This past Friday, LifeSiteNews (LSN) published an article reporting on a recent meeting between Pope Francis and Italian priest Fr. (Don) Michele de Paolis. During that encounter, Fr. De Paolis, a prominent agitator in Italy against the Church’s teachings on homosexuality, concelebrated mass with the pope. Afterwards he met briefly with the pontiff and presented him with gifts of a wooden chalice and paten, as well as a copy of his recent book. As they parted, Francis kissed the hands of De Paolis.
LSN’s intention in publishing the story was to present the known facts about a public meeting between the pope and one of Italy’s leading Catholic dissidents – a newsworthy event in itself. However, in retrospect we recognize that in the absence of certain necessary clarifications and contexts the facts alone, as presented, unnecessarily lent themselves to misinterpretation.
Among the unanswered questions that surround the meeting, for instance, are how and why De Paolis was chosen to concelebrate mass with Pope Francis, what was said between them during their brief meeting, and what Francis and/or his handlers hoped the meeting would accomplish. While many readers concluded that the pope’s actions were intended to endorse, or otherwise overlook Fr. De Paolis’ problematic activism, it is clear that there is insufficient evidence to arrive at such a conclusion, and that a fair reading of the fact reveals several interpretations of the meeting that merit due consideration.
Possibility #1: Pope Francis did not know about De Paolis’ pro-gay activism
In the first place, it is possible that Pope Francis was himself unaware of De Paolis’ pro-gay activism. As LSN’s original report stated, De Paolis officially met with Francis in his capacity as the founder of the Emmaus Community in the southern Italian city of Foggia, an organization that assists the poor and those suffering from AIDS – in other words, a commendable outreach. We do not know whether De Paolis’ other work agitating against Catholic teaching on homosexuality came up during the meeting. Pope Francis’ gesture in kissing De Paolis’ hands would in this case have been no more than a sign of priestly confraternity – a humble sign of respect from one priest to another. This view is given weight in light of the fact that Francis routinely shows respect for those he meets by kissing their hands. This week alone he publicly kissed the hands of the Patriarch of Constantinople, as well as a group of Holocaust survivors he met during his trip to the Holy Land.
However, even if the above scenario is accurate, it does raise some interesting questions about the Vatican’s vetting process. Why, for instance, of the many priests who would welcome the opportunity to concelebrate mass with the pope, did Francis’ handlers choose for this public honor a priest who is best known for his work opposing the Church’s teachings? On the other hand, it is possible that even they were they not aware of De Paolis’ background – a possibility that at first glance bears discomfiting echoes of that PR flub from Benedict’s pontificate, when the Vatican overlooked critical facts about Bishop Richard Williamson of the SSPX. Finally, given Pope Francis’ habit of mingling freely with guests at Domus Santa Marta, it is also possible that no such vetting process was applied to De Paolis, although this does seems unlikely, especially given that he was apparently given advance notice of his meeting with the pope.
Possibility #2: Pope Francis knew who the priest was, and was reaching out to him in mercy
On the other hand, it is possible that Francis and his handlers knew about De Paolis’ advocacy, but decided to arrange a meeting as an opportunity for the pontiff to reach out to the wayward priest as an act of mercy.
Some have compared the pope’s meeting with De Paolis to the famous meeting between the pontiff’s namesake, St. Francis, and a priest who was living in sin with a woman. After being urged by some local townspeople to go chastise the priest, Francis finally agreed. But instead of rebuking the priest as the townspeople expected, St. Francis fell to his knees and, without saying a word, began kissing the priest’s hands. According to the story, the priest repented.
The suggestion that the meeting between De Paolis and Pope Francis is similar is an attractive one. It is also given credence both by the pope’s love of St. Francis, as well as the strong emphasis of his pontificate on reaching out to the marginalized, and to bringing them back to Christ through kindness and mercy.
However, this interpretation runs into the difficulty that De Paolis himself has only spoken positively of the meeting with the pope. In his public comments he certainly has offered no indication that the pope either called him to repentance, or that he is considering abandoning his heterodox views after the meeting. Given the public nature of the meeting, this then raises prudential questions about the possibility of scandal, in the absence of a corresponding public statement from the Vatican or the pope calling De Paolis to repentance and conversion.
Possibility #3: Pope Francis intended the meeting as some kind of an endorsement of De Paolis’ work
The third possibility is that the pope knew of De Paolis’ pro-gay activism, but decided to meet with him anyway as a sign of respect either despite or even because of that activism. However, given the gravity of such an allegation, and how little is known about the meeting, there is clearly insufficient evidence to propose this as the best interpretation.
LifeSiteNews routinely reports on the actions of Pope Francis as they relate to life and family issues. While it is common knowledge that we have in the past published editorials expressing misgivings about some of the pope’s statements and actions, we have also routinely and eagerly reported on his statements promoting Church teaching on these issues. While some critics have accused LSN of “attacking” the Holy Father in our original story, this certainly was not the intention. De Paolis is a prominent figure in Italy, and his meeting with the pope understandably attracted media attention in that country as a newsworthy event. However, we appreciate the fact that, as a pro-life and pro-family news agency, more care could and should have been taken to ensure that our original report gave proper weight to both the known and unknown facts, and the various possible interpretations of the import of the meeting, as described above.
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