The Holy Father has followed his now established tradition of holding a press conference on the airplane on the way home from an international visit. Once again I have read the transcript and am astonished at how little the world’s greatest religious leader speaks about religion. Even more disturbing is how little the world’s most visible and vocal Christian leader ever speaks about Jesus Christ, and even more disappointing is how little the leader of the world’s Catholics speaks about anything specifically Catholic.
Yes, yes, I know the journalists wanted to ask him questions about nuclear energy, politics in Bolivia, whether kids should have pajama days in school, the weight problem of the leader of North Korea, the problems with capitalism, the corruption of the Vatican Bank, the destruction of the rainforest, whether there is a future for electric cars, the hairstyle of Gretel Thurnberg, sex abuse amongst the Buddhists of Northern Irutsk and whether gold plated taps in hotel in Bahrain were ethical or not.
Why does he feel obliged to get involved in all this small talk? I don’t wish to criticize the pope too harshly. He’s the pope. I’m a Catholic priest. He’s my boss. Sometimes you have a good pope. Sometimes you have a bad pope. Often you have a mediocre pope. Now he’s the pope. Later we will have another pope, but I do lament the fact that this pope feels he has to offer his opinion on most everything, and he has firm opinions about most things–but he rarely speaks clearly and firmly about the only things a pope is supposed to be clear and firm about: Catholic morals and dogma. On these matters he is wishy washy but on death penalty, nuclear armament, immigration, capitalism, the environment etc. etc. he offers his opinion very clearly.
Alas. If only he had watched The Crown–especially that fantastic episode where old Queen Mary instructs the new Queen Elizabeth on how to be a monarch. The advice is simple: “Keep quiet.” In another episode the now experienced Queen has a similar conversation with a young Prince Charles. He’s bouncing with enthusiasm to get going and get involved to try to change the world. HMQ tells him that is not his role. He is to keep his mouth shut and keep his face poker. “Even a smile or laughter will indicate your approval of this thing or that, and your approval or disapproval is not allowed.”
He then retorts, “But people want to know what I think!” HMQ snaps back, “No they don’t.” She should have added, “They only want to know what you think so they can twist it and use you to promote their own agenda.”
This is the pitfall of anyone in public life, and the higher the profile the bigger the pitfall.
It must be so tempting when one has a global platform to offer opinions on most everything thinking that it will make a difference. It doesn’t. Action makes a difference. Opinions don’t.
The second problem with the pope’s press conferences is that he scarcely talks about religion much less Christianity and the specifics of Catholicism. Does no one else notice this? If he is going to do press conferences then he should use the papacy as a bully pulpit.
(By the way “bully pulpit” does not mean the person is “bullying” others by haranguing them from the pulpit. This is a modern misinterpretation of the term “bully”. The phrase “bully pulpit” came from President Teddy Roosevelt who described the presidency as a “bully pulpit”. In his day the word “bully” was slang for “superb” or “terrific” or “really great”)
Here is an opportunity to preach the gospel to the whole world through the channels of the mass media. Here he has a plane full of a captive audience of journalists from around the world. Here is the opportunity to preach “Christ and him crucified” to call the world to repentance and faith in Christ, to invite the whole world to encounter the loving mercy of our God….and he talks about everything BUT the gospel.
Let’s say he is asked about the Vatican finances. Instead of lots of words about reform he could mention briefly the efforts that are being made, but segue into a discussion about greed, mortal sin and the need for all to repent and turn to Christ in order to find true fulfillment and an abundant life.
Finally, the worst thing about these interviews and having such a talkative pope is that eventually everyone tunes out. They just yawn and switch off, and that would be a great loss because the papacy is a bully pulpit, and there is nothing worse for a leader than to be ignored.
When it comes to public pronouncements someone in his PR team should instruct the pope that less is more.