Papal interviews have become almost entirely secular

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Catholic Herald, 6 June 2019

The recent interview granted by Pope Francis to Mexican television generated news for what he said about Theodore McCarrick and the present unpleasantness. The mere fact that the interview took place was not, however, newsworthy. Papal interviews are now quantitatively ordinary. There is another shift too, a qualitative one. They are marked by an increasingly worldly ethos; the unique papal voice has now become more like any number of worldly voices.

Well into the pontificate of St John XXIII the principal Vatican communications organ, L’Osservatore Romano, would report that one or another official statement had been “gathered from the august lips of the Supreme Pontiff”. Papal communication began to loosen under St Paul VI, with an increasing number of audiences, and homilies and addresses that occasionally included extemporaneous remarks.

As with the phenomenon of papal travel, St John Paul II took Paul VI’s lead and greatly extended it. He spoke openly with reporters, answering their questions in an impromptu press conference in the first days after his election. He started mixing with reporters on papal flights, though generally he exchanged greetings and a few general comments on the outbound flights. In 1994 came Crossing the Threshold of Hope, an interview book with Vittorio Messori which became an international publishing sensation.

Benedict XVI pushed the boundaries even further. While John Paul’s book consisted of written responses to written questions, Benedict’s 2010 Light of the World was another papal first – he answered questions viva voce for six hours, and the interview was published. Benedict continued the airborne meetings with journalists, but now they were true press conferences, with the Holy Father responding to questions on a range of subjects.

It was under Benedict that a qualitative shift took place. John Paul was largely asked broad, thematic questions, often with a theological basis. With Benedict – in continuation with the three interview books he did while prefect of the doctrine of the faith – specific decisions were examined, and comment was passed on a wide range of practical applications. In Light of the World, for example, Benedict is questioned about the Bishop Williamson affair in detail. In Last Testament, his post-papal interview book, he gives a commentary on and defence of his papacy, including an assessment of his secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

Pope Francis has given dozens of press interviews, and the airborne press conferences have had pontificate-shaping impact. The “Be not afraid” equivalent of this pontificate – “Who am I to judge?” – was delivered on the Holy Father’s first trip, at the end of an airborne press conference that lasted more than an hour.

The frequency and length of Pope Francis’s interviews – he has done three interview books in six years – have meant not only a quantitative decline in the attention given to them, but also accelerated the qualitative change that took place under Benedict.

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