ROME, October 3, 2013 (LifeSiteNews.com) – I don’t know if I’m the only one to have noticed, but there seems to be something strange going on in the Vatican. No, I’m not talking about all that, at least not directly. I’m talking about the strange, long, almost awkward and, dare I say it, embarrassed silence, that has reigned from the Vatican’s press office on all of Pope Francis’s extraordinary statements and actions since his election.
I’m not going to go into all the details of the comments made by Pope Francis in the press – starting with his blockbusting plane interview on the way home from Brazil – which I’m sure most readers know well enough by now.
We have all seen the fallout. Homosexualist activists thanking Francis for “softening the Church’s policy on homosexuality”; the National Abortion Rights Action League thanking Pope Francis for… no one seems quite sure what; and even an atheist US talk show host declaring Francis an atheist.
Through all this, although the full Italian texts of the two interviews have been posted to the website of Vatican Radio, there has been nothing in the way of official clarifications, corrections, or even thunderous denials from the Sala Stampa.
In the nearly ten years I’ve been covering Vatican and Catholic-related news, through three papacies now, I don’t remember a time when the uproar caused by things a pope is saying and doing has reached so deeply into the minds of orthodox believers. These are the people who adhere to and defend all the teaching of the Catholic religion as a coherent and indivisible whole, and who have always relied on clarity and vigorous defence of the faith from Rome.
Catholic believers have understood their task well over the last few decades of this war of ideas; to patiently and articulately correct the claims made by the secular progressivists in the media. We have been able to do this because, thanks to the clarifying of doctrine and strengthening of the Church over the last two papacies, we have been confident about the ground we stood on.
But in recent months, around the world, with either dismay and anxiety, or with triumphant whoops, this pope’s statements – first to the Jesuit magazine La Civilta Cattolica and now to the Italian atheist celebrity Eugenio Scalfari – have been interpreted as nearly a declaration that the Church will change to suit the tastes of the “progressivists,” liberals and secularists. And for weeks, there was nothing; no clarification, no corrections or denials at all from inside the Vatican’s walls. The Catholic world outside was starting to wonder just what is going on in there.
Nothing, that is, until last Thursday, when, after a Sala Stampa (Holy See Press Office) press conference about the first meeting of Pope Francis’ new council of cardinals, Fr. Federico Lombardi stammered out a few words in response to a deluge of reporters’ questions.
Despite the fact that they certainly must have known what was coming, we had nothing but the Holy See’s press officer and the de facto papal spokesman metaphorically dropping his gaze and shuffling his feet. The pope, Fr. Lombardi said, was speaking in a “conversational” or “colloquial” manner, and his statements were not “a magisterial document”…
Not only was there no comment or clarifications in the prepared remarks at that press conference, Fr. Lombardi had nothing prepared for what he must have known would be the main point of interest for journalists. He seemed, simply, to be caught off guard.
Now Scalfari himself has admitted this weekend that he neither recorded nor took notes during the conversation, and that the “interview” that was published had been reconstructed from memory. However, Scalfari and Lombardi have both insisted that Pope Francis was shown the final text and approved it, although it is not “clear how closely the Pope read it”.
This revelation was followed on the weekend by a letter produced by Fr. Thomas Rosica, signing not as a Vatican spokesman but as head of Salt and Light Catholic Television Network, who summed up a few of the revelations about the Scalfari interview that had come to light elsewhere.
The interview, Fr. Rosica said, was “after-the-fact reconstruction” and so “run[s] the risk of either missing some key details or conflating various moments or events recounted during the oral interview”.
Fr. Rosica affirmed again, however, that the Scalfari interview was “trustworthy overall” but admitted, “Nevertheless, some minor, unprecise details have caused a stir among you.” Among the possible “‘conflation’ of facts, details and sequence of events” on the night of his election, were questions about “a so-called ‘mystical experience’ of Pope Francis on the night of his election to the Papacy.”
But that was it. We are left to ourselves to try to understand all the rest of Pope Francis’s remarks and actions that have astonished, confused and alarmed Catholics around the world for the last six months. Writing for the National Catholic Register, Rome correspondent Edward Pentin summed up the dissatisfaction of many observers, commenting, “[T]he picture emerging is of a Pope who does whatever he wants with little or no consultation with his closest aides.” The pope, one inside source said, is “viewed as being ‘totally unpredictable,’ preferring to do things arbitrarily and on his own”.
