Understanding Pope Francis – Pope Francis not the first to speak his mind


Because Pope Francis’ recent comments in two interviews (with Eugenio Scalfari of La Repubblica and Antonio Spadaro, S.J. of La Civilta Cattolica, also published in America magazine) have garnered a lot of interest, theologians have been discussing the implications of both the content and genre of these conversations. Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi has pointed out that, due to the increasing crush of traditional and social media demands on public figures, such discussions represent “a new genre of papal speech that’s deliberately informal and not concerned with precision.” It also brings to mind the now famous in-flight “Who am I to judge?” comment made by the pope concerning homosexuality.
However, Francis is not the first pontiff to speak his mind in interview format. While Pius XII and John XXIII did meet with the rapidly developing reality of the media throughout their reigns, the real trailblazing in this area undoubtedly took place in John Paul II’s book-length interviews, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope and Memory and Identity.” Joseph Ratzinger continued this tradition, and did not cease publishing interviews when he moved from cardinal to pope, continuing to give access and permission for Peter Seewald to publish their conversations in “Light of the World.” Closely tied to this are Benedict’s “Jesus of Nazareth” volumes, where he makes explicitly clear that he is writing as a private theologian expressing his opinion and in dialogue with other scholars, and not as the pastor of the universal church and voice of the official magisterium.
My friend and colleague Dr. Patrick Clark recently shared the following reaction with me to the frenzy over Francis’ interviews and sometimes off-the-cuff responses to questions:
“Is it necessarily an abdication of the responsibilities of the papal office to employ a vehicle of communicating with the world that is ‘deliberately informal and not concerned with precision’?
“OK, granted: a lack of precision in itself is never good, but does it necessarily devalue the status of official magisterial teaching for the pope to share personal encounters with the world of the sort that preclude full theological explanations? Cannot such encounters co-exist with and perhaps even complement the usual times and places where a pope teaches in a more formal and precise mode?
“As I mentioned, the genre of the personal interview has been well established in modern times. Their chief value, in my view, is that they give us a clear glimpse of who the pope is as a person. One of the main responsibilities of the vicar of Christ, after all, is to offer a model of personal holiness to the faithful. Given the capacity of modern communications to mediate this witness, why should the pope not offer it in a way that shows him for who he really is as a person?”
I wholeheartedly agree with his assessment. While we theologians love encyclicals and apostolic exhortations and certainly find value in buttressing our faith with careful readings of texts and philosophical arguments, perhaps much of the Instagram generation needs a new form of presentation through which the church’s teachings are broken open for them, so that their hearts can be set aflame, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus.
If these interviews and asides are somehow drawing previously disinterested persons into at least investigating an encounter with Christ, there is certainly value in them, despite their inherent risks and generalities.

Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., of Collingswood, is a Research Associate at Durham University’s Centre for Catholic Studies in Northeast England.