We recently heard Joseph Fessio, S.J., make the case for Pope Francis to refrain from giving interviews at 20,000 feet. Fr. Fessio, founder of Ignatius Press in San Francisco, was responding to a caller on Catholic Answers Live, the highly esteemed apologetics program carried nationally by EWTN radio. The caller had objected to a recent papal comment, which Catholic Answers host Patrick Coffin first tried to explain away by charging that the caller misquoted and misunderstood the Holy Father. Undaunted, the caller quoted the Popes words verbatim, directly from a news report from the Vatican Information Service run by the Holy Sees press office. Coffin then shifted gears, emphasizing the point that Pope Franciss off-the-cuff comments to the press cannot be taken as official Church teaching.
Coffin is, of course, correct. But he just might be missing the point. The primary issue isnt what doctrinal weight to assign to the Popes in-flight pontificating. And heres where co-host Fr. Fessio stepped in. He first acknowledged Catholics frustrations with Franciss celebrity-style interviews that offer his very personal views and idiosyncratic opinions of the world views that are at times difficult to reconcile with traditional Church teaching. Simply to dismiss the Popes musings as unofficial does not acknowledge the confusion that too often dominates the ensuing coverage and conversations. These personal papal pontifications are invariably amplified by a media that, first, thrives on creating controversy and chaos in the Church whenever possible and, second, isnt interested in making and, frankly, isnt qualified to make theological and doctrinal distinctions in the interest of accuracy.
Fr. Fessios simple solution was to suggest that Pope Francis cease giving off-the-cuff remarks during in-flight interviews and in other informal venues with the press. After all, the Pope has ample opportunity to make official pastoral recommendations and doctrinal pronouncements, those he has presumably given deep prayerful consideration, and which have been vetted by papal theologians whose specific function is to eliminate ambiguity and potential misunderstandings and confusion. The media and the rest of the world could then focus on the Popes official words given through his writings, his preaching, and his other formal addresses.
We believe that Fr. Fessios call for restraint is a reasonable solution to stanching the confusion and sometimes embarrassment that flow from the Popes in-flight press conferences. Consider this:
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