Since his election, Pope Francis has displayed a generally unerring PR touch. This week, however, he stepped on his own story, creating a distraction from the impending canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II with a phone call that stoked confusion about where he stands on divorced and remarried Catholics.
In brief, an Argentine woman named Jacqueline Sabetta Lisbona had written to the pontiff some time ago to voice concern that because her husband had been divorced, and because she married him outside the church, both she and her husband are barred from receiving communion.
As he's in the habit of doing, especially with people from his native country or his adopted home in Italy, Francis picked up the phone on Monday after reading the letter and called her.
The story broke when the husband, Julio Sabetta, posted a note on Facebook about the phone call, triggering an avalanche of media inquiries about what the pope had said. Sabetta told reporters that Francis had advised his wife to find a friendly priest to give her communion because "she's not doing anything wrong," leading some commentators to conclude that the pope was amending church law on the fly.
The fracas prompted the Vatican Press Office to issue a statement on Thursday, the gist of which was that they're not going to comment on a private call in which the pope was engaging in a "personal pastoral relationship."
The statement also said that reports about the call's content "cannot be confirmed as reliable" and that, in any event, "consequences relating to the teaching of the church are not to be inferred from these occurrences." Though opaque, what that phrase means is that if the pope were going to change church teaching or the discipline, he would do it in a more formal venue.
Three thoughts about the affair suggest themselves.
First, this is not the first time the Vatican has tried to protect a sphere of privacy for the pope. Back when rumors first began to swirl that John Paul II had Parkinson's disease, the standard response was, "That's a matter of the pope's private life."
The effort is understandable, if slightly quixotic in an era in which the most intimate details about the lives of celebrities end up going public. If that's going to be the line, however, then it's not clear why the Vatican went on to impugn the reliability of media reports.
Doing so seemingly amounts to an invitation to reporters to come back every time word surfaces of another call to ask, "What about this one?"
In other words, if the policy is going to be "no comment," then don't comment.
Second, a face-value reading of things Francis has said and done in full public view, quite apart from private conversations, suggests he's open to changing the rules on divorced and remarried Catholics.
When he took a question on the subject aboard the papal plane coming back from Rio de Janeiro in July, the pope talked positively about the Orthodox approach of sanctioning a second marriage and said he believes the present moment is a kairos, a Greek New Testament term meaning a privileged time in God's plan for salvation, for mercy.
When Francis summoned cardinals to a recent session to prepare for a meeting of bishops in October where issues relating to the family will be on the table, he entrusted the opening presentation to German Cardinal Walter Kasper, a doctrinal moderate, undoubtedly anticipating that Kasper would say something about readmitting divorced and remarried Catholics to communion. (Kasper suggested doing so after a period of penance.)
However, one can't draw a straight line between Francis' personal instincts and his policy choices, because of another characteristic – his commitment to collegiality, meaning making decisions in concert with the world's bishops.
If a substantial bloc of bishops argues against change in October's meeting, it might induce Francis to stay his hand. In any event, the question is not what Francis personally thinks but what policy he'll set, and on that front the jury is still out.
Third, the Julio Sabettas of the world might want to give some thought to the impact of revealing private exchanges with Francis, because one possible result of creating a frenzy about his phone calls would be that he stops making them.
Francis wants to stay in touch with ordinary people, and he's not unduly troubled by possible misunderstanding. Nonetheless, Vatican mandarins are already counseling "prudence" in the wake of this contretemps, a code word for pulling back. That pressure will only grow if more people who get a call – or, as in this case, their spouses, relatives and friends – end up stirring a hornet's nest.
In such situations, it's not only, and perhaps not principally, the Vatican that ought to be concerned about the pope's privacy. It's also the people to whom he reaches out, whose choices may affect the likelihood that others will have the same good fortune.