Faith and Spirituality

[The Wide Shot] When Pope Francis lowers his shields

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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[The Wide Shot] When Pope Francis lowers his shields

Interview screenshot from CBS News

‘Pope Francis, in an interview with a US journalist, provides a model of sticking to one’s beliefs while leaving room for the other person to speak’

What gives life to any interview is not the prepared list of questions. It is usually the follow-up – all the more if it is a pushback.

On Tuesday, May 21 (Manila time), CBS News premiered its exclusive interview with Pope Francis – the pontiff’s first in-depth interview with an American network. The interview was conducted by Norah O’Donnell, a journalist for nearly 30 years who is now anchor and managing editor of CBS Evening News. 

The interview covered a wide range of topics: Ukraine and Gaza, climate change, the Vatican’s controversial document on blessing same-sex couples, and more. The Pope, as usual, gave newsworthy soundbites, calling climate deniers “foolish” and saying US Catholic conservatives have a “suicidal attitude.”

The most interesting part for me, however, was when O’Donnell asked the Pope about another hot-button issue: surrogate motherhood.

Francis had spoken in the past about surrogate motherhood, where a woman bears a child for parents who cannot conceive through natural means. On January 8, he condemned surrogate motherhood as “deplorable,” and said it is a “grave violation of the dignity of the woman and the child.” He added that a child “is always a gift and never the basis of a commercial contract.”

On April 2, the Vatican released the document titled Dignitas Infinita which tackled a host of issues affecting human dignity. One of these issues was surrogacy. In this document, the Vatican said each child has “the right to have a fully human (and not artificially induced) origin, while a woman should not become “a mere means subservient to the arbitrary gain or desire of others.”

So when O’Donnell asked the Pope about surrogate motherhood, I had an idea how he would respond. What I didn’t expect was how the Pope brought the conversation forward – and taught a lesson to a highly “connected” world that, ironically, prefers to “cancel” the other instead of embracing differences in the public square.

The Pope told the American journalist, “In regard to surrogate motherhood, in the strictest sense of the term, it is not authorized, see? Sometimes surrogacy has become a business, and that is very bad. It is very unpalatable.” 

O’Donnell pushed back, “But sometimes for some women it is the only hope.”

“It could be,” the Pope answered. “The other hope is adoption.” 

“I would say that in each case, the situation should be carefully and clearly considered, consulting medically and then morally as well. I think there is a general rule in these cases, but you have to go into each case in particular to assess the situation, as long as the moral principle is not skirted,” the pontiff said.

Then Francis turned to O’Donnell. “But you are right,” he said. “I want to tell you that I really liked your expression when you told me in some cases it is the only chance. It shows that you feel these things very deeply.”

[The Wide Shot] When Pope Francis lowers his shields

Take a second look at how the Pope dealt with O’Donnell’s question. First, he stated the official church stance on surrogate motherhood. But when O’Donnell said it “is the only hope for some women,” the Pope acknowledged her concern – and provided a small opening. While he asserted the general rule, he said cases should also be individually considered – “as long as the moral principle is not skirted.”

The Pope ended with a message affirming O’Donnell, saying that “I really liked your expression.” With the kindest smile, the first Latin American pope told the veteran US journalist, “Gracias (thank you).” She nodded with a heartfelt “Thank you.”

A world of ‘hot takes’

We live in a world of strong convictions – and many of our conflicts erupt when opposing camps foment an “us versus them” mindset where mine is the only truth and yours is utter falsehood. Or mine is good, yours can only be evil. The worst is when my position is the only “human” option, and yours can only befit the animal world. Often, we affirm our beliefs by denying the humanity of others. 

We live in a world full of “hot takes” and bereft of the warmth of human compassion. Social media has influenced much of the way we express our convictions: we post a hot take on Facebook or X (formerly Twitter), people like or share it, we feel popular and get addicted to the popularity, and we form stronger bonds with like-minded people in our echo chamber. 

What about the views of others? Ah, false. Ah, evil. Ah, canceled!

In the Philippines, we see this in the ongoing debate on divorce, a highly divisive issue in this predominantly Catholic country. The House of Representatives approved a controversial divorce bill on third and final reading on Wednesday, May 22. Now we see many advocates and critics virtually marching, yelling, and raising “placards” on social media to advance their position and, in the process, demonize the other camp. 

“I am Catholic, and I am against the divorce bill,” according to one social media post – as if to say that if one supports the divorce bill, one ceases to be Catholic. Hmm, I never knew the sign of the cross goes “In the name of my opposition to the divorce bill.” Other social media posts claim that the Catholic Church, because it is anti-divorce, is pro-abuse of women and children – as if the Catholic hierarchy proposes no alternative that defends the rights of women and children as well.

We have been too caught up in our beliefs – too defensive, too hard-hearted, too intolerant of diversity.

We need to learn how to listen and accept that people – and their beliefs – are always bound to be different. Where is the earnest desire to find goodness in others? Where is the respect?

‘Be vulnerable’

The Pope, in his conversation with O’Donnell about surrogacy, provides a model of sticking to one’s beliefs while leaving room for the other person to speak and offer a different perspective. Francis shows how the goal is not winning an argument, but affirming the other person – always, despite differences – at the end of it all. 

It is a useful “way of proceeding,” as the Jesuits would put it, in a world torn apart by social media’s echo chambers.

We need to learn compassion – and to lower our shields – as Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa said at her Harvard commencement speech on Thursday, May 23. 

“There’s a word that goes beyond empathy in South Africa – ubuntu: ‘I am because we are’ – it’s a deeper faith in another person, it’s deeper than stepping in someone else’s shoes. But in order to get there, we have to lower our shields,” Ressa told the Harvard graduates.

[The Wide Shot] When Pope Francis lowers his shields

Ressa said this means to “be vulnerable.”

“You might think being vulnerable is weak, and it is hard to trust,” she explained. “But in every relationship, in every negotiation, in order to move forward and accomplish anything meaningful, someone lowers their shields first, brings down their ego, their defense mechanisms, then others follow.” 

“Let that person be you,” she said.

“Because when you’re vulnerable, you create the strongest bonds. You restore trust and the ability to find creative solutions to intractable problems. You become resilient and enable the most inspiring possibilities,” Ressa continued.

This vulnerability, I believe, is the source of the Pope’s moral strength.

Make no mistake about it: the Pope still believes surrogate motherhood is “deplorable.” But that doesn’t make surrogate mothers – and persons who support surrogacy – deplorable too. And while he holds a general conviction, the Pope still knows that “in each case, the situation should be carefully and clearly considered.” 

Reality, after all, is greater than ideas, as the Pope said at the University of Santo Tomas when he visited the Philippines in 2015.

When the Pope lowers his shields, the “most inspiring possibilities” follow. –

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email