Pope Francis, Catholic Unity and the Synod on the Family

An interview with Opus Dei Father John Wauck of the Holy Cross Pontifical University of Rome

Father John Wauck
Father John Wauck (photo: Pontifical University of the Holy Cross)

Opus Dei Father John Wauck is a professor in the communications department at Holy Cross Pontifical University in Rome, where he received his doctorate in philosophy. Father Wauck previously studied history and literature at Harvard University, and over the years, he has commented on Church affairs for CNN, BBC, ABC, CBS, The Associated Press, The New York Times, Washington Post, Time magazine and many others.

During an international seminar for journalists covering religious affairs, Father Wauck spoke with the Register about Pope Francis’ 18-month-old pontificate — from the developing public perception, foreign diplomacy and reform of the Roman Curia to hints on the upcoming synod.


What, according to you, is the public perception of Pope Francis?

I think that Pope Francis’ popularity at this point is not going away. We got a sense, especially after Asia, that there are still parts of the world waiting to express their appreciation and outpouring of affection for him.

In other words, his popularity is still a new phenomenon in places he has not visited, and people seem eager to express their enthusiasm. We saw that in Brazil, in Korea; we will probably see it in Africa when he goes, also on his return to Asia (Sri Lanka), and I expect the same will be so in the U.S., where he will presumable go next year. That popularity is not a generic, worldwide popularity, but is lived and expressed in different places, in unique ways.


What is your assessment on the Pope’s recent visit to Korea? And what is your assessment of the Pope’s diplomacy to Asia, especially China, North Korea and Vietnam?

I am not sure about his diplomacy with the Far East, but what was striking was the reaction from secular media who were in Korea during Pope Francis’ visit. They were completely bowled over by the favorable response in an overwhelmingly non-Catholic country. He seemed to tap into a national hunger for authentic leadership, which is something in today’s world that may be a common factor.

In other words, part of the Pope’s popularity (I believe it is safe to say that he is the most popular person on the planet) may have a negative explanation; namely, there is a dearth of competition, in that many world leaders have proved to be a disappointment.

In the context of political leadership, the Pope’s very authentic leadership and concern for the people is a breath of fresh air and appreciated across the religious-political spectrum.


Do you believe that there are any misconceptions about the Pope regarding traditional Catholicism and how it relates to Church unity?

I think that Pope Francis does not fit the sort of traditional categories of European and North-American commentators on Church affairs in terms of being “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive” or “traditional.” Part of that has to do with the fact that he comes from a new part of the world, Latin America, specifically Argentina.

The combination of characteristics that make part of his personality is relatively hard to find, say in the U.S. or Europe. They are more common in Latin America, a combination that is very vibrant, with a personal connection to the poor and working class.

At the same time, with quite a traditional aesthetical spirit, you find Pope Francis speaking very openly about going to confession regularly, how he himself goes every two weeks, asking people in the audience when they last went, how often they pray the Rosary. Questions that perhaps a man from the socially North American or European left, for instance, in terms of economic issues, would rarely be heard; questions that are completely normal and natural coming from the Pope. And they express, I think, the constant Tradition of the Church, raising a deep concern for the poor, the sick and the needy; also, his very intense devotional life, particularly in traditional forms of piety, obviously the sacraments, but also the Rosary and his personal affection for our Blessed Mother, making frequent visits to St. Mary Maggiore Basilica (in the chapel dedicated to Our Lady) every time he comes back from a trip. That is the traditional faith of the Church.


Vaticanista Gerard O’Connell emphasized that Pope Francis is changing attitudes rather than structures in the Roman Curia. In what ways do you think that he has changed either attitudes or structures in the Curia?

The only structural change Pope Francis has made, and actually a very significant one, is the creation of Secretariat for Economic Affairs. Both its creation and appointment of Cardinal [George] Pell to head it are major changes and should have far-reaching consequences.

Aside from that, however, structural change is all prospective. Reform plans are afoot, but what they will look like and when exactly they will take place is not clear.

