Are the Pope's Controversial Inflight Interviews a Price Worth Paying?

(photo: CNA)

The Vatican has played down some of the comments made by Pope Francis during his inflight press conference yesterday, saying the Holy Father wasn't attacking Donald Trump when he said someone who only thinks about building walls "is not a Christian."  

Holy See Press Office Director, Father Federico Lombardi, told Vatican Radio Friday that the Pope said "what we all know when we follow his teaching and his positions: that we should not build walls but bridges." 

The Pope, he added, "says it always, constantly," especially when addressing the migration issue in Europe when he has said this "many times." So it is "not a specific issue, limited to this case" but rather a "general attitude, very consistent" when "courageously following the signs of the Gospel of acceptance and solidarity."

Furthermore, he said the Pope did not mean his words to be in any way "a personal attack" or imply how one should vote. "The Pope has made ​​it clear he did not want to enter into questions concerning the election campaign of the United States," Father Lombardi said. He also repeated the Pope's words that he wanted to be sure what the "Republican candidate" had said about the wall had been reported correctly, and so gave him "the benefit of the doubt."

The Pope's response to a question about Donald Trump on the papal plane was one of the most controversial aspects of the press conference, leading to the now regular post-interview clarifications from the Vatican. 

Francis said that anyone who "only thinks" about building walls rather than bridges “is not a Christian” (media mostly ignored the Pope's exacts words, and that he gave him the benefit of the doubt). Trump has said, if elected president, a wall would be built on the Mexican border to prevent illegal immigration. 

Another controversial issue was when the Pope raised the issue of contraception in preventing the spread of the Zika virus. Some of the press misinterpreted that as indicating a radical shift in the Church's teaching on contraception. But even after Father Lombardi's clarifications, it remains unclear why, in this context, the Pope needed to bring up the issue of using contraceptives for nuns in the Congo who were at high risk of rape in the 1960s.

Yesterday’s interview is just the latest in many previous exchanges Francis has given to press and on the papal plane that have caused widespread disquiet among many of the faithful who see them as imprudent, open to exploitation by the media and others, and sowing the seeds of unnecessary confusion. 

On the Trump issue, the Pope’s words were misinterpreted, as both Trump, and now Father Lombardi, later acknowledged, but were naturally perceived as meddling in politics, something modern popes generally have tended to avoid, especially at election time. It came at a fortuitous moment for the Republican presidential candidate ahead of the tomorrow’s primary in South Carolina — a region known for its large number of Evangelical Republican voters that historically have had anti-Catholic leanings.

“The Holy Father needed to be more careful,” once source close to the Vatican told me, who saw his decision to comment on Trump as ill-advised, and his mention of Paul VI’s tacit acceptance of artificial contraception for nuns at risk of rape in Africa in the context of preventing spread of the Zika virus as “particularly unhelpful”.

“It’s like a red herring that led journalists astray,” he said. “You hear the word contraceptives and it seems like the Pope is advocating it, but it’s not what he meant to say and he could not say it as Pope, as it would be in contradiction with the infallible teaching of the Church.”

“I understand why people misunderstood him, the whole world did,” he added. “Several statements in this interview are so unclear you’d need to write several books to clarify potential misunderstandings.”

Some of the fallout has to do with today's insatiable appetite for news and the 24 hour news cycle. This reality demands more care when speaking extemporaneously, yet Francis consults little or not at all with his staff on the papal plane about what he should say. This, too, is consistent with his style.

But the Register understands that officials in the Secretariat of State have cautioned him about some of his past comments, most notably after he said on the plane back from the Philippines last year that good Catholics should not breed “like rabbits” but exercise responsible parenting instead. Those remarks caused consternation, not least among some senior Vatican officials.

Despite the fallout from such interviews, Pope Francis clearly wishes to continue with such off the cuff comments as he wants to speak from the heart and not have his message crafted by his advisers.

It coincides with his wish to be seen as one of the people, free from the constraints of bureaucratic and ecclesiastical power that might stifle the meaning of his words or mold them, and so come across as more sincere, genuine, and relatable to the common man.

It perhaps explains why he gives such lengthy interviews after papal visits where he has largely read texts prepared by officials and the bishops of the country: once on the plane, he is free at last to say what he really thinks.

“There’s something to be said for this, and this is something he seems to desire, which is to be a Pope who is somehow closer to the people, who gets into the mix of things, and is seen as more a human being than a figure who is often distant,” a Rome priest told me.

This informal style is thought to be one of the reasons for his popularity in much of the secular world, and one which offers the potential at least to be considerably effective in terms of evangelization. Certainly, the Church’s teaching, in this instance on abortion and contraception, are receiving attention that wouldn’t otherwise have had and might lead others to find out more.

In a revealing passage in his biography The Great Reformer, author Austen Ivereigh recalls how, in his writings, Jorge Bergoglio would try to avoid saying stale phrases. “If it had been said before, he preferred not to say it or would find new language,” Ivereigh writes. “This meant that, unusually for a Catholic bishop, he made the Church’s constant teaching sound like news.”

“Part of that ability came from his directness,” Ivereigh adds. “He intuited what mattered to people, and spoke to it.” In that same passage, Ivereigh notes that then-Cardinal Bergoglio was reticent with the press and gave few interviews.

When he did speak, it was almost always off the record to journalists he knew and trusted. It could be argued that remnants of that “off the record” approach have carried over into his “on the record” interviews as pope.

But many believe such informality, especially by a pope who is not a moral theologian, can come at a price. And for some, it may be one too high to pay after having generated confusion and controversy on several occasions in the past.

This post has been updated to include further consideration of Father Federico Lombardi's remarks on the Pope's comments on the Zika virus and contraception.