Who Is Pope Francis?

Friday, September 11, 2015
Tony Gentile/Reuters
Kurt Martens

Associate Professor of Canon Law, Catholic University of America

Thomas J. Reese

Senior Analyst, National Catholic Reporter

John Thavis

Author, The Vatican Diaries

Katherine Marshall

Senior Fellow and Professor, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, Georgetown University

Kurt Martens, professor at the Catholic University of America, Thomas J. Reese, senior analyst at the National Catholic Reporter, and John Thavis, author of The Vatican Diaries, join Georgetown University's Katherine Marshall to discuss the leadership style, psychology, personality, and policies of Pope Francis ahead of his upcoming visit to the United States.

In the Power Profile series, speakers discuss the leadership style, psychology, personality, and policies of well-known leaders from around the world.

MARSHALL: Good afternoon and welcome to this session of the Council on Foreign Relations. I’m Katherine Marshall, with the Berkley Center at Georgetown University. And the topic today is somewhat mysterious and clearly challenging, and it is “Power Profile: Pope Francis.”

So what we’re hoping to do today with this remarkable panel, with very different and deep expertise, is first of all to talk a little bit about the upcoming visit to the United States. I will ask Father Tom Reese to comment a little bit on what he thinks we should be watching out for and then turn to the leadership style and the leadership challenges that the pope faces, that this pope faces, as opposed to any pope.

The agenda of issues that will be on the table over the next few days or couple of weeks is a remarkable one. It’s the future of the family. It’s the future of the environment. It’s the stability of the world, safety, security. It’s the role of the American Catholic Church. And it is relationships between men and women.

So we will see in this short hour how many of these questions we can at least touch on and raise some questions to watch out for during the extraordinary visit that’s coming up.

I’m not going to introduce our speakers, because you have the biographies, and I will remind you that this is on the record.

So let’s start with Father Reese. What would you say are the things that you will be watching out for, and perhaps even what do you think will not be on the table?

REESE: (Laughs.)

MARSHALL: What do you think will be ignored?

REESE: Thank you. And first I want to thank the council for having this event and inviting us.

I feel a little bit like Paul Revere: The pope is coming! The pope is coming! (Laughter.) It’s stimulated an extraordinary amount of interest among people in the United States and with the media.

Why is he coming? Well, first of all, he’s coming because Pope Benedict said he would come to Philadelphia for this international meeting of families that’s going to be taking place in Philadelphia. And of course Pope Benedict can’t come now, so Francis agreed to pick up the ball and come in his place.

But you know, if you come to the United States for the first time, you know, you can’t just come to Philadelphia and then leave. So he’s got to come to Washington, and there, you know, you have a meeting with the president at the—at the White House. And interestingly, of course, Speaker Boehner has been trying to get a pope to address a joint session of Congress for years. He’s been inviting every pope. And so this is the first one that said, yeah, OK, I’ll do that. So that’s going to be really fascinating to watch.

And then, of course, of particular interest to the council will be his coming to New York and speaking at the United Nations. This is something that all the popes since Pope Paul VI have done. This is always a major address where the pope lays out his foreign policy goals and urges people to respond to the needs for making peace and responding to immigrants. And of course this pope is going to speak about the environment, because he just came out with an encyclical, and he knows about the meeting that’s going to be happening in Paris at the end of the year.

So in a sense, the pope is coming as both a pastor to the American Catholic Church, to pray, to worship with them, to break bread and preach the Gospel, but he’s also coming as a prophet. Being a prophet is part of the job description of the pope. And what a prophet does is comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. (Laughter.) He comes to speak truth to power.

And this is something that this pope has done in the past. When he was archbishop in Buenos Aires, there was once the equivalent of their 4th of July meeting, and since it’s a Catholic country, of course, they all—all the politicians come to the cathedral. The archbishop says Mass, and then he gets up and tell them, stop the corruption. Take care of the poor. They got so mad, they didn’t come back the next year. (Laughter.)

So what’s going to happen when he speaks to Congress? (Laughter.) I think Speaker Boehner may lose his job—(laughter)—because, you know, when he comes in there—I mean, you’ve all watched presidential addresses, State of the Union addresses. When he comes in there and says, welcome the immigrant, care for the poor, protect the environment, the Democrats are going to go crazy—(laughter)—jumping up and down and applauding, you know, and what are the Republicans going to do? (Laughter.) Sit on their hands and, you know, look around like this. If they get up and applaud, the tea party people are going to kill them. So this is going to be a bit of political theater that you just can’t miss. (Laughter.)

Now on the—you know, on the other hand, if he says, every child deserves a mother and a father, or you—you know, you should protect life, the Republicans are going to go crazy and jump up and down, and the Democrats are all going to look at Nancy Pelosi and say, what do we do now? (Laughter.)

So it’s going to be a great visit to watch, and especially with your interest in foreign policy, you know, what he’ll say about the various international issues that the world faces.

 MARSHALL: Thank you.

John Thavis, author, many other incarnations, the pope holds a rather unusual set of powers, and he’s a unique leader. Many other leaders would like to be considered infallible. (Laughter.) What do you see as, in a sense, the essence of the power, and how do you think it will be expressed during his visit?

