BY FREDDY GRAY
A LEADING JESUIT magazine in the United States has issued a grovelling apology to its readers for accidentally printing a blasphemous picture of the Virgin Mary wrapped in a condom.
America, the well-known liberal monthly, published the offensive image after it was submitted as an advertisement for a statuette of the Mother of God, mockingly entitled "Extra Virgin" in reference to the device that enveloped the figurine.
The man behind the outrage was a London-based artist, Steve Rosenthal, who placed the $300 advertisement in protest at the Catholic Church's firm opposition to condom use.
The image prompted a barrage of complaints from distressed America readers. In response, the magazine's editors issued a forthright public apology.
"We too are offended and very much regret we did not catch the mistake prior to publication," said Fr Drew Christiansen,America's editorin-chief.
"We are returning payment for the ad and protesting the abuse to the artist."
Associate editor Fr James Martin said that America's employees failed to spot the blasphemy because the latex was barely visible in the black and white proofs of the issue. However, the ,actual colour image, as it appeared on the page, showed quite clearly that the Mother of God had been
insulted. "I thought it was a little odd, but we regularly get ads for all sorts of strange religious art," said Fr James Martin.
"We're Jesuits." he added. "I don't think you could have found anyone in the editors' room who has seen a condom."
The mention of a "veil of latex" in the text of the advertisement failed to ring any alarm bells, he said.
Not everyone was satisfied with these excuses. however. Vittorio Messori, a writer who has co-authored biographies of Pope Benedict, used the incident to launch a vicious assault on the Church in Ameri ca.
"All of this in a Church like the American Church, reduced to economic bankruptcy and the unanimous abomination of a clergy that too often. it seems, likes to fondle seminarians' genitalia," he wrote in Corriere della Sera newspaper.
Fr Jose de Vera, spokesman for the Jesuits in Rome, said
Mr Messori appeared not to have realised that America had inadvertently published the advertisement and had apologised for the error.
Fr de Vera added that Mr Messori has a good reputation in the Church, and as a result his commentary may have a "deep impact in official circles in the Vatican," even if it is based on incomplete information.
Fr de Vera said he was sending Mr Messori the explanation given by America in the hope that Mr Messori would add clarification to his article.
Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, head of Vatican Radio and the CIV, said he was astonished by Mr Messori's attack on the editors of America.
In a letter published by Corriere della Sera, Fr Lombardi said the editors were "good men of culture" who failed to properly screen one advertisement out of "the hundreds" that get published in the magazine's 41 issues each year.
The America editors had fallen into "a booby trap" set by the advertiser "who wanted to ridicule them and Marian devotion", wrote Fr Lombardi.
Mr Rosenthal said he placed the advertisement to mark World Aids Day on December 1 and as a protest against Vatican opposition to condom use to stem the spread of the disease.
"I at no time tried to dupe or deceive America magazine," he said. "The description of the work was clear by both the text included and image provided."