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The EditorsFebruary 16, 2023
Pope Francis speaks with journalist Julián Quirós during an interview with Spanish newspaper, ABC, at his residence at the Vatican in this photo released Dec. 18, 2022. The interview with ABC is one of many over Pope Francis' tenure. (CNS photo/Matias Nieto Koenig, courtesy ABC)

In August 2013, a few months after his election, Pope Francis gave a then-unprecedented interview to a consortium of Jesuit journals, including America, which we published under the headline “A Big Heart Open to God.” In a column introducing the interview, then-editor in chief Matt Malone, S.J., noted that while other popes had given interviews, they tended to be formal; he suggested that this more conversational interview, along with Pope Francis’ style in his in-flight press conferences, might “represent a new genre of papal communication, one that is fraternal rather than paternal.”

In the 10 years of his papacy thus far, Francis has made the papal interview almost commonplace, even though it is still breaking news whenever he gives one. He was interviewed in November by America, in December by the Spanish newspaper ABC and in January by The Associated Press. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that by the time you read this the pope will have given another interview to some other outlet.

In many senses, Pope Francis has proven the most communication-savvy pontiff in history. Interviews, informal press conferences, daily homilies, tweets, transcripts of meetings with the faithful from around the globe—all have poured out of the Roman Curia over the past 10 years at a rate that would have astonished and bewildered Francis’ predecessors. Some of this change can be attributed to advances in communications technology and an increase in media saturation, but Francis has also proven willing to make himself available to a degree that previous popes never even considered.

With this volume of communication, from the pope as well as from various supporters and detractors responding to him, it can be difficult for the church to determine what is signal and what is noise.

Francis has thus been a far more visible pope, making him popular and accessible but simultaneously more vulnerable to knee-jerk criticism and misinterpretation. This vulnerability has led some observers of the papacy—both supporters of Pope Francis and his critics—to question his approach. While he can certainly command a news cycle, complaints of confusion and unclarity in teaching often get almost as much airtime as what the pope intended to convey. With this volume of communication, from the pope as well as from various supporters and detractors responding to him, it can be difficult for the church to determine what is signal and what is noise.

One great danger of such ease of communication in the life of the church is hyper-papalism, where the church is equated in the minds of believers (and nonbelievers) with the person of the pope. The impression is that the church’s fidelity to its mission turns on the day-to-day activities of one specific person. This is not a new problem—“ultramontanists” tend to be associated with the 19th century, but the label has existed since medieval times. Yet the past half-century has seen it grow in ways that are not always healthy for the church.

This media-enabled ultramontanism can make it appear that any papal statement is an epochal moment in the development of doctrine. But while an impromptu press conference on a plane is not immaterial, it is also not an encyclical—and neither is an audience in the Vatican, nor a tweet, nor an interview. The real challenge facing the church, though, is not just assigning the correct level of authority to a given medium, as if the only significant question about any statement is how binding it is, but instead how to listen discerningly to a vastly expanded range of papal communication.

Of course, there are some who would say this style of papal communication is itself the problem, and that the pope should stick to more clearly established forms and avoid saying anything that could cause confusion or unclarity. Others rush to defend and clarify whatever Pope Francis says, as if to suggest that the only problem is those who question him. The reality is that sometimes Pope Francis is confusing and unclear, and he might be better served by slower and more deliberate communication. And the reality also is that some of Francis’ critics in a deeply polarized church are looking for opportunities to turn anything he says into a crisis for his papacy.

But this dilemma is mostly a misunderstanding of Francis’ style of communication itself. In his more informal and frequent communication, Francis is not primarily expounding doctrine, much less changing it, but pastoring.

But this dilemma is mostly a misunderstanding of Francis’ style of communication itself. In his more informal and frequent communication, Francis is not primarily expounding doctrine, much less changing it, but pastoring. He cajoles, encourages, scolds, jokes, inspires and exhorts. His goal is to evoke in his hearers their own encounter with God and trust in God’s “closeness, compassion and tenderness.” Francis frequently describes this triad as the “style of God,” and Francis’ own style is an attempt to concretize these qualities in the life of the church.

Indeed, by some measures Pope Francis has done less explicit teaching than his predecessors. St. John Paul II produced 14 encyclicals over his 26 years as pope; Benedict XVI wrote three in eight years; Francis has written three in 10 years, and the first of those was the completion of a text already partially drafted under Benedict. Some of this difference reflects the increased importance of the synodal process and post-synodal exhortations under Francis, but it also marks a different rhythm to the papacy. Pope Francis’ impact has been felt as much in the images he has given us (the church as a “field hospital” and “smelling like the sheep”) and his direct engagement with people (making phone calls and responding personally to letters) as in his formal exercise of the magisterium.

Francis was elected to the chair of Peter in part because of a speech he gave before the conclave about the need for the church to go out of itself to evangelize, to avoid becoming sick and “being self-referential, a type of theological narcissism.” His approach to communication as pope should be understood in this light: His availability and willingness to speak freely even at the risk of being misunderstood is medicine against a graver illness. He is teaching us that no amount of carefulness and clarity of teaching can compensate for a church that is not bold enough in proclaiming God’s mercy and being with God’s people.

As Francis predicted, and as his willingness to give interviews has helped demonstrate, a church that is more willing to go outside itself will also receive more bumps and bruises. A real-time engagement with the world is inevitably messier than self-enclosure. Whether his boldness turns out to be wisdom will depend not just on what he says in interviews or even in encyclicals, but on whether the rest of us in the church are inspired to be similarly bold and faithful ourselves.

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