The Catholic Thing
Casting Pearls Before Swine Print E-mail
By Rev. Mark A. Pilon S.T.D.   
Thursday, 01 August 2013

At the recent World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis encouraged Catholic youths to “Go out into the whole world and make a mess!” He said he wants to shake up the Church, “to stir things up.” Of course, he wants to make this mess by proclaiming an unadulterated Gospel of Jesus Christ. The revolution the pope is calling for is a spiritual revolution, a countercultural movement to combat contemporary materialism and secularism.

Unfortunately, this vibrant papacy is already running into problems. So I want to make a little mess by suggesting that it might not be the most fruitful approach to the world for the pope to constantly have these off-the-cuff interviews with the media. In fact, he might borrow a strategy from Benedict. More on that below.

For instance, on his trip home the pope had an extended conversation with reporters in which he stated very briefly his position regarding the problem of homosexuality and homosexual priests.

Nothing the pope said was new or different from what his predecessors have said on this issue. He distinguished clearly between orientation and homosexual acts, he spoke of confession and repentance, and he repeated the Church's teaching that homosexuals not be marginalized because of their sexual orientation. None of this is revolutionary.

But the press picked up and focused on a single sentence, "Who am I to judge them?” Taken in the context of everything else the pope said in that interview or elsewhere many times, there is absolutely nothing new or surprising.

The press, however, in large part, especially in the United States, chose to interpret that statement not in the context of the pope’s broader comments but in the context of the “non-judgmentalism” and relativistic morality in our society.

In the contemporary world, not judging people translates as not judging their actions, and the press took this as an opening for the Church to reconsider its moral condemnation of homosexual relationships and activity. It doesn't matter what the pope said before or after this statement; the press chose to portray him as opening the door to a new moral attitude.

This is the danger in off-the-cuff interviews today. What the press is interested in are simply sound bites and controversy. Complex issues like homosexuality and homosexuals in the priesthood cannot be discussed with the media “swine” in this manner without constantly having to correct their misinterpretations and reportorial sensationalism.

By and large the press is not interested in the Church or her true mission, but only in the scandals and controversies surrounding the hot issues of contemporary culture and how the Church fits into these issues.

No one who has followed this pope and understands his deep faith and the weight of Church teaching and tradition in his approach to any of these hot issues could really think that he is going to make any substantial changes.

But most media types couldn’t care less about the Church and know even less about the binding character of her moral teaching on sexual matters and the definitiveness of her teaching on things like the ordination of women. When the pope stated in this interview that the ordination of women had been “definitively” excluded, he meant absolutely.

But they do not understand the meaning of definitive or absolute in anything. They will not stop pressing for any hint of change.

When the pope spoke of homosexuals seeking forgiveness from sin, it meant he definitively holds that homosexual acts are seriously sinful, but I doubt reporters understand that. They focused on his words that he would not be their (ultimate?) judge, which can mean a lot of things, but it does not mean that he does not judge their acts to be sinful and seriously disordered.

It also tells us nothing concerning his position on homosexuals in the priesthood. Does he differ from his immediate predecessor as to whether homosexuals should be admitted to seminaries, or is he simply speaking about homosexuals already in the priesthood?

I don’t believe Pope Benedict ever called for such priests to be removed when they were not practicing homosexuals or dissenting from Church teaching on homosexual actions. Pope Francis was speaking along this line about the so-called gay lobby. If a priest begins to lobby for change to justify his own behavior, I doubt that the pope would be nonjudgmental about that.

Likewise I am fairly certain that the pope, a prelate who has lived out in the world could be naïve about the problem of such individuals in seminaries. A chaste homosexual would not likely be a man who comes out and asserts his homosexuality as a badge of honor. Such men have an agenda, and when seminaries tolerated this kind of conduct in the last century, they soon became havens for homosexual activists.

I suspect the pope knows this and would not differ from Benedict on this matter. Neither pope would want that situation again. So when he said who was he to judge, he was talking about the closeness of any man to God who is trying to live a life of chastity. He would not judge that this was impossible for a man with a homosexual tendency, but that would hardly carry over to a homosexual activist.

In today’s over-sexed, relativistic culture, it is certainly a lot harder for any man to embrace a chaste life, but even harder for a homosexual man living among other men all the time, as in a seminary or rectory.

These kinds of complex issues are surely not the proper subjects for impromptu news interviews. Let’s hope the pope will reformulate his natural generosity and openness to dialogue. And here’s a positive alternative: he could follow Benedict’s example in the lengthy interviews he granted an educated and intelligent interviewer and then published in book form.

