“This isn’t Denzinger.”

 “God is not a God of confusion but of peace.” — I Corinthians 14:33

Pope Francis makes G20 Syria appeal in letter to PutinThis isn’t hard.

Pope Francis does not want to dress or live like past popes, does not want to interact with the world like past popes, does not want to administrate like past popes, so it makes perfect sense that he just as seriously does not want to sound like past popes. This reality only heightens the tragicomedy of his ex post facto media handlers trying to mesh certain strategically launched statements of his with past papal teaching, since he intends them to be as different in design as his shoes are from Pope Benedict’s.

Hot off the presses! Francis keeps his Vatican spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi, as busy as some of his Catholic blog-handlers (emphasis mine):

Vatican Spokesman: Don’t Parse Pope Francis

(Friday, October 4, 2013, 11:53 AM) – Matthew Schmitz | @matthewschmitz

In response to Pope Francis’ latest interview, I urged people not to read Francis’ words too closely:

After two recent interview with La Repubblica and La Civiltà Cattolica, it has become clear that the dialogue he desires will be informal and unguarded. It is the kind of dialogue usually reserved for close friends and, of course, very susceptible to misunderstanding when it isn’t. This is why Francis has delivered his beautiful daily homilies ex tempore and chosen intimate interviews rather than public speeches [Say what?!] as his preferred way of communicating with his [sic] Church and the world. Francis has decided to approach the world on casual terms, and the world has responded with overwhelming love for him, if not always perfect understanding of the faith.

Red herring. The problem is not that he’s not producing ‘perfect’ understanding of the Catholic faith in the world, but that he’s almost perfectly implanting misundetstanding of it. #YOPO

How, then, should Christians read his interviews? Talmudic explanations of how what he said was not what he really meant or, on the other hand, what the faith really teaches miss the point. Francis is not so much aiming for precision as shooting the breeze.

Boy, what a relief. How prescient was Stephen Colbert, right? He saw papal truthiness coming a long way off. #PopeGuido

That this has been Francis’ desire has long been clear, but now it’s been confirmed by Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi. John Allen reports:

Perhaps the most insightful take on all this came from Lombardi himself, who said we’re seeing the emergence of a whole new genre of papal speech — informal, spontaneous and sometimes entrusted to others in terms of its final articulation. A new genre, Lombardi suggested, needs a “new hermeneutic,” one in which we don’t attach value so much to individual words as to the overall sense.

Aye, there’s the rub. For the past several weeks We the Small-Minded have been exhorted to relax, since the things the Pope has said, while not “perfect”, were said off the cuff, were just parts of interviews, for Pete’s sake, so there’s no reason to take them as Gospel. (Quite so.) Yet, as I may or may not have noted before, not only have the interviews been vetted and approved, but the Scalfari encounter is officially posted on the Vatican website as one of Pope Francis’s speeches (do follow the link, please): “Lombardi didn’t deny any passage in the conversation, and he explained that the overall reconstruction of the papal affirmations was faithful.  But he made it clear that it is necessary to be cautious in attributing with precision to the Pope every single quoted word.” (NB: Here is the English language link for it.)

To say, therefore, that the Pope was merely speaking informally and thus can be excused for speaking loosely, is out of the question. He called up Scalfari as the Pope, endorsed the encounter as one of his papal speeches, and yet he conducted it “like a drunken heretic”. Indeed, we now have confirmation that it is the intent of the Holf Father not to be held responsible for his exact words, which is a pretty sweet deal for him: he can say almost anything he wants “off the cuff” and in the end he’ll only have meant what the cleverest blog handler can reconstruct him to have meant, like, in general.

As I’ll ponder below, does the Pope really think this is a recipe for getting people to heed what he says? Do you? At this point, if the now standard response to the Pope’s “off” remarks is that they were mistranslated, misremembered, etc., then how do I know that his much vaunted orthodox statements are being accurately reported? Sigh.

“This isn’t Denzinger,” he said, referring to the famous German collection of official church teaching, “and it’s not canon law.”

Small blessings.

It goes without saying that this casual approach has its downsides….

Well, only for those Catholics impudent and arrogant enough to expect from the Pope anything like a consistent traditional witness as the Vicar of Christ. Yeah… those types.

Francis himself is showing some frustration with the media’s response,

So maybe he’ll wise up and stop winging it? One can hope!

as Allen reports:

[Francis] took a shot at the media, saying newspapers had been “full of fantasies” about the trip, suggesting he was coming to “strip” the church — renouncing honorific titles, selling off properties, etc. His real interest, he said, was to call the church to a “stripping” of the “cancer of worldliness.”

Or, at least, that appears to be, like, the general idea, and stuff. I wouldn’t be as Talmudic as John Allen is about quoting the Pope’s actual words, though.

Francis has a great deal of work to do…in showing the world what he means.

