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Are the Holy Father’s informal and often confusing methods of communication undermining the teaching authority of his office? Is a period of papal reserve now overdue?

Pope Francis is popular with the secular media because they think he’s about to abandon the disciplines of the Church; and they have built him up by denigrating Benedict XVI

By on Thursday, 5 June 2014

Pope Francis (CNS)

Pope Francis (CNS)

About a year ago, and thus in the early months of Pope Francis’s pontificate, Damian Thompson wrote a Daily Telegraph blogpost headlined “Meet Francis, the Chatterbox Pope”. “This new pontiff”, he noted, “is a media-savvy charmer in a way that none of his predecessors have been. Seriously, he could give Bill Clinton lessons in how to work a crowd.” He was by no means unsympathetic to this; but already there are signs of uncertainty. “His morning sermons are often extemporised”, he went on [are they still? We haven’t heard about them lately] “accompanied by shrugs worthy of a harassed maître d’ and “huh?” noises that the Vatican press office has given up trying to render into English. All very sweet – but what do we really know about Francis’s views? Well, he’s not a traditionalist like his predecessor, Benedict XVI. Indeed, he’s positively anti-traditionalist, not aggressively so, but in an I-can’t-be-doing-with-all-that-fussy-nonsense kind of way.”

Was “Francis the Chatterbox Pope” a recipe for disaster? Damian didn’t think so. “He won’t undo the work of the great Benedict: it would create too much ill-feeling and, at 76, he doesn’t have time. Yes, there will be gaffes, possibly so many that we stop worrying about them. But if you listen to the Pope’s improvised talks, you quickly realise that his central focus never shifts. Follow Jesus by helping the poor. Beware of the Devil, who wants you to spend all day distracting yourself with little treats. … Jorge Bergoglio has a gift that eludes the boring, risk-averse platitude merchants who have captured the machinery of most Catholic and Anglican dioceses. He relaxes you with his smiles and shrugging, and then tweaks your conscience so hard that you wince in pain.”

So far, so good. And I think that most of us agreed with that assessment then and still do. But not everyone: too many don’t. I have written blog after blog explaining that there is nothing to be worried about, that the liberals who were so pleased because they thought his relaxed manner showed he was a liberal like them were deluded, that actually he was as concerned as Benedict to defend the teachings of the Church, but he wasn’t going to do the job of the cardinal prefect of the CDF for him: his focus would be pastoral not dogmatic, but he would not be weakening the Magisterium he inherited.

I still think so. All the same, I note that Fr Z’s blog, which he renamed “Reading Francis through Benedict”, has now been once more renamed; now it’s simply “Fr Z’s blog”: is that because he no longer thinks that you can read Francis through Benedict, that this Pope can no longer be perceived as believing mainstream Ratzingerian Catholicism, though propagating it in his own relaxed way? Well, no it doesn’t actually. Fr Z, of the Pope’s latest airborne Press conference, notes that when Francis was asked what the forthcoming synod on the family would say about communion for the divorced and remarried, he was displeased, and made it clear that “I don’t like [it] that many people – even in the Church – priests – have said: “Ah, the Synod for giving Communion to the divorced”, and they’ve gone right there, to that point…. No, the matter is more than this, it is wider. Today, everyone knows it, the family is in crisis: it is in a global crisis.”

That’s what the synod is about: the crisis of the family. And no radical changes over who may receive Holy Communion, I predict, will emerge from it. The Pope made it clear that his own thinking on giving Communion to the divorced had been guided by Benedict XVI, that what “Pope Benedict said three times about the divorced has helped me a lot. Once, in the Valle d’Aosta, another time in Milan, and the last time in the public consistory which he held for the creation of cardinals: to study the procedures for matrimonial nullity; to study the faith with which a person comes to matrimony and to clarify that the divorced are not excommunicated, and so many times they are treated as excommunicated. And this is a serious thing.” As Fr Z points out, “he was clearly prepared for this question, because he worked in that his (still living) predecessor treated the issue three times and even said where. He was telling the newsies to look up what Benedict XVI said.”

All the same, I have a growing feeling that those Press conferences, and much else that looks on the face of it like inspired communication with the modern world, may be beginning to cause problems. Pope Francis conducts his press conferences in what is (according to Fr Z) not very good Italian; and secular journalists are not in any case good at understanding theologically based answers: this is not necessarily good communication. I note that another orthodox priest who admires Pope Francis, Fr Dwight Longenecker, is beginning to ask uneasy questions about Pope Francis’s grasp of the papal office:

In almost every impromptu press conference, personal phone call, informal conversation, and unscheduled event the Pope’s candid and relaxed style has caused confusion, consternation, and bewilderment among the faithful. … such an informal and often ambiguous method of communication cannot help but erode the more solemn teaching authority of the papacy….

I am a supporter of Pope Francis and admire his sacrificial life, his prophetic example, and his desire to bring the gospel to all. His popularity and presence is a great gift to the church. However, his informal style needs to be checked in order not to erode the authority of his office.

I think that Fr Dwight is right, and that a period of reserve would now be a good thing. There needs to be less, not more, spontaneous papal activity. Especially on the phone. In the words of a recent headline from Damian Thompson, “Should chatterbox Pope Francis think twice before ringing Catholics out of the blue?” He was referring to the case of a woman from Argentina living in a civil union with a divorced man. The couple have two children. The woman is, for obvious reasons, refused Holy Communion in her parish. She wrote to pope Francis to ask if she could be readmitted to the sacraments. The couple claim that the Pope rang, introducing himself as “Father Bergoglio”, and after a 10-minute chat said she could “safely” receive Communion. Her partner then leaked these details on Facebook.

The fact is that we don’t actually know what the Pope said: we only have the couple’s word for it that he said what they wanted to hear. But the fact that he made the call at all, privately and unmonitored, was bound to put him and his office in danger.

The trouble with all these spontaneous initiatives is that they foster the idea that the Pope is getting ready not just for much-needed reform but also for substantial changes in papal teaching. And that, it has to be faced, is one reason he is so popular with the secular world. This is not good. In Fr Dwight’s words, such initiatives “cannot help but erode the more solemn teaching authority of the papacy”.

“He won’t undo the work of the great Benedict: it would create too much ill-feeling”, said Damian a year ago. But would it actually create ill feeling now? The secular media’s build-up of Pope’s Francis’s popularity has been partly based on his real qualities of human warmth and responsiveness but partly also on media denigration of his predecessor, with its suggestion that Francis is tacitly rejecting Benedict’s allegedly cold and inhumane legacy.

One effect all this is having on me, I fear, is that I am beginning to feel increasingly nostalgic for the pontificate of Pope Benedict. I know I’ve said this before, but things aren’t getting any better: when someone refers to “the Pope”, that’s who I still think of. Ah, me; happy days.