Reading the Pope – towards a papal hermeneutic

Given that the previous two posts here have touched some raw nerves (not my intention), revealing in the process that there are still Catholics who implicitly believe that a pope is pretty much beyond any criticism, and bringing out the nasty side of some people (spared your delicate eyes), it seems opportune to re-orient things on a more positive line, without resiling from my stated position, accurately understood.

One aspect attending the current papacy, admittedly still in its early stages, is fairly clear. There is a communications problem, and it is far from being solved.

On the one hand Pope Francis is fond of the striking gesture and word. He can be a maverick speaker. Often he does not stick to his texts; more often he has not prepared text at all. He is given to short addresses, with pithy and attention-grabbing tag-lines, often employing homely or colloquial words or phrases. He will talk about almost any topic. He is not into long waffle, and tends not to offer lengthy development of arguments. He speaks like a boxer: a series of short sharp jabs in the course of a short bout. The Romans have taken to nicknaming him Papa chiacchierone – “Pope Chatterbox” – their irreverent but not ill-meant take on the new papal style.

On the other hand we have the Vatican media machine abetting this approach. Vatican Radio and the Vatican website especially publish frequent and regular summaries of almost every papal utterance, however impromptu such an utterance might be. Ironically they build the image of a chatterbox pope. Even more unweclome, by providing not full transcripts but only edited highlights, they appear to reduce papal rhetoric to the level of a series of soundbites, disconnected and de-contextualized but very attention-grabbing. Politicians are used to this method, and to a degree it suits them (though it does nothing to raise the standard of political discourse). Popes are not used to it, nor is the Church. Moreover, it is a tall order indeed to reduce Christian teaching to soundbites and slogans. Conclusions need their preceding arguments on which they are based to be fully comprehensible and clear. By providing too often just the concluding soundbites and too little of the arguments that give them their sense, their context, the Vatican media machine is helping the distortion and trivialization of the papal message. It does not mean to do so; it is playing a game of catch-up; it is trying to accommodate itself to a pope who is communicating in a way very different to his predecessors.

So one solution, and perhaps the easiest, would be for the Vatican media not to report the Pope’s every utterance, especially his impromptu ones; nor to offer only edited summaries seasoned with the occasional quotable quote. A good rule of thumb might be to determine what the proper audience is for a particular papal utterance. At his daily Mass, for example, his homilettes are for the congregation there present. He is not speaking ex cathedra, nor even as Supreme Pontiff, but as celebrant of the Mass. Perhaps his daily homilettes are best left secure in their proper context, his daily Mass. Likewise if he addresses a group in a private audience, maybe his words to them should remain in that context, the private audience. In such a case he is not speaking to the whole Church, nor even intending to I suspect; in which case, the whole Church need not hear him. (Of course, it seems highly unlikely that the Vatican media broke the story about his speech to CLAR the other day; it has however helped to create a climate in which such private audiences are made public property).

What the Vatican media could then focus on would be Pope Francis’ manifestly magisterial speeches and writings, more formal texts offering sustained argument leading to a developed and crafted conclusion. The impending encyclical on faith, the completion of Benedict’s initial labour, offers precisely such an opportunity, and I await it with great relish.

An advantage of this approach would be to take the wind from the sails of the secular media in their coverage of Pope Francis. They are imposing on his words and actions a set of hermeneutics that serve their own interests, not the Church’s. In so doing they are conditioning the world’s, and much of the Church’s understanding of the Pope and his ministry. First among them is the hermeneutic of humility, by which the secular media interprets even the smallest papal act as evidence of a new commitment to humility – one, we are to believe, which marks a new direction for a hitherto far-from-humble papacy.

Another is the hermeneutic of shock. The secular media love to portray Pope Francis as a maverick, impatient of tradition, the establishment and the conventional. This opportunity presented itself from the moment of Pope Francis’ election and the media have pushed it ever since: the novel papal name; Francis’ refusal to don the mozetta at his election; his washing of women’s (and some Muslim ones at that) feet at Maundy Thursday Mass; the Pope’s admonition to nuns not to be “old maids”; his admonition to clergy not to be “careerists”; his talk of a gay lobby in the Vatican, etc. The secular media shines the spotlight on these, building an image of a pope who is set to change everything, and do everything his own way. Conversely, when the Pope does something truly novel and remarkable, like join the March for Life in Rome, the secular media remains silent. It is not the sort of shock they want to promote.

