Pope Francis should hold regular – maybe even weekly – press conferences. No, seriously. Given Francis’s history of getting in his own way during the in-flight pressers, the idea may seem counter-intuitive or even downright bonkers. Still, hear me out.
Not that it’s terribly important, but my thoughts about this began to crystalize around an exchange I had with another Church-watcher – one who isn’t a Vatican hand – about the international brouhaha Pope Francis’s salacious remarks regarding the unceremonious sacking of the beleaguered Archbishop of Paris set off earlier this month.
After the dust was up – it hasn’t really begun to settle, by the way – my correspondent suggested that perhaps the Vatican comms types should find an excuse to cease in-flight pressers. I noted that no one would go on the trips if they didn’t come with the chance to pigeon-hole the head man.
That may be something of an overstatement, but it is certainly the case that a big part of the reason the papal plane is filled with scribblers is that the Vatican press corps gets to ask the head man questions directly. Ones he must either answer or dodge spectacularly.
That brings us to the first reason for which, ceteris paribus, doing regular turns in front of the Vatican beat journos mightn’t be the worst idea in the world.
If you’re a beat reporter with one chance every six months to ask the pope about anything doing in the news, you’re not going to want to waste the chance on a question that essentially gives him a chance to repeat his talking points.
Yes, the press office tends to give journalists from whatever place the pope has just visited several chances to ask about his visit, his impressions of the place and the people, his thoughts on local issues, and his message.
Those questions and answers may dominate the coverage in the country or countries from which he’s just taken his leave – it is by no means a foregone conclusion, viz. Chile – but the rest of the world will frequently focus on whatever he says about whichever hot-button issue he has to address because someone asked him and he couldn’t escape (though he has called “lunch” and gone back to his seat on at least one occasion).
Basically, it would make it possible for the in-flight pressers en route to Rome from wherever Pope Francis has been to remain focused on the trips themselves. It would make it easier for Pope Francis to stay on message, and easier for journos to make their coverage of the trips more about … the trips.
Now, the in-flight pressers are still pretty highly managed affairs these days. When Benedict XVI was pope, things were frequently even more so. Fr. Federico Lombardi SJ – then the director of the Holy See’s press office – would sometimes have questions submitted in writing and choose which ones he’d put to his principal.
That was a temporary measure – something between a jury-rig and a stop-gap – and was never going to fly as a permanent arrangement, not even with the generally docile group of journos who follow the pope.
Nevertheless, the papal comms geniuses like to keep a handle on things, in their own way, and are not likely to let journalists just ask Francis whatever they want, for an hour or two each week or even once a month.
In a world that was even a little bit better, the press office director would be getting cameras in his face on at least a weekly basis, asking him questions about the unfortunate Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, the infamous dubia, the London real estate debacle, the apparent reluctance of the Vatican to use its own laws against abuse coverup, and everything in between.
The likely silence would be … excruciating.
That’s another reason is would be good to have the big boss under the lights and in front of a hot mic with some regularity. Neither the pope nor his handlers would be terribly pleased with the coverage he’d often get. They don’t have a right to be, and shouldn’t expect favorable coverage or believe themselves capable of producing it with the cooperation of the press corps. Neither the faithful nor the broad public have a right to pleasant answers to hard questions. Since the Apostolic See is judged by no man, there’s every reason for desiring the chance to expose the pope’s record of leadership to the caustic process of public scrutiny.
It’s not likely to happen on Francis’s watch, but I still say the pope should hold regular pressers, whoever he is. The next guy should give it a thought.
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