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With Francis, It’s a Case of Style More Than Substance
BY Father Raymond J. de Souza
The interviews Pope Francis has granted have brought before the world’s attention the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a manner both refreshing and attractive.
At the same time, it is undeniable that portions of the interviews have also caused some discomfort in the Church, precisely among those who have labored heroically in service to the Church’s evangelizing mission.
To just take a few examples, Michael Novak, Janet Smith and Carl Olson have expressed misgivings. Such concerns should not just be dismissed. I think there are reasons — mostly to do with style and emphasis more than substantive disagreement — that explain some of that uneasiness.
The three papal interviews — the airborne one with the flying Vatican press corps returning from World Youth Day Rio, the one granted to La Civiltà Cattolica and published in Jesuit journals around the world and the interview published in La Repubblica — came like a bolt out of the blue.
Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI did interview books, but these were known about in advance, and journalists and commentators were briefed and had access to review copies.
There was time to read and understand what those popes were saying without hearing it first on the fly, as it were. Adequate preparation and notice do not compromise the ability of the pope to say what he wishes, but they can avoid misunderstandings and confusion. The main points of Francis’ message in all three interviews were at least partially obscured by such misunderstandings and confusion.
For example, that the Church must first proclaim the love and mercy of God and only then the moral consequences of discipleship was a principal theme of Benedict’s teaching.
However, Francis’ emphasis on that was obscured by the inflammatory headlines about the Church getting over her "obsession" with pro-life matters, marriage and family that appeared even before most people knew of the interview’s existence.
Popes have many ways to communicate. That the Holy Father would choose, for the English-speaking world, the Jesuit magazine America was, frankly, disconcerting to many.
The editors of America magazine have publicly said the bishops of the United States were wrong in their opposition to the HHS mandate of the Obama administration. The choice of America struck many, then, as a reward for behavior that had compromised the Church’s teaching.
In the case of the La Repubblica interview, to permit a conversation to be reported as if it were a verbatim account of the Holy Father’s words — when, in fact, it was an after-the-fact reconstruction by an 89-year-old atheist, long antagonistic to the Catholic faith and operating without either a recording or notes — is to surely invite misunderstanding and confusion, which ensued.
The papal interview is a risky format. I think its advantages outweigh the disadvantages, but the latter cannot be denied.
Interviews, even if reviewed carefully prior to publication, intrigue because of their freshness and spontaneity, but therein lies the danger of remarks less carefully elucidated.
Recall that John Paul’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope sparked off a row in the Buddhist world for its consideration of Buddhists as "atheistic," as they do not believe in a personal God. Benedict’s Light of the World created an enormous stir over remarks about condom use by male prostitutes.
Those episodes are perhaps forgotten by those who think Francis is being reckless in granting interviews. There is a risk in the format, but it is a considered one and one that his predecessors judged wise to take, at much greater length.
A reading of the two print interviews reveals Pope Francis as a man of wide reading. The Holy Father, especially when contrasted with world leaders such as, for example, Barack Obama or David Cameron, is a man of deep culture, conversant with the principal currents of thought in various languages and nations.
But he is not Benedict XVI, who, in his books and preaching, often appeared to be what he likely was: namely, the most learned man in the world.
It is not necessary that the Pope be thusly learned, but it was a matter of pride for many Catholics that their shepherd was intellectually superior to any of his critics.
Francis is not the most learned man in the world, but he has a greater capacity to communicate the Gospel in images and experiences accessible to ordinary people.
It is a contrast to Benedict, but it should not be an unsettling one. Both have gifts, but different ones.
Pope Francis is capable of speaking with great tenderness about those far from the Church.
When discussing his brother Jesuits, even those who sent him into exile and were active obstacles to the mission of Jesus Christ and the Ignatian charism, the Holy Father speaks with nuance and delicacy. Yet when he speaks of the parish clergy, his remarks are almost always critical, inveighing against the lazy priest in his rectory, unmoved by the suffering of the afflicted in need of mercy, reduced to a functionary who has become an obstacle rather than a conduit of God’s grace.
Priests need to hear that to be challenged and corrected, but fallen men that we are, it is not easy.
The Holy Father intends his criticisms — as he made clear recently in Assisi — for the whole Church, not just the priests and bishops. Yet, often, the clergy feel singled out for criticism or feel underappreciated. Perhaps they ought to stop feeling sorry for themselves and "man up," but the phenomenon is real and explains part of the uneasiness.
By his own account, Papa Bergoglio is not greatly familiar with the Church in North America. Catholics here have to get used to a pope from Latin America, whose experiences and emphases are different.
The Holy Father’s insistence that we not be "gatekeepers" for the sacraments is far more relevant, for example, in Hispanic cultures, where many people will go to Mass regularly but not receive holy Communion — perhaps not being aware of God’s mercy available in the sacrament of confession or in marriage. In North America, where almost everyone automatically receives holy Communion, the Holy Father may appear to be speaking about a problem that does not exist in the same way.
Pope Francis sounds more like John XXIII than he does John Paul II or Benedict XVI. The three are all in continuity with the deposit of the faith, of course, but John XXIII was distinctive in his conviction that the world needs the "medicine of mercy" more than correction — and that the many errors of the world would collapse of their own falsity.
It is not insignificant that Pope Francis has decided to canonize John XXIII, waiving the usual requirement for a second miracle after beatification. One can admire John XXIII greatly and consider indispensable the work of the Second Vatican Council — as did both John Paul II and Benedict XVI — and still think that Good Pope John was wrong about the world’s desire for mercy and its readiness to abandon its own errors.
Some of the uneasiness about Francis’ rhetorical emphasis and pastoral analysis is rooted in a reading of recent Church history that finds John XXIII’s approach to have been an overly optimistic reading of the signs of the times.
What, then, do I think of the interviews? I do not disagree with the considered and thoughtful reservations voiced by, among others, Novak, Smith and Olson. On balance, though, I find the possibility of a new adventure in evangelization exciting — beginning, as Francis does, at the beginning: "Jesus saves you."
If there are more interviews to come, the concerns outlined above can be easily remedied so that the Holy Father’s proclamation of the Gospel will be met with even greater enthusiasm.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is
editor in chief of
He was the Register’s Rome correspondent from 1998-2003.