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What Do You Do With a Pope Who Speaks His Mind?

Pope Francis has outraged Turkey by calling the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians a genocide. He’s not about to apologize any time soon—and neither will the Vatican.

04.13.15 3:29 PM ET

VATICAN CITY—The first time Pope Francis dropped the g-word when describing the systematic massacre of as many as 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of the Turkish Ottoman Empire during World War I was on June 3, 2013, just a few months into his papacy in an address to Nerses Bedros XIX, head of the Armenian Catholics in Vatican City. “The first genocide of the 20th century was that of the Armenians,” he told those gathered for a special Mass.  

Then, the Vatican public-relations team swung into action, softening the pontiff’s perceived intent.  Turkish officials called the comment a disappointment, but largely brushed it off as a rookie mistake for a new pope who was not yet versed in Vatican-style political diplomacy. 

When he repeated the claim on Sunday in front of hundreds at a Mass inside St. Peter’s Basilica dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the tragic events, the reaction was different.  Turkey immediately summoned the Vatican’s ambassador in Turkey for crisis talks, and by nightfall had called its ambassador to the Holy See back to Ankara. In recalling their ambassador, the Turkish foreign minister said in a statement that the Turkish people would not recognize the pope’s statement, “which is controversial in every aspect, which is based on prejudice, which distorts history, and reduces the pains suffered in Anatolia under the conditions of the First World War to members of just one religion.”

Meanwhile, the Vatican press machine didn’t blink—offering no explanations or apologies for the pope’s choice of words, even as the reverberations were felt all the way to Washington and beyond.  The Vatican press office instead sent out the text for similar sentiments expressed by John Paul II in 2001. “We’ve learned by now that this pope is not politically correct,” Vatican expert Robert Mickens, editor in chief of the Catholic magazine Global Pulse told The Daily Beast. “No doubt the secretary of state cautioned him about using the g-word, but this is proof once again that the pope does what he wants to do.”

When he was a cardinal in Buenos Aires, the man who would become Pope Francis began his crusade toward global recognition of the Armenian massacre as a true genocide. In 2006, at an event marking the 91st anniversary of the killings in front of Argentina’s substantial Armenian Catholic community, he urged Turkey to recognize the past events as a genocide, calling it the “gravest crime of Ottoman Turkey against the Armenian people and the entire humanity.”

Pope John Paul II, on a trip to Armenia in 2001, expressed similar feelings in a joint communiqué with his host country. “The Armenian genocide, which began the century, was a prologue to horrors that would follow,” John Paul II wrote in the communiqué. “Two world wars, countless regional conflicts, and deliberately organized campaigns of extermination took the lives of millions of faithful.”

Last fall on a trip to Turkey, Francis applauded President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for offering condolences for the World War I killings, which led many to believe that all had been forgiven. After Sunday’s comments, Turkish Prime Minster Ahmet Davutoglu, by immediately calling his ambassador home from Rome, signaled an abrupt end to the diplomatic relationship between Turkey and the Holy See. “To read these sorrows in a one-sided way is inappropriate for the pope and the authority that he holds,” Davutoglu said on Turkish television, according to press reports.  “We’d expect the religious leaders to call for peace. Opening archives for those whose hearts are sealed serves no purpose. I hope the pope stands behind his opinions he expressed when he came to Turkey and revises his recent attitude.”

On Monday morning, Francis made it clear that he had no intention of apologizing. In the homily in his daily Mass at Casa Santa Marta, where he lives, which is largely seen in Rome as the moment that sets the Vatican press pack’s agenda for the day, he instead said the church is a place of openness where people should speak frankly. “We cannot keep silent [about] what we have seen and heard,” he said, according to Vatican Radio “And  today too, the church’s message is the message of the path of openness, the path of Christian courage … a word that can be translated as ‘courage,’ ‘straightforwardness,’ ‘freedom to speak,’ ‘not being afraid to say things’… It’s a word that has many meanings, in its original form. Parrésia, that frankness… and their fear gave way to ‘openness,’ to saying things with freedom.”

Turkish officials didn’t see it the same way.  On Monday morning, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told reporters his government was considering action after the pope’s words. “The steps that will be taken [against the Vatican] will be made public following our consultations,” he said.

Mickens says the pope knew exactly what he was doing in making his comments, and while it may damage him diplomatically, such strong words will win him favor with his closest constituents—the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. “You have to remember that he is not a statesman in the way popes in the past were,” Mickens says. “He is sine glossa [without gloss]. He’s just himself and people love that authenticity. As far as his press people, they have just come to the realization that there isn’t a whole lot you can do with this one except let him speak.”