I make it a year and four months since Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope. In the light of this I was interested to read that he (Pope Francis as he became) had his first interview with a female journalist just three weeks ago. Her name is Franca Giansoldati and she is the Vatican correspondent of the Rome daily Il Messaggero.
In the course of their meeting Franca asked Francis if sixteen months into his pontificate he had so far detected any underlying misogyny in the Catholic Church. He replied “The fact is that woman was taken from a man’s rib.” He then laughed heartily and said “I’m joking. That was a joke.” He continued: “The issue of women needs to be gone into in more depth, otherwise you can’t understand the church itself.”
Francis added enigmatically “The Church is a woman.” and continued by telling Franca that in doing theology one should take account of this “femininity” and that the Church must continue to work on and develop a “theology of the woman.” So – possibly trying to cut through what she must have seen as a combination of condescension and evasiveness – she asked “Would you envisage, say, appointing a woman to head a Vatican department?” Francis smiled his charming smile and said “Priests often end up under the sway of their housekeepers.”
The pope then moved to one of his pet arguments which is that people should have children rather than pets, even if the task was rather more demanding. “An animal,” he explained, “is not free, whereas having a child is a complex matter.” Indeed it is. Fat lot Francis knows about it though.
But Franca, highly professional journalist that she is, can no doubt spot political waffle a country mile away and is well aware that while Catholic popes and cardinals have often spoken of the need to end violence against women for example they have never acknowledged the church’s own culpability in the abuse, endangerment and intimidation of the fair sex.
(I must declare an interest here. I am the last of ten children in a devout Catholic family and, while I am grateful to exist, that gratitude is tinged with doubt and sometimes even irrational guilt because when I look now at pictures of my mother at age forty-five I have to say that she seems to me more like seventy so worn out was she with childbearing. And I often wonder if the Catholic Church’s rigid teaching on birth control, allied with an obsessive fear of hell on the part of many millions of its female faithful, is not even now a particularly violent form of abuse, endangerment and intimidation, especially in the global south where the Church is still growing).
Late last year Pope Francis granted what turned out to be another fascinating interview, this time to the 90-year-old Eugenio Scalfari, renowned founder and editor of magazines, newsmagazines and newspapers, a man with a CV that would knock spots off any churchman I could name.
Even in his 91st year Scalfari remains active in both La Repubblica and L'Espresso. When the subject of child abuse was raised at this meeting the pope said “Many of my aides try to reassure me that clerical paedophilia within our Church is only around 2%” and Francis then professed to be greatly disturbed by the figure.
He went on to speculate on the different ranks of clerics that might be included in this percentage. By claiming to be shocked at what he described as the high rate of 2% he was of course attempting to draw attention away from the fact that comprehensive reports from BishopAccountability.org indicate that the percentage is much higher. Heaven only knows what Signore Scalfari made of this sleight of hand. Let’s just say he has been around the block once or twice and probably had a good smile to himself.
So he’s a bit of a mixed bag is Francis. On the one hand he has the notoriously conservative Roman Curia nearly wetting itself at some of his ad libbing and on the other hand the simplicity and austerity of his lifestyle has given the Church a much needed makeover and made many of the Catholic faithful almost forget the unfortunate reign of Benedict XVI. Francis has fourteen million followers on Twitter and they retweet him more than anyone else in the world. He follows only eight mind you but then charismatic leaders don’t tend to follow.
However, image can only get you so far and Francis is well aware of this. He knows he is in charge of a wounded Church that is rapidly shrinking in Europe and North America. Time being of the essence therefore he has taken the dramatic step of asking Lord Patten to head a committee tasked with advising Francis himself on how to overhaul and modernize methods of dealing with the media. Who Lord Patten? you ask. Catholic and former BBC Trust and Conservative party chairman, European commissioner, governor of Hong Kong for five years until the Chinese took it back in 1997, Chris Patten has had more than his fill of controversy in all his roles to date and now braces himself to drink from the Vatican chalice.
This new appointee is unfortunately not in the best of health and may well feel that in being the pontiff’s right hand man he is that bit closer to the right hand of God Himself. For, if he doesn’t live to see a papal knighthood, at least he knows that in his workplace there will be no shortage of clergymen to give him the last rites if needed. And a good Catholic can’t ask for better than that.
In the picture above the author Colm Herron as portrayed by his daughter Nuala Herron. For her web site please click here.
In the picture in the text Pope Francis - source: Wikipedia Edgar Jiménez from Porto, Portugal.