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Worried about the Pope's unscripted statements? Relax. He knows what he's doing.

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jun 14, 2013

By now we know that Pope Francis enjoys talking without a script. His fondness for extemporaneous comments makes him an interesting subject for journalists. But it worries quite a few Catholics, who fear that an ill-chosen phrase from the Pontiff could cause troubles for the Church. Indeed some people would have us believe the troubles have already begun.

I understand the concerns about off-the-cuff papal remarks. Remarks by the Holy Father could easily be misunderstood, for several reasons:

  • because he does not have a cadre of speechwriters screening each sentence for potential trouble;
  • because he is usually speaking in Italian, and although he is fluent in that language it is not his mother tongue, so he may not be aware of every nuance; and
  • because his remarks are reported and interpreted to the world by journalists who do not have a fundamental understanding of the Catholic faith.

Should we be worried, then, about the possibility of some terrible papal gaffe? I don’t think so. Pope Francis is a very intelligent man, and he was chosen by his fellow cardinals to be Roman Pontiff because they recognized his sound pastoral judgment. Rather than trying to “handle” the Pope, or “explain” his statements, I’d recommend that faithful Catholics pray for him, and then relax. The Holy Father knows what he’s doing.

Will some of his unscripted comments cause public debates? Absolutely! Those debates have already begun. No doubt the Pope anticipated that he would occasionally cause a ruckus, and welcomed that possibility. In his own way he is encouraging people to talk about the faith. The conversation may not proceed smoothly, but Pope Francis has been very consistent in saying that the faithful should plunge into the work of evangelization without waiting for the perfect opportunity (which will never come). If you’re determined to do the work, you’ll have to get your hands dirty, he tells us. So I don’t think he will be devastated if, now and then, he realizes that he phrased a particular statement poorly. He won’t be surprised to learn that he is imperfect. Nor will he allow the knowledge of his imperfections to stop him from plunging ahead once again.

Keep in mind, too, that many of the unscripted papal statements hitting the headlines these days are made during his homilies at daily Mass. When he preaches to a small congregation at the Domus Sanctae Marthae he is not issuing formal policy statements. He is speaking as a pastor of souls: encouraging, correcting, clarifying, offering spiritual direction.

During these first weeks of the new pontificate, some traditionalist Catholics have been particularly unhappy with the Pope’s statements, complaining that he has directed his criticisms at them. Perhaps he has; is that a bad thing? If traditionalists are no longer willing to accept admonition from the Vicar of Christ—to recognize that they, like all fallen men, are subject to particular unhealthy temptations and tendencies that they should resist—then they are in grave danger of losing their ties to the Church, and the Pope’s warnings are all the more relevant!

This week the Pope caused headlines with his frank acknowledgement that a “gay lobby” exists within the Vatican bureaucracy. The existence of such a “gay lobby” is not news, but the Pope’s willingness to speak about it is. True, he did not make the remark in a public forum, and the group to which he was speaking later apologized for allowing the story to leak. But the Pope is not naïve; he certainly knows that if half-dozen people hear such a candid comment, the whole world will soon know about it. Pope Francis may not have anticipated, or wanted, the headlines that would flash around the world the next day, but I’m sure he did want to send a message.

In that same talk to a visiting group from Chile, the Pope said that he would need help with the daunting task of reforming the Roman Curia, because he himself is quite “disorganized.” In one sense, no doubt that is true. His style of leadership does not lend itself to carefully polished public statements, step-by-step guidelines, and a smooth flow of paperwork. But even if his working habits are messy, he has a vision for the reform that the Church needs, and is determined to carry it out. During the conversations leading up to the conclave that elected him, then-Cardinal Bergoglio commanded the attention of the cardinal-electors with a quick, insightful summary of the needs of the universal Church. In effect he presented a plan, and the conclave endorsed it.

Chesterton once wrote that people have a false impression about the progress of the Catholic Church through history. People generally think of that progress as a stately march or procession, he said, and they are wrong. Actually the Church reels through history, constantly bumping into obstacles, frequently flirting with disaster. Pope Francis—who has already cautioned several times against those who would like to control the Church, and micro-manage the actions of the Holy Spirit—might have the perfect management style to match Chesterton’s vision of the Church. He may occasionally strip a gear, or frighten a passenger, or scrape a guardrail; but he won’t take his foot off the accelerator.

Yes, it might be an exciting ride—far too exciting for the tastes of staid clerics and Vatican bureaucrats. With each day’s new provocative statements, Pope Francis tells these men that it’s time for a change, that the Church does not belong to them, that the movement of the Holy Spirit cannot be managed or scripted. He is sending a message with the style, as well as the substance, of his remarks.

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Show 11 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Pat - Jun. 22, 2013 11:47 AM ET USA

    It is worth noting that popes are elected through discernment and movements of the Holy Spirit. look at the results JPII, Benedict XVI and now Francis. An evangelizer, a scholar teacher and now a true shepherd. They called, they teach, they lead. Discernment how powerful a tool when working with the SPIRIT.

  • Posted by: Thomas429 - Jun. 20, 2013 1:08 AM ET USA

    He is refreshing. The hierarchy could use a bit of shaking up. He also has shaken up some of the youngsters. Which is a good thing too.

  • Posted by: mjarman7759049 - Jun. 19, 2013 8:09 AM ET USA

    Phil, please explain to us the dangers of counting roasaries. That was the admonition. His Holiness did not explicate - presumably because, pastorally speaking and to him, it is self-evident. I'm not "a very intelligent man." I need it explained to me. You clearly understand it. Help me out here.

  • Posted by: Niklas - Jun. 19, 2013 4:46 AM ET USA

    The only statement I agree with is that we should pray for our Holy Father.

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Jun. 19, 2013 1:01 AM ET USA

    I really hope you're right. But when I re-read your assurances, I'm not convinced. You admit that the Pope often speaks without careful preparation; that by doing so in Italian, he constantly risks saying things that aren't even what he means; and that these unprepared, unintended remarks will be pounced upon by ignorant or even hostile journalists who will spread confusion among the faithful. And we're not supposed to worry because he's very intelligent, and has sound pastoral judgment??

  • Posted by: bnewman - Jun. 18, 2013 10:31 PM ET USA

    It is still early days yet, but I think Phil Lawyer's observations about Pope Francis are really onto something important here. This commentary is full of all kinds of thought provoking insights.

  • Posted by: howland5905 - Jun. 18, 2013 9:28 PM ET USA

    Thanks for your thoughts Phil. It brings to mind the fact that Pope Francis is acting a lot like that impetuous first pope of the Church.

  • Posted by: gshanley8181 - Jun. 18, 2013 8:59 PM ET USA

    I was sitting here after "counting" my Hail Marys pondering the state of the Church when I came across this article. You see the gay lobby has a solid hold on my Diocese and our pretty middle of the road Bishop has a habit of exiling any "traditional" priests in order to keep the money coming in. Yep, the so called traditionalists sure are the main problem- just keep getting rid of them and it should solve all the problems.

  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Jun. 17, 2013 9:50 AM ET USA

    tturner, it's not an insult. If so-called traditionalists think they don't need to hear anything from the Holy Father, then they need to reassess their lives and decide whether they're going to be traditionalists or Catholics.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Jun. 15, 2013 12:01 PM ET USA

    His Holiness has already figured out that if he wants something to make the media, all he needs to do is say it to a roomful of people in complete confidence. Who needs a press secretary?

  • Posted by: tturner3998 - Jun. 14, 2013 7:52 PM ET USA

    Trads absorb another insult.

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