No doubt there are more hermeneutics employed by the secular media, which serve the secular agenda. The Church, beginning with the Vatican media machine, needs to fight back and reclaim the ground lost to the secular media. There are many hermeneutics we should employ and promote, those of evil/the Devil; of personal integrity; of the value and dignity of human life; of continuity and orthodoxy; of open engagement with a hostile world. There could be many more. I have not really given it enough thought as yet. The essential thing is that by leading the interpretation of the words and actions of the Pope, the Church can counteract the secular agenda by replacing it with its own, and giving it as loud a voice as possible. Then the Pope would appear in far more authentic light. It is a process that could, and should, begin at a grassroots level, using the new media and mastering their use for the gospel.

The secular media are no friend of the papacy except when it suits their own agenda. They certainly cannot be trusted to construct the Pope’s image before the world or the Church. They would like to set Pope Francis in opposition to his predecessors, and to judge previous popes in the light of their own fabricated image of Pope Francis – and to bring Catholics to share their judgment. Let us not follow the secularist course. Rather let us, the Church, set the course, the pace and the destination. It is as good a service as we can offer the Pope at this point in his papacy, second only to our continued prayer for him.

God bless our Pope.

20 thoughts on “Reading the Pope – towards a papal hermeneutic

  1. Father-
    The reason the Vatican Press Office and Vatican Radio are not releasing the full transcripts is because the Pope speaks in what can only be described as a frequently incoherent stream of consciousness. He speaks in incomplete sentences saturated with speech ticks and darts from one topic to another sometimes within the same sentence. The Vatican press arms are pulling their hair out trying to post-edit his remarks such that he doesn’t sound like a complete idiot – or a blatant heretic. They are trying to protect not just Bergoglio the man, but moreso the dignity of papacy itself. They are being given bad sausage and being told to serve filet mignon. No one wishes that the Holy Father would shut up more than the Vatican Press arms.
    Pray that the Holy Father learns the true meaning of humility.


    1. Hello Ann.

      Your comment tends to the more extreme end of the spectrum (though not so much that it must be deleted!). It saddens me that Pope Francis is coming across to you so very negatively, and your reaction so strong, though it rather supports my point that there is a communications problem here, which I too feel the force of. He is the Pope, deserves by right our respect and our prayers for him, and I see him as a manifestly good, upright and sincere man. Part of the problem, I am convinced, is one of style: his old style is not a good fit in every respect for his new office. He is still new and no doubt feeling his way. Which is why is to be hoped that his advisors are helping him as much as possible, and as well as possible.

      Of course it is hard to provide a transcript for unwritten, impromptu speech. But with some effort a transcript from a recording could be made, though you suggest this would be worse. Or better not to record them at all and treat them as equivalent to private audiences. That is a policy decision the appropriate Vatican official could make. The Vatican’s duty must be to allow his positive, more formal and solemn teaching to shine forth for the world. That is his goft to us.



  2. I didn’t realize there’s was a problem w what Pope Francis was doing until I saw a friend linking pieces like this one on Facebook. I mean, the Pope attracting massive enthusiastic crowds to Rome and there’s preliminary data that Mass attendance is up in many parts of the Western world. I’ve been hearing his off the cuff homilies quoted in homilies and at prayer groups, and find them all very nourishing to my soul and inspiring to my sense of apostolic zeals. Seems to me the Pope is doing things exactly right — the Holy Spirit is clearly moving, and I’m feeling hopeful we all might now embrace our Catholic faith and our commitment to the Lord with a bit more zeal! God Bless you, Pope Francis!


