News Analysis

The Pope’s in-flight press conference didn’t get the attention it deserved

When it comes to news from the Pope’s in-flight press conference en route to Rome from Panama last week, his discussion of the “inflated expectations” for the upcoming child protection summit rightly garnered the lion’s share of attention. Those remarks were always going to grab the headlines, though they weren’t the only newsworthy things Pope Francis said during his exchange with reporters.

His remarks regarding current clerical discipline in the Latin Church also made news. Basically, Francis says he is personally opposed to a change to the discipline of priestly celibacy, but he is not sure whether “exceptions” could be justified. In short: reform of the discipline is on the table.

One noteworthy titbit from the Pope’s exchange on the subject was his reference to Anglicanorum coetibus, the 2009 apostolic constitution providing personal ordinariates for groups of Anglicans entering the Catholic Church. Paris Match journalist Caroline Pigozzi asked him a follow-up about Protestant clerics who convert to Catholicism and receive Catholic Orders. “You ask me a question about that which Benedict did, that it is true, I had forgotten this,” Francis responded. “Benedict XVI made the Anglicanorum coetibus,” he continued. Francis’s next remark was interesting, too. “Anglican priests who have become Catholic,” Pope Francis said, “maintain the life an Eastern priest would.” (A confusing sentence. Latin canonical discipline, spirituality and life where the rubber meets the road, are all very much different from those of the East.)

Then, there was his remark about hypocritical Catholics being chiefly responsible for alienating young people from the faith.

Javier Martinez of Rome Reports asked Pope Francis, “[W]hat are the reasons that drive [young people] away from the Church?” After discussing the lack of authentic witness to the faith from pastors, Francis said: “I emphasised pastors, but also Christians, hypocritical Catholics, right? Hypocritical Catholics, you know? They go to Mass every Sunday, but they don’t pay a bonus and they pay you under the table, using people, then they go to the Caribbean on vacation all through the exploitation of people. ‘But I’m a Catholic, I go to Mass every Sunday.’ If you do that, you give a counter-witness. This, in my opinion, alienates people from the Church the most.”

Francis isn’t wrong – that’s not it – but the line is one we’ve heard before. Frankly, when it comes to the baleful effects of counter-witness to the Gospel when Catholic social doctrine is flouted, one wonders how prudent it is for Catholic hierarchs to be casting stones. Truth-telling is the foundation on which all social commerce rests, and there is the challenge for the bishops these days.

On the broad point, the fact is that young people need a challenge: the promise of ad­venture, and the means to find it in the hum­drum of existence. Francis had the measure of it when he told young people at the World Youth Day Vigil in Panama: “Saying ‘yes’ to the Lord means preparing to embrace life as it comes, with all its fragility, its simplicity, and often enough too, with its conflicts and annoyances.”

During his airborne press conference, Pope Francis offered an unsolicited expression of antipathy for the word “balance” in foreign affairs. “I don’t like the word ‘balanced’,” he said, in response to a question about the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. The country is reported to be on the verge of collapse, despite international mediation efforts in which the Holy See has also played a part. “I have to be a shepherd, to all,” the Pope explained.

The expression raised some eyebrows, but the Catholic News Agency’s Andrea Gagliarducci – an authority on the Holy See’s diplomatic activity – told the Catholic Herald that the Pope’s remarks are of a piece with the Vatican’s vision and methods for conflict resolution and peace-building.

“[W]hen it acts as an observer, the Holy See can always count on the bishops on the ground, who work along with diplomacy, and on faith based organisations, which actually help fostering dialogue and reconciliation.”

The Holy See, in other words, maintains relations with governments and cultivates relationships with local actors at all times, standing ready to help when and where it receives a request from all parties to a conflict. The Holy See conceives its mediation role not as one of achieving equilibrium in power dynamics, but of facilitating the kind of conversation that can look past narrow interests – however legitimate – and see the common good.

Before the abuse crisis reignited last year, any one of those stories would have led the news. The celibacy re­marks captured column inches, to be sure, but they would have held headlines and driven copy for days in the secular press and possibly for weeks in Catholic media. That was then.

Pope Francis, in fact, threw all three stories – clerical celibacy, the hypocrisy of moneyed elites and commitment to expansive diplomatic vision – to journalists in one go, and all together they didn’t get half the attention his remarks on the abuse crisis garnered. This is now.