It was ironic that while I was in Rome for my first plenary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, how the pope communicates was the story of the day. Indeed, the meeting had barely started when the blockbuster interview by Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro in La Civiltà Cattolica became public. (It was published in our country by America magazine.)
The big news, trumpeted by the secular media, was that Pope Francis had reiterated his opinion that “we cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. ... It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”
Only a few paragraphs out of a 12,000-word interview, but enough to light up both secular and religious media for more than a week. The first wave of reaction focused almost exclusively on these statements, treating them as revelations that somehow the Church was changing its spots, or at least its teachings, and that Francis must be the coolest pope ever.
The second wave of reaction has been in the Catholic media and blogosphere, where both the negative and positive reaction often focused on the same paragraphs. There have been moving testimonies in defense of pro-life Catholics who reportedly feel dissed by the pope, “J’accuse” screeds that Francis is showing his true Jesuitical spots and gone all Vatican II on us, and a number of thoughtful reflections seeking to explicate what he was getting at.
My initial reaction was admittedly influenced by the scrambling I saw as bishops and their spokespeople reacted to a tsunami of media coverage fueled by advance copies that went to major news outlets. It underscored for me the need for a Catholic communications strategy that would have given a better heads-up to Church leaders so they could have talking points and highlights of what was a historic interview.
Over time, I’ve come to see that the uproar itself underscores the pope’s concern about how the Church’s teachings are being proclaimed. He is calling for polemics to be replaced by a “missionary style” that “focuses on the essentials … what makes the heart burn ….”
“The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today sometimes it seems that opposite order is prevailing,” he added. Notice he is not denying that there are “moral and religious imperatives.” Indeed, he makes it clear that he is a “loyal son of the Church,” but that he is critiquing how the Church is communicating with modern men and women, including those who have drifted away from the Church they once belonged to, as well as the growing continent of “nones.”
Pope Francis has insisted that he prefers the risk of making mistakes to a Church that plays it safe. Who am I to judge, but I am sympathetic to his position. Indeed, his critique of a sick and self-referential Church should call us to an examination of conscience rather than a debate about the communications strategy of our pope. In a more urgent way, Francis is reiterating Pope Benedict XVI’s polite diagnosis that we are sorely in need of a New Evangelization and a Year of Faith. Think about what he was really telling us about ourselves.
Francis is determined to reset our conversation with the world, moving it away from the predictable and — often — the unsuccessful. He is not dismissing pro-lifers or traditional Catholic concerns. He is saying we need to be fruitful, take risks and bear witness to everyone.
“Being prophets may sometimes imply making waves,” he told Father Spadaro. “Prophecy makes noise, uproar, some say ‘a mess.’ But in reality, the charism of religious people is like yeast: prophecy announces the spirit of the Gospel.”
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.