The Vatican’s communications department scored a bit of an own-goal on Monday, when Vatican News published an article highlighting supposedly improved environmental conditions due to reduced human activity during the coronavirus emergency, and describing the supposed improvement as “an unintended benefit” of the pandemic.

Titled, Coronavirus: Earth’s unlikely ally, the piece was by-lined Fr Benedict Mayaki, SJ – a recent addition to the English team at Vatican News – and headlined: “The changes in human behaviour due to the Covid-19 virus pandemic are yielding unintended benefits to the planet”.

The piece drew almost instant attention on social media, most of which was sharply critical: ranging from the incredulous to the flummoxed, while passing through various kinds and degrees of head-scratching frustration, disappointment, and outrage.

The article was down by mid-morning Tuesday.

The Catholic Herald asked the English-language representative on Vatican Media’s editorial committee (CEM), Sr Bernadette Reis, FSP, about what happened, and how. “The article,” Sr Reis said, “has been removed because it does not reflect the editorial line on the subject as indeed the hundreds of articles and interviews of these days published in all the languages of our portal demonstrate.”

“We realize that, while not in the editor’s intentions, this article has hurt the sensibilities of many readers of Vatican News,” Sr Reis went on to say. “For this we apologize to all of them and we thank them for the way they are following our work in this difficult time of emergency.”

Scores of countries around the globe have put in place often severe restrictions on commerce and movement in order to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, which is known to have infected more than three quarters of a million people and claimed more than 36 thousand lives, nearly a third of them in Italy.

The article described the pandemic as “a global health concern” and listed several “signs of regeneration” including reports of fish and swans “returning” to Venice’s canals. It appears, however, that the fish have always been there. They are only more readily visible now that the muck has settled in canal beds. The swans, according to National Geographic, were photographed not in Venice, but in nearby Burano, where they regularly appear.

Vatican News has published dozens of stories on the coronavirus crisis, highlighting the pope’s words and deeds and evidencing the response of the Roman Curia and local Churches throughout the world.

Their story on Pope Francis’s letter to  the president of the Pan American Committee of Judges, fellow Argentinian Roberto Andrés Gallardo, stressed Francis’s approval of stringent social distancing directives, and noted his praise in the letter for political leaders who have been willing to take unpopular decisions in these regards. “It would be sad to opt for the contrary,” the Vatican News story quotes the Pope’s letter as saying. “[A]ny other way would result in the death of many, many people,” the story copy continues in close paraphrase of the Holy Father. The Vatican News copy, however, omits more striking imagery: Francis went on to say that failure to act would result in “viral genocide”.

The communications dicastery is one of the Vatican departments that has taken major steps to encourage remote working during the outbreak. The various language sections are working with skeleton crews and essentially without a functioning physical newsroom, while juggling increasingly hefty workloads.

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