Pope Francis and His Unofficial Spokespeople

Pope Francis and Father Federico Lombardi speaking to reporters on the papal plane to Armenia, June 24, 2016
Pope Francis and Father Federico Lombardi speaking to reporters on the papal plane to Armenia, June 24, 2016 (photo: Edward Pentin)

Pope Francis raised eyebrows this week by choosing a Protestant theologian, Marcelo Figueroa, to edit a new Argentine edition of L’Osservatore Romano.

From September, Figueroa, who is a personal friend of the Holy Father and former head of Argentina’s Biblical Society, will begin editing the edition that will combine eight pages of exclusive local content with the weekly Spanish-language edition of L'Osservatore Romano.

His appointment follows reportedly increasing opposition to the Pope in his native country.

In an interview with the Argentine newspaper La Nacion last week, Francis denied he had any problems with the country’s new center-right president Mauricio Macri (the Pope recently refused a large donation from Macri although the President afterwards insisted there was no ill will).

But the Pope’s comments followed a poll in Argentina which showed he has lost considerable support in the country, largely because of what many perceive as a difficult relationship with Macri.

It is perhaps to be expected, therefore, that following his interview with La Nacion last week, in which he stressed that he had no one to speak for him in Argentina, Francis would appoint a friend to ensure his messages are received in his home country as intended, without any spin.

Francis went on to insist in the La Nacion interview that “the Vatican Press Office is the only spokesman for the Pope”. But although that is officially true, he does have others who appear to be speaking for him in various media, often when it comes to the most controversial issues.

Over the past three years, these have included Andrea Tornielli of Vatican Insider, Elizabetta Piqué of La Nacion, and Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of La Civilta Cattolica, whose copy must always be approved by the Secretariat of State.

Father Spadaro recently interviewed Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna on Amoris Laetitia, in which the cardinal appears to go against orthopraxis by saying, in the context of admitting remarried divorcees to the Eucharist, that “in certain cases, that the one who is in an objective situation of sin can receive the help of the sacraments.” Father Spadaro released an extended excerpt of the interview in English that focused primarily on that topic. The Jesuit, who conducted the first interview with the Pope in 2013, has also pushed that controversial interpretation himself on a number of occasions without any correction.

In fairness, Father Spadaro has always denied speaking for the Pope when I’ve asked him, insisting his articles and comments are always his own ideas. But it remains the case that he is often in direct contact with the Pope, that his influential publication always has to pass the scrutiny of senior curial officials, and that his articles are never publicly contradicted or refuted by the Vatican or the press office, despite their sometimes controversial, heterodox-leaning content. The Jesuit media specialist has this week been in Poland giving talks on Pope Francis and interpreting him for Polish media and labeling the Holy Father as the "great communicator".     

Elsewhere, the Pope acts as his own spokesman, giving what have now been close to around thirty major interviews, usually to friendly media, and often bypassing the Holy See Press Office altogether (usually they have not been informed, or if they have, advised against them in vain).

Now he has chosen a Protestant friend to interpret him to Argentinians, again acting outside of the press office and probably also sidestepping the editor of L’Osservatore Romano, Giovanni Maria Vian, who will likely have little control over the material Figueroa will publish.

And although the edition will be supervised by the local bishops’ conference, Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández is expected to play a key role in the new publication. Currently rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, Archbishop Fernández is widely known as the “ghost writer” of large portions of the Pope’s writings such as his post-synodal apostolic exhortations Evangelii Gaudium and Amoris Laetitia, and his encyclical Laudato Si.

So although the Pope insists he only has one official spokesman, currently Father Lombardi who's soon to be replaced by Greg Burke, in the Holy See Press Office, in reality he has a number of unofficial ones. And if the past is anything to go by, he will allow them to effectively convey his message, even if they happen to be Protestant.   

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