But many of us Vatican-watchers are also left wondering what is going on inside the Press Office. The brevity and off-the-cuff, essentially reactive character of their very few responses to date do indicate one thing that they were probably not intended to convey. That is, it seems the usual paths of communication within the Vatican, and their “control over the message” have broken down.
One local Rome reporter told me, “I think they must be embarrassed that the interview went ahead as it did. I asked Fr. Lombardi if anyone else sat in on the interview. No reply. It raises an ominous question: if there is this much confusion and bewilderment out here, is it possible that the same confusion reigns in there?
Meanwhile, the “clarifications” from Fr.’s Lombardi and Rosica leave unanswered the numerous questions about Pope Francis’s statements.
Hundreds of articles and editorials, and easily thousands of blog posts have asked, Did Pope Francis really mean that there has been too much emphasis on abortion, the nature of the family, marriage and sexuality? Who "reprimanded" Francis for not talking about these issues? Are youth unemployment and the loneliness of elderly people really the most urgent issues facing the Church? Does that mean that the killing of 50 million unborn children a year around the world, the growing threat of legalised euthanasia, the global population control movement… really should take a back seat to our economic or even emotional troubles?
Is the pope, the Vicar of Christ, saying that focusing on these issues in the public sphere is a distraction from the true aims of the Church of spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
What does he mean by the Church being caught up in “small rules”? What did he mean when he said that “God is not a Catholic”? Or that “Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good”?
There can be no doubt that this is all having a profound effect on faithful Catholics out there. Ordinary Catholics are asking hard questions, and expressing their grave concerns. Typical of such comments was one that I found most poignant on the ‘blog of Fr. Dwight Longenecker, one of Pope Francis’ strongest supporters:
“I find this interview very hard. I have accepted that this is the Holy Father's personal view, and that it is not infallible, but this interview is challenging my prior notion of what devotion to the Papacy meant because previously I would not have selected what the Popes said but assiduously read things like this. I can't get past the cognitive dissonance.”
There seems little point in debating over what it’s all about. The possibilities have been explored as far as we can take it from out here. As LSN managing editor Steve Jalsevac said the other day, we’ve seen all we need to see of speculation about “what the pope really meant…” or “what the pope could not possibly have meant…”. As he said, all of this might be cathartic for some, but ultimately only Pope Francis can clarify what he really meant. And he isn’t.
Last week he was in Assisi and in that highly public forum with the press corps following and waiting, there has not been any hint that he is aware of the enormous uproar among the faithful that has resulted from his words.
For fifty years, Catholics have relied upon a system in which every word spoken or written by a pope, or for that matter by any office of the Vatican, has been carefully examined and vetted through the appropriate Vatican dicasteries for conformity to Catholic teaching. It has been this system, almost as much as the personal commitment of the last two popes to the defence of the sanctity of human life, that has given Catholics the confidence, the solid doctrinal ground they needed to fight the good fight.
That collaborative process of vetting and doctrinal precision, of caution, care and commitment to the internal theological and doctrinal coherence, has produced some of the most important documents to the life and family issues of the last century. These statements, taken together, could be seen as a kind of constitution of the international pro-life movement: Humanae vitae, 1968, on artificial contraception; Donum vitae, 1987, and Dignitas Personae, 2008, on artificial procreation and new reproductive technologies; Evangelium vitae, 1995, on abortion and euthanasia; the Charter of the Rights of the Family 1983.
But the evidence is mounting that that system has broken down or simply been rendered moot. If Pope Francis is now just calling up journalists himself (if that story is to be believed) and bypassing the process by which papal statements were vetted, clarified and perfected, then what can we expect next?
We also know that the same system that kept ambiguity or confusion from causing problems among the faithful, also restrained those members of the hierarchy who were inclined, for whatever reason, to back away from the Church’s teachings. It will not have failed to cross the minds of a certain kind of prelate and priest that there now appears to be no one minding the store and that some things may now be said and done with less fear of corrective action.