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Pope Francis & the Primacy of Conscience

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Perhaps you’ve noticed: Francis has a very different way of speaking to the world than any pope in history. Employing a sincerity and simplicity that has endeared him to the world and delighted the media, the Holy Father has chosen to use off-the-cuff remarks, interviews, and unscripted homilies to reproach large segments of the Catholic Church and to reveal his ideology and worldview. So far in the first nine months of the Bergoglio papacy, the world has gleaned from Pope Francis that the Church should no longer “obsess” over hot-button social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage; that it’s not a Pope’s role to “judge” homosexual priests; that the “Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us…. Even the atheists. Everyone!” (homily, May 22); that “restorationist groups” are guilty of “triumphalism,” including a “triumphalistic liturgy”; and that he disdains popular piety that includes reciting memorized prayers “like a parrot.” These controversial comments have provoked a multitude of objections, clarifications, repudiations, and attempts to explain away the Pope’s “sincere” and “simple” unscripted comments.

In his blockbuster interview (Oct. 2) with Eugenio Scalfari, the 89-year-old atheist publisher of Italy’s La Repubblica, Pope Francis explained a “mystical moment” he had at the conclave between the time of his election and the time he accepted, giving the impression that God spoke to him, validating his pontifical trajectory. Scalfari has Bergoglio explaining that this mystical experience occurred when he left the Sistine Chapel to pray. But Cardinal Dolan, among other cardinals who were at the March 2013 conclave, pointed out in the press that Cardinal Bergoglio never left the Sistine Chapel during the time between his nomination and acceptance. Scalfari’s account — or Bergoglio’s — they say, is inaccurate.

The Vatican press office then stepped in to explain that Scalfari hadn’t taken notes in the interview and didn’t record it either. Rather than providing a transcript of the interview, which is standard operating procedure in the world of journalism, Scalfari simply reconstructed his interview with the Pope from memory. But if we can’t trust what we see the press reporting in long, engaging interviews, the obvious question for the Holy Father might be: Why make public interviews and other off-the-cuff remarks a hallmark of one’s papacy? It comes off as somewhat reckless to pursue this avenue as a conduit of teaching and communication. (By the way, the Scalfari interview was still, at the time of this writing, included among papal discourses at the Vatican website, essentially confirming its basic “trustworthiness.”)

Sure, one can argue that Pope Francis’s interviews have no doctrinal or magisterial value; but the fact is — speaking in the most practical terms — with Francis, the world hears primarily what comes down through the mainstream media. That appears to be the way Pope Francis wants it. The Scalfari interview, along with his September interview with Fr. Antonio Spadaro, published in sixteen Jesuit journals around the world, can be considered the first “encyclicals” of Pope Francis, promulgated through the media (instead of through traditional ecclesial channels), published as they were the world over. In fact, the Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano reproduced the Scalfari interview in its entirety, putting it on par with other papal discourses. Further, Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi told the press that “if Francis felt his thought had been ‘gravely misrepresented,’ he would have said so.” Well, he hasn’t said so.

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