THAVIS: Well, Pope Francis is a fascinating figure to watch in his environment, which is now the Vatican. He comes across, I think, as—he combines these elements of being a pastor, but he also has these elements of being an executive, an executive who’s not afraid to make decisions. And this is the element that I find a little surprising about this pope. We heard last week that he—or earlier this week that he has changed the rules on annulments, for example, and he did this by a form of a document called motu proprio, which, if you’re—Tom Reese knows means in Latin “on one’s own initiative.” It’s the equivalent of an executive order, OK. It did not drop down from the sky, out of the blue, because this is an issue that had been discussed by the Synod of Bishops last year, and it had been entrusted to a commission actually before the synod began.

So the pope was simply following through, but he did it very decisively. He is a pope who is not afraid to cut through the bureaucratic red tape and change the rules. And he has issued several of these motu proprios. When it comes to reforming the Vatican Curia, for example, he has instituted entirely new levels of bureaucracy that oversee Vatican finances, that oversee that Vatican communications. He has instituted a brand-new tribunal that will look at how bishops have handled sex abuse cases. So this is a pope who has been very decisive and who knows he’s pope.

At the same time, I think during this trip we’re going to see the pastoral side of the pope’s authority. We’re going to see a pope, I think, who comes in and although I will appreciate the political theater that Father Tom Reese envisages, I—I’m going to be a little surprised if the pope comes with words of accusation. I think he’s going to try to avoid the impression that he has come to this country to lecture us. I think he’s going to be very much giving the impression that he’s come to learn. And I see that from the events that have been added, that the U.S. bishops, who are hosting him, are of course eager to show the pope we’re alive, we’re a vital church, we do a lot of things that you’ve been already talking about in Rome—ministry to the poor, to the homeless; visiting prisoners, prison ministry, for example—and I think they’re eager to show the pope, look, we are a vital church; we are on your wavelength here.

And so when it comes to the U.S. trip, I don’t think we’re going to see an authoritarian pope. I think we’re going to see a pastoral pope who is here, as he put it, to get close to the people here. He’s never been in this country, and it’s going to be a fresh encounter for him.

MARSHALL: Kurt Martens, associate professor of canon law at Catholic University, what do you think is going to happen at the meeting on the family in Philadelphia? You’re an expert in these issues, and how does that relate to his leadership style really in terms of people’s personal behavior and beliefs?

MARTENS: Well, there are a few questions there. Let me say, first of all, this. When the visit of the pope was announced, what was his primary goal of his visit, the visit to Philadelphia? The World Meeting of Families. So that’s actually the first thing—or the first—that was actually the first goal of the trip, and all the rest has been added. It’s like when you’re playing with LEGO blocks; you’re building more things to the tower.

So his visit is basically pastoral in nature, and so I would love to see what Father Reese predicted. However, what we will see in terms of leadership style—we have a pope who makes us, to put it bluntly, uncomfortable. He asks questions that make us look for answers, because we don’t have the answers ready. He asks questions about what did you do for the poor? I just went by one, and I didn’t give anything. Is that what is expected from me as a Christian or as a Catholic?

So he’s not coming as a politician. He comes as a pastoral pope. So we’re all looking at the event in Congress, the event at the United Nations, and we think, what is his political message going to be, what—he’s going to question us. That’s what I expect us—that’s what I expect. And nobody is going to be happy afterwards. Why not? Because—the Republicans are not going to be happy, the Democrats are not going to be happy, in the United Nations he will make a number of countries unhappy because he’s questioning us about essential things that we don’t want to be questioned about.

However, he can do that because he’s not like a politician who’s thinking of the next election. He has another goal. So that’s a first answer or first element of answer to your questions.

It’s the World Family—it’s the World Meeting of Families, so he’s there to support families.

Unfortunately, in all his attempts to change the church, one of the things that he has not managed to change is how the Holy See, the Vatican, as we tend to say, communicates, and the communication could be done better. Things are taken out of context. And not only this week but last week we canon lawyers had to change all our schedules because we had to explain what the pope really had meant with a letter he had written. Last week was his letter about forgiving the sin of abortion. A number of media outlets thought that the pope had now said it is OK to commit an abortion. No, that’s not what he said. He said women who are in this situation and who commit that should be forgiven if they’re repentant, if they repent and if they don’t want to do it again. He was trying to show that the church is merciful. That actually has been his—message of his pontificate throughout, from the beginning, being a merciful father.

We all know where we heard the first words of the pope or what the first words were we heard from him. Most of us forget what he said during his very first speech to all of us. He was talking about confession and go to confession and make up for what you’ve done wrong. So that’s an important thing too that you have to see there. He’s very pastoral.

And I think he’s also very concerned—third part of your question or the third part I would like to answer—about family life. In all his speeches—it’s not about abortion, it’s not about divorce, it’s not about annulments, et cetera—he is—his message is it’s so important to have families and to have children grow up in a family, in a loving family, to give them a good education and to give them good values. And I think that’s one of the key elements of his message, and all the rest is around that.

MARSHALL: Father Tom, the—you were—gave us a vivid illustration of the polarization of politics in the United States, but the church is also rather polarized, the Catholic Church. What do you see as the impact on the Catholic Church? And just let’s take the example of the issue of the nuns, as well as some of the other controversies within the church: the sex abuse, et cetera. Can you give us quick—a quick—(chuckles)—guide to how he’s going to handle these issues?

