Saturday, June 14, 2014

Speech, Interpretation and the Pope

Preliminary Note

The trick in writing an article like this is to avoid coming across like "Just think like me and you'll be fine" as if I were wise man with all the answers and the reader is an idiot if he or she disagrees. If I come across like that, then I failed in achieving what I hoped in this article.

What I hope to do is to discuss what I have learned over the years in dealing with troublesome news reported about the Church—even before Francis became Pope—as explanation for why I am not troubled by our Pope and why I do not think we are headed towards the dangers many of my fellow Catholics fear we are headed for.

So below is my attempts at explaining why I believe what I do and why I do not think that Pope Francis is causing harm to the Church by what he says. I hope it helps those facing those questions and concerns I once struggled with.


A friend of mine (who always asks challenging questions and forces me to explore my faith more deeply) writes:

I think that your article addresses one group - those who think that Francis is making statements which are at odds with Church teaching. But there is another group who rather think that Francis speaks in a way which is too easily misunderstood or mischaracterized. I think that this second group believes in his orthodoxy but wishes for greater clarity.

I think that this second group is of the belief that we Catholics should not need to spend a great deal of time explaining "what the Pope really meant". And they feel frustrated when the Pope's words are misused.

It is true that my previous article did explicitly intend to discuss that first group. However, it's a fair point to consider when the Pope speaks and people who are not dissenting Catholics find themselves troubled by what they hear.. 

The Pope speaks. Misinterpretations happen. Is this a case of cause and effect where the Pope speaks imprecisely and this causes to misinterpretation? Or would that be a post hoc fallacy where there are two events and one mistakenly draws a link between the two where it does not exist? I would ask the reader to consider these two possibilities.

When it comes to seeking a reply to this concern, the person should ask, "Why am I concerned/offended?" How you answer the question can help approach the issue. From what I can see, the concerns tend to fall into three areas:

  1. Fear that people will misunderstand the Pope with disastrous consequences.
  2. Fear that the Pope is giving his support to an -ism that they disagree with.
  3. Fear that the Pope will change Church teaching to something that contradicts current teaching.

There's a lot of subsets in the three groups. I won't discuss every issue that the people have fears over, but I do believe that the people who fear what he has to say are covered by these categories.

Let's try to look at these categories.

Fear that people will misunderstand the Pope with disastrous consequences

I think we need to be aware that wanting the Pope to speak "more clearly" is a very vague concept that will mean different things to different people.

The reason I say this is that it is not possible to speak so clearly that no mistake is possible. The differences between the speaker and the listener in terms of things like education, areas of knowledge, background, intellect, political outlook, philosophical outlook, preconceptions, etc., are going to be barriers if the speaker and the listener differ on these areas. Words can be ambiguous based on the meaning a perspective gives them.

Think of it this way. As Christians, we recognize the inerrancy of Scripture. God willed that the human authors only include the material He wanted in it... no more, no less. Yet those Christians who rely on their personal interpretation of the Bible routinely come up with contrary interpretations as to what certain parts mean. Do we say that the Scriptures communicate poorly? Or do we recognize that we are not all infallible interpreters of the Scripture?

Now that's with Scripture. Now imagine when we are dealing with human beings, all speaking different languages, so we have to rely on translations of what is said--where nuance may be missed depending on the skill of the translator and the complexity of the language. Now that doesn't mean every speaker is flawless and the fault is always be with the listener. But I think it does show that the idea that Pope Francis is expressing himself badly is not necessarily established as fact.

One may believe that the Pope should perhaps be more cautious when he does his so-called "Off the cuff" or "off script" moments. Certainly we had some odd moments in the first year of his pontificate where things were reported and some Catholics had WTF moments. But even here, we do need to ask whether the problem was with what he said or whether it was a problem of how it got back to us and how we interpreted it.

For example, during the pontificate of St. John Paul II, there was the embarrassing moment where he kissed a Qur'an.  Knowing of his fidelity to the Church, the idea of him being an apostate is ludicrous. The more probable meaning was that of him thinking that he was showing the local means of respect for a gift. So objectively, things would have been better if he did not kiss the book. But because he did, we are obligated to look into the meaning of this before presuming something like deliberate rejection of part of the Catholic faith.

That is why seeing or hearing something that seems odd does not justify Rash Judgment (I've cited this so often, some of you ought to know it by heart):

2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:

— of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor


2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:

  Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.

This means that when we encounter a fellow Christian who does or says something that strikes us as odd, we are not to presume bad will on the part of the person acting. Only when it becomes apparent that no other interpretation is possible that we can move on with a gentle fraternal correction.

