On Religion by Terry Mattingly

Wheels Up: Flights of Papal Candor Now the Norm

After avoiding "culture wars" quotes and fiery headlines during his historic U.S. visit, Pope Francis finally offered his blunt opinion about believers being asked to abandon their faith -- or else.

In doing so, he chose to reference an epic medieval poem that describes Muslims being forced to choose between Christian baptism and death. Or was that really what he was talking about on that flight to Rome?

On the flight, Terry Moran of ABC News asked if Francis supported individuals "who say they cannot in good conscience ... abide by some laws or discharge their duties as government officials, for example in issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples?"

Pope Francis said he could not address all such cases, thus avoiding a direct reference to Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who secretly met with the pope in Washington, D.C.

"If a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right," said Francis. "Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right, a human right. Otherwise we would end up in a situation where we select what is a right, saying 'this right has merit, this one does not.' ...

"If a government official is a human person, he has that right."

Rather than discuss current events, the pope added: "It always moved me when I read, and I read it many times, ... the Chanson de Roland, when the people were all in line and before them was the baptismal font -- the baptismal font or the sword. And they had to choose. They weren't permitted conscientious objection. It is a right, and if we want to make peace, we have to respect all rights."

Flights of papal candor are becoming a tradition for reporters with the newsroom resources to pay business-class rates for seats on Shepherd One -- whatever plane is carrying the pope. Pope Francis made news while flying into the United States and flying home, after maintaining a disciplined focus on symbolic acts and pastoral messages while on the ground in the media-rich corridor between Washington, D.C., and New York City.

Reporters have always known that popes are open to interaction on these flights, noted veteran Vatican-beat specialist John L. Allen Jr. of the Boston Globe's Crux website for Catholic news. Popes simply have their own styles. Take, for example, Pope John Paul II -- who spoke a dozen languages.

"JPII used to come back for chats with reporters by language groups," noted Allen. With the bookish Pope Benedict XVI, it was "a bit more formal and choreographed, having to submit questions in advance etc., not to mention shorter. This is how (Francis) has chosen to do it -- at the end and more freewheeling."

On the Sept. 22 flight from Cuba, Francis was asked why some people worry that he may be a Communist, or perhaps not truly Catholic. He calmly explained why he is not the "anti-pope."

"I believe that I never said a thing that wasn't the social doctrine of the Church. Things can be explained, possibly an explanation gave an impression of being a little 'to the left,' but it would be an error of explanation. ... And if necessary, I'll recite the creed. I am available to do that. Eh?"

The flight to Rome included other newsy exchanges:

-- On priests who "betray their vocations" through sexual abuse and refuse to repent: "We must forgive, because we were all forgiven. It is another thing to receive that forgiveness. If that priest is closed to forgiveness, he won't receive it, because he locked the door from the inside. ... What I'm saying is hard."

-- On "Catholic divorce": "The synod fathers asked for it, the speeding up of the annulment processes. And I stop there. ... It is not divorce, because marriage is indissoluble when it is a sacrament. And this the Church cannot change. It's doctrine. It's an indissoluble sacrament."

-- On female priests: "That cannot be done. Pope St. John Paul II, after long, long intense discussions (and) long reflection, said so clearly. Not because women don't have the capacity. Look, in the church, women are more important than men. ... The church is the bride of Jesus Christ. And the Madonna is more important than popes and bishops and priests."

It's the new papal normal: Wheels up? Recorders ready.

(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King's College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)