ROME – In 2010, Nevada senatorial candidate Sharron Angle, a right-wing Tea Party stalwart, briefly became a national sensation due to some fairly self-parodying comments about the press. In an interview with Fox News, complaining about the way negative media coverage had damaged her poll numbers, Angle delivered her immortal line.
“We needed to have the press be our friend,” she said. “We wanted them to ask the questions we wanted to answer.”
That reply set off a round of derision, including a memorable lampoon in the HBO series “The Newsroom,” in which fictional anchor Will McAvoy, presented as a lawyer and former prosecutor, quotes her about hoping for only the questions she wanted, and then says: “Don’t laugh, I felt the exact same way about the bar exam.”
While Angle may have been mocked, there’s a sense in which her PR model, of trying to engineer situations in which the press affords someone the opportunity to answer only the questions they perceive as desirable, is one any public figure probably would aspire to – and, it must be said, it’s been raised to a fine art by Pope Francis.
The latest reminder of the point came Wednesday, in a prime-time interview with Francis by Italy’s national broadcaster RAI.
The interview was conducted by veteran Italian journalist Gian Marco Chiocci, who, since June, has been the editor-in-chief of Tg1, RAI’s flagship news program. Prior to that, Chiocci ran the Adnkronos news agency, where he conducted an interview with Francis in 2020 at the peak of the Covid pandemic.
While Chiocci has impeccable journalistic credentials, he’s not what the Italians would call a vaticanista, meaning a journalist who specializes in coverage of the Vatican, with the insider knowledge such a beat presumes. The 40-minute interview took place in the Domus Santa Marta, where Pope Francis resides.
To begin with, the exchange gave Francis another opportunity to disabuse anyone who believes that his age and health are impeding his ability to lead, because he came across as lucid and on top of his game. He discussed a bushel basket full of important matters, from the war in Gaza to Europe’s migrant crisis and beyond.
Perhaps the most revealing point came in discussion of clerical sexual abuse.
It began with Chiocci reminding Francis that in their 2020 interview, the pontiff had referenced two large boxes of files that his predecessor, Benedict XVI, had given him regarding various problems facing the Vatican and the Church. Chiocci then asked Francis where he was at in terms of dealing with those issues, and it was the pontiff himself who brought up sexual abuse.
“There were many cases of abuse, and even some [people] in the Curia were sent away,” he said, adding that Pope Benedict had been “courageous” in facing the issue.
“He took the problem in hand, he took many steps, and then he handed it over to finish,” Francis said. “It’s going forward. Abuse, whether of conscience, sexual, or any other form, must not be tolerated.”
“It’s contrary to the Gospel,” the pope said, “[because] the Gospel is service, not abuse. We see many bishops’ conferences that have done great work in studying not only sexual abuse, but also other forms.”
After citing statistics suggesting that most abuse happens in families and neighborhoods, Francis then said people often are in the habit of covering things up, which he described as “very ugly.”
At that point, Chiocci said, “Holiness, you’ve done a lot on the fight against pedophilia, you’ve been very close to families, the Church has taken steps forward. Is there still a lot to do?”
Francis replied, “Yes, there are still things to do. We can’t stop … there’s still much to do. There are many injustices.”
Chiocci then changed the subject, asking Francis about the most difficult moment of his papacy, which opened a discussion about how he engaged the Syrian civil war shortly after his election in 2013.
On the basis of that exchange, Chiocci is now a late entry in the 2023 sweepstakes for the most obvious unasked follow-up question of the year, which would have been: “Holy Father, given what you just said about the fight against abuse, why did it take so long for you to act in the case of Father Marko Rupnik, and do you regret the way you’ve handled the situation?”
Rupnik, of course, is the celebrated Slovenian artist-priest who was kicked out of the Jesuits over the summer in the wake of allegations of sexual, psychological and spiritual abuse from roughly 25 adult women, mostly nuns, stretching over a 30-year period. Critics have accused Francis of waffling and mixed signals, including a Sept. 15 audience with a key Rupnik ally who’s publicly said the charges against him amount to a media “lynching.”
It may well be that Francis has good reasons for the way he’s responded, including his recent decision to lift the statute of limitations in Church law to permit a prosecution of Rupnik after initially not doing so. However, we’ll never know what those reasons are until someone asks, making the omission in the RAI interview especially unfortunate.
In all honesty, this is a consistent pattern in the countless interviews Pope Francis has given to various media outlets, albeit with a few notable exceptions: He makes broad statements about important matters, without being pressed to comment on how the positions he expresses apply in specific cases.
In part, that’s a product of the natural deference interviewers show to religious leaders, who aren’t just ordinary politicians or corporate executives. In part, too, it’s undoubtedly related to the fact that journalists know the pope is doing them a huge favor by granting the interview in the first place, and they don’t want to embarrass or irritate him.
In part, it’s probably also related to the fact that many journalists see Francis as a moral hero, a champion of the underdog, and they feel an understandable instinct not to be seen as trying to cut him off at the knees or to cater to his critics.
It’s important to stipulate that Francis is trying to engage the entire world, not just the insider Catholic crowd, and so he often chooses journalists whom he knows won’t be inclined to get too far down into the weeds. It also should be said that Francis has not only given more interviews than any previous pope, but more than all previous popes combined, thereby setting a precedent for openness which, by historical standards, is remarkable.
That said, the novelty of a pope as interview subject, sooner or later, will wear off, and the Sharron Angle approach of asking only the questions we presume the pope wants to answer will have to give way to a more robust back-and-forth.
Whenever that happens, then we’ll be able to say that clericalism, at least as it applies to media relations, is truly dead. In the meantime, all we can do is wonder about what might have been.