Pope Francis’ Interviews and the Bigger Picture
Father John Wauck discusses the Holy Father’s ‘relentlessly personal’ approach.
Opus Dei Father John Wauck teaches in the School of Church Communications at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. During the 2013 papal conclave, he served as a television commentator for ABC.
On Oct. 8, he spoke with the Register's senior editor, Joan Frawley Desmond, about Pope Francis’ efforts to reach alienated Catholics and the public through an unprecedented strategy of informal interviews that reportedly bypassed Vatican filters.
Two recent interviews with Pope Francis have produced inaccurate headlines attacking pro-life activism and Catholic conversions. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat worried that the Pope’s communications strategy — which Douthat described as an “almost-frantic engagement with the lapsed-Catholic, post-Catholic and non-Catholic world” — could backfire. What’s your view?
It’s important for everybody to calm down and look at the big picture.
Pope Francis, the Successor of Peter, is the most popular man on the planet. There are worse things that could happen, especially given the water under the bridge, such as the abuse scandals.
You can quibble about how he is saying things, but we are in a good place. Even the need to explain and interpret the Pope’s words is not bad, because you get to talk about things.
I lived through the whole Da Vinci Code excitement, and in the end, it was a gift. It made Opus Dei open the door and shine the light, and people found Opus Dei was okay. It wouldn’t have happened without the novel.
In the Pope’s latest interview with Eugenio Scalfari, of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, the Register reported that the interviewer “admitted to neither recording nor even taking notes of the exchange.” The journalist said he “did show the text to the Holy Father for approval, but it isn’t clear how closely the Pope read it.” What do you know about this interview?
It isn’t clear Pope Francis had said any of the things the story reported he had said.
But this is a tiny thing in the big picture, which is that the Pope’s words are being parsed in the news.
No other pope got a CNN headline when he called for a bishops’ synod. That is free publicity.
Insiders can worry about how it was said, but he is not changing any doctrines, and he is explicit about that.
The Pope wants people to know that the Church isn’t here to condemn them. That is one of the false images of the Church.
Is it possible that he is being misunderstood by some of the public? Of course. But he is trying to reshape how the Church is seen — and that will then make it possible for many to hear the moral message.
Keep in mind that when he talks to the Catholics at Mass at the Doma [St. Martha guest house], he is not afraid to admonish the congregation in house. But when he is talking to the world, to the old atheist, he talks in a different way.
Catholics aren’t used to a pope talking off the cuff in newspapers, and the unpredictable outcome has made some very uneasy.
It can be disconcerting. The interviews are not magisterial statements.
He is talking to a soul. He is relentlessly personal, one-on-one, talking all the time. Seeing it in those terms, it is easier to understand what he is saying.
Part of the enthusiastic response to Francis is the sense that you are entering into a relationship with a father figure. People catch that sense of spiritual paternity and think, “This could be my dad.”
Benedict gave an impression of a teacher bent on communicating important truths and was almost willfully stepping aside. He didn’t want to be in the picture. Theologically that is correct, but, psychologically, the sheep like a pastor. People are hungry for this kind of relationship.
What is the feeling in Rome a half year after Pope Francis’ election?
The general feeling of the Italian population is that they love him to death. Shopkeepers, taxi drivers are huge fans.
Those who are not are those deeply involved in the life of the Church and are disconcerted. [They are questioning:] “What exactly is the agenda here? Where are we going, and what am I supposed to be doing?”
How would you describe Pope Francis’ communications strategy?
I don’t think there is any strategy. The media strategy is: Get out of the way — Francis is in town and doing his thing and winning over the masses.
Benedict was often criticized for communications problems during his pontificate. What is the difference between his approach and Francis’ efforts?
It is night and day. Benedict wasn’t terribly interested in mixing it up with reporters. And people were not expecting [Cardinal Jorge] Bergoglio to be either. He wasn’t out giving interviews in Argentina.
Now, he is taking interviews, and I don’t think they are coming from Father Lombardi [the papal spokesman]. He is running his own communications shop.
It is working so far. The question is when and if the honeymoon will end.
So Pope Francis acknowledges the frustrations of lapsed Catholics, and that creates fresh opportunities for outreach at the parish level or around the family dinner table. Are we ready for this engagement?
That is a long story about the lack of preparation of generations of Catholics left without formation and priests poorly prepared to explain the faith.
Pope Benedict XVI predicted the faithful were being sidelined from mainstream culture in the West, yet they could still serve as a “creative minority,” a leaven in a secular world. Is Pope Francis concerned that the faithful are too insular and have retreated from this kind of outreach?
With Francis, there is a turn to the outside. Benedict was interested in making sure that God was at the center of the Church, including the liturgy.
Francis’ message is very valuable: The Catholic Church is not something that was just made for Catholics. It is made for the whole world — and specifically sinners. He wants that message seen, heard and understood.
We all believe that. But we don’t always act or think that way. We slip into a tribal mentality: It’s our thing. Or: The Church is for the good people. Yes, of course you have to put your own house in order, and that is what Benedict was doing.
My hunch is that Francis believes that part of getting your house in order is understanding correctly what the Church is about and for. That missionary outlook is important.
Janet Smith, the U.S. moral theologian and pro-life leader, wrote a column in First Things that challenged the Pope’s suggestion that Catholics should set aside hot-button issues like abortion to first help people learn that God loves them and forgives their sins. Said Smith: “I think most people think they are not sinners and not in need of redemption.” Has the Pope unnecessarily alienated pro-lifers?
There might be awkward moments. Pope Francis is directed to the outside. That goes for his language as well.
But his speeches include a lot of solid, clear teaching. Pro-lifers should run with the good stuff, and that will clarify the ambiguous [remarks].
What is interesting to consider is that Francis is asking the bishops named by Blessed John Paul II and Benedict, and the priests and seminarians formed by these popes, to get out into the fray: Don’t stay home.
That could be really good. They will carry out into the street, the periphery and the world their understanding of the faith and the priesthood shaped by John Paul and Benedict.
The [current] seminarians and many priests entered into the priesthood after the sex-abuse scandals. That has made them stronger: They have had to wrestle with corruption in the clergy and people looking askance. Telling those guys to get out there is very positive.