And let's not forget Pope Benedict XVI with his book length interview Light of the World where he used the example of a male prostitute with AIDS deciding to use condoms as an example to illustrate his point of a person beginning to consider the moral consequences of his actions. Many people believed he was advocating a changed teaching. Then that he had spoken badly. If you can remember back to those days, there was conservative Catholic media saying people in the Vatican should be fired for what happened. But ultimately, it was apparent that the problem was with the media wanting to report a change, not the Vatican making an error. (Are you beginning to remember that misunderstanding wasn't a problem exclusive to Pope Francis?)

What happens in cases like these is we have a problem that the news media (and some Catholics who think the magisterium is in the wrong) immediately jumps on things it thinks is new without considering how it fits in with other Catholic teaching. The Pope mentioned condoms and AIDS sufferers! He's saying it's OK to use condoms! He's changing the teaching!

Um... no. What we actually had was a media ignorant of what we believe reporting what they thought they heard, and a reaction by some Catholics blaming the confusion on the Church. That is vastly different. But, because we have been conditioned to expect that the media reports accurately about the facts, nobody actually thought to question whether the media did report the facts accurately.

The thing is, many people interpret the news from the Church by their preconceptions. That cannot be considered the fault of the Church. If a person's only tool is a hammer, every problem is approached as if it were a nail—which is a bad idea if the problem is installing a new pane of glass or swapping out a hard drive.

That's basically the problem with the media. For the most part, news services don't have a qualified religion reporter. Reporters assigned to stories treat Church news on moral issues as if they were political or economic issues. The result is they report the Church news as if it was political or moral news.

Imagine it this way. If I have no medical knowledge and I read a medical journal, how reliably do you think I will be able to assess the information within and explain it to others? Moreover, if I am considered a source of reliable news and I report on what I understood the medical journal to say, how accurate do you think the news report will be?

It's the same principle with the Church teachings. If one does not understand the nature of the Church and how she understands things, how can such a person avoid making mistakes in reporting?

Now I don't want to be misunderstood as saying "You need a Masters in Theology to understand the Pope." What I want the reader to be aware of is summed up by Dirty Harry in Magnum Force: "A man has got to know his limitations."

If a person knows his or her knowledge on a subject is limited, he or she can know that it is possible that when something doesn't seem to make sense that perhaps they have misunderstood the words and what gets repeated to others on that subject may be a distortion of what was really said. If a person doesn't know his or knowledge is limited, it means that he or she will probably go pass something along that is false thinking it was true. That's unfair to the person who did not say what the person who misunderstood him thinks that the original speaker did say.

Here's an example. I use computers but don't know much about the technical information about them. Since I'm researching a new computer (the current machine on my desk has been a faithful companion since the time of World of Warcraft: Cataclysm but needs replacing). So I occasionally ask a friend of mine questions on articles I read. Often he has to ask me a lot of questions or to provide a link to the article so he can wade through the mess of what I thought was said and find out what was actually said so he can answer my questions. The problem was not with the person who wrote the article, but was with me (PEBKAC, I believe they call it).

This is what one has to consider when the news reports something on the Pope. If the news reporter does not understand the Church he or she reports on, the result is something less than accurate.

The trick is to make sure that the problem is not at the level of the person doing the interpreting before worrying the Pope is expressing himself wrongly and causing confusion.

Fear that the Pope is giving his support to an -ism that they disagree with

The above was the framework that leads to the problems of fear and mistrust. When one assumes the media accurately reports the words of the Pope in context and they don't, the result is people thinking the Pope is saying something he had no intention of saying.

But even when people miss that first step, there are still ways to investigate things that seem strange.

I think we need to be aware of two types of meaning: univocal and equivocal. In the first, we have words where only one meaning is possible. In the second, more than one meaning is possible.

One problem is that people tend to assume that the meaning of a phrase is univocal. If the Pope uses a certain term, people tend to assume it has one meaning. Thus, when St. John Paul II spoke about feminism, certain Traditionalists presumed he was speaking in favor of radical feminism--something NOW and Planned Parenthood would find laughable, and was quite far from his intent.

But once one realizes that words and phrases can be equivocal, the possibility that the intention of the Pope is different than the meaning the reader/listener associates with the term must be considered.

We also have to consider the possibility of the either-or fallacy. The idea that there are only two options, when there are more than two. We have a tendency to think either conservative or liberal, either capitalism or socialism etc.

Thus when the Pope speaks about the problems in Capitalism (as he did in Evangelii Gaudium), people fear he is supporting socialism. But condemning flaws in one is not necessarily approving the other. Nor is it condemning the whole of capitalism.

