The Pope In the Air

Some thoughts on remarks made by Francis in interviews while traveling to and from the Philippines in January.

“It [security] is an enormous concern for me, a big concern. Am I afraid? You know, I have a shortcoming: a healthy dose of recklessness. I am not bothered by these things. Every now and then I have asked myself: ‘Could it happen to me?’ And I’ve said to the Lord” ‘Lord, I ask only for the grace that I don’t feel pain’. Because I am not brave in the face of pain.’” — Pope Francis, Interview, Flight from Colombo to Manila, January 16, 2015.

“We Christians must ask for the grace to cry, especially wealthy Christians, to cry about injustice and to cry about sins. Because crying opens you to understand new realities or new dimensions of reality. This is what the girl said, what I said to her. She was the only one to ask that question to which there is no answer: Why do children suffer? The great Dostoyevsky asked himself this, and he could not answer. ‘Why do children suffer?’ She with her weeping, a woman weeping, moved me.” — Pope Francis, Interview, Flight from Manila to Rome, January 20, 2015.


Before leaving Rome on his trip Sri Lanka and the Philippines, Pope Francis, as is the papal custom, laid a bouquet of flowers at the altar of the papal Basilica of St. Mary Major. As has become the practice, during the flights from a place where a pope has visited, the press corps on the same flight are accorded an interview with the Holy Father. These interviews are informal and often free-wheeling, with reporters from various nations taking turns addressing questions of concern to The Pope, who is generally relaxed in his responses.

As in his return flight from Rio, Pope Francis will usually make some remark that calls forth international attention. Vatican officials have to spend a few days explaining what he really meant. The trips from Colombo and from Manila were no exceptions. In the trip from Colombo, Pope Francis said that, as a young man, if anyone insulted his own mother, he would “punch him.” And on the flight from Manila, The Pope chastised a good lady for having too many children too soon. Needless to say, these remarks did not go unnoticed in the world press.

As I think there is much of interest in The Pope’s various responses, I want to look at what Pope Bergoglio had to say. The subject matter of his answers will leap from one issue to another as befits an open inquiry. His remarks are very human, frequently humorous, often touching, sometimes dubious, always friendly and frank. The man is a distinct personality in his own right.

1) On the flight from Colombo to Manila, the first question had to do with how saints are canonized. Some individuals, who have been “blessed” for centuries, can become saints outside the normal process. “Equivalent canonization” it is called, because people accept their holiness. In this category, Francis mentions the Jesuit Peter Faber, Francois de Laval, and Marie de l’Incarnation in Canada, Jose de Anchieta, in Brazil, Joseph Vas in Sri Lanka, and later Junipero Serra will be canonized in the United States.

2) The next question dealt with ecology and earth warming. Evidently, as he also wrote to the Peru Conference, The Pope buys the earth-warming position and shows no inclination to question its validity. He recounts the process of writing his upcoming encyclical on this topic. The early text is gone over by several levels of advisers and theological analysts; it is due out in the summer.

Several people have warned that this topic may prove to be the “new Galileo” for the Church, but in reverse. That is, it embraces a theory that is not verified by facts. This whole issue is probably a “can of worms”. I would cite, among others, two comments. One is by Fred Singer at the University of Virginia:

In spite of much effort the International Panel on Climate Change has never succeeded in demonstrating that climate change is significantly affected by human activities—and in particular, by emissions of greenhouse gases. Over the last 25 years, their supporting arguments have shifted drastically—and are shown to be worthless. It appears more than likely that climate change is controlled by variations in solar magnetic activity and by periodic changes in ocean circulation. (American Thinker, November 12, 2013).

The second is posted on PowerLine on February 6, 2015:

We have written many times about the fact that the scientific agencies which are keeping the world’s historical temperature data are all, or nearly all, under the control of warmists. These warmists have systematically altered historic temperature records, so that the temperatures they report today for past eras are not the same as what were measured, say, 70 or 80 years ago.

The Pope often says that he wants the world to be a “garden” and not “exploited.” He worries about deforestation, even though there are now more trees in the United States than there were a century ago. Just how the world is to support seven billion human beings, which the Church and most scientists usually insists that it can do, without using or exploiting any of its given resources is something of a puzzle. So I hope there is some caution here.

3) Often, in The Pope’s responses, he mentions the poor, a recurring theme of his pontificate. Several reporters note their shock at seeing children begging for food. The rich are admonished or blamed, seldom government policies. Scant attention is paid to the degree of and reasons why poverty in the world has been rapidly reduced in recent years (see “Towards the End of Poverty,” The Economist, June 1, 2013).

