“When leaders in various fields ask me for advice, my response is always the same: dialogue, dialogue, dialogue.” So Pope Francis said during his visit to Brazil in the first days of his papacy.
After two recent interview with La Repubblica and La Civiltà Cattolica, it has become clear that the dialogue he desires will be informal and unguarded. It is the kind of dialogue usually reserved for close friends and, of course, very susceptible to misunderstanding when it isn’t. This is why Francis has delivered his beautiful daily homilies ex tempore and chosen intimate interviews rather than public speeches as his preferred way of communicating with his Church and the world. Francis has decided to approach the world on casual terms, and the world has responded with overwhelming love for him, if not always perfect understanding of the faith.
How, then, should Christians read his interviews? Talmudic explanations of how what he said was not what he really meant or, on the other hand, what the faith really teaches miss the point. Francis is not so much aiming for precision as shooting the breeze.
A friend of mine suggested that Francis’ refusal to guard his words may help free us from overly political conceptions of the papacy and once again recognize its essential pastoral nature. She suggested that Francis is helping us see that he is not a statesman courting a constituency but a shepherd covered in the scent of his sheep. I hope for these good effects while thinking a fair bit of confusion will result from their pursuit.
The best way for Catholics who share that concern to minimize those ill effects is to resist the temptation to pick nits with words that Francis would readily revise and correct were he seated beside us. At the same time, it is no use pretending there’s nothing significant in this new approach. Francis really does mean to reform the Curia and renew the Church, tasks that are both urgently needed and impossible to do in a way that will please all. His initial moves in this area are overwhelming positive, I think, but only time will tell.
Pope Francis wants a dialogue with the world conducted in the manner of an after-dinner conversation. We might question Francis’ choice, but demanding precision once it’s been made is as pointless and ill-mannered as quibbling after dessert.