There is another thing to consider. If the Pope speaking on the Catholic approach to an issue sounds like the supporting of an -ism, perhaps one should ask whether they have an -ism of their own which stands in the way of understanding the Pope properly. For example, the radical feminist who sees nothing but "patriarchal oppression" in Church teaching because she sees everything in terms of feminism.

Fear that the Pope will change Church teaching to something that contradicts current teaching

Finally, there is the fear that the Pope will make a heretical change to Church teaching. I think this is caused by certain traditionalist Catholics who claim that the Church has been in the wrong since the reign of St. John XXIII and every seeming difference between their interpretation of Church teaching and what the magisterium says today is "evidence" of this divide. The Catholic who tries to be faithful can't help but see the badly behaving Catholics and is deceived into thinking that the fault lies with the Magisterium.

But, if we have faith in Jesus Christ and believe He established this Church, gave it His authority and protects it, that's a wrong conclusion to make. That's not elevating Pope Francis to the level of demigod. That's putting your faith in the fact that even if parts of the Church fall into error, remaining faithful to the Church under the headship of the successor of St. Peter is the only safe path to be on.

So when it comes to being concerned that we'll see the Pope permitting abortion or "gay marriage," we can be sure that the Holy Spirit is not on a coffee break while the the Pope makes up whatever the hell he wants. The Holy Spirit is just as much with Pope Francis as with his predecessors.

But this is the "lowest common denominator" kind of protection to protect us from bad and corrupt popes—something that Pope Francis is not. When one reads his writings as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, one can see that he has a deep love of Jesus and for the Church. He has a record for opposing governments legitimizing evil as if it were good. For example, he opposed the recognition of "gay marriage" in Argentina, putting himself at odds with the government. I mention this because so many people seem to think that his words "Who am I to judge?" means he intends to change Church teaching, not realizing that he was taken out of context.

So to sum up on this issue, As a Pope we know he will be protected from teaching error by changing Church doctrine. As a person who is a faithful son of the Church we know he has no desire to make any such changes to Church doctrine.


I think that when it comes to these concerns, we need to be aware of certain things.

When it comes to the fear that the Pope will be misunderstood and lead people astray, the things to remember are that it is impossible to speak in such a way that no person can be misunderstood, that people have the obligation to seek out the proper understanding of the Pope's words and that some people misreport the words of the Pope out of their own misunderstanding of Catholic teaching or out of opposition to the teaching of the Church. We must recognize the possibility of our own misunderstanding and consider it before automatically assuming that the Pope spoke badly.

When it comes to the fear that the Pope is promoting some -ism, we need to remember that Pope Francis only supports one -ism, and that is Catholicism. What he is doing is speaking on issues of Catholic teaching that tend to be overlooked, and for the person who has their own -ism as a lens, they tend to see everything through the lens of that -ism and evaluate the Pope's words politically when it is actually a matter of moral behavior.

When it comes to the fear that the Church will change doctrine under Pope Francis, we need to remember both the fact that he has a deep love for Christ and His Church and that the Holy Spirit protects him from teaching error in matters of faith and morals which are binding on the faithful.

What I think we can draw from this is the fact that the problem is not with what Pope Francis says, but with the fact that people who are ignorant of the Church teaching are reporting on the Pope based on their ignorance and people are uncritically accepting what they say as if it were accurate. A one sentence or one paragraph quote of the Pope is insufficient. We need to find out what was said in context.

This isn't the easiest thing to do. If we rely on the mainstream media and political commentary we agree with, we will only see reported with the emphasis they see as important.

But other sources exist. The Vatican has its own news service (VIS), its own website ( and sponsors several apps for Android and iPad that allows you to see what was said in full. There are reliable Catholic news sources in America as well which report the news without the editorials that make it sound like the Pope is a heretic. We can find the news in context and see how the Church understands it, if we are willing to look.

And that is the ultimate thing we must do when faced with these concerns. We must actually consider the possibility of our source of news being wrong, and there being a different meaning than the modern ideology sees it. The Church has been around since Pentecost in AD 33. She continues to use words in their full sense that many people have forgotten. She does not think in terms of "Democrat vs. Republican." She thinks in terms of carrying out the mission of salvation—salvation which may require warning both liberals and conservatives of the errors of their ways.

So we must explain the Catholic faith to those who hear the Pope and misunderstand him. Yes, it would be nice if everyone understood what he meant without our need to explain. But since people can misinterpret based on how they understand (or don't understand) we do have to explain what is really meant.

It's part of the Spiritual Works of Mercy:

To instruct the ignorant;
To counsel the doubtful;
To admonish sinners;
To bear wrongs patiently;
To forgive offences willingly;
To comfort the afflicted;
To pray for the living and the dead.

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