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For Popes, meeting the press has always been risky business…

ROME – Pop(e) Quiz: Which of the following modern pontiffs gave a high-profile interview to a journalist on extremely sensitive subjects, the result of which was controversy inside and outside the Catholic Church, compelling Vatican officials and spokespersons to issue ‘clarifications’ which did relatively little to calm the waters?

  • A) Pope Leo XIII
  • B) Pope Paul VI
  • C) Pope John Paul II
  • D) Pope Benedict XVI
  • E) Pope Francis
  • F) All of the Above

The correct answer, as discerning readers no doubt already have surmised, is “F.” While recent events may invite the impression that contretemps over papal interviews are a defining feature of the Francis papacy, in fact they have a much deeper pedigree.

What’s sparked the latest round of controversy is the new interview book El Sucesor with Spanish journalist Javier Martínez-Brocal, dedicated to the relationship between Francis and his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, which went on sale April 3.

As Italian journalist Massimo Gramellini put it, reading the book is a bit like watching reality TV – think “Real Housewives of Vatican City.” Among other things, the pope openly dishes on the inner details of two conclaves, and he cattily lashes out at Benedict’s top aide, German Archbishop Georg Gänswein, claiming he lacks “nobility and humanity” for the way in which Gänswein allegedly tried to put the two popes at odds.

Lucetta Scaraffia, a renowned Italian journalist and the former editor of an insert to the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano dedicated to women’s issues, has noted the irony that Pope Francis has often warned against the dangers of slander and gossip. Yet, as she put it, to judge from the new book, “One suspects Bergoglio thinks a pope can do without obeying these healthy rules.”

Reaction to the new book has run the gamut from praise for the pope’s candor and transparency, to nostalgic encomia for the days in which popes kept at least some thoughts to themselves. Whatever one makes of the situation, the fact is that Francis is hardly the first pope to generate at least as much heat as light by granting an interview.

Indeed, the precedents reach back at least 132 years, when Pope Leo XIII in 1892 became the first pope in modern history to grant an interview to a professional journalist – and, in the same breath, the first pope to draw fire for doing so, and the first to compel his aides and apologists to go running for cover.

On that occasion, the pope’s interviewer was a French socialist and atheist named Caroline Rémy, better known to readers by her nom de plume of Séverine. Rémy had written to Cardinal Mariano Rampolla, Leo’s Secretary of State, to request the interview, presenting herself as “a socialist who, despite not being in a state of grace, nonetheless has preserved intact in her wounded heart a profound respect for the faith, as well as veneration for its august elders and sovereign prisoners.”

(That last phrase was a reference to Pope Pius IX, who declared himself a “prisoner of the Vatican” after the seizure of the Papal States by the newly unified Kingdom of Italy in 1870.)

The exchange came just before the explosion of the Dreyfus affair in France, when the question of anti-Semitism and attitudes towards the Jews was becoming a key fault line between Europe’s progressives and traditionalists. Rémy’s objective was to elicit a clear condemnation of anti-Semitism from the pope.

She believed she succeeded, writing in her introduction to the Q&A published by Figaro: “Although he never said ‘I condemn,’ he said ‘I don’t approve’ ten times in an hour. I leave it to Catholics to draw from this attitude the conclusion they prefer.”

Pope Leo did indeed express disapproval of “wars of religion” and of “race,” and implied that the forced ghettos of Catholic Europe actually had been intended to protect and serve Jews, calling the enclosures an expression of “mildness and fraternal love.” On the other hand, he also said it was unreasonable to expect the Church to neglect its “pious and fervent” followers in favor of the “impious” who “reject” Christ’s message, and who represent a “burden and wound.” He added that the Church has a special responsibility to resist the “reign of money,” for which, he suggested, the “impious” – i.e., Jews – are at least partly responsible.

Even those comments alarmed some Catholic commentators, who believed the pope was being enlisted in a liberal crusade against the French Catholic establishment. Father Davide Albertario, a priest of Milan and editor of L’Osservatore Cattolico, a newspaper created to defend the papacy after the fall of the Papal States, immediately insisted that Rémy had misrepresented the pope “from beginning to end.”

Albertario claimed it was false to assert that Leo had “expressed ideas contrary to anti-Semitism,” and that in fact the pontiff “did not enter at all into the Semitic dispute.”

Future popes should have known things wouldn’t get any easier anytime they opted to sit down with a member of the press.

Pope Paul VI, for instance, gave a  rare interview in 1965 to a distinguished Italian journalist named Alberto Cavallari, in which he anticipated the earthquake that would come three years later with his encyclical Humanae Vitae reaffirming the Church’s traditional ban on artificial birth control: “You can study all you want, but it’s up to us to decide. In deciding, we’re alone,” Paul said, using the customary royal plural.

That line generated immediate criticism, especially from liberal Catholics who insisted that a pope should never be alone in making decisions, but should instead be guided by the sensus fidelium, meaning “sense of the faithful.”

From there, we can arrive at Pope John Paul II’s 1994 interview book with Italian journalist Vittorio Messori, titled Crossing the Threshold of Hope, in which he stirred tremendous controversy across Asia by calling Buddhism teaching “almost exclusively negative,” “in large measure atheistic” and characterized by “indifference with regard to the world.” Shortly afterwards, John Paul faced blowback and protest when he visited Sri Lanka, a largely Buddhist nation, where the country’s leading association of Buddhist associations demanded an apology.

Or, we could note Pope Benedict XVI’s encounter with journalists en route to Cameroon in 2009, in which, responding to a question from Philippe Visseyrias of the French public TV outlet France 2, the pontiff insisted that not only was condom use not the answer to the HIV/AIDS crisis, but “on the contrary, it increases the problem.” That line sparked a firestorm of protest, including an unprecedented resolution from the Belgian parliament terming the pope’s remarks “unacceptable,” adopted by a vote of 95-18. It marked the first time a European legislature had ever formally censured a pope.

Giovanni Maria Vian, a professor of Church history and a former editor of L’Osservatore Romano, recently drew the obvious conclusion from this checkered history: “Interviews [with popes] are a risk, by definition,” Vian said. “It depends on the questions that [journalists] ask, but for sure they’re always dangerous.”

Bottom line: Criticize Francis all you want for the freewheeling fashion in which he engages the press, not to mention the almost surreal frequency with which he does so. Just don’t pretend he’s the first pope to rock the boat with sensational interviews – because he’s not, nor is he likely to be the last.

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