The story in this morning’s Times of London had all the ingredients of a Fleet Street scoop: Prince Charles’s upcoming papal audience, King Henry VIII’s divorce and Pope Benedict’s faux pas gift.
The problem was, the report was “completely untrue and has no basis whatsoever in fact,” according to the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi.
It may be a sign of the times that the Vatican issued a sharply worded request for a retraction of the story only a few hours after it appeared in print. I certainly can’t remember the last time the Vatican Press Office made public a letter of complaint to a major news outlet.
“I would ask you to issue an immediate and unambiguous denial,” said Father Lombardi’s letter to the Times editor-in-chief.
Could it be the Vatican is getting fed up with inaccurate reporting?
The Times story said that when Prince Charles comes to the Vatican next week, Pope Benedict planned to present him with “a gift that may strike an unwelcome chord”: a facsimile of the 1530 appeal by English peers to Pope Clement VII asking for the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
As everyone knows, Pope Clement refused that appeal, King Henry married his mistress anyway and renounced Roman Catholicism, establishing the Church of England.
As the Times put it, the pope’s gift appeared to be either “an unfortunate accident or a piece of mischievous theater.” That was no doubt enough to set people off at the Vatican.
One part of the story did appear to be true: The Italian company Scrinium is in fact producing a limited-edition facsimile of the famous letter of Henry VIII, in collaboration with the Vatican Secret Archives, which holds the document in its underground vaults.