Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Context is Key: Thoughts on Misinterpreting the Pope


Another unconfirmed story is going around that the Pope said that God “made” a certain person with a same sex attraction, and that he (the Pope) did not care either. The usual suspects are floating the same stories. Those who believe that the Pope intends to “change Church teaching,” interpret these words according to their narrative. Those who think the Church should change Church teaching are treating this as justifying their stance. Those who think that the Pope supports error also treat this as supporting their stance. Assuming that the reported dialogue took place as claimed, the reported words sound to me like the Pope was saying God loves and calls everyone to turn to Him regardless of their situation.

The Church on Same Sex Attraction

Let’s look at the Catechism:

The “psychological genesis” from the CCC was the first thing I thought of when I heard this story. IF the quotes were accurate and in context, then the most we could say is that the Pope has a private opinion on the origin of these inclinations. We must remember there is a difference between an inclination and an act. The Pope did not say the act was okay. In fact, he’s on record as saying the act is intrinsically wrong. Nor can we accuse the Pope of claiming that God deliberately makes a person with evil inclination. God made us. We are born with original sin. But that doesn’t mean God intends us to live according to original sin. He gives us grace—especially through the sacraments—and calls us to respond. If homosexual inclinations are a part of nature and not nurture (remember, the Church has not defined this), then it’s part of original sin. Each of us struggle with our own sinful inclinations in trying to be faithful to God.

An Example of Context and Meaning

But in the midst of this brawl, nobody is asking whether the Pope said what is claimed. Nobody is asking whether the words were properly understood or relayed by person making the claim. We don’t even know the context of the words—if said and accurately repeated. Without knowing that, we can’t know anything about the real meaning.

Here’s an example. Would you believe that the Pope said that people are less important than material at the service of the rich? Here’s the quote from A Year With Pope Francis:

From A Year With Pope Francis...sort of...

So, an Ayn Rand conservative could argue that the words of the Pope mean “things that provide profit to the wealthy are more important than people.” But context is given by the next line, not listed in this entry: “What point have we come to?” The fact that the book left out that line is baffling. But it is not the fault of the Pope.

The Pope was not praising economic injustice. He was opposing it. A person who took the given quote and interpreted it literally, without checking context, would likely give a false interpretation. However, any person who should take that quote and argue that “the Pope was not speaking clearly” would be wrong. The Pope did speak clearly. The problem is when people see only the soundbite quote, they tend to interpret it according to those words alone without seeing if there are any other words that modify the meaning of those limited words.

We MUST Avoid Rash Judgment!

By relying only on soundbite quotes and not looking for context when something seems unusual, is to risk falling into error. To assume that a soundbite quote “proves” error on the part of the Pope is to commit rash judgment—which the Catechism teaches is a sin:

If we would avoid rash judgment, we must recognize the importance of context and not insert meaning into what we hear. We must verify what is said. If it cannot be verified, we cannot assume a meaning that fits our ideology.

That is what we must remember.

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