‘The Pope: Answers’; Millennials and Gen Z Catholics Respond

Six people share their views on the Holy Father’s conversation with 10 young adults, as presented in the new Hulu documentary.

Most of the documentary’s participants ranged from being ambivalent about the Catholic Church to open hostility.
Most of the documentary’s participants ranged from being ambivalent about the Catholic Church to open hostility. (photo: Courtesy photos / Hulu/Shutterstock)

Only one practicing Catholic was among the 10 young people who spoke with Pope Francis in a recently released documentary. But that doesn’t mean that faithful Catholic young adults didn’t watch the Pope’s conversation with their peers with interest, nor that they didn’t have questions and opinions of their own.

The Register asked half a dozen Catholic young adults about their thoughts on the documentary The Pope: Answers, which premiered on the Hulu streaming platform earlier this month.

The Spanish-language documentary provided a raw look at how some elements of secular youth culture view the Church. The participants came from a range of backgrounds and countries: Several were atheist or agnostic, one was Muslim, one an evangelical Christian, and only one, Maria, was a Catholic who defended the Church’s teaching. They touched on many hot-button issues of the day, including pornography, abortion, and abuse at the hands of spiritual leaders. Through their questioning of Pope Francis, they presented their hurt and confusion about the Church and its teachings.


Pastoring Outside the Flock

Pope Francis’ response was to assume the role of a pastor rather than an apologist.

“The Pope’s answers were very balanced in a way that I would like to be able to give answers if I were in that situation,” said Thomas Arnold, a theology graduate student from Oakland, California. “I mean, he wasn’t sparing them. He wasn’t refraining from saying the truth. He had a way of telling them the truth about their lives, but in a way that led with compassion and was very sensitive to where they were coming from. So I thought the balance was just extraordinary, that he could preach these difficult truths to people but in such a way as not to alienate them.”

Arnold, 25, pointed to the Pope’s gentleness toward Lucia, a young woman from Peru who was psychologically abused in a convent and lost her faith. He affirmed her decision to leave, telling her, “The bravest thing to do is run away.” Arnold said he had a friend who went through something similar and hoped he could respond with the same compassion Pope Francis displayed.

Most of the documentary’s participants ranged from being ambivalent about the Catholic Church to open hostility. 

Milagros, a feminist activist from Argentina, led the charge of questions about abortion and ordination of women. Pope Francis’ pastoral approach left the young people the Register spoke to with mixed feelings.

“I have great respect for the Holy Father, and the documentary increased my respect for him because he’s obviously played a very difficult role,” said Robert Stephenson-Padron, 39, a medical provider living in London. “For a lot of young people, I think they need to know that they can feel comfortable asking anything that they want to a Catholic priest, bishop, the pope or even a layperson, although, of course, I don’t think a layperson would have done as well as the Pope.”

Ivy League graduate student Joshua, 27, who asked to only be referred to by his first name due to the environment of his university, commended the Holy Father’s pastoral care but wondered if the participants could misconstrue his charity for approval.

“I got the sense that a lot of people asking these questions were looking for affirmation from a figure that they saw as somewhat credible and prominent. And I think when you come in with that posture, it’s very easy to misinterpret what’s being said as essentially an acceptance or a tacit approval of what you’re doing,” he said.

Though he admired the Pope’s pastoral approach, Michael Snellan, 21, a multimedia faith-platform manager and monastery maker of fudge from Kentucky, thought there were times the Holy Father could have taken a harder line in defending Church teaching. He cited the example of a woman named Alejandra from Columbia, who makes a living for herself and young daughter creating pornographic content. 

Pope Francis spoke of her profession in the abstract, citing its damage to personal dignity. 

“Obviously, pornography diminishes. It doesn’t help you grow. Those who use pornography are diminished in human terms,” he said.

“I think he did take the right approach, but he could have gone further,” Snellan said. “Like, he didn’t explicitly call out anyone. He would say that pornography is wrong, but he wouldn’t tell that woman that being involved in the pornography business is wrong for her personally.”


