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Does Pope Francis have a cunning plan?

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THE POPE: May be opting to play liberal media on their own turf

THE POPE: May be opting to play liberal media on their own turf

THE POPE: May be opting to play liberal media on their own turf

Some people talk about Pope Francis — some in admiration, some not — as though he is not a Catholic at all, but a liberal interloper determined to dismantle some of the key moral teachings of the church. A disconsolate conservative rump regards him as a dangerous showman, indifferent to the consequences of unwarranted loose talking, prepared to sell out on the truth for an easy popularity.

More than a few in the church are confused, but remain loyal and obedient because the pope is given to them by the Holy Spirit. There are others who see him as the pontiff with the cunning plan, the purveyor of a constructive ambiguity designed to throw the enemies of the church off guard.

Within a few weeks of his election, he started saying things that appeared to throw open the Church’s position on hot-button issues like homosexuality, abortion, women priests and clerical celibacy. These statements, together with what is interpreted as a left-leaning position on economics, have turned Pope Francis into the darling of the liberal media and the new white hope of ‘progressive’ Catholics. Pope Francis, who insists that he is ‘a son of the Church’, attracts vast crowds whenever he appears, and is described as ‘a breath of fresh air’ even by agnostic journalists who hitherto had nothing but ill to say of the Vatican and all belonging to it. Already, by all accounts, there’s a steady flow of lapsed Catholics back to the pews and the sacraments.

It’s interesting that, invariably, this pope’s most talked-about observations have occurred in off-the-cuff comments or interviews, rather than formal speeches or prepared statements in the manner of his predecessors. For the most part, he has limited himself to interviews with Italian periodicals, which is a little odd for the leader of a global church. (Pope Francis speaks very little English, but is fluent in both Italian and Spanish.) In several of the most headline-grabbing interviews, his interlocutor was the same Italian journalist, Eugenio Scalfari, the 90-year-old co-founder of the leading socialist newspaper La Repubblica.

Last week, Pope Francis was making headlines again as the result of comments in yet another interview with Scalfari, this time about clerical celibacy and the child-abuse scandals. The Pope spoke of child abuse as “a leprosy in our house” and cited internal church statistics which place the proportion of paedophiles among Catholic clergy at two per cent. He announced his intention to confront the issue “with the severity it requires”.

Translations of the article suggested also that the Pope recalled that celibacy was adopted 900 years after the death of Jesus and pointed out that the Eastern Church allows its priests to marry. “There definitely is a problem, but it is not a major one,” he was reported as saying. “This needs time, but there are solutions and I will find them.”

Once more, Pope Francis made world headlines. In countless reports on the interview worldwide, links were made between this latest statement on celibacy and earlier ruminations on homosexuality, abortion and other controversial matters. If the Pope had been aiming to keep the pot boiling, he can certainly be said to have succeeded.

Eugenio Scalfari is an atheist, the elder statesman of Italian liberal journalism. This in itself prompts an interesting question: why does the Pope repeatedly opt to speak through someone who has made no secret of his personal unbelief, who has a limited grasp of the nuances of Catholic theology and who is attached to a newspaper espousing a strong ideological antagonism towards the Church?

Even more interesting is that Scalfari has used neither a notebook nor a tape recorder in any of the three interviews he’s conducted with Pope Francis. Apparently, in accordance with the Pope’s wishes, the interviews have been written on the basis of Scalfari’s recollections of their lengthy conversations. It seems an unnecessarily hazardous method — unless the resulting ambiguity and potential for confusion are risks Pope Francis is not entirely unhappy to take.

Up to the point when he became pope, nothing he had said suggested Cardinal Bergoglio as a ‘progressive’. On the contrary, he had long been at war with politicians in his native Argentina over their determination to liberalise laws to provide for abortion and gay marriage. For reasons of ideology and commercial advantage, it has suited the media to present Pope Francis as offering, in effect, the ‘watered down, appeasing Christianity’ his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, frequently warned against. The longer the pattern has continued, however, there has been a growing basis for believing that the Pope himself sees an advantage in exploiting the media’s need for arresting headlines. One theory is that, painfully aware of the manner in which virtually every intervention of his predecessor was manipulated and distorted, Pope Francis elects to play the liberal media on their own turf, leaving faint, ambiguous tracks which can be revisited later on — thus inveigling journalists to change their attitudes and agendas while in reality offering little but seductive pieces of bait.

