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An unintentionally revealing papal interview?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 01, 2021

Informed Catholics have learned to expect that the public release of a new interview with Pope Francis will produce sensational headlines. But the latest, a conversation with Carlos Herrera of Spain’s Radio COPE, contained no bombshell revelations. At first glance the interview seems mild, containing little real news. But read more carefully, and there are some very interesting revelations.

On the Pope’s health

Pope Francis speaks lightly about his July 4 intestinal surgery, answering the opening question with a laugh: “I’m still alive.” His answers are consistent with the Vatican’s public line on his hospital stay: that it was planned in advance, that there was no reason for concern. But as he discusses the details, the Pontiff offers some details that suggest it was a serious matter:

  • He mentions that before the procedure, his diet was restricted because of diverticulitis.
  • He says that a long-awaited document restructuring the Roman Curia—originally expected months ago—“got delayed with this thing about my illness.”
  • He discloses that 33 centimeters of his intestine—more than a foot—were removed.
  • And most remarkably, he says that a nurse at the Vatican’s health clinic, who insisted that he needed surgery to correct the intestinal problem, “saved my life.” It follows, obviously, that the problem was potentially fatal.

Now the Pope is on the road to recovery. But he acknowledges that “one has to recover completely,” and on a trip to Slovakia and Hungary in mid-September “I should be more careful.” Last week, at an audience with European legislators, Francis apologized for remaining seated, explaining, “I am still in the post-operative recovery period.” And if it is noteworthy that he described his condition as “post-operative” several weeks after the operation, it is still more remarkable that he admitted a quick trip to Glasgow, Scotland, scheduled for late October or early November, is by no means a certainty: “It all depends on how I feel at the time.”

The Vatican News site carries a transcript of the COPE interview, under the headline: “Pope after operation: ‘It never crossed my mind to resign.’” Curiously, that quotation does not appear in the interview. The Pope does say that he was unaware of speculation about a possible resignation, and joked that such speculation always arises when a Pope suffers any illness. But he does not address the possibility of resignation—at least not in the interview as it appears on the Vatican site.

On Traditionis Custodes

Questioned about his motu proprio restricting the use of the traditional liturgy, the Pope clings to his contention that he is following up on the intent that Pope Benedict XVI expressed in Summorum Pontificum. But he undermines that claim when he says that a priest who wishes to celebrate the traditional Mass would in effect be “bi-ritual,” requiring Vatican approval.

Pope Benedict had declared that both the traditional liturgy and the post-conciliar rite should be recognized as legitimate expressions of the Latin rite. In Summorum Pontificum, he expressed that idea by introducing the terminology that referred to the “ordinary” and “extraordinary” forms of that rite. And he insisted that the traditional liturgy—the “extraordinary form”—had never been abrogated as an expression of the Latin rite. Now Pope Francis appears to contradict that stand directly, saying that the “extraordinary form” is not a form of the same rite.

And if the traditional Mass is not a form of the Latin rite, what is it? Is Pope Francis hinting at the establishment of another rite within the Church? Is he suggesting that the ritual used exclusively in the Latin rite for centuries is no longer appropriate to that rite? It would be ironic if the liturgy celebrated in vernacular languages were called the “Latin” rite, while the Mass in Latin was given some other name.

Pope Francis insists that he was solicitous of the pastoral needs of traditionalist Catholics as he prepared his motu proprio. “If you read the letter well and read the decree well, you will see that it is simply a constructive reordering, with pastoral care and avoiding an excess,” he says. But during this interview he betrays his distaste for the old rite, saying that the readings at Mass must be in the vernacular because “otherwise it would be like laughing at the Word of God.”

Does the Pontiff really think that traditionalist Catholics are “laughing at the Word of God?” In marked contrast with that harsh judgment, he offers no criticism of the German bishops whose “Synodal Path” threatens to challenge foundational Church teachings on faith and morals, creating a very real danger of schism. “There is no ill will in many bishops with whom I spoke,” he assures the Spanish interviewer. He gives the liberal German prelates credit for “a pastoral desire,” cautioning only that it “perhaps does not take into account some things” that he has explained in a letter to the German hierarchy.

On Afghanistan and Vatican corruption

The Pope is critical of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, following what he describes as “20 years of occupation.” He quotes Germany’s Angela Merkel—whom he describes as “one of the great figures of world politics”—as criticizing “the irresponsible policy of intervening from outside and building democracy in other countries, ignoring the traditions of the people.” Actually that quotation is from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has his own reasons for criticizing American foreign policy.

Closer to home, the Pontiff comments on the trial of Cardinal Angelo Becciu for alleged financial misconduct. “I hope with all my heart that he is innocent,” the Pope says, mentioning his personal friendship with the accused cardinal, who was once among his closest associates. Although the Pope goes on to say that the judicial process must work itself out, and “justice will decide,” one may question the wisdom of his commenting on a criminal trial going on under his authority.

Finally, in a short passage that has not provoked much comment, Pope Francis makes a disclosure that might help to explain why his public remarks so often cause controversy: “When I am in front of a person, I look him in the eyes and let things come out. It doesn’t even occur to me to think about what I’m going to say if I’m with him, those potential future situations that don’t help me.”

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Sep. 14, 2021 10:20 PM ET USA

    I am trying to decide: are these the words of Pope Francis or of Joe Biden? They sound interchangeable. Did someone hear the gates of hell creaking open, or smell the smoke of Satan?

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Sep. 03, 2021 5:55 PM ET USA

    Frankly, I cringe every time I hear that there has been another papal interview. We pray for him and all the hierarchy, but this is not the time in world history for someone who thinks he can rewrite the magisterium, or even tweak it, and improve things.