So many aspects of Pope Francis’ personality either delight or consternate people, depending on their perspective, that it seems almost reductive to single out one element. If you were going to put all those things on a list, however, pride of place almost certainly would have to go to his endless capacity for sound bites.
Time and again over the last four years, Francis has uttered an arresting phrase — in a press conference, in a media interview, in a Q&A session, during his morning homily — which has been launched out of a media canon, firing both imagination and controversy.
Here’s my personal “Top Five” list of those quotable quotes to date.
“Who am I to judge?” — en route back to Rome from Brazil in July 2013, spoken in the context of gay persons.
“God is not a Catholic” — attributed to Francis by Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari in a September 2013 conversation.
“If [a close friend] says a swear word against my mother, he’s going to get a punch in the nose” — on a plane from Sri Lanka to the Philippines in January 2015, in response to a question about the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.
“Catholics don’t need to breed like rabbits” — returning to Rome in January 2015, in the context of a question about birth control.
“Most marriages today are null” — spoken at a pastoral congress on the family in the Diocese of Rome in June 2016, later amended by the Vatican to read “some.”
Naturally, there’s plenty of other material, but those examples suffice to make the point.
We got another entry recently in a new interview with a German newspaper, in which Francis denies seeing American Cardinal Raymond Burke as an “adversary,” which signals a cautious opening to discussion about married priests, voices alarm about the rise of political populism in Europe and takes a gentle swipe at what he calls “fundamentalist Catholics.”
Whenever these bombshells explode, pundits and commentators go into overdrive trying to explain (and sometimes spin) what the pope actually meant. Less noticed, however, is the grassroots pastoral challenge they create, as parish priests and other Church personnel scramble to answer people’s questions about what was said and what it might mean.
Some are trying to get ahead of that curve, such as an old friend of mine, Father Dave Heney of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. A number of years ago he founded an interparish program of Lenten faith formation called the “University Series,” and this year he asked me to give a couple of presentations under the provocative title “What Did Pope Francis Mean By That?”
The idea was to give people some tools for standing back from whatever the latest sensation may be, and trying to make sense of it. I offered three basic rules of thumb.
First, whatever else these bombshells may be, they are clearly not a formal expression of the pope’s teaching authority. If Francis wanted to declare a new dogma binding on Catholic consciences, he knows how to do it, and a one-off zinger in a press conference isn’t it.
That’s not to say, of course, one should simply disregard whatever the pope says in these informal settings. He’s the pope, and his words always deserve to be received with respect. However, his opinion on the Charlie Hebdo attacks obviously doesn’t have the same standing as, say, declarations in the Creed about the Trinity or about Christ.
At the very beginning, the Vatican spokesman at the time, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, said we’re in the presence of a new genre of papal speech — loose, spontaneous, not vetted by teams of theologians, and we’ll have to adjust our modes of interpretation accordingly. That remains as true today as it was when Lombardi said it.
Second, it’s important to remember that these one-liners don’t always capture the pope’s own priorities. Often they’ve come in response to questions other people have asked him, rather than something he brought up himself.
If you want to understand what really drives this pope, it’s wiser to look at the conversations he’s initiated in the first person — his encyclicals and other documents, for instance, or his speeches on trips and to gatherings he takes especially seriously, such as the World Meeting of Popular Movements that he founded three years ago.
While the sound bite may help define Francis from a media point of view, it’s probably not how he himself sees the heart of his papacy.
Third and finally, it’s essential to put these utterances in context in order to grasp what Francis really means.
The “breeding like rabbits” sound bite, for instance, was initially taken in some circles as a step back from the Church’s opposition to artificial birth control, but in context the pontiff appeared to be talking about Natural Family Planning and other Church-approved strategies for what Francis called “responsible parenthood.”
“In the Church there are matrimonial groups who are experts in this, there are pastors,” he said. “I know many of them, and [they have] many licit solutions that can help.”
Alas, the media business is generally better at firing off the sound bite than at providing the proper context, so people often must seek it for themselves.
Some critics of Francis, of course, won’t be satisfied with any of this, insisting that the pope should be more disciplined and exercise some self-control. Fans, on the other hand, delight in Francis’ let-it-all-hang-out style, and don’t want anybody trying to muzzle him or fence him in.
That debate will go on, but in the meantime pastors still have to figure out what to tell ordinary believers naturally inclined to support whatever the pope says or does, but who also may be dismayed or disoriented by the latest media contretemps.
For them, anyway, the three rules listed above are probably a decent place to start.