Reading the Pope Right

A great deal of innocent amusement can be gained from reading what other people have to say about Pope Francis. I am not thinking so much of those who compare and contrast him, for good or ill, with Pope Benedict XVI (they often leave one rather perplexed/irritated on behalf of both men) as those who scrutinize every word and deed and then propound theories of their own regarding his intentions. If only we read scripture as closely as we read the pope! Recent remarks made in a private meeting have grabbed the headlines and there is much speculation online about both ‘the gay lobby’ in the Vatican and the pope’s admission of being ‘disorganized’. The latter has particularly alarmed some, accompanied as it was by his saying that he couldn’t reform the curia himself. Does this mean the pope doesn’t know he’s pope? Of course not.

One of the points I and many others mentioned at the beginning of his pontificate is that Pope Francis is a Jesuit, and his Jesuit experience informs much of what he says and does. The eight cardinals who are advising him on curial reform are very like the advisers that a Jesuit superior, or indeed any sensible religious superior, will gather round him when he needs to address a problem or difficulty. The superior makes the decision and takes responsibility for it, but only after he has heard from his advisers. When the pope says he can’t reform the curia himself, he is doing no more than acknowledging that he is seeking advice before he makes any decisions; but there will always be those who take him literally, and read deep and potentially erroneous meanings into the lightest remarks — especially when read in translation.

This particular little misreading of the pope has highlighted something that modern people find more and more difficult: distinguishing between the person and the office. As a person, Pope Francis is as limited and prone to mistakes as any of us (except that he may be rather holier than most) and it would be strange indeed if he did not admit his limitations. That does not affect his powers as pope. His understanding of finance, for example, may be patchy; but no one questions, or at least, I hope no one questions, his power to appoint the officials who will deal with such matters as the Vatican finances. Unfortunately, we tend to use words imprecisely even when the Church gives very precise meanings to them, and some of the debate about Pope Francis has called in question his understanding of papal infallibility. I would suggest that the problem lies rather with those who question his understanding. Francis’ fallibility as an individual in no way affects his infallibility as pope (and as many readers of this blog are not familiar with Catholic doctrine on the subject, let me just say that the conditions for infallible pronouncements are so strict that only one dogmatic pronouncement since 1871 has come under that designation).

In short, we may think what we like about what the pope says or does. It may please us or infuriate us; but those of us who are Catholics ought, at least, to acknowledge that the pope does know what it means to be pope and is doing his best to serve the Church. We pray for him; we give him our loyalty and obedience; and if we are inclined to take our opinion of him from what we read, we might make a firm resolution henceforth to read what he says himself rather than what others say about him — including, alas, me.


8 thoughts on “Reading the Pope Right”

  1. Dear Digitalnun,

    We began an exchange on Twitter for which 140 characters seems ill-suited. I hope you do not mind a follow on comment here.

    I suggested that your one-liner in this post about the fact we (as a society) pay more attention to interpreting the pope than we do to scripture may be down to our motivation. If we are just after something newsworthy, why would we bother with scripture? If we are after genuine personal spiritual growth, we will adopt a much more balanced approach.

    On reflection, this probably has more to do with the rest of your article than came across on Twitter. If our search is for spiritual growth, then when we “read” the pope, we will be listening for the voice of the one he serves through his words. We will be looking for the wisdom of the God he has devoted his life to in his actions. We will be testing our interpretation of him through our understanding of the scriptures.

    If we are quick to judge; to take out of context; to misinterpret; to confuse the man who is a servant of God with the ecclesial office, then this might be a warning bell for us about our own motivations more than a reflection on him.

    The challenges that spill out of this are many: the question on whether are motivated by newsworthiness or spiritual growth should be one that we who call ourselves disciples test ourselves against; not a finger we point out the world.

    But also there is the challenge that, if we seek to hear and see God through the pope’s words and actions, others should legitimately seek to do the same through our words and actions. A tough standard to live up to.

    I hope you don’t mind me sharing something of the challenges I believe God has spoken to me through your words. Thank you, as always for your wisdom.

    God’s Toddler

    • On the contrary, I am always grateful when people comment on the blog itself as one is able to say more than on Twitter and, hopefully, with fewer possibilities of misunderstanding. You have taken up EXACTLY the argument I was making (or trying to make) although you have taken it further with your reflection on motivation. We are all challenged by your words. Thank you.

  2. I for one, thank God for Pope Francis and while I don’t hang on to his every word, what I have heard and read about him and seen demonstrates he was the right person to be Pope right now.

    If people want to over analyse his words, seeking hidden meanings, than surely they need to just watch his actions. He is transparent and honest which seems to show through in all that he does.

    His honesty and frankness is appealing and shows a church not on the defensive, but trying to listen and to be Jesus’ body here on earth.

  3. I find Pope Francis a breath of fresh air. He also seems to follow the Gospel more than his two predecessors. Still, he remains on the same track on many topics.
    Pope Francis ia giving hope to a lot of us who had given up hoping, and for this I am infinitely grateful.
    If he was elected against so many odds, I expect the Spirit will give him the power to do what needs to be done.

  4. ”…the conditions for infallible pronouncements are so strict that only one dogmatic pronouncement since 1871 has come under that designation…”

    if memory serves, actually two expressed infallible decrees – one dogmatic by Pius XII re the Assumption and one on Sacerdotal Orders by JPII but that’s all.

    • You will remember the discussion of ordinary and extraordinary magisterium which followed the promulgation of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, so I think my statement stands when considering papal pronouncements in the strictest sense, though I get the point you are making. The content of O.S. was reaffirmed as the infallible teaching of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI even though not declared ex cathedra.

  5. I like Pope Francis. He’s seems a godly man. With anyone in the public eye I think a good strategy might be to remember the tag ‘more haste, less speed’. The more quickly we jump to judgement the less likely we are to speed onwards to the truth!

  6. Great news today! Pope Francis has decreed that St. Joseph is to be included in Eucharistic Prayers II, III, IV.
    I wonder what those who seek hidden meaning in everything he does and says will make of this? I do not read tabloid news, am not interested in what the wealthy and notorious are up to. I have my own life to manage and thank God for providing us with a holy man in Pope Francis.

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