Fallout From a Phone Call

Here’s what we know: Pope Francis did make a personal pastoral phone call to a woman in Argentina. It is believed that the woman is in an irregular marriage relationship. The woman’s husband claims that the Pope said it was okay for her to go to communion.

That’s all we know. The Vatican press office has issued a statement acknowledging the call and lamenting the “media amplification”. I share that regret, and here is some of the fallout from that media amplification:

In this article on the story in London’s Daily Mail the pope is quoted as saying there is “no harm” in the woman receiving communion. The headline writer added to the pope’s words, so his comment now reads. “A little bread and wine ‘does no harm’”. Now, thanks to the papers, the pope is not only undermining the sacrament of marriage but he is referring to the Body of Christ and the Precious Blood as “A little bread and wine.”

Note that this not what the pope said, but a few extra words the headline writer put into the pope’s mouth.

We must therefore be extremely cautious about taking seriously any of the press reports on this story. Through ignorance and malevolence the members of the secular press will distort the church’s teaching any way they can.

On the other hand, the Vatican news office confirmed that the phone call took place and did not deny the gist of the pope’s comments as reported.

I’m a parish priest. Here is some  further fallout from this incident at the local level: Yesterday a parishioner with marriage problems reports to me that her aunt called her from New York to say, “It’s okay for you to get divorced because the Pope said divorced people can go to communion. I saw it on the morning talk show!”

That same person says, “My aunt  is not a Catholic and she’s divorced and married to my uncle who is a Catholic and their parish priest Father Frank knows the situation and gives her communion every week. He says all that legalism about becoming a Catholic and so forth doesn’t matter because he knows she loves Jesus and Jesus would accept everybody.”

So if the pope made the phone call or not doesn’t even matter anymore. What is real is that he is perceived to have made the phone call and nobody from the Vatican has denied it and therefore, on the ground, in the trenches the ordinary people now think that divorce and remarriage are okay because the pope said it is okay. Furthermore, Father Frank, who has taken the church laws into his own hands and dispenses with marriage discipline and discipline regarding reception of communion for non-Catholics has just been affirmed in his anarchical attitude by what appears to be the pope’s disregard for church discipline.

Whether the pope did this or not is beside the point. It is perceived that he did so and the fallout follows.

Lest I get lots of hate mail for criticizing Pope Francis let me put it on the record that I like and admire Pope Francis. I think he is what the church needs right now. Most of my writing about him has been positive. Furthermore, I’m of the opinion that the marriage discipline of the church should be examined and some sort of reform put in place for the sake of people living in the modern world. I am not a rabid right winger who thinks Pope Francis is the anti-pope before the end of the world.

However, his management of public relations–and that of his minders– leaves something to be desired. Pope Benedict was accused of media gaffes, but Pope Francis is making Benedict look like the Great Communicator. This latest fiasco has added to a litany of confusion, media muddle and I, for one, wish the Vatican media folks would get their act together and help Pope Francis realize that he is no longer simply Padre Bergoglio. He is no longer a private pastor. He belongs to the world.

Yes, it’s very charming of him to call people about their personal problems, but is it right? There is so much potential for misunderstanding, misinformation, gossip and lies in this form of behavior that the pope must see how potentially damaging it is. As an ordinary parish priest one of the most delicate of minefields is communication with my staff, my parishioners and the extended church family. Misunderstandings, bad feelings and people jumping to wrong conclusions is a constant. Therefore people in leadership positions soon learn to keep their mouths shut, to listen and to step back from problems to carefully consider.

If the Holy Father is so much in favor of a church of the people and for the people shouldn’t he respect local authorities and delegate these matters to the diocesan bishop and from there to the local priest? Where is the much vaunted Catholic principle of subsidiarity–in which problems are best solved and initiatives best taken at the local level? Where is the proper understanding of hierarchy–in which we have a chain of command and proper delegation to lower levels of authority?

This is, after all, the Pope who prefers to be called “the Bishop of Rome” and eschews the trappings of imperial power. From what we can make out he wants to reform the papacy and get away from any hint of ultramontanism and the absolute power of the papacy, and yet he gets involved in micro managing the marriage of a couple in Argentina?

Again, don’t get me wrong. I’m actually in favor of a table turning pope. I like the idea of him making prophetic gestures and bringing in radical reform, and I personally think it’s nice that he makes surprise phone calls to people.

I just wish he would be more media savvy and realize that every word he speaks echoes around the world.