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Guess who thinks Pope Francis shouldn't give so many interviews?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jan 23, 2015

“Interviews are not my forte,” then-Cardinal Bergoglio once remarked, and for that reason he seldom sat down to speak on the record with reporters. When two journalists sought a formal interview, he advised them to publish excerpts from his sermons and essays instead. (A Call to Serve: Pope Francis and the Catholic Future; Crossroad, von Kempis/Lawler, 2013)

Something has changed, clearly. The Argentine cardinal who avoided interviews has become the Roman Pontiff whose interviews have produced so many headlines. Is it a change for the better?

As a loyal Catholic I am loath to criticize the Pope. But I feel that I am on solid ground when I invoke his own judgment: “Interviews are not my forte.”

The most recent “Francis eruption,” of course, was the exchange with reporters accompanying him on the flight home after his trip to Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Speaking about contraception, the Holy Father said: “Some believe that – excuse the expression – to be good Catholics we must be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood.”

Anyone who reads the entire exchange should realize that in his entire answer, the Pope was supporting the teaching of the Church regarding the immorality of contraception. But as soon as he uttered those fateful words, comparing Catholic to rabbits, the headlines were inevitable.

For critics of the Church, that comparison was a license to rehearse the old complaint that Catholics “breed like rabbits.” (No, for the record, the Pope did not use the term “breed.”) And for the faithful Catholic parents who, as Blessed Paul VI put it, “prudently and generously decide to have more children,” the Pope’s words—especially as they came strained through the filters of the mass media—seemed almost a rebuke, a dismissal of the sacrifices they have willingly made, even an affront.

That’s a sad result for an offhand comment. It’s particularly sad because while he was in Manila, Pope Francis paid tribute to Paul VI and especially to Humanae Vitae, the landmark encyclical renewing the Church’s condemnation of artificial contraception. It is still more poignant that in his salute to the parents of large families ( Humanae Vitae, 10), Paul VI was writing about “responsible parenthood”—the very topic on which Pope Francis was speaking when he made that regrettable reference to rabbits.

Some cantankerous Catholics see the Pope’s remarks as evidence that he wants to overthrow traditional Church teachings. The evidence will not support that interpretation. During his stay in the Philippines, Francis had gone out of his way to denounce the contraceptive mentality, and soon after his return to Rome he would express his admiration for poor parents who "know that every child is a blessing.”

Yet at the same time it is also wrong to place all the blame on the mass media for misinterpreting the Pope’s statement. As soon as I heard that rabbits had been mentioned, I knew what the headline stories would say. The reaction was entirely predictable. If you drop raw meat on the floor, you have no right to be surprised when the dog snaps it up. 

Some public figures have a knack for felicitous expression, but even the most polished ex-temp speaker makes an occasional gaffe. And some are more mistake-prone than others. Nearly two years into his pontificate, with a whole series of puzzling and/or damaging statements on the record, it is not unreasonable to conclude that Cardinal Bergoglio was right: interviews are not his forte.

Still the interviews continue. It would seem simple for Pope Francis to recognize his own tendencies, listen to his public-relations advisers (whoever they may be), and conclude that it would be prudent to avoid off-the-cuff statements. But evidently the Pope wants to continue speaking unguardedly, even at a price. Why?

Taylor Marshall has observed that a Pope can address his attentions to the “internal” audience of loyal Catholics or the “external” audience, the world at large. Marshall remarks that Pope Francis has obviously chosen the latter: “He’s sending out zingers and being provocative in order to get the attention of those who have dismissed Christ, Christianity, and the Catholic Church.”

Yes, and he is producing results. The secular world is talking about Pope Francis, talking about the Catholic Church. That’s a good thing.

But that progress has come at a cost. Too often during this pontificate, secular critics of the Church have been emboldened, and loyal Catholics dismayed, by public statements of the Holy Father. Invariably, the problems have arisen not from written statements, not from formal addresses, not even from homilies at daily Mass, but from off-the-cuff interviews.

During one more informal exchange with reporters, on his flight out to Sri Lanka, Pope Francis confessed to another personal weakness: “You know, I have a shortcoming: a healthy dose of recklessness.” He was speaking about the problems he creates for his security staff because of his willingness to mingle with crowds. But the same logic could be applied to his penchant for diving into interviews. When a leader is reckless, people can be hurt.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 8 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Jan. 26, 2015 6:02 PM ET USA

    This truly concerns me. We want the problem to be out there - them - some one else. Blame serves no purpose. We know the 'tactics' of the media. Live the faith, live what you believe and this problem will be solved. Live together what we claim to believe and the solution will become evident. That doesn't mean pie in the sky or turning a blind eye. It does mean coming together as Christians and Catholics and living what we claim to believe.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Jan. 26, 2015 10:34 AM ET USA

    Maybe the Pope is deliberately causing a stir to create discussion. The Church is accused of wrong doing by ad hominem attacks but no one discusses what the accusation is about. The Pope is creating the possibility of entering into discussions with non-Catholics about what he says. In other words the new evangelization. We need to do something. I once had a Bishop tell me that perhaps the bishops had not done enough to support Humanae Vitae I said to him, "there is always tomorrow."

  • Posted by: Bveritas2322 - Jan. 26, 2015 12:16 AM ET USA

    The media deserves blame. They have no right to be stupid or to fail listening comprehension exams.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Jan. 25, 2015 11:50 AM ET USA

    You claim the Pope was "Speaking about contraception" (Para. 4 above). Brief answer at link does not mention 'contraception'. Answer reflects statistical inference to 'replacement rate' (also not mentioned). In context, because birth rate is so low answer makes sense. I'm concerned, with this fearful tendency from some; there is over sensitivity rather than confidence with Faith. Has our Pope ever given reason to suspect his Orthodox Catholicism? No one picked up on his convern re: communication

  • Posted by: - Jan. 24, 2015 12:18 PM ET USA

    Cephus had a track record for being impetuous too and I think that Papa Francisco will not allow Christ and his Church to be easily dismissed. The erudition of St. John Paul 2 and Pope Benedict XVI gave us brilliant compositions few would read let alone appreciate. Cephus was a successful fisherman but no Bonaventure, Aquinas, or DeLubac. Grace still builds upon nature and so serves the Holy Spirit via +Francis' remarks. Where great scholars were dismissed, Francis gets in the room.

  • Posted by: donnadarbellay8282 - Jan. 24, 2015 8:59 AM ET USA

    Good to hear that our Pope can name his own weakness; would that we all could! When I read this article I think our Holy Father is perhaps the appropriate challenge for us, his children, in these times. We can't rely on the quick report but are challenges to take time to listen; to abandon hear-say and pride in the teachings of Our Holy Mother to meditate on those teachings and live them more fully. Using the term "rabbits" provides us with that challenge.

  • Posted by: j.fleming8019 - Jan. 24, 2015 3:08 AM ET USA

    I agree with this analysis. Having spent more than 34 years of my life as a broadcaster in commercial radio I believe that I am well positioned to make comment on this matter. And you, Phil, have got this right. And I am pleased you were able to make the point in the most charitable possible way. Of course the Pope is a Catholic. He will always do what the Successor of St Peter must do. But careless statements in off the cuff interviews can cause harm.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jan. 23, 2015 11:33 PM ET USA

    When elected pontiff Pope Francis made a remarkable statement: "Jorge, don’t change, just keep on being yourself, because to change at your age would be to make a fool of yourself.” But does not the office of the papacy necessarily change the man elected to the position? Considering the tremendous graces and the influence of the Holy Spirit, change must be anticipated as a veritable certainty for the new Vicar of Christ. Phil's points are well-taken. Difficult, but not reckless.