BY JOAN FRAWLEY DESMOND
Opus Dei Father John Wauck teaches in the School of Church Communications at
the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. During the 2013 papal
conclave, he served as a television commentator for ABC.
On Oct. 8, he spoke with the Register's senior editor, Joan Frawley
Desmond, about Pope Francis’ efforts to reach alienated Catholics and the
public through an unprecedented strategy of informal interviews that
reportedly bypassed Vatican filters.
Two recent interviews with Pope Francis have produced inaccurate headlines
attacking pro-life activism and Catholic conversions. New York Times
columnist Ross Douthat worried that the Pope’s communications strategy —
which Douthat described as an “almost-frantic engagement with the
lapsed-Catholic, post-Catholic and non-Catholic world” — could backfire.
What’s your view?
It’s important for everybody to calm down and look at the big picture.
Pope Francis, the Successor of Peter, is the most popular man on the
planet. There are worse things that could happen, especially given the water
under the bridge, such as the abuse scandals.
You can quibble about how he is saying things, but we are in a good place.
Even the need to explain and interpret the Pope’s words is not bad,
because you get to talk about things.
I lived through the whole Da Vinci Code excitement, and in the end, it was
a gift. It made Opus Dei open the door and shine the light, and people found
Opus Dei was okay. It wouldn’t have happened without the novel.
In the Pope’s latest interview with Eugenio Scalfari, of the Italian
newspaper La Repubblica, the Register reported that the interviewer
“admitted to neither recording nor even taking notes of the exchange.”
The journalist said he “did show the text to the Holy Father for approval,
but it isn’t clear how closely the Pope read it.” What do you know about
It isn’t clear Pope Francis had said any of the things the story reported
he had said.
But this is a tiny thing in the big picture, which is that the Pope’s
words are being parsed in the news.
No other pope got a CNN headline when he called for a bishops’ synod.
That is free publicity.
Insiders can worry about how it was said, but he is not changing any
doctrines, and he is explicit about that.
The Pope wants people to know that the Church isn’t here to condemn them.
That is one of the false images of the Church.
Is it possible that he is being misunderstood by some of the public? Of
course. But he is trying to reshape how the Church is seen — and that will
then make it possible for many to hear the moral message.
Keep in mind that when he talks to the Catholics at Mass at the Doma [St.
Martha guest house], he is not afraid to admonish the congregation in house.
But when he is talking to the world, to the old atheist, he talks in a
Catholics aren’t used to a pope talking off the cuff in newspapers, and
the unpredictable outcome has made some very uneasy.
It can be disconcerting. The interviews are not magisterial statements.
He is talking to a soul. He is relentlessly personal, one-on-one, talking
all the time. Seeing it in those terms, it is easier to understand what he
Part of the enthusiastic response to Francis is the sense that you are
entering into a relationship with a father figure. People catch that sense
of spiritual paternity and think, “This could be my dad.”
Benedict gave an impression of a teacher bent on communicating important
truths and was almost willfully stepping aside. He didn’t want to be in
the picture. Theologically that is correct, but, psychologically, the sheep
like a pastor. People are hungry for this kind of relationship.
What is the feeling in Rome a half year after Pope Francis’ election?
The general feeling of the Italian population is that they love him to
death. Shopkeepers, taxi drivers are huge fans.
Those who are not are those deeply involved in the life of the Church and
are disconcerted. [They are questioning:] “What exactly is the agenda
here? Where are we going, and what am I supposed to be doing?”
How would you describe Pope Francis’ communications strategy?
I don’t think there is any strategy. The media strategy is: Get out of
the way — Francis is in town and doing his thing and winning over the
Benedict was often criticized for communications problems during his
pontificate. What is the difference between his approach and Francis’
It is night and day. Benedict wasn’t terribly interested in mixing it up
with reporters. And people were not expecting [Cardinal Jorge] Bergoglio to
be either. He wasn’t out giving interviews in Argentina.
Now, he is taking interviews, and I don’t think they are coming from
Father Lombardi [the papal spokesman]. He is running his own communications
It is working so far. The question is when and if the honeymoon will end.
So Pope Francis acknowledges the frustrations of lapsed Catholics, and that
creates fresh opportunities for outreach at the parish level or around the
family dinner table. Are we ready for this engagement?
That is a long story about the lack of preparation of generations of
Catholics left without formation and priests poorly prepared to explain the
Pope Benedict XVI predicted the faithful were being sidelined from
mainstream culture in the West, yet they could still serve as a “creative
minority,” a leaven in a secular world. Is Pope Francis concerned that the
faithful are too insular and have retreated from this kind of outreach?
With Francis, there is a turn to the outside. Benedict was interested in
making sure that God was at the center of the Church, including the liturgy.
Francis’ message is very valuable: The Catholic Church is not something
that was just made for Catholics. It is made for the whole world — and
specifically sinners. He wants that message seen, heard and understood.
We all believe that. But we don’t always act or think that way. We slip
into a tribal mentality: It’s our thing. Or: The Church is for the good
people. Yes, of course you have to put your own house in order, and that is
what Benedict was doing.
My hunch is that Francis believes that part of getting your house in order
is understanding correctly what the Church is about and for. That missionary
outlook is important.
Janet Smith, the U.S. moral theologian and pro-life leader, wrote a column
in First Things that challenged the Pope’s suggestion that Catholics
should set aside hot-button issues like abortion to first help people learn
that God loves them and forgives their sins. Said Smith: “I think most
people think they are not sinners and not in need of redemption.” Has the
Pope unnecessarily alienated pro-lifers?
There might be awkward moments. Pope Francis is directed to the outside.
That goes for his language as well.
But his speeches include a lot of solid, clear teaching. Pro-lifers should
run with the good stuff, and that will clarify the ambiguous [remarks].
What is interesting to consider is that Francis is asking the bishops named
by Blessed John Paul II and Benedict, and the priests and seminarians formed
by these popes, to get out into the fray: Don’t stay home.
That could be really good. They will carry out into the street, the
periphery and the world their understanding of the faith and the priesthood
shaped by John Paul and Benedict.
The [current] seminarians and many priests entered into the priesthood
after the sex-abuse scandals. That has made them stronger: They have had to
wrestle with corruption in the clergy and people looking askance. Telling
those guys to get out there is very positive.