Hard Truths

There were instances where the young Catholic observers commended the Holy Father for speaking truth about difficult topics. 

The documentary included an intense discussion about abortion between Milagros, who asked why the Church wants to “stand between a woman and her rights,” and Maria, who does sidewalk counseling to dissuade women from ending their pregnancies. Pope Francis walked a fine line, both clearly condemning the act of abortion and promoting love for women who have made that decision. He compared the procedure to hiring a hitman, and said, “Staying by her side is one thing, but justifying the act is another.”

“I liked the fact that, at least on the abortion question, Pope Francis was very firm in articulating Catholic teaching,” Joshua said. “I actually really appreciated the last scene, where the pro-life Catholic and the former nun were talking about their contrasting experience, and I thought Pope Francis’ reactions to both were very effectively pastoral.” 

Faith Brown, 24, a higher-education nonprofit program manager from Washington, D.C., thought the Pope could have gone further in his abortion answer.

“I would have liked the Pope’s answers on abortion to be a bit more firm. He was very pro-life still, but I think in a place like that, I don’t know that dialogue is necessarily the most effective tool when you’re trying to really hold the line that secular society has blurred,” she said. “Because the question at the end of the day is a question of life, not a question of choice or a secular conception of justice. And so I wish he would have been a little bit more stern on the Church’s teachings.”


Questionable Arrangement

The casual approach the participants had to their audience with the Pope rubbed many of the young adults the Register spoke to the wrong way. There was no pomp or circumstance; no kissing of his ring; and no one rose as he entered. The group was dressed in jeans and T-shirts — even crop tops. The venue wasn’t at the Vatican, but a large, industrial loft somewhere in Rome.

“At the end of the day, even if you’re not Catholic, this is a state figure, right?” Brown said. “He’s a very important man. Even though it’s a more casual conversation, it still should have some air of reverence about it.”

Stephenson-Padron added, “Some of the things that some of the youth said and some of the ways they say it, whether I was Christian or not, I would never speak, or even maybe dress the way some of them dressed around an elder. Even when I wasn’t a Christian, I would still have some kind of primordial sense of respect towards religious figures.”

Snellan thought the producers specifically chose “fringy” people to make a point.

“It was definitely set up in a way to reflect [...] the liberal side of things because the crowd of young people really does not reflect young people at large,” he said. “It was a really targeted audience. And so just by putting all those people together, there’s something that the director was trying to prove. I think the Pope actually handled it well. So the way I look at the entire film, really, is that the Pope just speaks to broken people.”

The choice of setting and participants raises questions about the editorial process and producers’ motives in making the documentary, said Diego, 29, a lawyer from the Midwest who requested anonymity due to his profession. 

“Unless they told me that, no, it’s totally complete, there was nothing edited out — but I can’t be sure of that,” he said. “So the specific example I noticed was, [the Pope] didn’t mention God, Christ, the Virgin Mary, sin, grace or repentance once. Either he’s like this, or the directors on purpose and intentionally edited those moments out of the interview.”


Go Forth

The film raised questions in all the viewers about how they should dialogue with the secular culture. Some said they would strive to follow the Pope’s example of gentle dialogue with a hostile culture, while others, specifically Diego and Brown, weren’t convinced that it was effective.

“He was giving answers that were correct, but you can tell [...] that they didn’t leave the interview having an appreciation for why, for example, there is a male-only priesthood,” Diego said.

“I go back and forth, watching this, with the Church’s role in being a witness to people, but also, I don’t think that we necessarily have to dialogue with people who are blatantly against our mission,” Brown said. “Christ was a divisive figure. People hated him, and people will hate us, and so I don’t know that it’s necessarily the Church’s job to be everything for everyone.”

But in expressing his support for the Pope’s approach, Arnold echoed some of the last words in the Code of Canon Law: salus animarum suprema lex, “the salvation of souls is the supreme law of the Church.”

“Catholics need to have [Pope Francis’] kind of compassion, and they need to have this kind of balance if they want to actually evangelize people and get people to the place where they can come into full communion with the Church. That’s the goal.”