The recent interview granted by Pope Francis to Mexican television generated news for what he said about Theodore McCarrick and the present unpleasantness. The mere fact that the interview took place was not, however, newsworthy. Papal interviews are now quantitatively ordinary. There is another shift too, a qualitative one. They are marked by an increasingly worldly ethos; the unique papal voice has now become more like any number of worldly voices.
Well into the pontificate of St John XXIII the principal Vatican communications organ, L’Osservatore Romano, would report that one or another official statement had been “gathered from the august lips of the Supreme Pontiff”. Papal communication began to loosen under St Paul VI, with an increasing number of audiences, and homilies and addresses that occasionally included extemporaneous remarks.
As with the phenomenon of papal travel, St John Paul II took Paul VI’s lead and greatly extended it. He spoke openly with reporters, answering their questions in an impromptu press conference in the first days after his election. He started mixing with reporters on papal flights, though generally he exchanged greetings and a few general comments on the outbound flights. In 1994 came Crossing the Threshold of Hope, an interview book with Vittorio Messori which became an international publishing sensation.
Benedict XVI pushed the boundaries even further. While John Paul’s book consisted of written responses to written questions, Benedict’s 2010 Light of the World was another papal first – he answered questions viva voce for six hours, and the interview was published. Benedict continued the airborne meetings with journalists, but now they were true press conferences, with the Holy Father responding to questions on a range of subjects.
It was under Benedict that a qualitative shift took place. John Paul was largely asked broad, thematic questions, often with a theological basis. With Benedict – in continuation with the three interview books he did while prefect of the doctrine of the faith – specific decisions were examined, and comment was passed on a wide range of practical applications. In Light of the World, for example, Benedict is questioned about the Bishop Williamson affair in detail. In Last Testament, his post-papal interview book, he gives a commentary on and defence of his papacy, including an assessment of his secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
Pope Francis has given dozens of press interviews, and the airborne press conferences have had pontificate-shaping impact. The “Be not afraid” equivalent of this pontificate – “Who am I to judge?” – was delivered on the Holy Father’s first trip, at the end of an airborne press conference that lasted more than an hour.
The frequency and length of Pope Francis’s interviews – he has done three interview books in six years – have meant not only a quantitative decline in the attention given to them, but also accelerated the qualitative change that took place under Benedict.
The recent interview with Valentina Alazraki, Vatican correspondent for Mexico’s Televisa since 1974, was a very worldly affair. Theological and spiritual matters were secondary. This was not a wise pastor sharing his wisdom about the broad sweep of history; it was more like a senior cabinet minister defending his record, as Alazraki moved from one controversy to another, inviting Francis to make a defence of his record.
Consider the topics listed in the Vatican News summary of the Televisa interview: border controls, youth, violence against women, media relations, McCarrick, the Viganò affair, migrants and refugees, abortion, foreign policy, irregular marriages and homosexuality. The focus was on papal decisions and policy advocacy. It was a thoroughgoing worldly affair.
A good part of the credit or blame for this qualitative shift lies with Benedict. In five interview books over his long Roman years and his airborne press conferences, he would take questions on any and all subjects. He even replaced St John Paul II’s custom of writing Holy Thursday letters to priests with a Q&A session with the priests of Rome at the beginning of Lent.
But Ratzinger/Benedict is utterly singular, in both his capacity to answer extemporaneously in complete and elegant thoughts and to put things in their proper theological context. It is far more common for bishops and priests in such situations to ramble and stumble, struggling to be articulate and coherent, let alone erudite.
Benedict’s example is not a model for others to follow. And when it comes to papal interviews, it is now clear that less – much less – would definitely be more.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca