The Problem of the Unofficial Francis

It has become a commonplace in Catholic circles in the pontificate of Pope Francis to discuss, debate, and interpret the pope’s writings, speeches, and (most controversially) off-the-cuff remarks. Yet with this, we have seen an accompanying phenomenon: we find ourselves talking not only about the pope’s recorded words, but about his alleged words as well. Frequently we are confronted with news stories about clerics and others who report that Pope Francis made this or that private comment about this or that crucial issue. Recently, reports that Bishop Victor Manuel Fernandez was the ghostwriter for Amoris Laetitia were accompanied by an interview in which he is reported to have said that “The pope goes slow because he wants to be sure that the changes have a deep impact. The slow pace is necessary to ensure the effectiveness of the changes. He knows there are those hoping that the next pope will turn everything back around.”

Is this really what the pope thinks? Is this really what the pope is trying to do? Someone close to him claims it is so, but the Holy Father has said no such thing. (Nor has he denied it, but more on that below.) Perhaps never before have so many people so publicly put words in the mouth of the pope. To cite just a few examples on the subject of allowing the divorced and remarried to receive Holy Communion:

  • Archbishop Bruno Forte, secretary of the recent synods on the family, claims the pope told him we must avoid “speaking plainly” about Communion for the divorced and remarried, but that it was the pope’s desire to establish this practice. According to Archbishop Forte, the pope said, “If we speak explicitly about communion for the divorced and remarried, you do not know what a terrible mess we will make. So we won’t speak plainly, do it in a way that the premises are there, then I will draw out the conclusions.”
  • Cardinal Walter Kasper told a German newspaper recently that Pope Francis doesn’t intend to “preserve everything as it has been” in the Church, and, like Archbishop Forte, claims that Pope Francis agrees with his position of allowing the divorced and remarried to receive the Eucharist.
  • Italian atheist and journalist Antonio Scalfari has published several interviews with Pope Francis (admitting that he did not record them, but reported their contents from memory); in one, Scalfari claimed that the pope told him that “all the divorced who ask will be admitted [to Communion].”

This last story, at least, was denied by the Vatican Press Office. But they have the added distraction of being written up as an interview, with the pope’s alleged words placed in quotation marks, though Scalfari admits these words were not recorded.

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The problem has cropped up in other arenas as well. After writing an open letter to Pope Francis asking him to reconsider the dogma of papal infallibility, Fr. Hans Kung says Pope Francis responded positively to his request—but without sharing the pope’s response. We are left to take his word for it. But the common theme emerges: people known to hold certain positions themselves will report that, in a private conversation, Pope Francis has voiced his agreement with them—and, it is implied, we ought to agree, too. No proof is provided other than their word; no denial or comment comes from the Vatican, except on the rarest of occasions.

What develops from this, then, is essentially two versions of Francis: the official version, found in his own words and the clarifications of the Vatican press office, and the unofficial version, created by the reports and suggestions of others around him. It is reminiscent of the phenomenon pointed out by Pope Emeritus Benedict shortly before his retirement: that in regards to the Second Vatican Council, we had to distinguish between the “council of the media” and the “council of the Fathers,” the council as it really was—and the result of that divergence has been far from healthy for the Church.

Several issues arise from this. First, it creates the appearance of an alternative, private magisterium, whereby teachings are upheld in official documents but unorthodox practices are seemingly allowed with a nudge and a wink—“Yes, but we all know what Francis really wants.” Second, this alternative relies on and perpetuates a sort of hyper-ultramontanism, where every utterance and suggestion and gesture of the pope, whether in private or in public, whether in a promulgated document or in an off-hand remark, becomes dogma and law—as if an (alleged) comment at dinner between friends would require an update to the Catechism and the Code of Canon Law. Third, most importantly, these two issues together create confusion for the faithful. Catholics whose knowledge of their faith is lacking will often have the general sense that since the pope is the head of the Church, what the popes says or wants goes. So, when a poorly-informed media reports that certain ideas have been attributed to Pope Francis by his associates, many Catholics will conclude that the Church’s teaching and law have taken a new turn. Anecdotal evidence abounds of pastors being confronted by parishioners who tell them that Pope Francis is now officially tolerating cohabitation, fornication, and divorce and remarriage, and these cold-hearted Pharisaical priests must conform to the new spirit that is blowing. This is not helpful.

In a world saturated by media, the old saying, “A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth gets its shoes on” has never been truer. Any person of sufficient notoriety can make claims to know Pope Francis’s mind or motivations, or to report supposed private words of the Holy Father, and capture public attention and affect public perceptions of the pope and consequently of the Church. How could the Church respond to this phenomenon? By employing some sort of Official Responder who scours the Internet for claims made about the pope and then responds to them? It is doubtful anyone would be up to such a task. Nor should the task be required in the first place. We should not assume that every report and rumor of obiter dicta of the pope is valid, nor should we give them any more weight than they are due. As Cardinals Burke and Mueller concluded regarding controversial interpretations of Amoris Laetitia: there is nothing explicit in the text that changes either Church doctrine or discipline, and doctrine and discipline do not alter or reform based on suggestion, innuendo, or eisegesis masquerading as exegesis. The comments and claims of these individuals purporting to give us the “unofficial Francis” should be treated with the respect and consideration only in proportion to any evidence they can supply that these are indeed the pope’s words. Enough time and energy is spent discussing the pope’s public words—we cannot spare any debating his alleged thoughts.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez. (Photo credit: CNA / Daniel Ibanez)


  • Nicholas Senz

    Nicholas Senz is Director of Faith Formation at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Arlington, Texas and a Master Catechist. A native of Verboort, Oregon, Nicholas holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. He is on Twitter @nicksenz and his own blog, NicholasSenz.

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