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The first thing I want to say about the pope's interviews is that I don't read them--well, not thoroughly or all that carefully. I skim them quickly. Of course I haven't been able to avoid the "controversial" sentences that get picked up and discussed for weeks and weeks in the Catholic media.
You see, there are many other things that the pope has written and said, which I do read pretty faithfully, and this takes up all my time for that sort of thing. I mean: the pope's homilies at various Papal Masses; his teachings at Wednesday audiences; his remarks at the Sunday Angelus. Occasionally, too, I read the speeches he gives when, say, he visits a poor parish or an institution serving the poor. (All of these are available from the news service Zenit, which sends me a daily update by e-mail.) I try not simply to read these things but also to take them to prayer and meditate on them.
When I made a pilgrimage to Rome, a couple of years ago, for the Beatification of Pope John Paul II, I made a resolution to become more "Roman"-- more Rome-centered-- in my practice of the Roman Catholic faith, and for that I have found a daily habit of attending to the words of the pope quite invaluable.
There are lots of things I learn about Pope Francis in this way. I know, for instance, that on Sunday, June 16th of this year, in St. Peter's Square, Pope Francis celebrated Holy Mass for Gospel of Life Day. (I'm guessing you never even knew there was a Gospel of Life Day.) The pope's homily begins with these inspiring words: "This celebration has a very beautiful name: the Gospel of Life. In this Eucharist, in the Year of Faith, let us thank the Lord for the gift of life in all its forms, and at the same time let us proclaim the Gospel of Life." That's pretty clear, isn't it?
Yes, of course, the pope is my spiritual Father, and I want to know him better, to be able to love him better and correspond to his wishes, as a son wants to be toward his father. But to me it seems, if Pope Francis is conveying anything to us at all, it is that he is, so to speak, one follower of Christ among many--and that therefore he wants us to be the sort of Christian we are looking for in him. Each of us, and not simply the pope, has the responsibility of revealing God to our neighbor through greater fidelity to the Gospel. This involves greater fervor of piety. A full and radical embrace of the Cross. A radiation of real joy. True detachment from fleeting goods. Better knowledge of the Scripture. An honest strictness with ourselves when it comes to common sins such as gossip and envy.
The Holy Father has stressed that Catholics accomplish none of these things by grand liturgical processions (though they have their place), or princely behavior among bishops and clerics (although bishops do hold an apostolic office). I take it that that also means that laypersons are not making a lot of progress in the faith by, let us call it, gawking at the pope. (Recall, Jesus rebuked the crowds when they were merely amazed, or wished to make him a king.) The Holy Father's role, for us, is not to be a celebrity or world personality. The state of the Catholic Church is not about him, actually, but about us.
But what about those "controversial" comments that people cherry-pick out of the Holy Father's interviews?
We live in an age where the concept of speaking to a particular audience, and saying things meant just for them, has almost disappeared. Anything said to anyone, anywhere, can be posted on the internet and turned into an international publication. However, if, despite this, someone wants to claim the old-fashioned "right" to speak to just some persons, primarily or exclusively--and not "to the whole world" --we should grant it to him. And then, when we grant it, we absolutely should not carp and complain if what he says, for some particular person or audience, does not contain every last qualification and condition it would need to have, to avoid misunderstandings if it were published "to the whole world."
What the pope has said in his various interviews is perfectly, even, ingeniously suited to the contexts for which they were intended, and that is that. Note: I do not in any way say this to "spin," "defuse," or pompously give my assistance to supposedly necessary "damage control" concerning what the pope has said; frankly, I despise efforts to do so.
Another consideration is that surely if anyone's remarks ever deserved to be treated according to what is called, in matters of interpretation, "the principle of charity," then the Holy Father's comments do. The principle of charity is that, if someone's words admit of a good sense, then we must impute that good sense to those words, until there is countervailing evidence amounting to moral certainty.
Few persons can claim to have made more sacrifices for the pro-life movement than I; few are more open to the charge of being "obsessed" over legal abortion. But even I notice the irony in the widespread obsession over the Holy Father's perfectly sensible remarks about this possible "obsession."
Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University and an Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas.