But I thought it might be a good idea to say a word or two about the pope's most recent telephone call. You know, the one where he phoned an 83-year-old atheist anti-clerical bisexual politician to persuade him to give up the hunger strike that was killing him (hat tip: Deacon's Bench):
Marco Pannella, the 83-year-old leader of Italy’s Radical Party, had refused to eat or drink liquids to protest what he sees as inhumane conditions in Italy’s overcrowded prison system. Pannella refused to suspend the strike despite undergoing an operation earlier in the week for an aneurysm in his aorta, even declining to accept blood transfusions.
On Friday afternoon, Pope Francis phoned Pannella at Rome’s Gemelli hospital, with the two men speaking for roughly 20 minutes. Afterwards, Pannella said that out of respect for the pope, he had agreed to drink some coffee and to accept two blood transfusions that medical personnel urged him to undergo.
According to a transcript of the call released by the Radical Party’s radio station, Francis vowed that he would help Pannella “fight against” the conditions facing the prisoners, and urged the elderly politician to “be courageous.”
Now, obviously, the pope has once again dangerously and radically sowed seeds of confusion, as he did not use this opportunity to condemn atheism, anti-clerical positions, bisexuality, or potentially suicidal hunger strikes. Nor did he reassure conservatives that overcrowded prisons are really the fault of criminals for committing crimes in the first place, or scoff at the idea that anything about prison life is "inhumane," or call for a more generous application of the death penalty to deal with the overcrowding problem...
I kid, I kid! But only to make a point.
Everybody's been fixated on That Other Call, the one where the pope told a woman married to a man who had not had his first marriage annulled...something. Probably something quite specific to her situation, which was misreported in the press in the first place (e.g., she was not a divorced woman herself, as the press initially said). The press office has said that nobody needs to expect clarification or explanations of the pope's private phone calls, and that nobody (including the media) ought to derive any sort of theology or generally applicable moral teaching from them. This has not stopped the press, who never knows any better, from doing exactly that.
But it has also not stopped Catholics, who ought to know better, from doing the same thing, hyperventilating and speculating and sitting in judgment on the Holy Father for his reckless and dangerous habit of making phone calls [insert sinister music here].
Let's face it: the telephone was only invented in 1876. Thus, it is still, in Vatican time, a startling new innovation that might or might not be a good thing to use. This Holy Father has decided to take the amazing and decisive step of using it, not only for tame, safe, curial-approved communications, but to talk to people. Actual people. Ordinary people, many of them. It is not all that surprising that the rest of us ordinary people might struggle to know what to make of this, when it is all so new, and to worry about what else popes might do (watch TV? add a Facebook page to his Twitter account? Request that the Victrola in the papal apartments be replaced with a CD player, since it would be too reckless to move immediately to digital music? etc.).
Before long, though, we Catholics will get used to the idea of a pope calling up someone who has written to him or whom he has heard about to offer a few words of practical advice, applicable to only that person. And when the media tries to spin it, as they always do, we Catholics will, by then, have learned to shrug and say, "So what? The pope likes to pastor. Personally and directly. And we know better than to twist someone else's recollection of a few words of papal pastoral advice into some sort of Major Media Freakout."
Or, at least, we should.