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Using Simple Language, Pope Francis Helps Shift Conversation About the Vatican

July 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
The pope's remarks on gay Catholics may suggest a shift in acceptance, but not a change in church policy or teaching. Judy Woodruff talks to John Allen of The National Catholic Reporter, who has been covering the pontiff's trip to Brazil, to discuss how Pope Francis has started to change the perception of the Catholic church.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: John Allen, thank you very much for talking with us.

First of all, how significant were the pope’s remarks about gays?

JOHN ALLEN, The National Catholic Reporter: Well, Judy, I would say they were extraordinarily significant at the level of tone, but they do not represent a significant departure in terms of teaching.

It was already on the books in terms of the official doctrine of the Catholic Church that homosexual persons are to be treated with what the catechism, that’s the official code of teaching, what it describes as respect, compassion and sensitivity. So the church’s problem is with homosexual conduct, not with homosexual persons.

That said, however, I think many gays and lesbians around the world probably tell you that they’re more accustomed to hearing from the Catholic Church what they perceive at least as judgment, and a fairly negative judgment at that. So, to hear the pope of the Catholic Church openly saying that when he meets a gay person, he doesn’t judge them, that is — at least in terms of the tonality and the symbolism, that is extraordinary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what about the tone? How much difference does it make that he’s setting a different tone?

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JOHN ALLEN: Well, we’re going to have to see how this plays out, Judy. But all I can tell you is that five months ago, those of us in the media business, when we paid attention to the Vatican, we were writing stories about the child sexual abuse scandals. We were writing about the Vatican leaks mess, problems at the Vatican Bank and so on.

And while those stories obviously have not gone away, they are no longer the dominant narrative about the Catholic Church. The dominant narrative about the Catholic Church now is: wildly charismatic pope takes the world by storm.

I mean, start with the fact that Francis just returned from a weeklong stay in Brazil where he drew at the end of his trip an estimated three million people or more to Copacabana Beach twice, once on Saturday night and again on Saturday morning. The mayor actually renamed the beach for that week Pope-a-Cabana in honor of the pope’s presence.

He has revolutionized perceptions of the church and given it a new lease on life. And I suppose for four-and-a-half months in office, one would have to say that that’s an impressive early run.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Were you struck by his use of words? He said, “Who am I to judge?” when he was talking about judging someone who is gay.

He is the pope, after all.

JOHN ALLEN: He is the pope, although it has been a kind of signature aspect of his vocabulary since he was elected that he almost never refers to himself as the pope. If he has to use one of his titles, he prefers the humbler bishop of Rome, because, of course, the pope is also the bishop of the local diocese here in Rome.

But, actually, Judy, it was another bit of vocabulary that I was more struck by. I actually — I have not done a formal keyword search on this point, but I have been paying attention to popes for a long time. I can’t recall a previous time that a pope actually used the word gay.

Now, to be fair, this was because the question that was put to Francis was about the so-called gay lobby in the Vatican. And so the vocabulary was already on the table. But you very rarely hear that kind of street language, if you like, from a pope.

It’s another indication that this is a man who has a lifelong experience of being in contact with ordinary people. And he quite obviously speaks their lingo.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He spoke about wanting a greater role for women in the church. But he didn’t give any ground on whether women could be priests. How do you read that? Was there an expectation that he might?

JOHN ALLEN: No.

Judy, I think it’s been very clear from the beginning that Francis is not a radical in terms of overhauling church doctrines. I think he is a radical in the literal sense of the word, meaning going back to the roots, in this case the roots of the faith being in the Gospels, the Bible stories of Jesus.

And he’s trying to speak that very simple, accessible, loving and positive Gospel language. On women, what he said was that women priests are off the table because John Paul II made that definitive. But he wants them to have much more important roles in the church. And he also wants a deeper theology of women, that is, a kind of study and reflection on what their role is in terms of the spiritual message of the church.

So, again, I think the signature aspect of the Francis revolution is that it is a remarkably new tone placed on top of what are basically the same teachings and the same doctrines the Catholic Church has always had.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John, you talked a minute ago about the impressive crowds he drew in Brazil. Speak to us about the success of that trip and about his willingness to spend such a long time, over an hour, with the reporters on the airplane going back to Rome.

JOHN ALLEN: Yes, Judy.

I mean, what I can tell you about the experience on the papal plane is this. I was aboard the papal plane today, but I certainly wasn’t bored on the papal plane. I mean, for somebody who covers the Vatican, the idea of having an hour and 20 minutes with a pope to put any question you want, all those pent-up curiosities you have always had and the hard-hitting questions that popes rarely engage directly, you know, this was sort of a dream come true.

And that experience for us, if you multiply that by what the local officials in Rio de Janeiro say was 3.2 million people who came to his concluding mass on Copacabana Beach on Sunday morning, I suppose that was the experience of the trip writ large.

Now, let’s be clear. Other popes have been great magnets for humanity. John Paul II routinely drew crowds on his 104 foreign trips in excess of a million. When he was in Manila in ’95, he had somewhere between four and five million. So, it’s not like this sort of thing is unprecedented.

But certainly the turnout suggests that this simple, humble, accessible, close-to-the-people style of Pope Francis is not just playing well in the media, Judy. It is also playing very well on the streets too.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it looks to have been a remarkable trip and a remarkable interview.

John Allen, joining us from Rome, thank you.