4) The question of suicide bombers came up. The Pope acknowledges that what he says sounds “disrespectful”: “Behind every suicide attack there is a certain imbalance, a lack of normal human equilibrium.” He later refers to the Japanese kamikaze to comment that killing is a totalitarian problem. Evidently, The Pope does not accept the Muslim understanding that a suicide bomber is acting in praise of Allah to achieve his will.

5) At the beginning of these remarks, I cited what the Holy Father said about arrangements for his own “security”. He adds, as if to say that he is not reckless: “I also know that suitable means are being taken for my security, prudent yet secure measures. So we will see.” This comment cannot but recall the whole drama of the shooting of John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square, with the increased papal security it brought forth. One cannot be a pope or other public figure these days without some sense that he might be shot or somehow attacked. Security and security intelligence are major businesses.

6) Pope Francis visited a Buddhist Temple. Since Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus visit a Christian shrine in Sri Lanka, he sees no reason why he should not visit a Buddhist Temple. Francis then charmingly tells the story of his leaning as a boy of five that not all Protestants were going to hell as he had been taught. He was walking with his grandmother one day. They came across members of the Salvation Army in uniform. Young Jorge thought that they were nuns. His grandmother told him that they were “Protestants, but they are good people.” This was the first time he had ever heard that possibility. The Pope had told the same story to members of the Salvation Army in an audience in Rome a couple of weeks before. I am sure they must have been delighted. I remember once having read an essay of Francis Thompson on the Salvation Army with a similar theme.

7) The Pope was asked what his message will be for those in the Philippines who could not be present at his ceremonies. “The entire, the core of the message, will be the poor.” He praised the Catholicism of the Philippines. Yet, “there are dark periods in the history of the Church, we must admit, without being ashamed, because we too are on the path of constant conversion: always moving from sin to grace.” Granted the human condition, I suppose that some at least also move in the opposite direction.

8) On questions of religious freedom and free speech occasioned by the Paris bombing, The Pope again says, “We too have sinned in this regard. But we cannot kill in God’s name. This is an aberration.” Pope Benedict had said this same thing, of course. “Freedom of expression: Everyone has not only the freedom, the right, but also the obligation to say what they think in order to promote the common good…. We have the obligation to speak openly, to enjoy, to enjoy this freedom but without offending others.” This latter point may, in many instances, be like “squaring the circle”.

It is at this point, in trying to give an example of provocation, that Francis says, “If my good friend, Dr. Gasbarri here insults my mother, he’ll get punched for it. This is normal.” This famous remark has been analyzed as either refusing to turn the other cheek or as a limit of free speech. So we cannot “mock” other religions. The Pope does not go into the question of whether we can simply say or do anything that does not deserve some legitimate mockery.

9) The Pope is asked about a fact-finding commission in Sri Lanka, but he says that he only heard about it from the President. Such investigations, The Pope thought, could be useful. He knew of one in Argentina. What is needed is “harmony”. Many things need to be dome besides fact-finding.


10) On the return flight to Rome from Manila, The Pope was asked about gestures that gave him insight into the experience. The one of fatherhood is especially touching: “There were many (fathers) who brought their children when we passed by on the road: a gesture which in other places one does not see, as if they say, ‘This is my treasure; this is my future; this is my love, for this one it’s worth working, for this one it’s worth suffering’. A gesture that is original, but born from the heart.”

Francis noted, in the same context, the Filipino capacity to “celebrate”, of workers who smiled even in the rain. There were mothers who brought sick children, disabled children. “They did not hide the children; they brought them to The Pope so that he would bless them.” Such people, Francis said, to use a word difficult to understand, are “resigned,” which means that they are a “people who know how to suffer and are capable of rising up.” Evidently a young woman, Kristel, had just died. The Pope spoke to her father. He accepted the situation. “A people who knows how to suffer, that is what I saw and how I interpreted the gestures.” By any standards, these are remarkable observations.

11) Francis is reminded that he has now been two times to Asia, but not to Africa. He replied that he is planning to go, but the Ebola crisis caused delays. He probably will go to the Central African Republic and Uganda this year, when there is no rain. Later in the second flight, Francis speaks of going to New York, Washington, and Philadelphia. He would like to go to California in connection with the canonization of Serra or even to Mexico, but that would mean he would have to visit Our Lady of Guadalupe. He has not time; he will go to Mexico later.