Ya think?

What’s going on here?

Well, don’t hold me to every word I write but….

+ + +

Not even half a day after I had proposed the above, I found something funny on our man Crude’s blog (Crude being one of the Catholics helping to talk me off the ledge these days). So I dug up the link to the CNA article about the Pope’s Mass at Assisi in honor of St. Francis, and, guess what? I didn’t walk away demoralized! I felt downright happy to have Pope Francis at the helm! One of my favorite parts:

“’Franciscan peace is not something saccharine,’ he said, ‘That is not the real Saint Francis! Nor is it a kind of pantheistic harmony with forces of the cosmos…. That is not Franciscan either; it is a notion some people have invented!’”

This is more like it! I love hearing from this version of Pope Francis! I desperately needed to hear these words from the Pope, and I need to hear more like them. I know I might come across as arrogant or a blowhard, but I actually enjoy having my paranoia about Francis dispelled. For example, at one point I scolded the Pope for giving credence to the absurd idea, to Scalfari and thus to the world, that St. Francis of Assisi, the popular Francis of Hallmark cards–would shared his own disdain for proselytism. Granted, the Pope’s message about the real St. Francis does not remind us of the saint’s missionary zeal, but I am trying to be charitable and feed on the good things I get from Pope Francis.

So then what else do I have to say, you might wonder. You’ll probably think I’m a “no good deed goes unpunished” Catholic for writing the following, that’s genuinely not my intent. There are still basic problems with the Pope’s papal witness that the faithful need to be mindful of so they can discern the good from the bad in his witness.

Let me explain.

I’m feeling much as I did just after the Spadaro interview. Like the rest of us, I was relieved and delighted to hear the Pope denounce abortion and the culture of death right on the heels of the tumult his La Civiltà Cattolica interview had made. But I wondered how many of the freshly minted non-Christian fans of Francis would hear what he said to the necessarily insular audience of Catholic physicians and gynecologists about our throwaway culture, abortion and euthanasia. The Secular Francis Fan Club had already heard what they wanted to hear, were hearing it in all the major media outlets, and so the small audience he had the next day to denounce abortion obviously echoed little farther than the walls of the ears of the audience and relieved believers. (Indeed, as far as I know, his comments there are available in English only at the linked post and have not been officially translated for MSM distribution. Will they ever be?) Hence, the Pope’s strong pro-life message was very understandably seen as an olive branch by many Catholics and as a little pro forma drum beating by non-Catholics. The in-flight interview was lengthy, though I don’t know how long precisely. The interviews with Spadaro and Scalfari were 12,000 and 4,600 words, respectively. His comments to the audience of Catholic doctors? Just over 1,000 words.

This is what I call “the context of the context.” Francis has spoken extensively, and gleefully, to the global press, in the course of which he has made comments that greatly appeal to the world’s delusions, all the while knowing how the media would inevitably run away with such statements. Then the Pope has followed up each time with a brief but “really Catholic” statement that puts Catholics at ease. I openly admit that I only want to hear from “this Francis”, the cogent, devout Francis of the CNA article, and I’m not the only Catholic I know who feels the same way. Blessing children, comforting the sick, preaching the truth, showing the inseparability of the gospel of life and social justice–GOOD! Confusing the faithful, diluting the truth, confirming sinners in their malformed consciences, legitimizing religious indifferentism–BAD! Stop improvising and stick to the script, Papa Frankie!

The problem is that, since I have my own “favorite version” of Pope Francis, how much more does the world already have its own favorite version of him, especially since they don’t even have the obligation that I have to respect him and read him in the context of long-standing Catholic teaching? What sort of cognitive filter is Francis entrenching in the world’s ears, since they most certainly only want to hear the non-judgmental, ambiguous “Our Francis of the Interviews”?

Yeah, yeah, I know: lowering barriers, sign of contradiction, meeting people where they are, the long game, etc., etc. I am also aware of the argument that Francis knows exactly what he’s doing: he’s jostling the world out of its reflexive hostility, laying down a bread crumb trail of orthodoxy to the margins of the Church, all in the hope that non-believers who are inclined to listen to “the non-Benedict” will hear his unambiguously Christian preaching and magically convert (oops, dirty word, there).

I just don’t buy it, though.

If he’s not careful–and does anything about this pope suggest that he’s careful?–Pope Francis is going to paint himself into a corner as the Pope who cried wolf.

As I read it, the collective consciousness about Francis is this:

“This guy is awesome! What a breath of fresh air! If nothing else, he’s everything Benedict XVI wasn’t. Just look at how he’s systematically tried to contrast his style, tone, emphasis, and policies with those of the ‘wounded’ Nazi Pope. This whole Catholic Church things might not be so bad, after all. Let’s have a– Wait a minute, what is all this extremist religious rhetoric that I hear coming from Francis? I thought he was cool. Plus, why don’t the priests and Catholics I know sound as cool as he did in those interviews? Oh, well, we had some high hopes for Francis, but, hey, he’s got to play the game. He’s only one man and can’t possibly change all that’s wrong with Catholicism. But, man, if only he would….”