    1. Your measure of the Holy Spirit is an interesting one. Increased Mass attendance is no surprise in many ways. The honeymoon period for this papacy is still underway. The test for any papacy is how things are years into it. Pope Paul VI, God rest his soul, presided over the final years of Vatican II and then over a massive and precipitous decline in Mass attendance, vocations and numbers of priests and professed religious. Was this a sign of the Holy Spirit at work in the Church; or was he on holiday; or was another spirit at work, despite the best intentions of Pope Paul?

      If he is meeting your needs then that is wonderful. I too find much to admire in him, and I subscribe fully to many of his aims. But some of his methods are dangerous, and I worry for him and for the Church as a result. Pope Paul was a good man in so many ways. His papacy was disastrous by most measures. I sincerely hope and pray that Pope Francis will not be the same. So I can say with perhaps even more intensity, God bless our pope.



      1. Well, I’m from south Mississippi and your from England it appears. So we have different cultural presumptions about what the Holy Spirit ought to do I suppose!


  3. What would happen if a pope (not this one) were to openly teach heresy?

    For example: what if an evil future pope (call him Judas I) were to solemnly proclaim in his office as Supreme Pontiff that Christ is not the only name by which men may be saved?

    Would faithful Catholics be obligated to turn sedevacantist? Would the College of Cardinals be obligated to declare him an antipope and elect a new pope? Or would we have to assume that the gates of Hell had finally triumphed over the Church, this rendering our salvation immaterial?


    1. Well, we know the last thing cannot happen. It is as simple as that. However we must recognise that the Church is not promised unbroken prosperity. Indeed she is promised trials.

      Furthermore, part of Christs’s commission to Peter is that he will not let Peter err on anything necessary for salvation. I hold to the idea that Christ is more supportive than that of his Vicar, and gives him positive helps to say and do what must be said and done in the realm of faith and morals, and even beyond. But a pope remains a man with free will, fallible in areas not touching his solemn magisterium, and can cause other sorts of damage to the Church. History reveals a number of such popes. But none of them ventured a heresy such as you posit as an example.

      I guess I am trying to say that I do not believe that a pope can ever openly teach grave heresy, ie on matters essential to salvation. This is where faith is important. I have faith Christ would not let that happen. However, it is possible that a pope could so all sorts of other damage, as in fact has happened historically. So we pray for our popes and interpret everything they say through the prism of tradition, previous popes and councils. There is never any need to leave the Church. No matter how great the danger might appear within her walls, the dangers without are greater, and real.



      1. Although Pope Honorius I did not solemnly define heresey, he supported is and was anathematised in 680 by the 3rd Council of Constantinople.


      2. Pope Honorius I is a very interesting example, and embodies much of the debate about papal prerogatives, infallibility and their limits. Honorius died in communion with the Church, was never anathematized in his lifetime, nor excommunicated. He clearly supported what became a formal heresy, but that heresy was only finally and definitively put to bed decades after the death of Honorius. In his lifetime there was a vigorous debate underway. He chose what came to be the wrong side. He was opposed in his day by sincere and holy men who sought only truth and intended no disrespect to his papal office.

        He was always pope, never deposed, and his goodwill should not be automatically questioned. In his defence as pope, it can be allowed that he never taught Monotheletism ex cathedra, which is to say he never put the solemn authority behind the heresy. Thus we can count him happily as a pope who never misapplied papal infallibility.

        As so often in those heady days of internecine rivalry among the churches, the condemnations of Honorius are coloured somewhat by ecclesial politics. Which is to say, the east took the chance offered to damage the claims of Rome.

        But the upshot is clear: a pope can be wrong on matters not yet solemnly defined, and may be opposed with due respect by those who cling to the orthodox line, relying on the Holy Spirit acting through that imperfect vessel, the Church, to put things right in His good time.



  4. A different world

    I am a renegade, a refugee from the Catholic Church for more than 45 years. I have been drawn back into a rediscovery of the old Faith and what do I find, different world. As kid I new of the Roman rite mass there was no Novus ordo! A wimpy church that does not evangelizes any more but rather it is need deep in ecumentalism. It begs the question, why bother? It is hard work to be a good Catholic. I could read a good book on Sunday read the bible and I am good! Right? A place where dogma and infallibility have been replace with that very masonic like concepts of indifferentism and humanism. I downloaded Vatican II documents and I was even more horrified. I recognized the M.O. of the Left . In the U.S. they like to give nice sounding name to these people, “liberals” yea, whatever. Of course, not being an expert in canon law or ecclesiastical I quickly found my self drowning in a sea of ambiguity. I reached out for help to a group I thought were like me as their name suggested and got chastised for my comments.

