Updated: Apr 16, 2020
There’s been a lot of media attention to Pope Francis’ now-famous phone call to an Argentine woman who is civilly married to a divorced man, reportedly telling her she could receive Communion.
While in Rome this week, I’ve made some soundings inside the Roman Curia, and found concern among Vatican officials in two areas. First, they’re worried about the doctrinal and pastoral implications of the pope’s supposed remarks, and the risk of raising expectations for a change in church policy that may never occur.
Second, and more broadly, they’re concerned that the Vatican is losing control over papal communication. In that sense, the phone call was a tipping point: an institution that has spoken for centuries in a formal, calibrated hierarchy of expression is now headed by a man who chats on the phone, delivers soundbites to reporters and improvises daily sermons.
That explains the unusual statement from Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, who announced to journalists a few days ago that the pope’s phone call – indeed, any papal phone call – did not form part of the Magisterium, the official teaching of the church. “Consequences relating to the teaching of the church are not to be inferred from these occurrences,” was the way he put it.
Father Lombardi’s statement was probably drafted by the Secretary of State’s office, which used to be the communications gatekeeper at the Vatican, but which today finds itself increasingly on the sidelines. Quite often, Pope Francis does not go through the usual filters anymore.
The Old Guard at the Vatican tends to view many of the pope’s interviews, Tweets and off-the-cuff remarks as expressions of lesser consequence. His morning Mass homilies make headlines almost every day, but – reportedly at the pope’s request – are not being collected for publication in the permanent Vatican record, the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (they are extemporaneous talks, so there’s no complete text.)
None of this less formal output is considered part of the “capital M” Magisterium. But for most Catholics, that’s a distinction without a difference. They don’t care whether comments like “Who am I to judge?” find their way into the Vatican’s official archives. All they care is that the pope said it.
In the case of the Argentine woman, the fact that Pope Francis would even make such a call bothers some officials at the Vatican. On one level, they say, it creates confusion, because no one is sure exactly what the pope said. The pope should know by now that any private conversation like this will eventually come out in some unsanctioned manner (in this instance, on the Facebook page of the woman’s husband.)
And as one Vatican monsignor put it, why should the pope be talking to her at all? Shouldn’t he be referring her to her spiritual advisor, or asking the local bishop to follow up?
If the gist of the pope’s call was accurately relayed – that the woman could receive Communion – that’s seen by some Vatican conservatives as crossing the Rubicon.
In this case, the woman had been told by her pastor that she could not receive Communion unless her husband received an annulment and the two were married in the church. Didn’t the pope undercut the authority of priests everywhere with his phone call? How are priests to respond when divorced Catholics come to them and declare: “But Father, the pope said it’s OK?”
It’s clear that Pope Francis wants the church to find a better pastoral solution to the situation of divorced and remarried Catholics, and all indications are that this fall’s Synod of Bishops will propose some changes – perhaps, as outlined by Cardinal Walter Kasper, a penitential practice that would allow divorced Catholics to receive Communion, with the understanding the church could tolerate, though not accept, second unions.
That idea has generated much debate among bishops and cardinals, and enthusiasm among many Catholics. But it is not playing so well inside the Vatican. “If that happens, we’ve crossed the line into heresy,” one official told me.
I think Francis has some prep work to do in his own backyard.