After Pope Francis’ recent press conference during the plane trip from Ciudad Juárez in Mexico to Rome, some commentators in the United States, Italy and the United Kingdom suggested that he should abandon this practice.
One asserted that his words “are, at best, confusing”—for example, regarding the morality of contraception in the context of the Zika epidemic—adding that Francis is “wrong to use interviews as a regular facet of his public ministry.” Others claim he misspoke on Donald J. Trump.
What they fail to recognize is that Francis is reaching a global audience, far beyond the Catholic Church, in a way no pope in history has done. He is doing so in a totally free, credible way that shuns politically correct discourse and comes across as a humble, normal person, which adds to his credibility with people of all faiths and none.
At times, he sparks discussion by responding in a non-politically correct way to important questions. Remember his “Who am I to judge?” comment regarding homosexuals on the Rio–Rome flight? Or his remark on the Colombo–Manila flight after the terrorist attacks in Paris, when he insisted that the right to freedom of expression does not entitle anyone to ridicule or offend another’s religion. Or think of his response on the Juárez–Rome flight regarding affirmations like those made by Donald Trump that if he became president, he would build a wall on the Mexican border and deport 11 million undocumented migrants. Without naming Mr. Trump, Francis said: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel.”
It is worth mentioning that Francis does not know the questions in advance. The reporters on the plane huddle in language groups to identify both the questions and the persons to ask them. The names are given to Federico Lombardi, S.J., the Vatican spokesman, who calls on each in turn. When members of the media sometimes spin or misrepresent what the pope says, Father Lombardi may have to issue subsequent clarifications; but surely that is a small price to pay for this extraordinary opportunity to communicate the Gospel message and the church’s teaching to the world.
The tradition of press conferences started by accident under St. John Paul II, when, on his first trip to Mexico in 1979, an American journalist asked if he would visit the United States. That question was quickly followed by others, and press conferences soon became an integral part of papal trips. Like Francis, John Paul II did not know the questions in advance, but he felt comfortable fielding whatever came.
Benedict XVI, however, was never comfortable with this freewheeling relationship with reporters; and following a major gaffe on the flight to Brazil in 2007, he asked to know the questions in advance. Furthermore, he made the mistake of holding press conferences before arriving in a country, with the result that often what he said on the plane would dominate the news on the first days of his visit there, eclipsing his other messages.
Perhaps the most significant difference between Francis and his two predecessors is that he does not give stale answers to questions. He feels free to offer a fresh look at issues of prudential judgment that were often considered closed under St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI; and, of course, this disturbs those who think some questions (particularly in the field of sexual morality) have been resolved once and for all and there is nothing more to say.
Pope Francis is free in another sense too, because, as he wrote in “The Joy of the Gospel”(No. 16), he does “not believe that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the church and the world.” Indeed, he said, “it is not advisable for the pope to take the place of local bishops in the discernment of every issue that arises in their territory.”
Moreover, in “The Joy of the Gospel” (No. 49), he declared, “I prefer a church that is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church that is unhealthy from being confined and clinging to its own security.”
His press conferences reflect this fresh way of thinking.