Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

When Pope Francis goes off script

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 23, 2024

Back when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio declined a journalist’s request for an in-depth interview. He explained that he did not feel comfortable expressing himself in an interview format; he suggested anyone who wanted to understand his thinking would be better served by reading his written works.

But that was a long time ago. Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has shown no such aversion to unscripted conversations. He is surely the most-interviewed Pontiff in history, with dozens of in-depth conversations published during his papacy. Along with the formal interviews that appear in newspapers and magazines, he has engaged in question-and-answer exchanges with all sorts of audiences. In fact papal trips abroad now routinely include a Q+A session with members of the local Jesuit community.

Some of the Pope’s most memorable—and controversial—statements have come during such impromptu exchanges. His airborne press conferences (another regular feature of his foreign voyages) have produced many sensational headlines. His many friendly conversations with the late Eugenio Scalfari—which the atheist journalist reproduced from memory, without benefit of a transcript or recording—repeatedly sent the Vatican press office into damage-control mode. Perhaps the most famous statement of his entire pontificate was a response to a reporter’s question: “Who am I to judge?”

Ordinarily when a Pope—any Pope—makes a statement for the record, he speaks from a prepared text. With countless thousands of people reading his words, precision is important; spontaneity can be imprudent.

Spontaneity is a hallmark of his pontificate, however, and Pope Francis is not deterred by the furors he has created by his unvetted public remarks. For that matter when he writes, he often writes impulsively. Vatican officials complain that they have been caught off guard by major announcements, issued without consultation. Even in his role as canonical legislator he can be hasty. Andrea Gagliarducci notes that he has issued an astonishing 70 motu proprios, adding to or amending canon law, in his decade on Peter’s Throne. In several cases, one motu proprio has corrected the oversights of another.

All of us are prone to error when we speak too quickly. Most of us, fortunately, don’t have so much riding on what we say. In Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio might have been able to speak off the cuff without causing more than a few ripples of curiosity. In Rome, under the constant scrutiny of the press corps, things are quite different.

And this week, it was during a private audience with members of the Vatican press corps that the Pope unleashed his latest eye-popping quote. Sure enough, it came when he set aside his prepared remarks and thanked the assembled journalists for “the delicacy that you often show in speaking about the scandals of the Church.”

What did the Pontiff mean by “delicacy” in the coverage of scandals? He explained that “there are so many, and I have seen in you a great delicacy, a respect, an almost ashamed silence.” (Here “ashamed” might better be translated as “abashed.”)

In context, the Pope was thanking reporters for not delving into the seamier details of scandals. And it is important to bear in mind that not every country has seen the same saturation coverage of the sex-abuse scandal that the American media have provided over the past twenty years. Still the Pope’s comments—like so many of his off-script comments—are bound to cause him some real difficulties.

First, Pope Francis seems to be encouraging journalists not to report on Vatican scandals. That message—whether or not it was conveyed intentionally—is 180 degrees different from the Pope’s oft-stated commitment to transparency and full disclosure.

Second, the Pope seems to thanking the accredited members of the Vatican press corps—the reporters whose work requires steady access to Vatican officials—for maintaining a discreet silence regarding scandals. Is he implicitly acknowledging that to date journalists have not aggressively questioned his own personal involvement in the Zanchetta affair, the Rupnik scandal, the London real-estate fiasco? Might he even be hinting that during the remainder of this pontificate, reporters who handle these matters with “delicacy” and perhaps even with “ashamed/abashed silence” will be treated with favor?

Here’s something else we have learned during this papacy: When Pope Francis goes off script, neither he nor the Vatican press office bothers to clarify. So the questions linger.

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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  • Posted by: feedback - Jan. 24, 2024 5:39 AM ET USA

    The conclusion is that there are precious few Catholic journalists committed to reporting the truth about the state of the Church. Sustained favorable bias ("delicacy") is a sin against truth and against journalistic integrity; it only serves as cover for more harmful scandals (why is Rupnik still a priest in good standing?). It's good to always keep in mind the warnings of Our Lord: "Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way." [Luke 6:26]