REESE: Actually, when you said “nuns,” I wasn’t sure whether you meant N-U-N-S or N-O-N-E-S.

MARSHALL: I meant—no, I’m meaning N-U-N-S at the moment.

REESE: Oh, OK. Good, good, good.

Well, it’s fascinating. If you look at the polling data, Catholics overwhelmingly like this pope. Even people who are self-identified conservatives say they like this pope. And so it’s pretty consistent across the board.

I think that clearly there’s lots of disputes, lots of arguments in the Catholic Church: over women’s ordination, over abortion, over birth control, over—I mean, we used to fight over altar girls. I mean—(laughter)—but you know, the Gospels—the Scriptures you will know that they are Christians by their love. I add: And you will know that they are Catholics by their fights. (Laughter.)

I think what Pope Francis wants to remind us is that we’re a family, you know, and how a family interacts is extremely important. You know, if—I often talk about, you know, when the kids come home for—enough gray hair in this room—kids or grandkids come home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, you know, how are they greeted when they walk in the door? Is it “Is that a nose ring?” (Laughter.) “Is that a tattoo I see?” Or worse yet, “Who are you sleeping with now?” (Laughter.) Or “When am I going to be a grandparent?” I mean, you know, is this how the kids are greeted when they come in, you know, at Christmastime or Thanksgiving, or do they get a big hug? You know, “I’m so happy you’re here. I love you. Oh, how are you doing? Welcome.”

Pope Francis wants us to be a hugging church, no more nagging parents, you know. He wants us to be welcoming, compassionate, and loving. And then we can sit down, we can break bread, we can eat together, and we can—you know, we’re not going to agree on everything. We can have an argument. We can have a discussion. We can—but we respect and we love one another. And you know, our—the trouble is that church politics tends to reflect partisan politics. Our model of the church is imported from partisan politics. So you’ve got interest groups; you’ve got lobbies; you’ve got, you know, demonstrators; you’ve got, you know, all of this kind of stuff. This is not healthy in a family. This is not the way you want your family to operate.

And so I think he’s calling us to recognize again that we are a family and that we need to care for one another even when we have disagreements.

MARSHALL: John, several people have commented that this period could be called a kairos moment, where world leaders are coming together in an unprecedented series of meetings where at least they have the potential to make a huge difference. So you have the United Nations General Assembly with the sustainable development goals and the global goals. You have Paris coming up in December on the environment. You will have countless meetings about the migrant crisis. You have the commemoration of Beijing+20. You have a host of issues, events, problems—ISIS, you name it.

So the pope is an unusual leader within this, and he’ll be speaking at the United Nations General Assembly. What’s your sense of both the—and then we can maybe—you can address some the Vatican diplomacy, but if you could address the Kairos moment.

THAVIS: I really do believe that this is one of those moments where a pope can influence world events, and for several reasons. The ones you mentioned—that we’re arriving at a season of important meetings and decisions—perhaps decisions; we’ll see. A lot of these decisions are kicked down the road, which is one of the pope’s criticisms.

But this—the other big reason is that the world is listening to the pope. And this has not really been universally true for a very long time, I think. People have compared it to John Paul II and communism in Eastern Europe, and I think, you know, there are some parallels. But with Pope Francis, I think, number one, the audience is more universal, and I think his words are more direct and more biting. And you know, what this pope does is always brings it down to the human level, so that everybody understands.

And there is the actual possibility that when the pope speaks to the political leaders, the leaders in the—in the great political corridor that he is visiting, including the U.N., the White House, and Congress, that yes, his message will resonate with them, but that even more it’s going to resonate with everybody who’s tuned in or who reads about it in their newspapers. And as the pope said in his trip to Latin America earlier this year, you know, it’s not just up to the leaders; it’s up to you people to organize community—at the community level. And I think that’s the big question. Is he going to inspire a change at that level? Because that, of course, will impact any decisions that are made. I look for him to talk about all these key issues, beginning with the United Nations, of course. I think he will address immigration as a world tragedy and as a—as a problem that requires action on various fronts. And I think he will address it in the U.S. Congress, too, because we have those issues in this country, more specifically to this country.

So I expect immigration to be really at the top of his agenda when he comes here, and that’s just the starting point.

MARSHALL: We understand that his wish had been to enter the United States across the Mexican border, along with some immigrants, but that turned out not to be feasible. (Laughter.) So instead he is coming from Cuba. So, Kurt, perhaps you could comment on two interesting dimensions of Pope Francis’ leadership. The first: his intervention or his leadership of the longstanding diplomatic role that the Vatican can play, which I think takes it more broadly into peace-building and religious leaders, but also he made a fascinating, provocative statement in Bolivia when he was there that—he compared unfettered capitalism to the dung of the devil. And I wondered what fettered capitalism might look like. (Laughter.)

MARTENS: I don’t know what fettered capitalism is. (Laughter.) I don’t do words. (Laughter.)

Let’s talk about—first about the diplomacy of the Holy See. About 190—1-9-0—countries have diplomatic relations with the Holy See, and I would like to quote, now that I have an opportunity, John Paul I. You can’t quote him a lot, since he was only pope for 33 days. But when he received the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See immediately after his election, he was talking about what it means to have diplomatic relations with the Holy See, and he said, we don’t have anything to offer you. We don’t have natural resources. There is no oil in their Vatican City state. We don’t have any trade to do with you. We have something sui generis. And various American ambassadors to the Holy See have tried to explain that, what it means to be an ambassador to the Holy See. It’s to have a platform to exchange information or someone—I forget who it was—defined it as a listening post, a very interesting listening post, because you collect information from other diplomats, who are not in the spotlight.

