Francis crafts a new genre of Papal language

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When Pope Benedict XVI answered a question about condom use with a nuanced reflection on the ethical complexities of a hypothetical case, his words led to a global media sensation and a clarification by the Vatican.

- Catholic News Service

Three years later, papal interviews are still making news. Pope Francis, who during his time as archbishop of Buenos Aires was known for avoiding the press, has given three wide-ranging interviews in two months, drawing headlines and heated discussion with frank statements on sexual and medical ethics, Christian dialogue with non-believers, and reform of the Vatican bureaucracy, among other topics.

This time, however, the Vatican is letting the Pope's words speak for themselves. 'This is a genre to which we were not accustomed,' Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, told reporters on the day after Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari published his account of a conversation with the Pope. 'Let's take it for what it is, seeking to interpret it correctly.'

Catholics have traditionally heard or read a pope's words in certain authoritative forms: magisterial documents, such as encyclicals or apostolic exhortations, which carry the full weight of the papacy's teaching authority; canonical decrees with the force of church law; and homilies delivered at major papal liturgies. 

In all such cases, Vatican officials ordinarily review the texts prior to delivery and provide official translations in major languages to reduce the possibility of ambiguity or confusion.

Pope Francis' addition to the magisterial, canonical and pastoral forms of papal communication, Fr Lombardi said, is a genre that might be termed 'conversational,' comprising not only the Pope's interviews with journalists but also his off-the-cuff homilies at daily morning Masses, of which the Vatican publishes only summaries with verbatim excerpts.

When the pope speaks spontaneously, his words should carry correspondingly less weight than in more traditional forms and contexts, Father Lombardi said. Yet lately the impact of the pope's statements has been inversely proportional to their official status. 

Encyclicals are considered the highest form of papal teaching, but Pope Francis' first encyclical, "Lumen Fidei," drew only a fraction of the attention his interviews have commanded; and no words from any of his homilies have been quoted nearly as often as his July 28 remark to reporters on the subject of gay people: 'Who am I to judge?'

This points to one of the new genre's clear advantages. When the pope speaks in an untraditional way, the world takes heed, and the novel charm of an informal papal voice opens up possibilities for engaging audiences ordinarily unreceptive to Vatican pronouncements. Conversation with journalists is thus a prime vehicle for what Pope Francis has called the 'culture of dialogue.'

FULL STORY Francis crafts a new genre of Papal language

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