Considering Church government, Roman Curia, it is one of surprising continuity. The Secretariat of State for instance, the central body of government, has hardly changed besides the secretary himself. Cardinal [Tarcisio] Bertone was replaced by Archbishop [Pietro] Parolin, which was going to happen anyway, is hardly a revolutionary Church.

Parolin is a classic veteran Vatican diplomat that any prudent pope may have chosen to head the Secretariat of State, but below him, positions two, three and four, have remained exactly the same. Even the head of the papal household, Archbishop [Georg] Gänswein, the secretary of Pope Benedict XVI, is now the head of the papal household. In other words, there has been remarkably little change so far.

As for changing attitudes, that is hard to gauge, because no one can read hearts; but there are certainly external changes indicating that Pope Francis is leading by example and not by altering structures. He presents a challenge to everyone around him.

We see it in the work of the papal almsgivers, going out in the evenings and giving assistance to the poor or what seems superficial but might be more profound: the cars that various Curia officials are driving — there has definitely been a change. Although an external thing, it may correspond to an internal change as well.

I’ve certainly heard about people moved to examine their consciences because of things Pope Francis has done and said, particularly his spirit of poverty, avoiding excess.

Thus I do believe Pope Francis’ simplicity of life is changing attitudes and perhaps, above all, provoking an examination of conscience.


In your interview with the Register last year, you mentioned Pope Francis is trying to “reshape how the Church is being seen” and “that will make it possible for many to hear the moral teaching.” Do you think he has been effective so far, and when do you think he might transition from "evangelize" to "catechize"?

I don’t think we should expect any particular transition from evangelization to catechesis, certainly because the two are neither at odds nor mutely exclusive. It is really a question of hearing the fullness, including the catechetical, in the Pope’s statements. Meaning, the Pope says many things catechetical, but in the context of a message that is pastoral above all.

What Francis is concerned about is not avoiding certain controversial issues. Sometimes his words have been misrepresented as “we should not talk about those things,” but he did not say we should not talk about them, but “when we talk about them,” we should do so in a certain context. He is interested in shaping the frame around which moral teachings of the Church are heard.

In the recent past, Catholic moral messages were conveyed more in the context of a conflict, of different visions of man and morality, with the Church teaching the truth about those things. I think it is safe to say Pope Francis has succeeded in dismantling that frame of political-socio-cultural conflict, of overcoming the "dictatorship of relativism," certainly talked about in Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate, where moral messages of the Church were seen in an intellectualized sort of way, i.e., “the Church is giving you the right answer.”

Whether Francis has succeeded in helping people see the connection between the Church’s moral message, even on conflicting issues, and the message of mercy is still unclear. The truth is what sets you free, and there is nothing merciful about letting people live a life of immorality.

One sign to me that he is succeeding is the surprising equanimity with which some of his quite challenging moral statements have been received. He says things that, if said by Pope Benedict XVI, would have provoked sharp reactions: for instance, Francis’ talk about devils, frequent in his homilies, or his very blunt closing the door on the issue of women priests. That these parts of his teachings are being accepted without provoking outrage — whether they are being fully accepted is another question — does suggest that they are being heard in a different context.


What are your hopes and expectations for the upcoming synod on the family?

I think the synod is a very important moment in the life of the Church and society. The question of the family is not only something Catholic, an internal Catholic issue, but a question for mankind, and it is no secret that families have been suffering in recent decades. That is nothing new.

We face huge, monumental problems of family breakdown: children without fathers, a general crisis of the role of men in the family and certainly a crisis within the Church concerning the reception of its teachings in the encyclical Humanae Vitae.

In many places, marriages are actually breaking down because people are not getting married in the first place, a crisis itself. Now, another huge issue, which Pope Francis’ first major document, Evangelii Guadium,  has a lot to do with is the family is very closely related to evangelization, and the life of the faith is lived vibrantly within Catholic families. It is where one can most easily see the joy of the Gospel and where that joy is transmitted to the next generation — i.e., most evangelization is not conducted by preachers on street corners. From the time of Our Lord until today, the spreading of the Gospel has been done largely by parents passing it on to their children.

Thus the family has well been the building block of society as well as the Church and evangelization. All these things will be presumably addressed in the synod.

Register correspondent Cecilia O’Reilly writes from Rome.