The latest exclusive papal interview published in the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica and in translation by 16 other Jesuit publications around the world, resembles the interview on the papal plane returning from the Rio de Janeiro World Youth Days. In both cases the pope fielded a wide range of questions and spoke extensively; 10,000 words on the plane and 12,000 for the Jesuit periodicals. Similarly, abortion and homosexuality were only addressed in a few words in each. This briefest of papal messages was, however, strikingly in the same vein.
He replied thus on the plane to a Brazilian journalist who asked why he had not spoken about abortion or same-sex marriage in Brazil?: “The Church has already spoken quite clearly on this. It was unnecessary to return to it, just as I didn’t speak about cheating, lying, or other matters on which the Church has a clear teaching!” When Patricia Zorzan followed up saying, “But the young are interested in this” he answered: “Yes, though it wasn’t necessary to speak of it, but rather of the positive things that open up the path to young people. Isn’t that right! Besides, young people know perfectly well what the Church’s position is.” She even followed up a second time: “What is Your Holiness’ position, if we may ask?” “The position of the Church. I am a son of the Church.”
To Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, Pope Francis said: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”
In both cases the Holy Father affirms that the Church’s teaching is clear and that he is a son of the Church, but he is averse to speaking often about them. Despite both these interviews having a “speaking off the cuff” feel to them, the latest one was the fruit of three sessions that each went on for several hours. He was then given the opportunity to read over the text and approved it for publication. Pope Francis really seems to want to talk less about issues like abortion, homosexuality and contraception and more about other topics like the infinite mercy of God.
That may be what he intended, but it was not the result. Headlines around the world, but especially in the USA, trumpeted variations on the theme chosen by the New York Times: “Pope Says Church Is ‘Obsessed’ With Gays, Abortion and Birth Control.” It is interesting to note, however, that the European press generally had a much less radical take on the papal interview. In Italy, where the original language text was published, journalists emphasized other aspects like the “I am a sinner” affirmation of the pope or spoke about mercy or “openness” on the issues of abortion, homosexuality and divorce. France’s largest newspaper, Le Figaro, posed some thoughtful questions about what the interview means for Catholic moral teaching and Traditionalists as well as wondering if it was not meant primarily for a Jesuit audience rather than for the Church at large. The BBC, as one might expect, simply parroted the North American mainstream media line with a British accent.
Reactions from Catholic apologists and pro-life leaders were mixed. Jimmy Akin of Catholic Answers said: “Pope Francis’ strategy of focusing on the Church’s central message of salvation in Christ, while not devoting the expected amount of attention to “culture war” issues—like abortion, homosexuality and contraception—is a risky one.” Canadian John-Henry Westen of Lifesitenews drew a sharp contrast between Pope Francis’ remarks and those of his two predecessors. Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life wrote a largely positive column entitled: “Pope Francis Has Not Diluted the Pro-Life Teachings of the Catholic Church.”
Many rank and file pro-life people expressed their bewilderment on websites. Few could have previously imagined a scenario where pro-abortion zealots NARAL would pull a publicity stunt by expressing an enormous “Thank You” to a Holy Father. Catholic pro-lifers and marriage defenders might be excused for feeling that this pope is going after the lost sheep and telling the faithful ones they should not expect more than minimal support while he is on this mission. It is not an easy message to hear from one’s shepherd when faced with tremendous obstacles and slandered by the world while seeing the “wolves” running wild.
This is why it was so important that the very next day after the media frenzy on the papal endorsement of speaking less about abortion and homosexuality Pope Francis gave an enthusiastically pro-life address to the annual meeting of the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations. He stated: “Every unborn child, condemned unjustly to being aborted, has the face of the Lord, who before being born, and then when he was just born, experienced the rejection of the world.” Pope Francis condemned a “throw away culture” that does not respect every human life as priceless and endowed with special dignity. The Holy Father was encouraging the troops, Catholic doctors in this case, showing that he not only accepts the Church’s teaching on the right to life but strongly endorses it.
Pope Francis has a popular style following on the heels of a great theologian who found it difficult to stand in the glare of the media. It is rather curious that the first Jesuit pope is not primarily an intellectual but a pastor. He has made a point in his young papacy to concentrate on a broad message of evangelization placing the accent on “mere Catholicism” to paraphrase C.S. Lewis. Among his favorite themes are the centrality of Christ as Savior and devotion to Our Lady and special appreciation for the virtue of humility and healing the wounds of the poor and sinners. A traditional image he uses to describe his approach is seeing the Church as a field hospital for sinners.
The interview he gave to Fr. Spadaro fits this papal program, although the distorted media reaction to it around the world was nothing short of extraordinary. Pope Francis has consistently demonstrated a gift for generating enormous interest and enthusiasm, as opposed to comprehension of his message, among secular elites. Pope Benedict XVI and Blessed John Paul II were attacked and vilified consistently throughout their papacies when they spoke of a culture of death. Francis has enjoyed an unusually long “honeymoon” of praise and benevolent attitudes from quarters that rarely have a kind word for the Church despite his new pro-life catch phrase of a “throw away culture.” Part of this is certainly due to his general de-emphasis of hot button issues and humble tone. It is also clear that some secular groups are reading a great deal into his words and deforming his message. Sadly, caricatures of Church teaching are more widely “known” among the general public than the true Magisterium of the Catholic Church. The challenge for Pope Francis may be not only to reach out successfully with a strong Catholic appeal to those who are very far from Christ but to also encourage the faithful in the trenches of the culture war at the same time.