So that being said, it’s very interesting. The pope has added Cuba to his trip to the United States. So he—he’s coming from Cuba to the United States. And a few months ago the relations between the United States and Cuba were normalized or on their way to be normalized, thanks to the pope. What does that mean? It means that the Holy See’s—the Holy See plays that role of mediating between countries that are not very happy with each other and tries to make sure that they talk to each other. Again, the family picture that Father Reese just used—we’re one big human family. And it’s—Pope Francis reminds me a lot of Pope John Paul II, because John Paul II played the same role not only with regard to communism, but you will remember in the ’80s there was a conflict between Argentina and Chile on a border issue, and the Holy See prevented war from happening there, and a peace treaty was signed, through the intervention of John Paul II. Similar things happened with John XXIII when he called the Russian or the Soviet Union leader at the time and the American president to avoid a nuclear war, or Benedict XV, when he tried to end World War I, although that wasn’t very successful.

So that has been—that role of the Holy See trying to establish peace between nations is again put into praxis, but this time by Francis, with his unique leadership style. I think might see more of that by Pope Francis. At least I hope we will see more of that. Yeah.

THAVIS: Can I just add one thing on the Cuban issue that I think people have overlooked? You know, it is in a way a success story because the Vatican helped bring these two parties to the table. So there’s been this diplomatic rapprochement. But what I’m asking—and maybe you have an opinion on this—is whether the pope is going to come to Congress and raise the issue of the Cuban embargo, because the embargo remains in place, and Congress is the body that—that can remove it. And as we know, the Vatican has always been against the embargo.

MARTENS: That would be—that’s a fascinating question. We probably—journalists will probably have embargoed text beforehand, unless they’re afraid of leaks, like with the encyclical, but—(laughter)—what is interesting is what will be in the texts and what will he say—(laughter)—because this pope has been—it’s—like John Paul II, this pope has been deviating from prepared texts, and whereas with John Paul II you could predict what he was going to say, with John—with Francis, you cannot predict anything. So his diplomats might have screened what is in the text and said, you can say this and you can say that, and then the pope will say, yes, and then will do whatever he wants. (Laughter.) And so that is going to be fascinating to see, if he—I would not be surprised if he does that.



REESE: Well, here’s just—I don’t think he’s going to go off-text. Pope Francis had zero diplomatic experience. This is like electing a governor president. (Laughter.) He had zero diplomatic, you know, experience when he became pope. I think he is—one of the reasons he’s doing well—he’s paying very—he hired a very good secretary of state, and he’s listening very closely to the advice he gets from the folks in the Secretariat of State.

The other problem is that when he ad-libs, he ad-libs in Spanish and Italian. I don’t think he can ad-lib in English. And the address that he makes to Congress will be in English, and I don’t think he is comfortable going off-text in English. But anything could happen with this pope! (Laughter.)

MARTENS: However, I would use that as an argument to say it can’t happen, because he did that—


MARTENS: —in the Philippines he also—he had an English prepared text, and he called his interpreter, and he said, I’m speaking now in Spanish, and you can translate for me. (Laughter.)

REESE: Yeah. There was a wonderful scene there—

MARTENS: So that was a wonderful scene—

REESE: —where this young woman came up and talked about how the kids on the street were into drugs and prostitution, and she started crying, and well, he threw away the text. But he had to, you know, respond to her. He couldn’t speak in English, so he responded—and—but I don’t—I don’t think anybody in Congress is going to be breaking down into tears. (Laughter.) I—well, maybe they will—(laughter)—but it’ll be a little different.

MARSHALL: Well, we’re coming close to the time when we’re going to be opening this to questions and comments—questions from the audience. But first I wanted to give each of you a little scenario: that you are meeting for a minute and half, I think, with the pope, and he’s explicitly said that he wants your advice on the U.S. trip. What would you say?

So, Father Tom.

REESE: Oh, geez.

MARSHALL: (Laughs.)

REESE: It’s above my pay grade to advise the pope. (Laughter.) Well—

MARSHALL: What’s something he doesn’t know, something he should know about—

REESE: Well, I tell you what I—yeah, I know what I would do. (Laughter.) There is—you know, after he speaks to the joint session of Congress, he’s then going to go over and have lunch at a homeless shelter here in Washington—you know, from the high and mighty to the real people.

Now, what I would suggest to him is that he make that trip on the bus with the nuns. (Applause, laughter.) You know, the Nuns on the Bus thing. I think that’d be so cool. (Laughter.) And—but anyway, that—


THAVIS: Or he could ride the subway, like he used to do in Buenos Aires.

REESE: That’s right. (Laughs.) Yeah. Yes. (Laughter.)

THAVIS: Yeah, I would—I would—I would advise him, look, be yourself. Don’t let the security people dictate to you what’s going to happen, because, believe me, they are trying. You know, this pope doesn’t like the glass walls. He once call the Popemobile a “sardine can.” (Laughter.) And he got rid of the glass walls, and now they’re trying to put the glass walls up on this Jeep Wrangler he’s going to use.