    I don’t mind telling you I tremble and even have nightmares about this new world that I woke up to. The name Rip Van Winkle comes to mind. Yet I feel that I want to come back to my Faith much like a fireman runs to a burning building. Am I nuts? Should I increase my medication? Our Holy Father is also a little bizarre and worrisome to me he say things I do not agree with but I want to give him the benefit of doubt. It is difficult to be a Catholic today. I hope they don’t start feeding us to the lions!


    1. Hello!

      Well, the lions may be making a return, and in many countries their equivalents have already. In the west the lions will be more metaphorical but distressing nonetheless.

      There is quite a debate about Vatican II recently, not least about the ambiguities in its documents. Many of those involved in their composition are now revealed as admitting the ambiguities were deliberate. There is no formal error, of course, but there are some very disturbing uncertainties. Please remember that the council was pastoral not doctrinal/dogmatic, and that by its own admission and by Pope John’s explicit intention. Keep what is in it that helps you; leave alone what does not. And remember that Vatican I and Trent were doctrinal councils, and their teachings still stand.

      God allows his Church to go through turbulent times, if only that we might have the opportunity to prove our faith and our perseverance. It is difficult to be a Catholic today; the prevailing culture hates us. Give glory to God and remember the Beatitudes! And stick with his Church. There is nowhere else where you can find Christ without fail.

      And pray, my friend.

      Peace upon you.


      1. So how can so many destructive things be done on the strength of such council. It is somewhat a rhetorical question but I would like to hear your opinion. Sometime is difficult to get at the truth. As a dear friend of mine once said, “I rather bob for French-fries”. The truth is difficult but it is also rewarding.

        In your opinion, what can be done with this Novus Ordo heresy?


  5. Much more positive. Thanks, Fr. Hugh. Yes, we’ve got a communications difficulty compounding the already-difficult responsibility of preaching the Gospel in this day and age. And by refining your main point you’re helping us all understand our responsibility.

    It’s easy, and tempting to “go negative” in reporting on someone whose style disagrees with us. But, when it’s the Pope, I do think we must be mindful, as you have been with this most recent post, of covering the “nakedness of Noah.” You’re right, this doesn’t mean we lose the ability to discern. Far from it. It’s precisely our discernment of unintended ill effects that prompts us to provide him that “cover.” But our discernment is motivated by a piety and devotion to a person, however filled with imperfection and whom we defend with all our honor. Fraternally correcting shameful conduct on the part of the Holy Father may be the responsibility of his custodes in the papal household, or others of those with such privileged access. But imputing it and publishing it for the whole world to read smacks more of the works of his enemies.

    Thanks for your positive clarification.

    Dominus conservet eum, vivificet eum, et beatum faciat eum interra, et non tradat eum in animam inimicorum eius.


    1. Hi Andrew.

      Sometimes going negative can be justified. To be negative is not necessarily to be abusive, disrespectful, or the like. It can be an act of homage to the one you see going down a path leading nowhere good. It is not a path the pope ca take. And I am not so sure that everyone in his court is looking out for his best interests; not necessarily from malice but from inability. He holds his papal dignity at a great distance; so he can cope with some well-intended criticism from his most faithful followers. Indeed, when one’s most faithful followers offer critique it can have far more significance and importance that the jibes of one’s avowed enemies. The faithful do not criticize out of hate but out of honesty. He, more than anyone, can take it. Indeed he is the sort who might value it. I think Benedict was far more sensitive to attack that Francis will ever be. And since I was not attacking him, I am confident I have not offended him, however cack-handed my critique might have been.

      As you must know by now, I never cease to pray for him.



