Holy Signals

The Pope's Mixed Messages

Is the pope sending mixed messages, or are we just hearing what we want to hear?

02.15.15 11:45 AM ET

VATICAN CITY—So which is it? Are Catholics supposed to heed Pope Francis’s advice not to “breed like rabbits” or are they to follow his missive, “The choice not to have children is selfish.” And is it OK to be gay, as the world thought he meant when he said, “If a person seeks God and has goodwill, then who am I to judge?” Or is it still wrong in the eyes of the Catholic Church, as he implied on a recent trip to the Philippines when he said, “The family is threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage, by relativism, by the culture of the ephemeral, by a lack of openness to life.” And we won’t even mention the pope’s widely-reported punch the other cheek or the assumed endorsement of spanking on the eve of the Vatican’s child abuse commission meeting. 

The pope seems to be all over the page lately, contradicting himself at every turn as each headline writer regurgitates his quotes, altering them slightly like a global game of Telephone or Chinese Whispers, where the message gets more garbled each time it is repeated. Part of the problem is the fact that in two years at the helm of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis has opened the floodgates of communication in an institution that has been effectively cloistered for centuries.

While it is no exaggeration that a pope has never been so widely quoted by the secular press, it could also be said that a pope’s intentions have never been so widely misinterpreted. While it may seem like the pope is sending mixed signals, the truth may be that most of the press and non-Catholics are just projecting their own wishes and values on him. “The pope’s communication style is not formal, it is not super controlled and it is not super thought out,” Vatican expert John Thavis and author of The Vatican Diaries told The Daily Beast. “He shoots from the hip, which makes him marvelously spontaneous, but open to misreading.”

And because of the pope’s popularity, almost everyone wants to hitch a ride on his popular bandwagon. The problem, of course, is that because the pope is still very Catholic, much of what he says in terms of acceptance and transparency can’t yet be traced back to tactile changes in the organization he leads. Nor will it likely ever be.

The most obvious example is the pope’s gay moment, shortly after he was elected, when what the pope really said, in response to a question specifically about a priest, was that if the man was holy, how could he judge him. What the world heard, though, was something entirely different, so much so that the pope ended up on the cover of Advocate magazine as a supporter of gay rights. Which, for the record, he really isn’t—at least in any official capacity. 

Then, when the pope went all Catholic again and stuck by the church teachings on same-sex marriage, he was criticized for changing his stance. The reality is, the closest the pope has ever come to supporting gay marriage was in an interview with Italy’s Corriere Della Sera newspaper, in which he said, “We must consider different cases and evaluate each particular case.” That is not exactly the same as hanging a gay pride flag from the obelisk in St. Peter’s Square.

To be sure, this pope’s stark difference in style from his predecessors is part of the problem when it comes to channeling him. Because he doesn’t talk like the last pope, many assume he doesn’t think like him, either. “Pope Benedict always sounded like he was taking dictation from God, everything was so perfectly catalogued in his mind,” Thavis told The Daily Beast. “Which is why with Francis you get things like the punch, who am I to judge, the rabbits… some of it is Catholics on the right and left—and even people in general on the right or left—doing a little bit of manipulation of his words.”

All of this, of course, is a herculean challenge for what used to be the Vatican’s well-oiled public relations machine. Thavis says that because Francis’s style is to communicate directly with the people, his speeches and homilies don’t go through the normal pope-editing channels of the Roman Curia, which governs the church. “His talks are not scripted, his interviews are not scripted,” Thavis says. “For the first time you have Roman Curia officials running down to the newsstand to buy the paper to see what the pope says, and they do this with some sense of alarm because they have lost control of it.”

The Vatican press office under the direction of Father Federico Lombardi, a Jesuit like Francis, has not had to spin the Pope’s words so much as scold the press to actually listen to what he’s saying. In a statement after the pope was widely quoted saying he would “punch” a friend in the face if he insulted his mother and kick a few bad guys “where the sun doesn’t shine” for trying to corrupt him in Argentina, the Vatican press office’s Father Thomas Rosica said, “The Pope’s free style of speech, especially in situations like the press conference, must be taken at face value and not distorted or manipulated.”

Essentially, that advice translates, quite simply, to stop putting words in the pope’s mouth. “Whenever a pope does make a subtle statement that significantly alters or modifies the Church’s approach it is hard for journalists to find the balance,” says Thavis, who has covered the last three popes. “Some of it is also calculated, some of it is Catholics trying to see in the new pope their own deeply held beliefs; they want the pope to be in sync with them.”  

In many ways, it’s hard to believe Francis has only been pope for two years, elected March 13, 2013. But already his legacy could have a major impact on who the Church’s hierarchy chooses to eventually replace him. On one hand, Francis has been stacking the deck, inducting 20 like-minded cardinals this weekend from such far reaches as Cape Verde, New Zealand, Panama, Tonga, and Thailand who will be part of the College of Cardinals who eventually vote for his successor. 

But it will remain to be seen whether the Church appreciates the “Francis effect” as much as the rest of the world does. “By now the world is pretty much enamored by what the pope is saying,” says Thavis. “But the Roman Curia is not enamored with his communication style at all, so whenever a new pope is elected, they might say, ‘Let’s get back to a pope who speaks like us.’”

But it’s hard to imagine that if the Vatican ever returned to its cloistered communication style, anyone would still be listening. Misinterpretations aside, there is no question this pope has at least got people’s attention.