office, an offer to print on quality paper andto have a hard cover book with golden border lines. Rizzoli preferred to print the book outside the Vatican, accepting an offer of 0,77 euro cents per copy. Yet, the quality of the paper is bad, the golden border lines of the cover fade away in a matter of minutes. Yet, the Italian version book price (that has as many as 180 pages, while the English version is of just 130) is 17 euro. How much did the Italian publishing house earn overall?

Now, the commercial phase has just begun, and 2,5 million copies of the book, in nine languages, will be distributed. We will need to wait and see how good the translations into different languages are.  How will the translationsrender the Pope’s prose and theology? Some (not trivial) flaws have already been noticed.

For example, the book’s passage about the announcement to Mary of the birth of Jesus. Mary is described as a humble and faithful woman. She does not test God, she has no doubt. She just asks how is it that she will have a baby. Here, the text presents some problems. The American text translates the biblical passage «I don’t know any man» with «I have no husband», and this changes the perspective: to have a husband deals with the legal plan, the «Biblical knowledge» deals with the physical plan. Another flaw: in the English version, the Pope writes that Mary and Joseph still had to begin their «conjugal life», while in the Italian and German version the Pope writes about «matrimonial communion», and this represents a completely different point of view.

The Italian edition has a problem: it is very well translated by Ingrid Stampa – the long term Pope’s cooperator – but the translation does not benefit from the the fundamental contribution of an Italian (Pierluca Azzaro curated the translation of the second book, published by the Vatican Publishing House) to make the Italian precise.  The translation is correct, but too “German”.

The English edition seemingly confirm the adage of the bellainfedele translation.  Intranslating some sections, one runs the risk of misrepresenting the Pope’s thought. For example, in the English version is the definition of God’s modus operandi, which is not mentioned in the German original version nor in the Italian translation. The expression modus operandi cannot fully explain a God that operates with love and humility.

Perhaps a Catholic publisher – even if less commercially skilled but more conscious of how to translate and curate a theological book – could have also made some mistakes in editing the translations.  But it would have betterpreserved the Pope’s thought.

In the end, the question is:  Does the Vatican really want to give up distributing the Pope’s works? Does the Holy See – for the sake of immediate profit – want to renounce to supportand invest in Catholic enterprises?

Maybe, what the monsignors in the Sacred Palace failed to understand is that giving awaythe publishingof the Pope’s words is not only a market-driven decision. It is a choice that results in a refusal to help what is Catholic in the world. It is probably a short-sighted decision, taken at a time whenthe Catholic world is trying to come together and reach out. Are we certain that the Pope, so conscious that Catholicism is ever more marginalized in the public arena, is comfortable with his books not being published by the good press?  Are we certain that the Pope is ready to accept a guaranteed and immediate profit, even iat the risk of having Catholic publishing houses marginalized even more?

One Response to Can the Jesus’ infancy narratives be a reason for controversy?

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