So I would say, be yourself and don’t pull your punches, because even his own Vatican diplomats are going to be trying to—no, Holy Father, you shouldn’t probably say that in those terms. (Laughter.) And his blunt language is part of the reason he’s so popular.

And my third little piece of advice is—yeah, I have three—is keep it—keep it personal, because everything is personal for this pope. He doesn’t work so much in policies and theories, and for him, mercy and charity happen when it’s personal. And he is going to have occasions during this trip when he can make this trip very personal. And those are the things that Americans are going to remember, I think.


MARTENS: Well, who am I to judge, but—(laughter)—if I can give him one piece of advice, I would say this. Being not an American myself—this is his first trip to the United States, and some people have accused him of not liking the United States, not liking Americans. If that were true, well, do away with that and meet the American people, because they’re very nice people.

MARSHALL: Great. So we’re now opening this for the question-and-answer, and you are all veterans of the Council on Foreign Relations, but let me remind you to wait for the microphone, speak directly into it, stand, state your name and affiliation, and please focus questions. Keep them short, so we have enough time.

So the first hand I see right here.

Q: John Gannon from Georgetown University and formerly of the Central Intelligence Agency.

You mentioned, Katherine, that the Catholic Church in the United States is polarized. I would also say—I think the pope is aware of this—also a church in decline. And if you—and in terms of the measurement of people’s adherence to Catholic doctrine. So the pope has to know this. So I’m wondering what impact does he want to have on those—particularly younger people who believe that the church’s teachings with regard to sexuality, celibacy, homosexuality are issues that they—they don’t understand the church’s position, they don’t accept it, and they’re not likely to.

But the role of women especially—it has been so long that the issue of women ordination to the priesthood—we see it now happening other religious denominations, and it looks like it works pretty well. Why is the Catholic Church so slow to respond to the impulse from its own people? And do you see that this pope is really going to make any difference in those fundamental issues for Catholicism?

MARSHALL: Do you have someone particular you’d like to answer the question?

Q: Well, I think it would be great—I certainly wouldn’t want to put Tom Reese on the hot seat with all of that. (Laughter.) I’ll just—I’ll just—


REESE: Yeah, I mean, clearly the Catholic Church has got serious problems. One out of 3 people raised Catholic in the United States have left the church. If—that’s 10 percent of U.S. population. If they all got together and formed a church, they would be the third largest church in the United States after Catholics and Baptists. These are huge numbers.

Now, half of those people who leave the Catholic Church become Protestants. Half of them become unchurched. Very few become members of other religions.

The ones who become Protestants tend to say that their spiritual needs were not being fulfilled in the—were not being fed, dealt with in the Catholic Church. They say that they like the worship service of their new church. They like the stress on the Bible in the Protestant churches. I sum that up by saying the Catholic Church is boring. We didn’t—we—you know, the evangelicals are much better at preaching, much better music, more exciting worship services. They’re more welcoming communities. You know, you Catholics, when you go on vacation and you visit, you go to a church that you’ve never gone before—nobody says hello to you. You go to one of these evangelical churches, before your foot—both feet are in the door, five people have tackled you and—(laughter)—you know, you—welcome, you know. Look, let me introduce you around. I mean, we’re just—we don’t know how to evangelize, we don’t know how to—you know, how to be a welcoming, compassionate, loving church. We’re into too—we don’t preach the Gospel, we preach the catechism. This is part of the problem of the Catholic Church today with those who become Protestants.

Now, if you look at the numbers, they’re not becoming Anglicans. They’re not joining the liberal Protestant communions. They’re joining the—you know, two-thirds of them are joining the evangelicals, you know. So they’re not looking for liberals when they leave us. So—but I think what they are looking for is a dynamic church community that’s worshiping and that.

So now—then the other half, who become the nones, N-O-N-E-S, none, none of the—you know, none—when you ask them what their religion is, they say, none. They’re the ones who tend to be alienated from religion in general, who tend to stress the—some of the issues that you’ve talked about also, but also the ones that just—they don’t have time for religion. They’re like Bill Gates: I got more important things to do with my time than go to church. So there’s that.

But even so, there’s a good—I forget the exact percentage—maybe a third of them say simply that they haven’t found the church that they—that they feel comfortable with, that they want to join. So that’s—even the nones are open to religion.

What impact can Pope Francis have? Clearly, all of these people find Pope Francis very attractive. And some of the people who have left the Catholic Church are asking themselves—even young people—well, maybe I ought to give it another chance. The problem is that the pope is very important in the Catholic Church, but he is not the Catholic Church. We live our faith on the local level, in parishes. And so, you know, you get somebody who gets all enthusiastic about Pope Francis and goes to a local parish, walks in the door. Are they going to meet Pope Francis?

Q: No. That’s a good question.

Q: No.

REESE: This is the—this is the question. If, when they enter, they get the same old same old—you know, they find a, you know, bureaucrat, you know, judgmental old fogy, you know, up in the pulpit condemning gays or, you know, whatever, they’re going to turn around and walk right out the door again, you know, unless they hear the compassionate love of God preached the way Pope Francis preaches it.