  6. Interesting series of posts. I have a more positive view of Pope Francis and the transition from Pope Benedict. The issue, like it has been for 2,000 years, is to effectively preach the Gospel message in the culture that you live in. That has always been challenging and perhaps even more so today in the age of instant communications.

    On doctrine, there is no difference between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis. However, their communication styles are very different styles and in many ways their styles complement each other. Pope Benedict had the theologians penchant for comprehensiveness and precision. This had the advantage of being an outstanding resource for anyone who took the time to read his statements in their entire context. The disadvantage is that most people (and certainly the media) did not read Pope Benedict’s statements in context. Rather, they took selective quotes and misinterpreted them, giving a misleading impression. Examples include Pope Benedict’s comments on Islam as a violent religion and the example of a homosexual prostitute using condoms as a first step towards Christ. As a result, Pope Benedict was described by the media as a gaffe-prone Pope when in reality, it was the media not reading or understanding the entire context of Pope Benedict’s message.

    Pope Francis has a much different background, coming up through the Jesuit order and having a strong history of pastoral approach (although many of my Jesuit friends said he had quite a reputation for strictness). As a result, Pope Francis is more prone to use very direct and simple language and gestures to communicate his meaning. This has the advantage of more easily being translated to intentional soundbites. The disadvantage is that he does not go into the full context of the theology of his statements.

    Both styles are necessary to effectively communicate in today’s world. I hope and pray that Pope Francis will supplement his public statements with strong encyclicals and more comprehensive statements, while maintaining his direct approach.

    W. Ockham


    1. Welcome!

      We are both agreed that we can see two very different styles when comparing this with the previous papacy. Difference, all things being equal, is no bad thing at all. The last 150 years, for example, has seen a succession of good men as pope, all manifestly different in their approach to many issues and situations, all intelligent and prayerful mean. Thanks be to God.

      My only lingering qualm is that this not merely a matter of style; or, from another angle in light of the above, all things are not necessarily equal. When Pope Benedict was misquoted, it was usually the result of some careful manipulation and selective quotation to take him out of context. Pope Francis, in eschewing careful preparation (or so it appears), himself strips away the context and allows misrepresentation of his words to be made much easier. Of course, there may well still be a process of settling in underway, as he learns the ropes and his advisors adapt to his preferences. But they must advise precision. I return to my original point: in a diocesan bishop imprecision is not so great an issue; for a pope it is a serious matter indeed, for he commands the world’s press and his every word and action is scrutinized.

      As a boy, taught by Jesuits, I found them to be very hot on precision in thought, speech and written word. They liked logically constructed arguments, and rated rhetoric highly. They were into the arts of persuasion, not confrontation. This reflects the classic Jesuit approach. Pope Francis, in not adhering to this approach, seems to be a very modern Jesuit indeed. He seems to look more to the Franciscan heritage than to his own Jesuit heritage (though I exclude his Ignatian heritage, which is a more spiritual matter, and he may well maintain an Ignatian spirituality).

      The positive part of his style is the three-point approach. He tends to make three points in a homily or talk, and no more. This means we are able to assimilate his teaching more immediately. Such brevity does require, however, that the points be well made and clearly logical in their progression. When it works it is an effective rhetorical/homiletic style.

      An exciting and imminent prospect is Pope Francis’ first encyclical, on faith, completing the work begun by Benedict. A Franciscan encyclical is the teaching we really need to focus on, and not his daily homilettes, which are not magisterial nor directed at the whole Church.

      Lastly, as a tangential aside, I take on board what you say about the need to adapt to the modern context when spreading the Good News. But the modern media are not always helpful in this by their very nature. We have a generation emerging that avoids longer and developed arguments and prefers gobbets and soundbites. This is fine for some things, but not for teaching the Faith. Because people increasingly have shorter attention spans does not mean we should surrender to this limitation. Rather, the short and sharp soundbite should leave the hearer with a desire to know more, to read and hear more and in greater depth. We must take them beyond the superficial because no theology or spirituality, no truth in fact, can thrive on the superficial level. Our superficial and distracted world must be invited to slow down and go deeper into things. God is to be heard in the gentle breeze rather than the raging tempest. Usually!

      Pax semper.


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