If he keeps up with these “Jesuit mind tricks” of blowing hot and cold, he’s going to morph into Fairweather Francis, the Pope who is either tossing bones to worldlings so they don’t think the Church is thaaaat bad, or is just extending rehearsed olive branches to the faithful in the course of his real project: rubbing elbows with big brass worldlings so he can scratch their itching ears. Did anyone really believe the Pope when he told Scalfari that he had no intent to convert him back to Catholicism? I didn’t, which is I found that statement so annoying: it was either planily disingeuous, or, if sincere, an appalling sentiment for the Pope to harbor. As noted by Kathy Schiffer, Fr. Longenecker expressed a similar worry to mine that Francis’s supposedly anti-proselytizing bonhommie is fundamentally disingenuous. Schiffer closes her piece with a quotation from Penn Jillette, although I don’t grasp why, since his point seems to explode hers and the Pope’s own rejection of proselytism. In Jillette’s words:

“I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. If you believe there’s a Heaven and Hell, and people could be going to Hell, or NOT getting eternal life, and you think it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward…. How much do you have to hate somebody to NOT proselytize?”

I don’t know. But I do know our own Pope Francis thinks the intent to convert people is “solemn nonsense.”  On that note, by the way, one of the most fatuous responses I’ve heard about the Pope’s denunciation of proselytism and his assurance that he has no intention even to try to convert Scalfari, or, by extension, any non-Catholic, is that the Pope was just joking. Surely Scalfari got that. It was all just a clever gag. Conversion–what a riot! And why was the Pope joking about that solemn nonsense? Why, and I quote, “to lower [Scalfari's] deflector shields to reach his reactor core.” Right. That’s the ticket. Because there’s nothing perverse about getting an atheist or non-believer to lower his guard just so you can implant ambiguous truths in his reactor core that almost certainly end up fortifying him in his unbelief.

This is something Dale, one of my fellow small-minded commiserators, sees all too well:

[None of the crucial distinctions and context about proselytism were] stated in the actual text of the interview [with Scalfari]. He’s not being more precise, for whatever reason. Unfortunately, he’s not giving you the material to make him say what you want him to. When you have to supply that much subtext and cross-referencing to make it “work,” it’s damage control. Pure and simple. All damage control at this point, and that’s how it comes across. …

Compare Jimmy and Kathy with David Gibson of the Religion News Service. Also a Commonweal blogger, to say Gibson hates your orthodox guts…is entirely accurate. As he demonstrated on his Facebook page today, … gloating about the discomfiture of people who actually believe in what marriage really means, that abortion is evil, who struggle to follow Humanae Vitae“Don’t worry about your right flank, Pope Francis — American Catholics have your back.”

But compare the first Gibson link with the attempted rebuttals. Gibson simply lets Francis speak for himself. There’s nothing for him to have to explain, no multi-paragraph excurses on wayward sentences, none of that. Because there’s nothing there to discomfit him. And just where do you think regular journos will get their Francis stuff from? Hint: RNS, the National Catholic Reporter, Tom Reese, Dick McBrien–the usual gang on speed dial. Not from Patheos.

And where do you think the average Catholic in the pews … will get their Francis fix from? The regular journos.

And why not? Gibson, NCRep, etc. are all poised, confident, and not engaging in damage control. But their read is wrong–or so I’m reassured.

So.

Yeah.

Don’t be surprised if the Pope gives another “impromptu” interview in the near future, upsets the faithful once again, gives the MSM lots of ammunition to spin, and then quickly surges back with profoundly committed Christian truth.

Am I the only one who gets the impression that maybe Francis is “trying too hard”? That he’s trying a little too hard to be liked and to win “the people” over, and that he is, in turn, trying a little too hard to sound hardcore-orthodox? I prefer a more balanced approach, not the least because “God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Cor 14:33).

Meh. Who am I to judge?

Bottoms up!

About Codgitator (Cadgertator)

Elliot Bougis (yes, "bogus"), Catholic convert, German major, philosophy minor, multilingual. ESL teacher in Taiwan 2003-2011; now in the salt mines of public high school education. Husband, father of two. Ragamuffin scholar and nerdy fitness monkey. Academic interests: the interface of religion and science, the history and philosophy of science, ancient and medieval philosophy, and cogsci/neuroscience. Pray for me.
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26 Responses to “This isn’t Denzinger.”

  1. Crude says:

    But compare the first Gibson link with the attempted rebuttals. Gibson simply lets Francis speak for himself. There’s nothing for him to have to explain, no multi-paragraph excurses on wayward sentences, none of that.