It would help avoid misunderstandings – just a suggestion from an old mess maker.

Fr. Mark A. Pilon, a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, received a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from Santa Croce University in Rome. He is a former Chair of Systematic Theology at Mount St. Mary Seminary, a former contributing editor of Triumph magazine, and a retired and visiting professor at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. He writes regularly at 

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Comments (23)Add Comment
written by ib, August 01, 2013
Well, Fr. Mark, you may be very correct in this advice. Both Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI were very structured in their approach to the press (which was often hostile). Perhaps Blessed John Paul II learned this in dealing with the Communist press in Poland, and Pope Benedict continued it for its usefulness. And it may very well be the best way to handle the press in the 21st century. Give interviews only to select journalists.with questions agreed on beforehand. Stick to the script, read from the tele-prompter, take no spontaneous questions. However, this approach makes communication between the Papacy and the larger world as if by "remote control." And, as no less than Robert Royal wrote in a TCT post just last week: "Neither [Blessed John Paul II or Benedict XVI ], however, was really able to turn the cultural tide that continues to overrun the Church in developed countries."

So perhaps it would be all right if Pope Francis tried a different approach to communicating with the press and others. It may not be an approach we are comfortable with ourselves. But maybe that's because the other approach has been in place for *35 years*. Frankly, that's most of my lifetime. Perhaps Dr. Damian Thompson (former Editor-in Chief of the Catholic Herald ) might be on to something when he writes in the July 29th Telegraph:

"[Pope] Francis, on the other hand, possesses a charisma so intense that some observers consider him the solution … That said, my first reaction to the aerial shot of Copacabana beach was to think: this is perhaps the moment when the stereotype of the Catholic Church as a nest of lying hypocrites and child abusers will finally begin to fade. Thank God … If Pope Francis can create an atmosphere where Catholics are judged by their actions today rather than by the abhorrent crimes of a minority of their clergy, then even the most staunch traditionalist will be in his debt."
written by Randall, August 01, 2013
I teach English as a foreign language in Poland and on Tuesday a 14-year-old girl I teach piped up that, "The Pope said he's for helping gays!" She meant this in the sense that Pope Francis is OK with homosexuality. Yes, she's only 14 but the mentality of too many adults is similar to hers.

I patiently explained to her what the Pope actually said and that it's nothing different from what the Church and previous Popes have taught.

Regarding Pope Francis' spontaneity in interviews, this is actually a new thing from him. When he was bishop in Argentina he had the reputation for not saying much to the media precisely because he didn't trust how they'd report his words. Look up Francesa Ambrogetti, who has co-written a book on Pope Francis and can attest to his reluctance to talk with the media.
written by Manfred, August 01, 2013
I fear the problems are more systemic. Cdl Bergoglio chooses to be called the Bishop of Rome (BoR) who took the name Francis. He feels the title BoR is more "ecumenical". He chooses to appear only in a white cassock with none of the trappings of his true office of Pope. I am very pleased with this as I believe the practice of papalotry should never have been encouraged. Francis also mentioned recently that Pauil VI and JP I are also under consideration for canonization. With all the problems the Church has had with homosexual priests, including the $2 billion in abuse settlements in the US, for the BoR to treat this subject casually marks him as a fool. There is also evidence that he may reverse Summorum Pontificum as a recent decision on the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate seems to indicate. The evidence is mounting that he is simply the wrong man for the job. I am pleased with this as the role of the Pope should be as guardian of orthodoxy and not some popular "hero".
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, August 01, 2013
Thank you, Fr. Pilon. I can think of not a few bishops who could have used what you have written above as 'talking points' for their TV interviews this past week. Your clarity of thinking is refreshing - mainly because you speak truth and not double-speak.
written by Dennis Larkin, August 01, 2013
The guarded, nuanced approach to media relations has largely failed for the papacy these many years. I'm for giving Francis the benefit of the doubt. He has the capacity to take their/our breath away by the rapidity and the quantity and the shock of his statements. Like Christ. I think the media would love to bury him, but by the time they rally, he's already moved on to another breath-taking statement. Being afraid of the media is what they want. Francis has the ability to speak directly with to faithful, ignoring the gatekeepers, and to keep moving, like Patton through France. (In armor branch, it is called "kick ass and bypass.") I think he's on to something and I think the change of pace is working. He's vibrant, while they, the media, are crabbed, brittle, fussy, and sour. Francis is on offense, while it's the media that is left posturing over one or another position they hold dear. Let him go, I say.
written by Alun, August 01, 2013
Less spontaneous utterance is probably a good thing. But remember that it was in Benedict's interview with Peter Sewald (Light of the World) that the whole "pope approves condoms" controversy exploded.
written by Jack,CT, August 01, 2013
great perspective,how true how the media
"cherry picks" what they want.I wish the new pope
the best and he will learn as time ges by after all
he is just past 100 days as Pope,I think his style
is refreshing to say the least.
Pope Francis could however be a bit more restrained
as he is speaking for all of us.
written by Grump, August 01, 2013
Well put, Father, in that those who masquerade as "journalists" today are always looking to cherry-pick quotes out of context and then put their own spin on them. Indeed, "Judgment" with a capital J is left to God alone, but we, as humans, make judgments every day about all manner of things.

