Ten Takeaways from Pope Francis’ Latest Interview

COMMENTARY: The Holy Father’s comments raise questions regarding a number of key issues, including relations with China, celebration of the traditional Latin Mass, and how he gets the information he needs to make decisions.

Pope Francis gives his weekly general audience in the Paul VI Hall at Vatican City on August 25, 2021
Pope Francis gives his weekly general audience in the Paul VI Hall at Vatican City on August 25, 2021 (photo: Vatican Media)

The recent wide-ranging, 90-minute interview that Pope Francis granted to the radio station of the Spanish bishops’ conference (Radio COPE), garnered wide attention for his comments about his health and possible resignation, but that was not the most significant part of the Holy Father’s comments.

Here are 10 takeaways from the interview.


Horizontal Horizons

While the interview was between religious people, in a religious setting and about various ecclesial topics, it was marked by a certain mundane horizon. God did not make much of an appearance. Health, finance, governance, travel and climate change were covered. The conceptual framework of the interview was that the Holy Father was the head of an institution of some sociological importance, not the universal pastor of the Church founded by Jesus Christ. Carlos Herrera interviewed Pope Francis much as one might the secretary-general of the United Nations, or the president of a country.

It is a widespread phenomenon to consider the Francis pontificate in this-worldly terms, where the faith is considered only for its horizontal impact. That seems a disservice to a pope who, in this interview, stresses that the charter of his pontificate is Evangelii Gaudium, the Joy the Gospel!


Papal Health and Resignation

The interview began with questions about the Pope’s recovery from bowel surgery earlier in the summer. The Holy Father said his life was entirely back to normal — even better, as he can now eat whatever he wants. 

He said the issue of resignation “never crossed his mind” despite some speculation in the press. The enormity of Benedict XVI’s abdication has evidently not fully settled in the life of the Church. Incapacity is no longer the reason to resign; any reason will do. 

Benedict’s abdication was entirely without precedent, as no pope had ever resigned absent a crisis. His explanation at the time of “diminishing strength” is simply to be expected in those who hold office for life.  Benedict’s explanation afterward, namely that he could no longer handle the rigors of papal trips, was even more puzzling. If jet lag is a reason to resign, any reason will do. Speculation about papal resignations for reasons of health, as was common in the latter years of St. John Paul II, assumes a link that is no longer there. 


The Hermeneutic of Rupture Endorsed? 

The most significant part of the interview touched on Traditionis Custodes (Guardians of the Tradition), the Holy Father’s recent legislation limiting celebration of the “extraordinary form” or “traditional Latin Mass.” Speaking about the permission now required, Pope Francis said: 

After this motu proprio, a priest who wants to celebrate … has to ask permission from Rome. A kind of permission for bi-ritualism, which is given only by Rome. [Like] a priest who celebrates in the Eastern Rite and the Latin Rite, he is bi-ritual but with the permission of Rome.

Since the liturgical reform of St. Paul VI, the Holy See has insisted — and in absolutely explicit language by Benedict XVI — that the “ordinary form” of the Mass is not a new “rite” but the same Roman Rite. In his liturgical legislation, Benedict XVI called the more ancient Mass and the more recent Mass two “expressions” or “forms” of the same Roman Rite.

This position has been tenaciously held by Rome against those of an extreme progressive bent who insisted that the older form of the Mass was abolished, replaced constructively with the new one. Certain traditionalist quarters agreed with that analysis, but lamented it. It was what Benedict XVI called the “hermeneutic of rupture,” an erroneous approach to Vatican II and its subsequent reforms.

To speak of the more ancient Mass as a different rite, like the Byzantine Rite or Syro-Malabar Rite, has never been done by the Vatican in the nearly 60 years since Vatican II. That Pope Francis does so now is of momentous import, if indeed it reflects the considered teaching of the Holy See and not just a passing comment of the Holy Father. 


The Pope and Putin

The most widely noted part of the interview was Pope Francis confusing the comments of Vladimir Putin with Angela Merkel on Afghanistan. 

At a Russia-German summit in August, Putin unleased a ferocious attack on the NATO policy in Afghanistan since 2001, attempting to spread democracy and human rights there. Pope Francis thought that Merkel had said what Putin had in fact said, and praised “her” skepticism about whether democracy and human rights were possible for the Afghan people.

Aside from the cringing embarrassment of getting it all completely backwards, the comments do invite further examination. Does the Holy Father believe democracy and human rights are not universally applicable, and that Afghanistan’s Islamic culture and history is somehow incapable of them? That is unlikely, as that position would, for example, be in disagreement with Pope St. John XXIII’s teaching in Mater et Magistra (1961) and Pacem in Terris (1963) and Pope St. John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus (1991).

In addition, that Pope Francis praised (unwittingly) Putin’s thinking sheds light on the Holy Father’s foreign policy, which in Syria and Ukraine has been rather more friendly toward Putin than one would normally expect. Perhaps there is more of a meeting of the minds there than previously thought.


