Opting out of the game

“Did Francis really say…?” is becoming a game as annoying as it is mandatory, and the main source of grist for that mill is his troubling habit of giving “fervorini.” A fervorino is a short, often “off-the-cuff” homily; for obvious reasons it is appealing to parish priests who celebrate daily Masses cum populo, and, for scarcely less obvious reasons, it is inappropriate for bishops at Missae cum populo:

For bishops are preachers of the faith, who lead new disciples to Christ, and they are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice, and by the light of the Holy Spirit illustrate that faith. They bring forth from the treasury of Revelation new things and old, making it bear fruit and vigilantly warding off any errors that threaten their flock. Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. 1

Under the heading “the bishop, authentic teacher in the Church,” the Congregation for Bishops proposes that “the homily is the most excellent and, in a certain sense, the sum of all forms of preaching. The Bishop should seek to expound Catholic truth in its fullness, in simple, familiar language, suited to the capacities of his hearers, focusing—unless particular pastoral reasons suggest otherwise—on the texts of the day’s liturgy. He should plan his homilies so as to elucidate the whole of Catholic truth.” 2 The bishops are “the authentic witnesses” in their dioceses and the bishop, by vitue of his consecration and appointment, “ha[s] been designated as principal preacher” in that diocese “and when the community is divided, [his] testimony about the truth is the final and authentic one—through the invisible and gracious assistance of the Spirit. 3 A man in such a position who is cavalier with words is juggling with dynamite. 4 Brief, unplanned remarks engender the risk of misstatement and misunderstanding; a string of improvised homilies will all-but inevitably contain some lapse of the tongue that gives rise to misunderstanding.

This problem is yet more acute when the bishop in question is the pope, and when the fervorino will be partially (but not fully) reported. Thus, for example, Francis may (or may not) have tipped his hand on Medjugorje. He may (or may not) have implied that saints don’t sin. He may (or may not) have said something about salvation for atheists. He may (or may not) have said something about Christianity and ideology. And so on, ad nauseum.

In today’s exciting installment, we learn that Francis may (or may not) have said something about “adolescent progressivism.” What did he say? What did he mean? In English, an adjective qualifies rather than expands the meaning of the noun that it modifies—thus, the pope would be read to warn against the dangers only of that “progressivism” that is “adolescent,” which is not at all the same thing as warning against progressivism generally. Did he actually mean to use “adolescent” as a kind of intensifier, in the way one might refer to “the bloody English” or “the damned Broncos”? Does any of this work the same way in Italian? This is an invitation to high-wire guesswork.

What is maddening and scandalizing about these fervorini is not simply that they are given, but that they are partially-reported: Francis obliges publication of snippets by Vatican Radio (and thence to the world), but will not allow publication of transcripts. 5 They say that a lie gets twice around the world before the truth has tied its shoelaces, and that is especially so when the truth is not permitted shoes! First, a quote gets picked up and spun by the media, and thence by progressive bloggers, and worms its way into the heads of ordinary Catholics. (This is called “scandal” in the technical sense.) And then that spin cannot be rebutted persuasively when only  fragments of his words are reported, rather than the whole context. We cannot reply to, say, the Huffington Post and say “no no, you completely misunderstood the context of Francis’ remark; here, let me show you the transcript,” because there is no transcript. All we can do is shrug and say “no, no, the pope couldn’t have meant that, and I’m sure that if we could see the transcript you’d understand.”

Nor can we respond (as has been suggested) by “counter-cherrypicking.” The left may cherrypick quotes that they like without concern for context, but if we do the same, we are not only making the same error that they are, we are also (and far worse) conceding that using out-of-context quotes is a valid play. We validate their tactic. Instead of rejecting the game itself, we’re now playing their game on their playing field, and they have a much bigger team, they control the cameras, and they control the networks broadcasting the game; this will end badly.

With the foregoing concerns in mind, I refuse to play this infernal game of Chinese Whispers for a moment longer. It has become intellectually irresponsible to risk inferring anything from what Francis might or might not have actually said in these foolish fervorini. He throws out half-reported, half-formed ideas as old men throw breadcrumbs to ducks, and to much the same effect: An undignified squabble among the ducks to grab a piece. Quack quack! Look! He sent a message to the Summorum pontificum group! He must be ours! Quack quack! Look! He said something nice about gays! He must be ours! Quack quack! Look! He did an interview with an atheist! He must be one of ours! Every conceivable group within and beyond the Church falls over itself to say “see, he’s on our side,” and with our eyes fixed firmly on the pond, we miss the larger problem that we are quacking around over crumbs while ignoring what matters more, which is the impact that these little soundbites have in the minds of ordinary Catholics: Scandal, confusion, balkanization, and division.

We should not dignify this foolish papal behavior with the controversy that he seems to desire. It seems to me that we need to insist on a clear statement rule with this pope—he must speak clearly, or we will hold that he has not spoken, and we will engage only on those points that are clear and for which a full transcript is available. We must reject the entire enterprise as scandalous, arguably-dangerous, borderline-infernal, and certainly beneath the dignity of the office. We cannot afford to play this game any longer, because the only points that it is scoring are for the Enemy.

Notes:

  1. Lumen gentium, no. 25 (2d Vat. Co., 1964) (footnotes omitted).
  2. Dir. Apostolorum successores, no. 122(a) (Cong. Ep., 2004),
  3. Ladislas Orsy, SJ, The Church Learning and Teaching 70 (1987); accord Ap. ex. Pastores gregis, nos. 28 et seq. (JP2, 1994).
  4. Words matter. Loose language is a problem even when it isn’t technically wrong; that is why the church issues theological censures of not only texts that are captiosa (“captious,” acceptable words expressing unacceptable ideas), but texts that are male sonans (“evil-sounding,” unacceptable words expressing acceptable ideas), ambigua (ambiguous between two or more senses, of which at least one is erroneous), and piarum aurium offensiva (“offensive to pious ears,” worded in a way that shocks the conscience). It is in this context that we can approvingly quote comments by Steve Skojec, reported by the Times: “Are [Francis’ comments] explicitly heretical? No. Are they dangerously close? Absolutely. What kind of a Christian tells an atheist he has no intention to convert him? That alone should disturb Catholics everywhere.”
  5. See, for example, the Jimmy Akin piece cited above: “Francis often speaks in an off-the-cuff manner which is sometimes imprecise. He knows this, and my understanding is that part of the reason that he didn’t want full texts of the fervorinos released is that he’s speaking informally in a language that is not his native Spanish.” The implication, once again, is “heart in gear, brain in neutral”; if one is concerned that one’s imprecise speech may scandalize, there are three plausible responses: Speak only when necessary, allow none of it to be reported, or require transcripts and state clearly that fervorini are not magisterial.