Translation can be tricky and the word "judge" in one language is subject to nuance and interpretation. Francis is so far less scripted than previous popes, which can cut both ways. One the one hand, spontaneity in speech often reveals one's true thoughts as opposed to more deliberative expression, which can be more calculating and designed to deceive. "Who am I to judge?" can be construed as a statement of humility and not as literally and out of context as the media would have it.

As long as the Pope reflects the Church's immutable teachings about morality and sinful conduct, it is of no concern that now and then he speaks off the cuff, as B16 was not wont to do.

Meanwhile, the secular media will parse every word and sentence uttered from the pontiff in an effort to find a glimmer of hope to advance its depraved agenda. In a soundbite world in which attention spans are ever shortening and collective IQ's are dropping, the medium will occasionally overpower the message.
written by Romy1, August 01, 2013
Thank you, Fr. Mark, for trying to justify Pope Francis's remarks but the interview on the plane is rich with other controversial comments that I won't go into here because it would take too long. But if you look at the transcript of the airplane interview, he makes other comments comparing St. Peter with Msgr. Ricca. It is quite dismaying.

"Who am I to judge"? is a code used by moral relativists. The Pope knows that. I know that, and you also know that. The media know that.
written by Liz, August 01, 2013
Modern media aside...I imagine all popes have had some form of this problem. Jesus certainly had to deal with those who heard only what they wanted to hear.
written by Bill M, August 01, 2013
Is the Holy Father supposed to speak to the People of God through lengthy book interviews? There is no winning with the secular media these days, so why even worry? I don't always understand what the Holy Father is up to, but I am fairly certain that he is right to trust in the Holy Spirit and keep preaching. The holy martyrs of the early Church would have been glad to be misquoted by the NYT instead of crucified.
written by Fr. Bramwell, August 01, 2013
Did anyone look for the actual words in Pope Francis' comments? The closest that I can find is the following from his address to the Argentinian youth. He said: "I hope there will be noise. Here there will be noise, I’m quite sure. Here in Rio there will be plenty of noise, no doubt about that. But I want you to make yourselves heard in your dioceses, I want the noise to go out, I want the Church to go out onto the streets, I want us to resist everything worldly, everything static, everything comfortable, everything to do with clericalism, everything that might make us closed in on ourselves. The parishes, the schools, the institutions are made for going out ... if they don’t, they become an NGO, and the Church cannot be an NGO. May the bishops and priests forgive me if some of you create a bit of confusion afterwards. That’s my advice. Thanks for whatever you can do." If this is the "mess" then what are we talking about?
written by Seanachie, August 01, 2013
Agree with your conclusion/recommendation, Father. Catholicism does not need the papal equivalent of a Biden.
written by DeGaulle, August 01, 2013
"Who am I to judge"? is a code used by moral relativists.

That may be so, but we don't have to allow them to dictate to us the meaning of the words we use. This remark can also be interpreted as a subtle statement that Francis means that he, ultimately is not the One we have to deal with. I also am not entirely convinced that these comments are fully spontaneous. I suspect there is a lot of preparation. We are all nervous, of course, dealing with the media is the equivalent of rolling around in a nest of vipers(and I use the snake image deliberately), but Pope Francis has seemingly managed to nail, for any mature person open to his message, the teaching of the Church on homosexuality, as expressed in the CCC, and the issue of 'women priests'. We must pray for the Pope in his great struggles.
written by Louis Gasper, August 01, 2013
If my concurrence is worth anything, I agree with Father Pilon that His Holiness would be well advised to be more guarded when he is addressing complex issues that the press has shown an eagerness to misreport. It is a general and nearly universal rule that it is far more effective, and less wearying, to make a studied statement that avoids problems than to chase after misunderstandings of casual remarks.
written by Fr. Bramwell, August 02, 2013
Apparently no one else has found the Pope's actual words. The column is based on a false premise but that has not curbed the urge to post. A useful lesson has been to see how a false premise becomes the foundation of conversation even among Catholics.
written by Magrat, August 02, 2013
I agree with Fr Bramwell that before anyone thinks to comment on the subject, one should read the Pope's actual remarks

