On the flight to Rio, Pope Francis walked down to the press section to give a few cursory remarks to journalists. “It’s true I don’t give interviews,” he said, explaining his decision to break with Benedict XVI’s custom of holding in-flight press conferences. “I just can’t. It’s tiresome.”
You can imagine his advisers’ surprise, then, when he told them on the trip back from Rio that he intended to walk back down the plane and hold a press conference. His aides reportedly advised him against it. But he went ahead anyway.
What followed was one of the most remarkable media encounters in papal history. For 80 minutes Francis took questions from all quarters, answering with a candour that would be startling in a bishop, let alone the Pope. Everything he said was on the record, even his comments about the alleged immoral behaviour of a Vatican official and the case of an Italian monsignor who is currently in jail awaiting trial. Media interest inevitably focused on homosexuality and women’s ordination. But, in truth, almost everything Pope Francis said was newsworthy, from his love of Benedict XVI (“it’s like having your grandpa at home”), to his uncertainty about the future of the Vatican bank, to his belief that “having a bishop behind bulletproof glass is crazy”, to his frank assessment that “I haven’t done a lot yet”.
It hardly needs to be said that Francis did not change Catholic teaching on homosexuality. An in-flight press conference, after all, is hardly a vehicle for authoritative teaching. But what the Pope says – and how he says it – sets the tone for the worldwide Church.
What is most striking about the Holy Father’s now famous comment – “Who am I to judge them if they’re seeking the Lord in good faith?” – is how evangelical it is. It is implicitly encouraging gay people to walk the path of holiness that leads to union with God. In other words, he is saying that the Church has a vision for gay men that extends far beyond the condemnation of particular sexual acts. It is a vision whose goal is nothing less than heaven.
When the Pope says “Who I am to judge?” he is not suggesting there are no objective moral norms, but rather that we cannot read others’ hearts and minds, and therefore are in no position to make definitive judgments. We can deduce from his remarks that he wants the Church worldwide to take an evangelical approach to gay people, to invite them to hear the universal call to holiness amid the din of our hedonistic culture. He also wants Catholics to refrain from making judgments about individual gay people, to treat them as “our brothers” and accompany them on the long and, at times, arduous journey to the Lord.
Francis’s comments about women in the Church have a similar intent: he wants to help us lift up our eyes, which are often focused narrowly on prohibitions, and see the wider picture. While he noted that the Church is unable to ordain women as priests, he said that “the Church herself is feminine”. A Church in which “the Madonna is more important than the Apostles” cannot but treat women with reverence and be constantly enriched by the deep reservoirs of their spirituality.
The extreme candour that Francis displayed at his press conference may be unnerving for Catholics who prefer a more reserved papal style. But it is perhaps fitting for a century in which the distinction between the public and the private is being steadily eroded. Pope Francis spoke to the media on Monday with a transparency and unguardedness rarely seen among Church leaders. He was taking a great, but calculated risk, in order to challenge the secrecy and defensiveness that have caused so much harm to the Church’s mission.