April 1, 2016


Those papal press conferences

There appear to be many Catholics who wish that Pope Francis would stop giving those press conferences on planes. We are not among them.

Yes, there’s always the possibility that the reporters will report only part of what he said, or will ask a question designed to cause controversy, or will not understand the context of the pope’s statements. That was certainly true during the press conference after the pope’s visit to Mexico when he answered questions about Donald Trump and about contraception to prevent the Zika epidemic.

But even when that happens, the pope’s words reach audiences that have never paid attention to what popes have said. It’s part of Francis’ understanding that this is part of his mission of evangelization.

And it’s effective. He comes across as exactly who he is: a humble, normal man who understands the problems of people around the world. He’s the type of person that people are attracted to and will listen to.

That’s why Pope Francis has been using all the social media to try to get his, and the Church’s, message across to as many people as possible. He’s on Twitter, Instagram and other technological means of communicating.

This is a definite contrast to many of his predecessors. There was a long period of time, from 1870 to 1929, when the popes confined themselves to the Vatican and were seldom seen or heard. It wasn’t until St. John XXIII was pope from 1958 to 1963 that we had a pope who was comfortable speaking to the press, and then only on occasion—like when he was asked how many people work at the Vatican, and he replied, “About half.”

But the tradition of press conferences on planes started more or less accidentally in 1979 when St. John Paul II answered a reporter’s question during his first trip to Mexico. The reporter asked if the pope would visit the United States. After he answered, there were immediately follow-up questions and the tradition was started.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wasn’t comfortable answering reporters’ questions. He didn’t eliminate the press conferences, but he asked for the questions in advance and then would select the ones he wanted to answer. Francis, obviously, is comfortable with everyone—even reporters.

We suppose it’s similar to the case with our presidents. Although some of our early presidents were comfortable with the press, it wasn’t until Woodrow Wilson started the practice of presidential press conferences that they became a tradition, and some presidents handled them better than others—mainly Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

What people who object to those papal news conferences seem to be afraid of is that the pope will say something with which they disagree. They wish the pope would stick to personal morality issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and divorce. They don’t like it when he stirs their consciences by talking about things like immigration, economics or ecology.

The pope has been told to stay away from “political” issues, as if our treatment of migrants and refugees has nothing to do with morality. As Francis said when he spoke to the U.S. Congress, the Golden Rule should be the basis of all morality.

Of course the pope should speak out about “political” issues, not from a partisan point of view but from a moral one. He did that when he said, on his plane back from Mexico, that “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian.” The questioner asked about Trump, but Francis answered with a principle.

With his emphasis on helping the poor and preserving our environment, Pope Francis is following in the footsteps of his predecessors. Ever since Pope Leo XIII issued the first social encyclical, “Rerum Novarum,” in 1891, every pope except John Paul I has followed suit. (Pope John Paul I died after only a month in office.) It’s strange that people who follow the pope so closely when it comes to personal morality seem comfortable with rejecting what he has to say regarding social issues.

We hope that Pope Francis will continue to speak freely. We’re sure that he will.

—John F. Fink

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