What the Pope Knows

The Holy Father confirmed that he (quickly) reads only one Italian newspaper and does not watch television. Given that he does not know how to use a computer — a confession he made himself — the question does arise about how Pope Francis knows what he knows.

It is not a new question. In his 2010 interview book, Light of the World, it became evident that Benedict XVI realized how serious some controversies became when he read about them in the German press. In the days of John Paul II, writers knew that getting published in the Cracovian weekly Catholic journal meant that the Holy Father may well read it.

So who tells the pope what he knows if he is cut off from almost all media? How does he know what he knows about immigration, climate change, the Latin Mass and other subjects covered in the interview? It is not to suggest that the Pope is not informed; he has many people to brief him. But who are they, and what do they tell him?


The Principle of No Preparation 

Regarding his trip to Hungary next week, Pope Francis said that he “didn’t know” which Hungarian civic leaders he was going to meet, even though that very topic was the subject of lengthy and tense negotiation, given the Holy Father’s antipathy to the agenda of Prime Minister Victor Orban. As to what might happen at such a meeting, Pope Francis revealed that, on principle, he does not prepare ahead of time what he might say.

One of my ways is not to go around with a script: When I am in front of a person, I look him in the eyes and let things come out. It doesn’t even occur to me to think about what I’m going to say if I’m with him, those potential future situations that don’t help me. I like the concrete; thinking about potential future situations makes you tangled, it is not good for you.

As to the earlier question of who decides what the Holy Father is told about the news, this revelation invites further questions as to how the Vatican diplomatic offices prepare for those who meet the Pope.


Dialogue for Dialogue’s Sake in China

In a response to a question about the Vatican’s secret agreement with the Chinese communist party regarding the appointment of bishops, Pope Francis declined to defend the agreement on its merits. The best that could be hoped for was dialogue for dialogue’s sake, he said:

China is not easy, but I am convinced that we should not give up dialogue. You can be deceived in dialogue, you can make mistakes, all that ... but it is the way. Closed-mindedness is never the way. What has been achieved so far in China was at least dialogue ... some concrete things like the appointment of new bishops, slowly. ... But these are also steps that can be questionable and the results on one side or the other.

Given that Cardinal Pietro Parolin has been flogging the diplomatic achievement of the Chinese agreement in the face of mounting criticisms, the tepid comments of the Holy Father were a rather remarkable non-endorsement of one of the most significant decisions of the pontificate.


Nostalgia for a Failed Policy

The failures of the Holy See’s China policy, now evident for all to see in the abolition of religious liberty in both China and Hong Kong, is better explained by the Holy Father’s reminiscences about Cardinal Agostino Casaroli.

For me, the key figure in all this and who helps me and inspires me is Cardinal Casaroli. Casaroli was the man John XXIII commissioned to build bridges with Central Europe. 

Cardinal Casaroli was the architect of the Ostpolitik of St. Paul VI, the Vatican’s attempt to negotiate agreements with the communist regimes of the Soviet empire. St. John Paul II elevated the capable Casaroli to be secretary of state, but while he left Cardinal Casaroli to continue his largely ineffective behind-the-scenes negotiations with tyrants, John Paul launched a frontal assault, beginning with his 1979 visit to Poland.

That Pope Francis would wax nostalgic for Cardinal Casaroli in response to a question about China explains why the Holy See is repeating with Beijing what failed with Moscow.


Immigration Policy Clarified

If there is a single issue with which Pope Francis is identified with in the public mind, it is the reception of migrants and refugees and an open border policy. His public clashes with the Trump administration were principally about immigration.

While Pope Francis advocates generous reception of refugees and migrants, he does not favor an open border policy. He said that years ago upon returning from Sweden, when he praised that country for limiting immigration to only those that they could reasonably integrate. He made the same point in this interview:

My answer would be this: first, with regard to migrants, four attitudes: welcome, protect, promote and integrate. And as for the last one: if you welcome them and leave them loose at home and do not integrate them, they are a danger, because they feel like strangers. …

The countries have to be very honest with themselves and see how many they can accept and up to what number, and here the dialogue between nations is important. Today, the migratory problem cannot be solved by one country alone and it is important to dialogue and see “I can go this far...”, “I have more possibilities” or not; “integration structures are valid or not valid”, etcetera.


Political Purposes of Papal Travel

Pope Francis confirmed that he will attend the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow in November. He took the occasion to reflect that it was his visit to the European Parliament in Strasbourg in 2014 that led him to accelerate the writing of Laudato Si so that it would influence the Paris climate summit of 2015. The Glasgow trip will be of the same character, a papal visit with an explicitly political, rather than pastoral, purpose.

Pope Francis attends a general audience at the Vatican.

After Surgery, Pope Francis Says a Nurse ‘Saved My Life’

“This is the second time in my life that a nurse has saved my life. The first was in the year ‘57,” Pope Francis told COPE, in reference to an Italian religious sister who helped him when he was ill with pneumonia during his seminary studies in Argentina.