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.