Book-length interviews of the pope are a new literary phenomenon that Catholics, along with theologians and church historians, are learning how to deal with (until Paul VI, papal interviews of any length were a rarity). They’re not simply an outgrowth of the “media-industry” complex surrounding the modern papacy, but rather a way for the bishop of Rome to reach out to the broad audience in his pastoral care—including intellectuals, secularists, atheists, and religious and political leaders. Francis’s ecclesiology in particular is shaped by this understanding of just what the pope is and who constitutes the people. He has made the long interview a feature of his media-friendly papacy, from the one in La Civiltà Cattolica with Antonio Spadaro in 2013 to the one on mercy with Andrea Tornielli in January 2016.
But the latest interview, with Dominique Wolton, is different. Wolton is not a Catholic journalist but a sociologist who specializes in the relationship between democracy, technology, and the economy, along lines similar to the encyclical Laudato Si’. He conducted twelve conversations with Francis over a year-long period from February 2016 to February 2017, a time during which Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and other events changed the international political situation. At more than four hundred pages, it is much longer than the other interviews, though it also includes extensive excerpts of Francis’s speeches on social and political matters. The well-publicized portion dealing with Francis’s therapy sessions with a Jewish psychoanalyst when he was a forty-two-year-old Jesuit in Argentina during the Dirty War is not the most important part. The focus is on the social and political engagement of the Catholic Church; Wolton gets it, right from the beginning, when he calls Francis “the first pope of mondialisation,” a rough French equivalent to “globalization” but with a more positive connotation, writing that the pope has “both feet in history.”
While the book does not extensively address ecclesial or theological matters, or the intra-Catholic tensions that have arisen during this papacy, Francis nonetheless tackles the issue of traditionalism, which is for him one of the ways the Church is affected by the global chaos. “The tradition is in movement,” he says, defending a dynamic idea of the Catholic tradition without getting into specific new concerns such as ordained ministry for women or LGBT issues. Rather, he identifies “old” issues to show how the Catholic tradition has changed (on slavery, for instance) and how it may still: about the death penalty, for example, Francis says that “we are working at changing the Catechism on this point.” On war and peace, Francis does not respond directly to Wolton’s question about changing the Catholic doctrine of just war, but he says that we should think about “just war” in terms of “defensive war.” “No war is just,” he says. “Only peace is just.” But he nonetheless remains cautious on this point, taking care to avoid a pronouncement that would signify a formal magisterial shift—a shift that some would like to see this pontificate make.
The understanding of tradition as “dynamic” is apparent throughout these long conversations: “When tradition becomes ideology,” Francis says at one point, “it is no longer tradition. It is no longer alive.” Critics might think this is an expression of his alleged liberal Catholicism, but that’s not the case. Francis says the definition of marriage should extend only to unions between a man and a woman, but that the term “same-sex unions” is acceptable otherwise. Yet he also acknowledges new cultural and social realities, such as the fact many Catholic couples who met at one of the World Youth Days in the last thirty years cohabited before getting married: “This is our epoch.”
Francis’s view of tradition as “dynamic” also applies in theological and liturgical areas. In a long paragraph on Church, tradition, and inculturation, and against “traditionalist ideology,” Francis says that “what Vatican II has done with the liturgy has been huge”—a good interpretive key to understanding the motu proprio Magnum Principium on the liturgy, issued on September 9 during his trip to Colombia.