This time, surprisingly, the Vatican sought to intervene to insist that the Pope had been incorrectly quoted.  Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the reports on the possibility of priests being allowed to marry did not correspond to what the Pope actually said. Although commending Scalfari for “bringing out the sense and spirit of the conversation,” Lombardi also accused La Repubblica of “manipulating ingenuous readers”.

He said that the published interview was not a proper or accurate transcript and wondered aloud if the problem was ‘forgetfulness’ or something else. However, he did not say what aspects of the reported comments about celibacy were incorrect or inaccurate.

What the Pope was reported as saying is factually correct: celibacy is not a doctrinal matter — merely a church rule — and can be changed by the application of a prescribed process. Indeed, the indications are that, given the precarious position relating to vocations to the priesthood, the rule will be changed sooner rather than later. The Pope’s reported remarks also indicated what could be seen as a plausible and coherent development in his thinking. Only a year before he became pope, Cardinal Bergoglio wrote: “For the moment, I’m in favour of maintaining celibacy, with its pros and cons, because there have been 10 centuries of good experiences rather than failures... But it is a question of discipline, not faith, and it could change.”

The mystery here is why the Vatican chose to intervene to correct the impression conveyed on what is perhaps one of the least contentious of the controversial ‘moral’ issues facing the Church, having maintained silence in the wake of radical misinterpretations of comments by

the Pope on far more controversial issues, including homosexuality and gay marriage.

A key to understanding Pope Francis may be the fact that he has long been an admirer of Father Luigi Giussani, the founder of the Catholic movement Communion and Liberation, who denounced traditional moralism as ‘idolatry’, warning that the obsession with certain issues was detrimental to a true understanding of Christianity.

Certainly, it seems clear from a closer observation of his statements that the Pope’s statements on moral issues are intended less as a manifesto for changing the Church’s teachings than a call for a restoration of perspective with regard to the core meanings and concerns of Christianity.

In an interview with La Civilta Cattolica last year, Pope Francis voiced his impatience with the identification of Catholicism solely with certain ‘moral’ issues, to the detriment of ‘essential’ elements. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods”, he said.

“The dogmatic and moral teachings of the Church are not all equivalent. The Church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.

“Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus.

“We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”

Some people talk about Pope Francis — some in admiration, some not — as though he is not a Catholic at all, but a liberal interloper determined to dismantle some of the key moral teachings of the church. A disconsolate conservative rump regards him as a dangerous showman, indifferent to the consequences of unwarranted loose talking, prepared to sell out on the truth for an easy popularity.

More than a few in the church are confused, but remain loyal and obedient because the pope is given to them by the Holy Spirit. There are others who see him as the pontiff with the cunning plan, the purveyor of a constructive ambiguity designed to throw the enemies of the church off guard.

Within a few weeks of his election, he started saying things that appeared to throw open the Church’s position on hot-button issues like homosexuality, abortion, women priests and clerical celibacy. These statements, together with what is interpreted as a left-leaning position on economics, have turned Pope Francis into the darling of the liberal media and the new white hope of ‘progressive’ Catholics. Pope Francis, who insists that he is ‘a son of the Church’, attracts vast crowds whenever he appears, and is described as ‘a breath of fresh air’ even by agnostic journalists who hitherto had nothing but ill to say of the Vatican and all belonging to it. Already, by all accounts, there’s a steady flow of lapsed Catholics back to the pews and the sacraments.

It’s interesting that, invariably, this pope’s most talked-about observations have occurred in off-the-cuff comments or interviews, rather than formal speeches or prepared statements in the manner of his predecessors. For the most part, he has limited himself to interviews with Italian periodicals, which is a little odd for the leader of a global church. (Pope Francis speaks very little English, but is fluent in both Italian and Spanish.) In several of the most headline-grabbing interviews, his interlocutor was the same Italian journalist, Eugenio Scalfari, the 90-year-old co-founder of the leading socialist newspaper La Repubblica.

Last week, Pope Francis was making headlines again as the result of comments in yet another interview with Scalfari, this time about clerical celibacy and the child-abuse scandals. The Pope spoke of child abuse as “a leprosy in our house” and cited internal church statistics which place the proportion of paedophiles among Catholic clergy at two per cent. He announced his intention to confront the issue “with the severity it requires”.