So if the Francis effect is going to have an effect, is going to be real, it’s going to require the clergy and the bishops, the priests and the bishops to get on board with his style of preaching, his style of being a priest, seeing it as a role of service, not a princely, you know, authoritarian job, and also preach the compassion, his priorities—about the poor, the environment, immigrants. This is—this is what, you know, people want to hear, and if they don’t hear that when they go into the church, they’re going to leave, and they’re never coming back.

MARSHALL: What about the stained-glass ceiling—


MARSHALL: —and where he will sit in the so-called war against women?

REESE: Well, this is complicated and—apologize if I talk too long, too much. Pope Francis—there are really good things about Pope Francis on women, and there are things that just drive my feminist friends crazy about Pope Francis.

Let me say—talk about the good things first. I mean, remember this—you know, his first job, as a chemist, he was working for a woman. You know, a woman was his boss, was his mentor, you know, and they became very close friends. She happened to be a communist, too. But anyway, she was the one who mentored him in his first job, and you know, they had a very good relationship, and they were friends, you know, all her life. So you know, he’s taken orders from women. He’s worked for women, you know, as his boss.

Secondly, he—you know, he grew up in a country where, you know, women have played an extremely important political role, whether it’s Eva Peron or women who have been presidents of Argentina. He’s used to seeing women in important political roles, you know. In the United States we still haven’t gotten a woman president. Argentina’s been there, done that.

Now, on the other hand, when it comes to women’s issues, his heart is in the women’s issues of the Third World. When he walked through the slums of Buenos Aires and, you know, met poor women, sat in their homes, listened to their stories, drank tea with them, what did he hear? They wanted jobs—jobs, jobs, jobs, for them and for their husbands. The second thing that came up was they were worried about their daughters. They were worried that their daughter, walking home from school, was going to get kidnapped and trafficked. And who cares what happens to a—you know, a slum girl in Buenos Aires? You know, go to the police? Oh, she obviously ran off with her boyfriend. You know, we’re not going to worry about that, you know.

So he became a leader in Argentina on, you know, the move against human trafficking. This became a priority. This was his women’s issue, this—you know, for him. It wasn’t, you know, whether you become partner or CEO. This—the women he was talking to were not on that level and not that concern.

Now, what did he do? You know, he got this woman lawyer to run the program for him, and she happened to be in Washington a year or so ago, and I met her at a meeting. And so I wanted to talk to her. And I said, you know, what was it like working for Bergoglio? And she said, it was wonderful; he did whatever I told him. (Laughter.)

So, I mean, that’s—you know, I think—and I think he has talked about bringing women into the curia and doing more of that. And clearly in the Catholic Church there’s all—you know, there are—if you look at the United States, the three biggest organizations are run by women: Catholic Charities USA, the Catholic Health Association, and Catholic Relief Services. Where all the money is in the Catholic Church, it’s—women are in charge of this. And women, you know, can—are in every chancery in the country in cabinet-level positions, either directors of Catholic Charities, superintendents of schools.

And the dirty little secret that neither the feminists nor the Vatican understand is that women are passing on the faith to the next generation. Something like 80-plus percent of religious educators in the Catholic Church are women. Mothers interact 24/7 with their kids. Who do you think is going to influence what they think about the church and God? It’s women. It’s not the poor priests, who—I get five minutes in the pulpit on Sunday, and then people start, you know, moving around, and they want to get out of here, you know. So they’re still extremely influential.

Where—OK, now the negative. Where’s the problem? Hey, he’s a man! What man can talk about women today without getting into trouble? And not only that, he’s a celibate male. You know, it’s not—you know, having sex with women does not allow—you know, does not magically make you understand women, but—(laughter)—I think we’ve proven that over the centuries. (Laughter.) What does make the difference is having a wife and daughters, you know, who will come in and say, oh, come on, get with it! Get real! You know, that’s what celibate priests don’t have, you know. You know, get real, Dad! You know, this kind of thing, you know, OK, they don’t have.

Then he’s a Latin American. Now I don’t want to be stereotypical or get condemned—(laughter)—you know, for saying things I shouldn’t say, but you know, this is a patriarchal culture, but this is a paternalistic culture. The language that’s used there, the attitudes, you know, they’re not, you know, what you would find at an Ivy League college faculty room.

And then finally, he doesn’t have the vocabulary, he doesn’t have the feminist vocabulary, he doesn’t know how to talk about women. So he’ll use terms which come from John Paul, like complementarity, the unique charism of women, you know, some of these things that drive the feminists just bananas.

And so my feminist friends love him, but they just—you know, when he starts talking about women’s issues, it starts to grate.

Finally, to say—thing I would say is he’s appointed women to the International Theological Commission, and he’s also appointed a bunch of women to the sex abuse commission, you know, in the Vatican. So it’s a complicated response to your very simple question. (Laughter.)

THAVIS: If I can just add one thing, the glass ceiling at the Vatican is that, as I understand it, the canon lawyers have argued that decision-making in the church is tied to holy orders. This is something that is not universally recognized, but it’s been enough to sway Pope Benedict and, to this point, Pope Francis. And you know, while he has talked about bringing women into the Curia, he really has not done so. He has pretty much through the grapevine ruled out that he’s going to name a woman as the head of a Vatican—major Vatican department, again apparently accepting that argument that no, that’s reserved to a cardinal or to a cleric.

