The interview that Pope Francis granted to the Associated Press, published on January 25, points to what appears to be his state of mind. The Pope seems to respond “candidly” to the questions, even accepting to enter tricky terrain, complaining that he would prefer not to receive criticism, and even showing disinterest for some issues. However, it is precisely how he talks about the problems that suggests if and how the Pope is interested, if and how the Pope has been hit by some criticism, and if and how the Pope intends to respond.
At times, a hiatus is perceived between Pope Francis’ account of reality and reality itself. His way of seeing things also gives this hiatus. The risk is always that of over-interpreting Francesco. The interview, however, has the merit of touching on many thorny issues, forcing the Pope to come out into the open.
First of all, there is the topic of Benedict XVI. Pope Francis says he has lost a point of reference, a person to always ask for advice, a person to whom he went whenever needed. History shows that the Pope did not consider historical questions when deciding on subjects that interested him, such as the traditional liturgy. History also shows that Pope Francis did not pay homage to Benedict XVI at his funeral, perhaps worried about giving the impression that Benedict had been until death the sitting Pope – although others say that it was Benedict XVI that asked not to have the spotlight during his funeral. The words about Benedict XVI smack of an unsolicited act of reparation.
Will it be enough to overcome the resentment of many about the way the death of Benedict XVI was handled? It remains a doubt. But the question of Benedict XVI leads Pope Francis to speak of another issue, namely his own possible renunciation. And in that case, the Pope almost hints at a “punishment” against Benedict XVI, who, with his choice, had remained as a “slave” in the Vatican, when instead Francis would be bishop emeritus of Rome and would eventually go to live in the Clergy House where he resided before the Conclave.
In another interview, the Pope had said that he would go to live in the Lateran, but that is not the point. The point is instead that the Pope does not consider the papacy as an institution, and he is not willing to give up any personal freedom. Instead, he considers it a function to move away from, in order to eventually return to the previous life.
Since it is a function, institutional symbols no longer count. And therefore, Pope Francis made it known that the idea of the court must be removed, and for this reason, he has stopped going to Castel Gandolfo and has made it a museum, so it is a pastoral work. Apart from the fact that museums are not religious works but rather a way of earning money, the Pope shows a general idea of what it means to be a Pope.
The court is made up of nothing but collaborators, and basically, even Pope Francis carries a “court” with him when he goes on a trip and refers to specific people when he has to make decisions. The difference is that the court that follows him on papal journeys is clear, transparent, structured, and has a precise task to which everyone can refer. In contrast, the court that helps Pope Francis to make decisions is informal, without specific roles, and therefore not transparent.
Often, a “court” also means clarity in government. This concept escapes Pope Francis, who is used to deciding for himself. In this, the Pope exploits all the prerogatives of being an absolute monarch while complaining that he is in an absolute monarchy. This makes one wonder.
Then, Pope Francis addressed the issue of China, particularly the question of Cardinal Joseph Zen, whom he agreed to see after the funeral of Benedict XVI. His description of Cardinal Zen seems reductive for a personality like that of the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong.
The trial to which Zen was subjected is reduced by he Pope to an administrative sanction, Zen’s arrest almost becomes a starting point for a good prison ministry, and the cardinal himself is described in a practically picturesque way as a pious man who even kneels to pray in front of to the image of Our Lady of Sheshan which he finds in the Pope’s study.
In practice, Pope Francis does everything to make it clear that he has received Cardinal Zen because he is now old and almost “quaint,” certainly not to show solidarity with the cardinal or to inquire about the situation of the Church in China to benefit from a different point of view.
How the Pope deals with the issue of abuses in the Church should also be analyzed in depth. Pope Francis says he changed his approach starting from his trip to Chile, when he was faced with objections from people and then decided to change his strategy, also thanks to the observations of some journalists (including those of the Associated Press).
These are statements that make you think. Does this mean that the Pope’s previous commitment to the issue of abuse, with the establishment of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, should be considered only a marketing operation? And how can one speak of structures of corruption in the Church without feeling that, for example, these structures of sin have also been nurtured through some decisions of the Pope in Chile itself?
More than a fundamental change of course, it seems instead a conversion on what the Pope called “the altar of hypocrisy” when he explained why he had accepted the resignation of the archbishop of Paris, Michel Aupetit, at the center of a dispute for alleged abuse.
How, then, should Pope Francis’ decisions be interpreted? When do his decisions represent his thinking, and when are they a reaction to public opinion?
The question of the Jesuit Marko Rupnik is also interesting. The Pope says he never intervened in the process that led to a condemnation of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for abuses. But Father Sosa, general of the Society of Jesus, had admitted that there was an excommunication for having “absolved the accomplice.”
These excommunications are latae sententiae, i.e., they occur immediately for having committed the crime and, therefore, must only be notified. Thus, the Apostolic See, i.e., the Pope, can only lift these excommunications. The Pope needs at least to be informed.
However, the Pope’s response does not allow us to understand whether Rupnik would have been excommunicated if Pope Francis had not intervened in the process — probably not. But then why had Father Sosa, pressed by questions from journalists, admitted that there was an excommunication? Who is lying?
At the end of these interviews, more questions remain open than answered. Each response from the Pope would bring with it another ten questions. The impression is that the Pope suffers significantly from criticism and needs to create a favorable public opinion. Pope Francis himself says that he would prefer that there were no criticisms. Indeed, every time he has to respond to criticism, the Pope refers to previous decisions and reads them according to his way of understanding reality, which is a way of shielding himself.
But, in the end, it is the Pope who decides, the Pope who takes matters into his own hands, and the Pope who sometimes falls into contradictions. No one can doubt his good faith. Some questions, however, are appropriate to understand where the Church is going. Also, at this moment, without Benedict XVI to tip the balance, criticism of the Pope would not be spared. It is the moment of parrhesia, of frankness, for those outside the “magic circle” of Pope Francis. His pontificate will also be read against the light of these criticisms.