Translations of the article suggested also that the Pope recalled that celibacy was adopted 900 years after the death of Jesus and pointed out that the Eastern Church allows its priests to marry. “There definitely is a problem, but it is not a major one,” he was reported as saying. “This needs time, but there are solutions and I will find them.”

Once more, Pope Francis made world headlines. In countless reports on the interview worldwide, links were made between this latest statement on celibacy and earlier ruminations on homosexuality, abortion and other controversial matters. If the Pope had been aiming to keep the pot boiling, he can certainly be said to have succeeded.

Eugenio Scalfari is an atheist, the elder statesman of Italian liberal journalism. This in itself prompts an interesting question: why does the Pope repeatedly opt to speak through someone who has made no secret of his personal unbelief, who has a limited grasp of the nuances of Catholic theology and who is attached to a newspaper espousing a strong ideological antagonism towards the Church?

Even more interesting is that Scalfari has used neither a notebook nor a tape recorder in any of the three interviews he’s conducted with Pope Francis. Apparently, in accordance with the Pope’s wishes, the interviews have been written on the basis of Scalfari’s recollections of their lengthy conversations. It seems an unnecessarily hazardous method — unless the resulting ambiguity and potential for confusion are risks Pope Francis is not entirely unhappy to take.

Up to the point when he became pope, nothing he had said suggested Cardinal Bergoglio as a ‘progressive’. On the contrary, he had long been at war with politicians in his native Argentina over their determination to liberalise laws to provide for abortion and gay marriage. For reasons of ideology and commercial advantage, it has suited the media to present Pope Francis as offering, in effect, the ‘watered down, appeasing Christianity’ his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, frequently warned against. The longer the pattern has continued, however, there has been a growing basis for believing that the Pope himself sees an advantage in exploiting the media’s need for arresting headlines. One theory is that, painfully aware of the manner in which virtually every intervention of his predecessor was manipulated and distorted, Pope Francis elects to play the liberal media on their own turf, leaving faint, ambiguous tracks which can be revisited later on — thus inveigling journalists to change their attitudes and agendas while in reality offering little but seductive pieces of bait.

This time, surprisingly, the Vatican sought to intervene to insist that the Pope had been incorrectly quoted.  Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the reports on the possibility of priests being allowed to marry did not correspond to what the Pope actually said. Although commending Scalfari for “bringing out the sense and spirit of the conversation,” Lombardi also accused La Repubblica of “manipulating ingenuous readers”.

He said that the published interview was not a proper or accurate transcript and wondered aloud if the problem was ‘forgetfulness’ or something else. However, he did not say what aspects of the reported comments about celibacy were incorrect or inaccurate.

What the Pope was reported as saying is factually correct: celibacy is not a doctrinal matter — merely a church rule — and can be changed by the application of a prescribed process. Indeed, the indications are that, given the precarious position relating to vocations to the priesthood, the rule will be changed sooner rather than later. The Pope’s reported remarks also indicated what could be seen as a plausible and coherent development in his thinking. Only a year before he became pope, Cardinal Bergoglio wrote: “For the moment, I’m in favour of maintaining celibacy, with its pros and cons, because there have been 10 centuries of good experiences rather than failures... But it is a question of discipline, not faith, and it could change.”

The mystery here is why the Vatican chose to intervene to correct the impression conveyed on what is perhaps one of the least contentious of the controversial ‘moral’ issues facing the Church, having maintained silence in the wake of radical misinterpretations of comments by the Pope on far more controversial issues, including homosexuality and gay marriage.

A key to understanding Pope Francis may be the fact that he has long been an admirer of Father Luigi Giussani, the founder of the Catholic movement Communion and Liberation, who denounced traditional moralism as ‘idolatry’, warning that the obsession with certain issues was detrimental to a true understanding of Christianity.

Certainly, it seems clear from a closer observation of his statements that the Pope’s statements on moral issues are intended less as a manifesto for changing the Church’s teachings than a call for a restoration of perspective with regard to the core meanings and concerns of Christianity.

In an interview with La Civilta Cattolica last year, Pope Francis voiced his impatience with the identification of Catholicism solely with certain ‘moral’ issues, to the detriment of ‘essential’ elements. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods”, he said.

“The dogmatic and moral teachings of the Church are not all equivalent. The Church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.

“Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus.

“We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”

Online Editors