And I think this really is a problem, to go back to the original question, of—you know, Pope Francis, as we know, has also ruled out any change on women’s ordination. And for a lot of young people, especially millennials, only 15 percent of whom self-identify as Catholics, this pope has got to really do something revolutionary to get their attention. It is one thing to bring fallen-away Catholics back into the church, and I think this pope is doing that, to some degree, and this trip could make a big difference. It’s totally another thing to reach out to these millennials, who have no experience of religion —35 percent of them say, I have no religious affiliation, and many of them are not seeking one. So for this pope, women is (sic) a crucial issue in the eyes of young people.

MARTENS: Just for the record, I cannot let you say this. (Laughter.) You can blame the canon lawyers for a lot—

THAVIS: It’s the canon lawyer. (Laughter.)

MARTENS: — but it’s actually the theologians. And actually the interesting thing is, it’s true. Power of orders and power of governance are tied together, but not by us but by the theologians and by the teaching of Vatican II. It’s actually during the code revision process that, of all people, the people of the Roman Curia wanted the two to be separated, so that you could have some wiggling room there, which is a very interesting paradox.


MARSHALL: Well, we have—we had a long discussion with this, but I think it was good to open the question.

Well, let’s go to you.

Q: Hi. My name is Claudia Trevisan from the Brazilian newspaper Estado de S. Paulo.

And like a lot of things that the pope will talk about—immigration, climate change, care for the poor—identifies with the Democrat agenda and with President Obama agenda. Do you expect him to be as explicit with issues that identify with the Republican agenda, especially the pro-life and same-sex marriage? Like what do you expect him—and the question for the three of us—him to say about that?

THAVIS: I think a lot of the answer to that depends on where the pope says it. You know, he’s addressing very different audiences during this trip. If he comes into Congress and talks about marriage as one man, one woman, permanent union, well, then, yeah, that’s a political issue at that point, and that’s the pope wading straight into it. If he talks about that in Philadelphia, it’s going to have a little less resonance as a political issue. It’s going to be the church, of course, saying what it always has taught about the family.

Likewise, if he talks in very specific terms about income equality (sic) at the United Nations, then it becomes a universal issue. If he zeros in on that in Congress, again, then it’s going to be funneled into the immediate kind of tote board the media has: Does this line up with the Republicans or Democrats? And I have a feeling that his advisers are going to try to keep him away from topics that can be pinned on Republicans and Democrats, knowing that, you know, the media—and we all have kind of an interest in how this is going to play out in next year’s election, whether the pope’s going to have an effect and whether candidates agree with him or not.

So we may see some guarded language by the pope on this. I think one thing is certain, is that after he says what he has to say during these six days in the United States, the candidates for next year’s presidential election are going to be asked about this, and at that point we are going to see, you know, whether there is disagreement or not.

MARSHALL: Do either—

MARTENS: Well, one of your colleagues asked, I think, the same or almost the same question when the program for the trip was presented at the cathedral in June, and Cardinal Wuerl had a very short but good answer. He said, you’re all looking at this visit of the pope in political terms, but do not forget that he is not a politician, and he comes here as a pastor, and he will say what he have—what he has to say. And if he addresses Congress and he brings up these topics, that might make the spectacle you were hoping for—(laughter)—but he says what he has to say, and he will say that, wherever the—whatever the circumstances and the audience and the place is.

MARSHALL: Do you want to chip in or—

REESE: Just briefly. I mean, fundamentally, he sees these as moral issues. There are some people who would like to believe that the Catholic Church’s only moral issues are in the bedroom. He says no, you know, how we treat the poor, whether we care for the environment, whether we work for peace—these are all moral issues. And as a moral leader and a prophet, he has to speak about these things. It’s part of his DNA.

Q: Rob Wilson-Black, Sojourners. A brief two-part question. It’s a wonderful panel. Thank you, Katherine.

What did the pope technically legally mean when he said, “Who I am to judge?” And—(laughter)—and then the second question, also brief, is, is it ever acceptable to resist your own pope? In fact, must you morally resist your own pope—that sounds like a Protestant thing to say—when the spirit tells you you should? Because that’s been called for. And I think of that in—based on two things: the doctrine of non-reception and the fact that the pope is not in fact infallible, except in matters of doctrine which he can technically change. So those are the two questions.

MARTENS: Actually, his remarks “Who am I to judge?” were made on the airplane in a conversation with journalists, and it was actually a reaction to a question or an answer to a question. Unfortunately, in today’s world we tend to pick up those parts of what something—someone says that we like, and we forget the rest, and we forget, for instance, the whole context. And the context was this one. One of the journalists was—wanted to talk about what is called or what has been called the gay lobby in the Vatican. And the pope answered to that one and said, while that exists, et cetera, and—but then was trying to downplay that a bit and saying, well, if someone has found the faith and has converted and leads a life—a good life, who am I to judge? He was actually saying in popular language what Father Reese would cite from the catechism if he was—(audio break)—but he was just translating that in his own plain language, that what he said—he was just confirming what has been said before.

If you want to put it in different words, he was saying the glass is half full instead of the glass is half empty.

THAVIS: I think, though, that by saying—I agree. It’s taken a little bit out of context. But the final words, “who am I to judge,” were significant politically. And in terms of this mercy theme that he—

MARTENS: Absolutely, yeah.