    In fairness, one reason that Gibson doesn’t have to say much is because quite a lot of people have already spoken for him. All of the ‘interpretation’ of Pope Francis as an unorthodox liberal – which really isn’t apparent in anything he’s said whatsoever – has already been done, and done with the media equivalent of a megaphone.

    But I do know our own Pope Francis thinks the intent to convert people is “solemn nonsense.”

    He said that proselytism is solemn nonsense, and that he prefers to have an open conversation with someone to figure out what they believe and discover what their needs are.

    I don’t think some of the Francis defenses – ‘he was joking!’ – work, of course.

  2. Crude says:

    I do, btw, think you make a good point about the respective sizes of the interview versus the talk he gave. On the other hand, how much of the interview was actually problematic?

  3. Anja says:

    A very confused pope; or extremely disingenuous and cunning. What a mess…… you can’t trust his words. He see-saws from one day to the next, speaks a lot about himself, seems crazy about the limelight, but tells us (in almost so many words!) that he is the (first) pope with humility. HIs interviews to seculars, atheists and the Jesuits should probably be the words we should take seriously since they are not scripted. This may be who Francis in reality is and how he thinks and believes.

  4. Kennyth says:

    I don’t like Pope Francis. From day one I’ve felt like I somehow morphed back to the 1970’s in the Church, and started dreading the fact that we will have to go through it all over again. The Spirit of Vatican II is alive and well, and the ground has become shifting sand. The Left has taken the Papacy, and those of us who, in our right minds, question some of the whacked out blather being proposed as official text of the Holy Father are somehow the ones with the problem.

    Let’s help the poor and the disenfranchised, as we always do, and dwell upon the Works of Mercy. Spare me the theological musings of an airhead, especially if they are going to be reconstructed by an atheist. Smart move, Vatican! We obviously do need to do some major reworking over there!

    Francis the Foolish. Francis the Feckless. Francis the Foibled, the Fatuous, the Daft.

    Why is it wrong to feel righteous anger?

  5. Anja: …should probably be the words we should take seriously since they are not scripted. This may be who Francis in reality is and how he thinks and believes.

    That’s a very good point; it helps me articulate one of the things I’ve been trying to get at these days.

  6. Kennyth: Why is it wrong to feel righteous anger?

    It’s not, and the first reading at Mass today was immensely healing for me, truly a prophetic word for me. In the confessional today, wherein I confessed borderline despair, acts of rash judgment, and anger, the priest rather condescendigly, although not snidely, told me I should learn Italian, and that the Pope’s not stupid.

    That didn’t upset me, but it did confirm once more the pattern I’m seeing: even to suggest that something is fundamentally off in anything the Pope has said of late is to be looked at by most fellow Catholics with bewilderment and scorn.

    Did you see the article last week about how most American Catholics view Pope Francis? Only 4% had a negative perception of him. Like it or not, we Eeyorish Catholics are a serious minority, so we need to realize that we’re talking against the wind on this. My only obligation in the meantime is to avoid rash judgment and slander, discern the wheat from the chaff in the Pope’s statements (it’s not slander or rash judgment if a critique is factually grounded) so as to protect my own faith and others’ from a bad example, and to pray for the Pope as the Holy Father. I don’t have to like his style, his inconsistency, his obscurity, and I certainly have no obligation to defend him on every point. I think he’s been gravely derelict in his duty to present the truth about conscience, which is something one of my good friends, a philosopher and a backer of Francis, admits is a typical Jesuit flaw.

    Hang in there, and read the passage from Habbakuk for today!

    (P.S. My confessor today did more good than harm for me, by the way, by reminding me that God is revealing and strengthening weaknesses in my faith, for if some things the Pope said have rattled me as much as they have, then I need to shore up my faith. Fair enough, and I already feel God strengthening my faith.)

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  8. Kennyth says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful reply. I can’t believe your Priest told you that in a Confessional. And, I consider that poll of US Catholics to be somewhat skewed (but… who am I to say?)

    A criticism of many “religions” is that they indoctrinate rather than teach, so that people will stay. But, we Catholics teach rather than indoctrinate, and it’s true that many leave. but many people stay, and many convert.

    I struggle with many of the sayings of our new Pope. A (very successful and popular) college friend deeply into new age and progressivism, at a reunion recently, expressed in agreement with Pope Francis’s teaching… “Maybe it’s good to have new ideas?” As if I were foolish and backward, with no clue as to reality.

    And the Pope himself has said, “Do you need to convince the other to become Catholic? No, no, no! Go out and meet him, he is your brother. This is enough. Go out and help him and Jesus will do the rest.” via CNS…

    I met him, and many others, and they all criticized the Church, even as they profit from it. And the Church is catering to them, not to the Faithful.

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