12) An Italian journalist asked: “Why more cardinals, bishops, and clerics did not do as Cardinal Leger of Montreal did, go and live with the lepers?” Worldliness, perhaps. Francis again brings up his oft-repeated notion of a “throw-away” society. He extrapolates throwing away paper and left-overs into throwing away people. It is not a clear analogy. He talks of luxurious hotels that have squalor around them. But the Church is not a kind of Non-Governmental Organization. It must resist “worldliness”. But Christians also “scandalize” others. He is asked about “terrorism of states,” but says he had “not thought about” how it is related to poverty.

To make his point, The Pope tells the story of a poor man who goes to a state hospital for treatment. He is given an aspirin and told to come back in fifteen days. Meantime his illness gets worse. He goes to a shrewd parish priest. He accompanies the sick man to the hospital. The priest tells the man to pretend he is fainting while the priest explains his need. Evidently it worked. “That parish priest was smart; he helped us well.” It is easy to read that example of the kind of worldliness that the unjust steward in the Gospels displayed. But the fainting was a deliberate act intended to deceive. I think the major lesson should be the inefficiency of socialized medicine.

13) The issue of “ideological colonization” next comes up. This notion means the legal or educational imposition of an explanation of reality to bring a people under control of the party or state. It is conceived as a universal idea, a sphere. The Pope wants each culture to be its own, like a polyhedron. The fact is, though, that the many cultures all may be lacking or not open to a common natural law. As an example of this ideological colonization, The Pope again refers to Robert Hugh Benson’s 1910 novel, The Lord of the World, as an example. (See my March 9, 2009 essay on the novel.) In the novel, the consequences of modern ideology are drawn out in the context of the end of the world. The villain is an unknown American Senator who becomes a leader in the imposition of modernist ideology on the world.

14) On the sacrament of matrimony, Francis cites mostly Paul VI, not John Paul II. Following Paul, trust is the basis of matrimony. “A man cannot give the sacrament to a woman, and the woman give it to him, if they are not in agreement on the point to be open to life. To the point that it can be proven that this or the other did not get married with this intention of being open to life, the matrimony is null. It’s a cause of the annulment of the marriage, no?” If current statistics about the common use of contraceptives by the large majority of couples of all religions and none are valid, one has to conclude that, in fact, there are very few real existing marriages in our societies. This is something the falling birth rates in Western countries would seem to confirm.

This falling birth-rate is the next point. Francis mentions the need to be “merciful” in understanding these contraceptive situations. It is not clear what mercy does to the objective fact of not being open to life. In any case, we witness universal “Neo-Malthusianism”. We see birth rates in presumably Catholic areas such as Italy and Spain to be so low that the population will soon be replaced by people, usually Muslims, with higher birth rates. Not being open to life has consequences.

It is in this context that The Pope’s much-quoted remark that Catholics should not breed “like rabbits” comes up. It is, to say the least, a very curious phrase. The Pope was evidently at a parish where he either met or heard of a woman who was into her eighth pregnancy. Her previous seven children had been delivered by caesarian operation. Whether The Pope actually knew the woman is not clear, but evidently everyone in the parish would know whom he was talking about. Francis implied that she was “irresponsible”. She might leave her children “orphans”. But how could The Pope know she was irresponsible? She and her husband may have wanted the child. If she had seven previous babies, why not another if she and her husband wanted it? What if she was trying by proper means not to have another child but became pregnant anyhow? Was she not supposed to want and have the child? Again, The Pope’s off-handed examples cause many problems.

15) The question of “punching” someone who insults The Pope’s mother comes up again. Francis explains it as a question of “prudence,” the virtue of “human relations.” The questioner said that The Pope seemed to “provoke” violence. Evidently, it is “human” to respond to provocation. A violent aggression is not good; it is always bad. We all agree, but in practice, let us stop a little, because we are human, and risk provoking others.” What seems lacking here is any discussion of the right to offer some adequate resistance to unjust aggression or provocation. “Freedom must be accompanied by prudence. That is all I wanted to say.”

16) Pope Bergoglio had earlier spoken of dealing with the Mafia (see, “On Praying for the Mafia,” CWR, April 21, 2014). A Filipina reporter asked Francis about political corruption. He affirmed: “Corruption today in the world is the order of the day; and the corrupt attitude easily and immediately finds a nest in institutions….” In pockets of organizations, corruption can hide. The victims are the poor. Whether the wealthy can be victims of corruption also is not discussed. “Corruption is not closed in on itself; it goes out and kills. Do you understand? Today corruption is a world-wide problem.” This is surely true.

