Pope Francis turns 80. Ludwig Ring-Eifel, editor-in-chief of the Catholic News Agency, on the life and work of the pope, his conservative side and old and new friends and critics of the pope.
Interviewer: The canon lawyer Prof. Thomas Schuller says that this pope cannot be pigeonholed, that he must be understood from his Jesuit tradition. How do you see it?
Ludwig Ring-Eifel (Editor-in-Chief KNA): What Schuller probably meant by this is that Francis can be classified neither as left, nor as right; neither as conservative, nor as progressive. That is certainly a correct observation, but one has to see that of the things that Francis says and that he initiates, those things are predominantly perceived by the public that go more in the progressive, in the renewing direction. His conservative statements are hardly noticed by the public. This is why he is more of an innovator than a preserver in the public perception.
Interviewer: Where are now, for example, more conservative thrusts that, as you say, "are not perceived at all"?
Ring-Eifel: When he speaks out on abortion, for example, when he speaks out on homosexuality. In some statements, he is very, very hard on a conservative line, but that is not really conveyed in the media.
Interviewer: The popularity of this pope is very high especially among people who are skeptical of the church. Nevertheless, the number of people leaving the church remains high. How do you have to define a Francis effect here, of which there has been talk again and again??
Ring-Eifel: I think that the Francis effect is actually felt a bit more outside the church than inside. He probably has more admirers and followers who are far from the Church, who appreciate what is so unconventional about him, precisely what he has renewed. He has shaped a completely new style of appearance, he has a completely new style of approaching people. These are all things that bring in sympathy. And he has questioned the encrusted structures above all in the Vatican. This kind of thing also brings applause both inside and outside the church.
Interviewer: Does the word 'loyal to Rome' have to be understood in a new way now?? Has there been a paradigm shift in contrast to, say, five years ago??
Ring-Eifel: Yes, when people talk about being loyal to Rome or loyal to the Pope, they actually mean that they are following the Pope's new line. And that in the controversial ies, such as now in the moral doctrine especially also in the marriage morality and question about the remarried divorced, oriented to the openings that this pope has now set. Then one is now recently loyal to Rome. Or whether one remains conservative and sticks to the old interpretations of doctrine. Then, however, one is no longer loyal to Rome, but is now suddenly critical of the Pope. In this respect, it has turned into exactly the opposite of the earlier discourse, where loyalty to the Rom and conservatism were identical.
Interviewer: Francis, after all, sets an improbable pace in terms of his day-to-day planning. One of his construction sites is the reform of the Curia, on which he is taking advice from a small circle of cardinals. What about results with a long-term effect? Do you already see something crystallizing where you can say that this is what will remain in the end??
Ring-Eifel: It's very hard to say, because it does take him a lot longer to do it than originally thought. The consultations are now going into the third year, I think that was already the 17th year. or 18. Meeting of the cardinals now. This structure, this Vatican Curia, is indeed a mammoth undertaking and it will take time until there are concrete results. The first one where I actually see concrete results now is in the media area. Many duplicate structures that were superfluous, that were unproductive, are actually being dismantled. The whole media sector is being modernized, is being renewed in the context of the digital revolution. So, something is really happening, you can feel it with your hands. The other ministries have not yet made the big leap. Two or three authorities are being merged to form a new authority. Maybe this creates synergies, maybe it saves a few forces, but I don't see the real big thing yet.
Interviewer: This college of cardinals has been undergoing a major restructuring since a few cardinals' meetings. Traditional seats like Berlin or Philadelphia are left empty-handed. Tonga and Port Louis, on the other hand, are now cardinal sees. How do you evaluate the personnel policy of the pope?
Ring-Eifel: I think this 'globalization' of the College of Cardinals was overdue. The Catholic Church is a universal Church, and the fact that Europeans, and especially Italians, have such a disproportionately high share of the cardinal titles was no longer justified by anything. I find some individual decisions questionable, where one really asks oneself: Is this a forward-looking cardinal's title or is it perhaps just a bit of symbolic politics??
Interviewer: So, you mean, whether now the cardinal in the same place gets another subsequent cardinal?
Ring-Eifel: For example. There is a very clear will for globalization and also to go to the margins, that is also part of Francis' program. But whether there is a systematic idea behind it, that from now on Oceania, for example, should always be represented with so and so many cardinal titles, I am not yet able to recognize.
Interviewer: That means that there is always a personal merit behind it? Or how does Francis choose these remote fringes to come along to the College of Cardinals?
Ring-Eifel: I think he does it quite similarly to his predecessors. Ultimately, with the unknown seats, he also listens to recommendations from people he trusts. He cannot know all parts of the world equally well. In the Spanish-speaking world he knows his way around quite well. There, I think, the cardinal appointments are quite targeted papal policy, but at the other edges he also has to rely on the judgment of friendly bishops who visit him in the Vatican and recommend someone to him.
Interviewer: Let's turn to an exciting topic that has been observed again and again, especially in Germany, namely the two family synods that lie behind us. Just like the post-synodal letter 'Amoris laetitia'. Is this topic now closed for Francis, or is there still something to come??
Ring-Eifel: I think for the pope it is actually closed. At least the statement in the last big interview points to it. There he points out, man people, we have talked about it in the College of Cardinals, we have made two major synods, we have had votes, we have made all the votes with two-thirds majority. This is now a process, which in the end has produced this document and now it is actually good. That has been so paraphrased the statement of this interview. But, of course, he has been confronted with considerable resistance, for example, the famous letter of the four retired cardinals, who are expressing doubts about the correct interpretation of the Vatican Council Amoris laetitia, continues to be a discussion in the house, which he can not leave. That has a little bit to do with his style of government. He encouraged the bishops and cardinals again and again to discuss frankly and this new style of frank debate is now being used by the conservatives to put forward their position. And that is very difficult, you can't get this spirit of frankness back into the bottle so quickly. It has now escaped, which means that the debate is being conducted and is developing in a direction that I don't think the pope really likes.
Interviewer: You just mentioned this letter of the four cardinals. Directly he has not been answered. Twice, Francis has indirectly addressed this in interviews or in speeches. What message do you see behind the fact that this letter from these four cardinals has not been answered directly??
Ring-Eifel: In the past, one would have simply said: "Roma locuta, causa finita". So, Rome has spoken. The matter is finished. That was this basta style that existed in Rome for a long time. This style no longer exists. There is a long and detailed discussion. Nevertheless, the pope says through the flower: People, we have discussed long enough. We have voted. I have decided it now and so it is. And that's why he's no longer responding directly to the letter from the cardinals, which is of course logical in itself.
Interviewer: Let's look into the future: There has been repeated speculation as to whether Francis will one day resign like his predecessor.
Ring-Eifel: That has changed a few times in the course of the pontificate. At the beginning he spoke about the fact that he expects a short pontificate, that he himself does not estimate his life expectancy so high. Then someone pointed out to him that he has already been in office for two or three years, so that the pontificate does not seem to be so short. He corrected himself and said: "Well, maybe it will be five or ten years."So, I think he is in better shape than he had imagined himself and the office is also less exhausting for him than he had expected. This is also connected with his time management, where he is very clever and very prudent and, for example, always allows himself a midday nap and also time out again and again when he feels that his health is not quite up to scratch. This contributes to the fact that his life expectancy is quite high. And I suspect he will hold office at least until 85. Should he then or earlier but notice that he is physically or mentally very, very weak, then he will act similarly to Benedikt. That is, he will examine himself and pray and then ask in prayer for the decision whether he should resign now or not. But there will be no automatism. He will simply see whether he still sees himself in a position to do so.
The interview was conducted by Jan Hendrik Stens.