VATICAN CITY - The headline was an eye-grabber: "Homer and Bart are Catholic."
That this homage to "The Simpsons" was splashed across the Vatican's newspaper was odder still, hinting that as it nears its 150th year of publication, L'Osservatore Romano was trying to be relevant, hip, even a bit controversial.
It wasn't always so, and the pope's newspaper is still full of dense treatises on obscure 15th- century saints, papal discourses and appointments of bishops around the world - the stuff that makes L'Osservatore the Vatican's official newspaper of record.
But thanks to editor Giovanni Maria Vian, who took over in 2007, the once-sleepy, eight-page imprint has become a must-read for anyone curious about the papacy and its unique world view.
The new popular slant, however, remains a radical departure from tradition: It has always been a newspaper that focuses more on ideas than news. And while circulation and advertising are up despite the global downward trend for newspapers, not everyone is pleased - especially on the other side of the Atlantic.
American Catholic conservatives have trashed L'Osservatore's editorial changes under Vian, saying the newspaper disserves Catholics.
"All the confusion fit to print," commentator Michael Novak wrote in the conservative National Review about what he said was the newspaper's ignorance of the abortion debate in the U.S. after its sympathetic coverage of President Obama's 2009 speech in which he asked for common ground on abortion.
Most recently it was L'Osservatore's handling of Pope Benedict XVI's book Light of the World that riled the American right.
In the book-length interview that came out in November, the pope said male prostitutes who use condoms to prevent HIV might be showing a first step toward a more moral sexuality because they're looking out for the welfare of another.
L'Osservatore ran excerpts of the book four days before the Vatican's own release date, sparking a media frenzy. It didn't help that translation errors made it seem like the pope was justifying condom use for heterosexual couples. He wasn't.
But it all outraged the right, which said the newspaper was trying so hard to be relevant that it was no longer serving its publisher: the pope.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver accused L'Osservatore of wronging Benedict by breaking the Vatican's own embargo and publishing the condom quotes without context or commentary.
Philip Lawler, editor of Catholic World News, called for Vian's resignation.
"In past months, L'Osservatore Romano has often embarrassed the Vatican, with puerile articles gushing about the merits of Michael Jackson, the Beatles and 'The Simpsons,' " he wrote. "But this editorial blunder is far more serious."
Vian, 58, dismisses the criticism and says Americans don't read the newspaper but just media reports about it.
He acknowledged that L'Osservatore was in part to blame, because it's only a daily in Italian (it has weekly editions in English and seven other languages). But he said the paper had done nothing wrong in running the excerpts.