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.”


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  • mjh

    That last quote is intriguing, Brian. “The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions.”

    Historically it was not necessary to be ordained a priest in order to be a bishop, or even a cardinal. Could women bishops and cardinals be accepted by the Church even while women priests are not?

  • cynic2

    He could start with having female advisers to all Bishops and Cardinal and a requirement to the Bishops to have regard to the advice

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Is the combination of arabic and Latin numeration in the thread’s title intended to make some obscure point or did you actually mean “Pope John the twenty-third” (which should be correctly expressed in letters XXIII, ex, ex, aye aye, aye, if you intend Latin numerals).

    It’s the sort of thing Beria might just have had you shot for, but then it was “any excuse” in those circles. While I’m all for open usage on these things (see the “Fada Fail” thread) XX111 just LOOKS ugly!!!!!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Oh, I forgot to say “Brian.”

  • Brian Walker

    Seaan, On vital points only too happy to oblige …

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you Brian, and now at least Cicero will know which Pope you are referring to….

  • SDLP supporter

    Thank you, Brian, for this. As a believer just hanging in there my his finger nails the full interview was fascinating and much more illuminating than the killer quotes that the media have to highlight.

  • Seamuscamp

    God knows what the orthodoxy now is but we were told at school that abbesses had the status of bishops; so there is no reason in principle why women could not be bishops and I believe there have been lay cardinals in the past – Jacques Maritain was rumoured to be a candidate for the cardinalate in the time of Paul VI.

    There has often been double-speak (and the sort of coversations tennis doubles partners indulge in) in the CC about contraception. Some months ago I heard the late David Frost refer on the radio to an interview with the conservative Cardinal Heenan some 40-odd years ago. Frost said it was one of the most surprising, if not shocking, in his career. I searched the internet and eventually found a transcript in The Tablet Archives via Google. It’s worth reading the whole article, if only to get a flavour of the strange debate in 1968, but the sting is in the tail:

    Cardinal Heenan: The teaching. of the Church is very clear. A man is bound to follow his conscience and this is true even if his conscience is in error; this is a basic teaching of the Church, that every man, the Pope, you, I, everyone, must follow conscience. Now it’s the duty of a Catholic to inform his conscience. But it could happen easily, particularly after this long period of dispute and doubt, it could happen that a couple might say conscientiously : I’m quite sure that this is the right thing for me to do. And if that can be said conscientiously, then, of course, they must follow their conscience. There is no dispute about this.
    David Frost : They must.
    Cardinal Heenan : They must follow their conscience.
    David Frost : And if they go to their priest and say that they’re doing precisely that, what should the priest say ?
    Cardinal Heenan : “God bless you.” If they’re really following their conscience in the sight of God, which is all that matters —the priest, the bishop, the Pope doesn’t matter compared with God.
    David Frost : But if a person is really following their conscience and using some form of contraceptive and goes to the priest and says so, then the priest should say, “God bless you “, and not refuse them the sacraments.
    Cardinal Heenan : Of course not, of course not. Perhaps you don’t know, but in the pastoral letter I wrote immediately after the Encyclical was published, I insisted on this. I said, don’t let this prevent you from receiving the sacraments”

    I think this article should be force fed to certain clerics, scribes and Pharisees

  • Brian Walker


    Very interesting thanks. And yet not the version which has stuck. The Church is wonderful at making its defence in the small print. And how do they know they’re “following their conscience n the sight of God?”

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Ah Brian, as any practicing Catholic (Anglo or Roman) could tell you, you just know! Your conscience (an aptitude, faculty, intuition or judgment that assists in distinguishing right from wrong) simply tells you. Check the word out in a dictionary for further clarification.

  • Newman


    I love the focus from our new Pope…mercy outweighs judgment but as you say the Pope is still Catholic and that is clear from the interview. I would suggest that those who hope that this is the prelude to change on all of the “hot button'” issue will be disappointed.

    The answer to the conundrum cannot be, however, to relegate personal conscience to the realm of the subjective. A properly informed conscience is not comparable to mere personal opinion.

    What we are seeing is a re-prioritising which is welcome and in fact resonates with peoples’ own understanding of the message of Christ.Ultimately however we all still need redemption. Jesus was not a post modernist!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Newman, while I fully agree that “a properly informed conscience is not comparable to mere personal opinion” the entire point of the entire concept of conscience is that it is a personal matter. It may need to be “informed” but it may never be “compelled.”

    I can only feel that the Popes re-prioratising of the primacy of the examination of self and motive is a very welcome shift of emphasis.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Sorry, two “entire”s.

  • Seamuscamp

    The whole point is that “we” or “they” cannot tell. It isn’t for us to judge. If I believe in a God who judges us, I must believe that God knows what we really believe. Popes, bishops, Saducees and Pharisees – the great and the good – can only judge appearances.

    “And how do they know they’re “following their conscience in the sight of God?””. This is an angels on the head of a pin sort of question. Your conscience is what helps you differentiate right from wrong. It is your duty (in Catholic theology at any rate) to do what your conscience tells you is right. Faced, as we so often are, with a choice of two or more wrongs, we should choose what conscience tells us is least wrong. Of course conscience may be defective and we may pursue an evil course because we feel it to be right. So a particular course of action may be evil, but the perpetrator is not necessarily committing a sin. Yet another reason for condemning the sin and not the sinner.

    “The answer to the conundrum cannot be, however, to relegate personal conscience to the realm of the subjective.”
    How can personal conscience be anything but subjective? For example, I believe that the whole basis of the policies pursued by IDS and the Tories with respect to benefits is anti-Christian and contrary to Catholic social teaching. IDS says he is Catholic. Who am I to judge him (as distinct from his policies)? If such a thing as conscience exists it is personal; if it isn’t personal, it isn’t conscience.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you Seamuscamp,

    “if it isn’t personal, it isn’t conscience.”


    And thank you for the excellent posting earlier.

  • Newman


    Agree that in terms of judgment..we can only judge appearances and thank God we do not have to take on the burden of judgment..None of us can judge the intentions of people hearts. Secondly I agree that conscience is personal, but properly formed it is not based on mere opinion and if it is then it can be deformed and fall into the realm of the subjective. We don’t come to our views out of thin air but rely on the scriptures tradition and the teaching of the church over millennia to assist. If we are entirely ignorant of these things then no doubt that is a relevant consideration