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Would the Real Pope Please Stand

GEORGE CONGER

Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?

The Argentine cardinal who 500 days ago became Pope Francis? Why, from a journalistic perspective, do we know so little about someone who talks so much?


Extracts of the interview with journalist Pablo Calvo published last week in Viva, the Sunday color supplement of the Buenos Aires daily newspaper El Clarín, to mark the pope’s first 500 days in office does not provide an answer.

The July 27, 2014, article (the eleventh the pope has given to the press since assuming office – ten of these to secular newspapers) has received widespread coverage in the Spanish-language media. But save for the Catholic press, the interview has not been given much play in the Anglosphere. 

That is a shame, for there are nuggets of journalistic gold buried in the El Clarín story. Yet the newspaper fails to unearth them, preferring to frame the story in soft focus. What El Clarín does report suggests the pope is adapt at playing back to interviewers what they want or expect to hear. Or has El Clarín cherry-picked those portions of its interview with Francis to present to the world what it believes is the essence of the Argentine pope?

The result is that what was left unsaid in this interview is more interesting, and more important, than what was said.

The National Catholic Register opened its report on the interview with this summary:

In a new interview published in Argentina Sunday, Pope Francis has given a 10-point plan for happiness, which includes giving oneself to others, spending Sundays with family, helping unemployed youth find work and letting others “live and let live.”

He also commends Sweden for giving asylum to a large number of immigrants, criticizes the destruction of the environment and stresses that peacemaking requires action, not passivity.

The Catholic News Service translated the pope’s 10 lessons for happy living as:

1. “Live and let live.”
2. “Be giving of yourself to others.”
3. “Proceed calmly” in life.
4. Have “a healthy sense of leisure.”
5. “Sunday is for family.”
6. Be “creative” with young people and find innovative ways to create dignified jobs.
7. Respect and take care of nature.
8. Stop being negative. “Letting go of negative things quickly is healthy,” he said.
9. “The worst thing of all is religious proselytism, which paralyzes.”
10. Work for peace. “We are living in a time of many wars,” he said. “The call for peace must be shouted.”

Newspaper accounts of the interview mostly followed the “top ten tips” line. Some of the exceptions came in La Stampa, the Italian daily, which focused on that portion of the interview where the pope discussed the Sacred Heart of Jesus medal he wears round his neck, the death-bed gift of a Sicilian laundress who worked in the Bergoglio family home when he was a child. From this woman he learned the dignity of labor.

All rather innocuous fluff – what in the U.S. might be called the “Barbara Walters” or “People Magazine” approach. But from what has been reported, there is little about this interview that is particularly Catholic about the pope’s remarks. And some of what was reported to have been said is a challenge to Catholic teaching.

NCR noted the pope mentioned God on three occasions in the interview. It cites Calvo as stating:

He only mentioned his name on three occasions, two for the appeal to protect nature and one on reading in a loud voice the title of my book on San Lorenzo de Almagro [an Argentine soccer team]: God Is a Raven”  … The word that Jorge Bergoglio invokes most these days is ‘peace.’

The impression given by this interview is that the pope “doesn’t do God”. The Francis of El Clarín comes across as a worldly, somewhat banal figure. Having covered the Church of England for most of my journalistic career my antenna has been finely tuned to appreciate episcopal cant – the verbal sludge of conventional wisdom, platitudes and calculated boredom designed to obfuscate that arises in many Anglican interviews. The El Clarín piece has left me feeling at home, and somewhat sticky.

Why should this be? Francis has had fantastic press from the secular media. Many who were once hostile to the Catholic Church see in the new pontiff a reflection of their own social and political desires. This latest interview could well fall into this category.

In choosing the pope as its “person of the year,” Time magazine’s editor Nancy Gibb wrote Francis had:

done something remarkable: he has not changed the words, but he’s changed the music.

Francis had rejected traditional “church dogma.” Time believed he would teach a softer, more inclusive Catholicism. It noted his:

focus on compassion, along with a general aura of merriment not always associated with princes of the church, has made Francis something of a rock star.

The Guardian‘s Jonathan Freedland saw in Francis an icon for liberals.

Francis could replace Obama as the pin-up on every liberal and leftist wall.

Perhaps El Clarín is following in this line of reporting. Francis speaks in clichés because that is what El Clarín wants its readers to hear. Perhaps the outlet for the interview, a Sunday color supplement, dictated what was highlighted by the interviewer. El Clarín has released a three minute clip of the 77 minute videotaped interview. A full transcript of the conversation has not been released either, making it impossible to check what has been reported with what was said.

For a religion reporter – an individual knowledgeable about the doctrines of the Catholic Church and the events of recent years – the pope’s words are more than worldy and banal. They question Catholic doctrine. Is the sentiment “live and let live” or the denunciation of proselytizing in line with the catechism of the church?

And, while the pope spoke about Gaza, Ukraine and Swedish immigration policy, why does he remain silent about issues involving specific people in need? The kidnapped school girls held by Boko Haram? Or Meriam Ibrahim? Or Asia Bibi? The pope is ready and willing to speak in the abstract but is silent when it comes to examples of persecution or injustice inflicted upon Catholics.

Three days after he sat down with El Clarín, Francis spoke to Eugenio Scalfari of the Italian newspaper la Repubblica on July 10. Among the comments ascribed to Francis was the assertion that clerical celibacy was a medieval innovation that he would reexamine. La Repubblica quoted the pope as saying:

Perhaps you do not know that celibacy was established in the 10th century, 900 years after the death of our Lord. The Eastern Catholic Church even now has the option for its priests to marry. The problem certainly exists, but it is not large in scope. It will take time, but the solutions are there and I will find them.

This quote prompted the Vatican press office to issue a statement questioning the reliability of the interview.

If it can be maintained that overall the article conveys the sense and spirit of the conversation between the Holy Father and Scalfari, what was said on the occasion of a previous 'interview' that appeared in 'Repubblica' must be reiterated forcefully, namely that the individual statements reported, in the formulation presented, cannot be attributed to the pope with certainty.

The focus of the press office’s ire was that clerical celibacy was a problem in need of a solution to which Francis said: “I will find the solutions.”

Are we seeing the same thing happening with El Clarín? Does a bad interview account for the odd silences and questionable statements? The interviewer for la Repubblica took no notes and reconstructed the interview from memory, while El Clarín videotaped its conversation – though it has not released the whole tape.

One of my frustrations in dealing with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s press office is that they seldom allows religion reporters access to their man. Rowan Williams and Justin Welby are often interviewed by reporters, but seldom are they interviewed by religion reporters. With the best will in the world a journalist who has no background in religion reporting or knowledge of the issues, doctrines and personalities of the church is not likely to ask strong questions or understand the answers he is given.

Of Francis' eleven interviews, ten have been with secular reporters from secular newspapers. The results are interviews that show a Francis who is curiously similar to his interlocutor. Is the pope manipulating the press or is the press manipulating the pope? After 500 days in office, the real Jorge Mario Bergoglio remains elusive.

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