The Pope is still a Catholic but maybe one like John XX111

There’s no doubt of the instant secular and humanist appeal of Pope Francis’s interview with a Jesuist magazine .

 The pope has attempted to change the whole direction of modern Catholicism.. Not since Khruschev denounced Stalin at the 20th Communist party conference has there been such a reforming speech-.

That was the speech that tore away the veil of official  adulation from  the monster Stalin in 1956 three years after his death,  followed quickly by the expedient execution of mass murderer and KGB chief Laventri Beria, Stalin’s  effective successor. The speech wasn’t printed in full until the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union 33 years later. It’s a low blow to speculate on a similar fate for the Catholic Church. But it’s fair to ask: has the Pope been misunderstood? Is he too good to be true? A Jesuit being interviewed for a Jesuit magazine; we all know their reputation don’t we?

The complete interview shows Pope Francis keen to return to the fundamentals of salvation  while steeped in Church and specifically Jesuit tradition. It was within that idiom that his lengthy and considered remarks were made. The answer to the Guardian’s Marina Hyde who actually asked the question Is the Pope Catholic? is firmly yes, though I guess that the theologically literate will be divided on the interview’s significance. Some recently retired curial ultras are bound to fight a rearguard action in code and plenty of crusty bishops will quietly dig their heels in. Catholic watchers of the world who finally brought us the abuse scandals, please be on the alert.

However when you read the interview in full conducted in three sessions and translated from Italian into English by a panel of five, you see that important small omissions from the original in the extract, for example (highlighted in bold)

 It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.

“We have to find a new balance,” the pope continued, “otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

Nothing sinister in the small cuts I’m sure, just the subs pencilling out some of that religious stuff. Last time the conservative gloss of his walkabout  interview on  the plane from Rio survived editing, when  the Pope reached out to gays and women:

  On other key issues, Francis said that women should be given a bigger role in the Catholic Church but refused to consider their ordination, saying the “door is closed” on the issue. He also declined to change the Vatican’s opposition to gay marriage and abortion, saying “you know perfectly the position of the Church.”

So is the Pope simply trying to take the heat out of debilitating social controversy where the church has  lost the argument, without signalling a shift in direction? It’s hard to read anything specific into his latest comments on the role of women beyond the usual ecclesial flattery (provoking the answer yuk?). And while he seems to accept the obvious fact of greater liberty of conscience,  confessors are still available and willing to give the faithful a steer (I’ve just heard a re- run of a 2004 interview with Seamus Heaney when he said of the “benediction – it must be said – of confession: all gone!”.

All the same, there were remarkably few platitudes and little evasive ecclesial mummery. If the declining priesthood pays the Pope any attention at all, the belt of the crozier and similar sanctions exercised lower down now seem officially as well as actually dead. Might we have fewer  die in the ditch histrionics from the Irish hierarchy over abortion reform? Over visitations from Rome to sort out high as well as low level sex abuse in places such as Ireland or Scotland, he seems to be returning to the old collegial model of John XXIII in the early 1960s. His message now is which is  that the locals should sort out their problems with help from Rome if needed, but not with Rome taking charge.

One final point. It surely isn’t the conservative church “talking all the time “ about  divorce, contraception  and other irreversible shifts in mores. Apart from abortion where they kept their nerve, the Church has largely fallen silent.  Not talking at all for much of the time about child abuse still requires credible explanation. The default on abuse despite everything remains as much evasion as they can get away with. Pity the Pope didn’t come up with an explanation of a disastrous mindset and declare it “out of context.” Maybe next time?

Some choice quotations:


My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative. I lived a time of great interior crisis when I was in Cordova. To be sure, I have never been like Blessed Imelda, but I have never been a right-winger. It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems.


According to St. Ignatius, great principles must be embodied in the circumstances of place, time and people. In his own way, John XXIII adopted this attitude with regard to the government of the church, when he repeated the motto, ‘See everything; turn a blind eye to much; correct a little.’ John XXIII saw all things, the maximum dimension, but he chose to correct a few, the minimum dimension. You can have large projects and implement them by means of a few of the smallest things. Or you can use weak means that are more effective than strong ones, as Paul also said in his First Letter to the Corinthians


The woman is essential for the church. Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops. I say this because we must not confuse the function with the dignity. We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. Only by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their function within the church. The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions. The challenge today is this: to think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the church is exercised for various areas of the church.”


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London