Friday, 3 April 2009

Father Lombardi, papal spokesman

The Condom controversy

Father Lombardi, in good spirits throughout the interview, also spoke frankly about the controversy in the Western media over the Pope's comments on AIDS and condoms.

Benedict XVI had told journalists on the plane to Cameroon that the problem of AIDS "cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics: on the contrary, they increase it." The Pope was simply re-iterating the Church's teaching, but the debate over his remarks still continues.

"It's very clear," the papal spokesman said, "that those who want to understand the meaning will, and if they don't, then they will never understand." He added that the Pope "wasn't particularly disturbed" by the outcry, and he alluded to other times the largely Western media has latched onto an aspect of Church teaching and misrepresented it.

"You have to reflect and judge it with a long-term perspective," Father Lombardi said. "For a couple of days, people are against what he has said, but afterward they can reflect a little and see the truth of the Pope's words and what his intention was." He referred to how the Holy Father's comments at the University of Regensburg in 2006 later led to a better understanding between Muslims and Catholics.

However, what upset many was that someone modified the transcript of the Pope's words so the sentence read condoms "risk increasing" the problem of AIDS rather than simply "increase it." Father Lombardi was not responsible for the change but it originated in the Secretariat of State.

A well-intentioned official there was trying to put the Pope's words into better Italian -- something that is often done to the Pope's extemporaneous remarks. However, the official appears to have genuinely made the mistake of changing the meaning of the Pope's words in the process. Father Lombardi said he was aware of the irritation that caused (it happened once before, on the Pope's 2007 trip to Brazil). That part of the text has since been changed back again to the Pope's original words.

So will the Pope continue to speak freely to journalists on the papal plane when he travels to the Holy Land next month? "We will see, I think yes," said Father Lombardi. That visit will be especially delicate, but the papal spokesman appears resolute not to tone down or spin the Pope's words in any way. "In every situation you can have misinterpretations or problems. If you fear this, you'd have to stay in Rome and say nothing," he said.

In spite of this mistake and various media brouhahas over recent years, commentators say that the Pope's message continues to resonate with vast numbers of people. Father Lombardi agreed: "Misinterpretation of the media is not the entire world," he said. "One is able to think with one's own mind and understand. [Many people] appreciate the Pope's teaching and understand he is saying things that are important for today's world."

But I ask him whether today's 24-hour news cycle and the Internet require a more careful approach. "This is naturally a risk and part of the situation -- that is clear," said Father Lombardi. "But I think you also have to be confident that what you are doing is right, that what you are doing is being done with good intentions, otherwise you will be blocked by the other person."

Father Lombardi continued: "Whoever has a bad view of the Pope and the Church has already decided we shouldn't think, that we should be absent and disappear from the world. But no -- we go on. The Pope has a very clear message of spirituality, of peace and reconciliation, which he tries to convey even if it is difficult."

Father Lombardi disagrees with critics who say he is too overloaded with work (he is head of Vatican Radio and Vatican Television as well as director of the Vatican Press Office). "This is up to my superior to judge," he said. "They have given me these jobs, I didn't look for them, so whoever has given me this work can also tell me, 'Thank you, I'm going to give it to another.'" He stressed that his other position that is sometimes cited -- assistant to the Superior General of the Society of Jesus -- is not labor intensive.

"I have done this [work as Vatican Press Office director] with good will and I will do it until they say otherwise," Father Lombardi said cheerfully, adding that he was aware of the rumor being spread that he might be wearing too many hats. "I don't know if someone has started this [rumor] to produce some effect," he said with a laugh. "That is possible, but for me having this work is no particular problem."