Pope Bergoglio once asked a member of the Argentine cabinet: “What percentage of the money destined for some specific purpose actually got to those who were to be helped?” He replied, “About 35%”. This figure means that 65% was siphoned off in the form of bribes and theft. One suspects that one criterion of the integrity of a government of a given country would be the percentage of monies similarly siphoned off because of corruption.

To give a further example, Francis recalled once, in Argentina, when he was a new auxiliary bishop, two men came to him. They told him they had about $400,000 dollars to bequeath to a worthy cause. They wanted to help the diocese. So they proposed giving him the $400,000. But, in exchange, he would return half it to them. This was probably a way to “launder” ill-gotten money. He explained to the men that he could not do this. The suspicion arose that other clerics might have made such a deal to get the money. “Does corruption happen easily? Let’s remember this: sinners, yes; corrupted, no, corrupted, never. We must ask pardon for those Catholics, those Christians, who scandalize with their corruption.”

Then suddenly, The Pope adds, “But there are so many saints. And sinners who could be saints, but not corrupt.” Evidently, The Pope distinguishes between sinners and the corrupt, perhaps Aristotle’s distinction between incontinence and vice.

17) Briefly, while flying over it, The Pope was asked about China. Evidently, the Dalai Lama had requested an audience with The Pope and was turned down. Some thought it was because of not wanting to embarrass China. Francis responded that protocol in Rome did not allow someone visiting an international or foreign embassy to visit The Pope on the same visit. But arrangements were being made for another visit. Francis added that relations with China itself are “respectful, one step at a time.” “That is how things are done in history no?” “We don’t yet know, but they know I’m available either to receive someone or to go to China. They know.” It is said that there are millions of secret Christians in China. One wonders about these things.

18) Asked about terrorism against Christianity in Africa and the near East, Francis’ answer is excruciatingly brief. As he told the Diplomatic Corps, he is waiting for other leaders “to express themselves on the issue.” He thinks that “moderate Muslim” people should ask the same of their leaders. The Pope wants to allow time; there are many good people. One might wonder how the Islamic State leaders might take these cautious words when they persecute the remaining Catholics and other Christians. Elsewhere, on this topic, The Pope is often more clear and blunt.

19) Pope Francis then returns to the question of demography. He understands that with such low population rates, Italy will soon go broke. He speaks of “responsible parenthood” and mentions the “irresponsibility” of the lady with seven caesarean-born babies. Some think that “good Christians have to breed like rabbits.” Such a remark seems aimed at large families, which are what are needed, according to The Pope’s own comments on declining populations. (He later says, in clarification, that he is not opposed to large families.) For the poor, a child has great value. “Responsible parenthood is key, but let us also look at the generosity of that father and mother who see a treasure in every child.” One is hard-pressed to see why the man and woman about to have their eighth child by caesarean section cannot treasure each of the eight children.

20) On the flight home, Francis talked of “moving moments” in Manila. He again referred to the father who wanted his child to see The Pope as a “moving moment” for him. Another “moving moment” was “landing with winds at 70 kilometers per hour.” “I took it seriously that, the warning that we needed to leave no later than one o’clock because there was more danger.” It is here where The Pope spoke of weeping, as I cited at the beginning of these comments.

21) But the final thing Francis wanted to “underscore” was what he told a young man who worked hard for the event. “But do not forget that we too need to be beggars. Because the poor evangelize us. If we take the poor away from the Gospel, we cannot understand Jesus’ message. The poor evangelize us. I go to evangelize the poor, yes, but allow them to evangelize you. Because they have values that you do not.” The Gospel says that “the poor will always be with us.” If the poor can teach us, one wonders whether the efforts to help the poor not to be poor are Christian. Why is not everyone better off poor? Both the poor and the rich need “evangelization”. Both have something to say to each other. I suspect that, on these topics, there are many distinctions yet to be made.

Francis then thanks the reporters, acknowledges that they have a difficult job. He gallantly wishes a happy birthday to the lady who is dean of the press corps. “We can’t say how old you are, but you have worked here since you were young.” At this point, the plane safely landed in Rome, and the Holy Father returned to his daily Vatican routine.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).