THAVIS: —that has—he has made the leitmotif of his pontificate, and in terms of the fact that he recognizes the language we use matters to people.

And I’m sure that this pope fully recognizes that the catechism of the Catholic Church, as it was re-elaborated several years ago, identifies the homosexual inclination as disordered. And he did not use that word. Instead he said, “Who am I to judge?” And that’s a change. That’s a difference. That’s something that obviously generated headlines, I think deservedly so.

And as for the other question, that’s to Tom Reese, obviously, right? (Laughter.)

REESE: Which one?

Q: Resisting one’s pope—

REESE: Oh, oh, resisting one’s pope.

Q: (Which ?) have you ever? Have you ever? (Laughter.)

REESE: Have I ever been a member of the Communist Party? (Laughter.) Is that what you’re asking me?

Q: Just theoretically.

REESE: Just a final footnote on the gay thing. When I heard the words “who am I to judge,” I just had flashbacks to when I was a novice, a Jesuit novice. You know, the novitiate is the—is the first stage of training in the Jesuit order, and Bergoglio was director of novices.

Now, you have a lot of enthusiastic, idealistic, good people coming in, you know, to your seminary, and you know, you’re (teaching them ?) how to practice virtue and, you know, follow God’s call. Well, you become—one of the temptations is to become very judgmental about everybody else in the novitiate. You know, well, I’m doing everything right, but he’s talking during the hours of silence or, you know, he’s obviously not praying hard or, you know. (Laughter.) And you know—and all of the spiritual writers, when you read, you know, the fathers of the church and Teresa of Avila, they see this as a great temptation of good people. It’s the Pharisees, you know. And I could just hear him saying that. He—you know, he—again, he wants the church to be field hospital that embraces people, binds up wounds, not, you know, the nagging parent, you know, that yells at people when they come in. OK.

And then—also, this is an—you know, even when it’s only limited to priests, this is an extraordinary change, because under the last papacy, you know, gays were to be thrown out of the seminary and could not be ordained. I mean, they were pushed back with—they were just beginning to come out of the closet, and they were pushed back into the closet by these procedures. And you know, now he’s saying, eh, if a priest is trying to live a good life and he’s gay, what’s the problem? This—so, you know, he just threw out some of the earlier (right/rite ?)—anyway, what—popes.

Well, this pope in an extraordinary way has encouraged people to disagree with him. At the last synod, first thing—you know, he welcomed the bishops, and he said, you know, some people actually told me—some cardinals—that some people weren’t speaking out because they were afraid that I would be unhappy if they disagreed with me. This is wrong. You should speak out.

I mean, this is not the papacy of John Paul II, where it was my way or the highway, you know. This is a pope who’s—who has opened the windows, like we had at Vatican II, encouraging discussion, encouraging debate. I mean, I think we can discuss these issues of women ordination now. I think we can discuss the question of married clergy and other things. I think that the, you know, theologian—you know, in the past, under the last two papacies, any theologian that brought up these issues was—you know, was condemned as a heretic, a dissident, and all of this stuff. The ironic thing is now that the dissidents are all on the right, you know. And you know, they used to accuse us, the more progressive Catholics, of being, you know, cafeteria Catholics, you know, because we’d pick and choose the papal teachings that we like. My response to these people is: welcome to the cafeteria. (Laughter.)

I—you know, so I—you know, now what—

Q: And when you say—

REESE: —let me—let me just finish a little—let me tone down a little bit of what I’ve said—(laughter)—or dial back a little bit of what I’ve said. I mean, obviously the pope is the leader of the Catholic Church, someone who we revere and respect and honor and are required to listen to, you know.

But—and you know, when he’s preaching the Gospel, we got to say, amen, you know. When he gets into fine details of—you know, of policy judgments—for example in the—his encyclical on the environment, he criticizes carbon credits. Well, I agree with him. I agree with him, you know, but that’s a prudential judgment. Nobody is bound in conscience to be opposed to carbon credits as a—you know, as one of the tools of dealing with the environmental crisis.

The more—you know, the more, you know, teaching becomes closer to specificity, the more it gets into the area of prudential judgment, but when he says, you’ve got to be concerned about the poor, we’ve got to protect the environment, you know, we have to treat everybody as our brothers and sisters, this is Gospel teaching. This is—this is non-negotiable at—in that sense of the word. But how we implement it, that’s a whole nother ballgame.


I’m afraid that we’re out of time.

REESE: Oh, I’m—

MARSHALL: And I had already given the nod to one last question. So we can at least hear the question. I have to remind you that this meeting has been on the record. So—but just a very quick one that will get a one-sentence answer.

Q: Mark Vlasic from Georgetown University.

I recognize this is the first Jesuit pope, and I’d love to hear the Jesuit nature of this pope, and do you think it’s interesting that, what, 200 years of the suppression of the Jesuits by a previous pope, this pope is the one bringing the church together? (Laughter.)

REESE: Yeah.

MARSHALL: You get one sentence on that. (Laughter.)

REESE: I love it! (Laughs.) There’s your one sentence. (Laughter.)

MARSHALL: OK. Well, I am afraid that we are out of time. I was—I had hoped to throw a last question to them, but we don’t have time for that. So you’re off the hook. So thank you all very much. (Applause.)


This is an uncorrected transcript.

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