The Vatican website now has the interview during which these remarks were made (see Press Conference of the Holy Father during the flight back). The Catholic News Service has the relevant excerpt in English (see the article titled "Pope answers questions about Curia reforms, gay lobby").
written by Manfred, August 03, 2013
It is important to remember that the Pope is NOT the Church.
The Bishop of Rome has already declared his intention to canonize JP II and John XXIII. He has mentioned his intent to also canonize Paul VI and JP I and, it seems, Pius XII is being strongly considered. It is impossible that ALL these popes are saints, especially when one examines what happened on their "watches".
Someone had better jump into the popemobile and pry his fingers from the steering wheel before his antics drive everyone from the Church.
written by Marcellus, August 03, 2013
Where, in the Holy Father’s comments, did he distinguish “clearly between orientation and homosexual acts?” He distinguished between the orientation and lobbying for the orientation, but said nothing about homosexual acts, pro or con. Specifically, he said, “The problem isn’t this orientation—we must be like brothers and sisters. The problem is something else, the problem is lobbying either for this orientation or a political lobby or a Masonic lobby." It is not that unreasonable for someone to hear him say that the orientation is not a problem (which it is), to elaborate on what the problem is without any mention of the deeper problem or sin of homosexual acts, to question who he is to judge, all combined with his statement that the Catechism says “they must be integrated into society” (which it doesn’t) and come away thinking that he was signaling a shift in the Church’s thinking. That is not my judgment. In charity I will interpret his words for the best. But let’s not damn the press for not interpreting him in the context of his broader comments.
written by Fr. Bramwell, August 03, 2013
I hate to be picky but even the Press conference on the return journey does not contain the word "mess" or the word "diocese". So the problem remains . . .
written by Romy1, August 03, 2013
The operative word we are discussing is "judge", not "mess". Fortunately, Cardinal Dolan straightened out the plane press conference problem when he made the proper distinction between sexual orientation and action.

Prudence (not prudery) may the virtue a pope needs to practice. Pope Francis's advisors did not want him to give the conference on the plane to Rome because they know what a fiasco that can be, especially when the featured person is tired and jetlagged. They were right, and I agree with you Fr. Bramwell that Catholic dogma cannot be explicated in fleeting meetings with the media.

Whenever someone asks me a deep question about the faith, I cannot give them a glib answer, but to test their sincerity, I ask, "Do you have an hour to discuss this?" They always say, "no". I suggest books for them, instead. If they are really interested, they will follow up with the book. I just cannot babysit grown, intelligent persons who have access to the internet and can find the answers to their questions at numerous Catholic sites. Pardon my testiness!
written by Stanley Anderson, August 04, 2013
Romy1 wrote, "I ask, ‘Do you have an hour to discuss this?’ They always say, ‘no’. I suggest books for them, instead."

And, in fact, Pope Francis effectively told the listeners during that segment to see what the Catechism says on the subject.

Frankly, the whole discussion of "if only he had said, or if only he had done, or if only he had explained...[whatever]" hinges on the idea that the "correct" form will assure that the mainstream press will finally "get it right". But this assumption is, as far as I can tell, hopelessly wrong. They have an agenda and no matter what form an issue that is difficult for the world to hear takes, the media will try to find a way to distort it to their own ends.

I think, finally, we must simply rely on "He that has ears to hear, let him hear". The Pope has lots of prayers offered up for his guidance. And if he does seem to go astray in our eyes, God's Will will be done regardless. Our concerns and analysis can certainly be part of the process of that working out of God's Will, but I think we should be worried about the effectiveness of the Pope's efforts at communication to nearly the same degree that we should be worried about the "wrong" Pope being selected during the Conclave -- ie, "not very high on the list" (read "not on the list at all").
written by Fr. Bramwell, August 04, 2013
So apparently the "mess up your dioceses" was not a papal statement but rather the fabrication of some reporter. The best summary of what the pope said is that he told the youth to "challenge their dioceses". You can see that if you read the original text. After all of the grandstanding and corrections offered to the pope, he was in fact correct in his statement and he was respectful of his brother bishops, to whom he also apologized in the same statement if this suggestion caused them any trouble.
This was a good lesson in going straight to the source and not wasting time on something that was untrue. It was also a good lesson in not automatically expecting the worst from the pope.

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