Is the Vatican Editing Pope Francis?

Everyone has that family member or friend who embarrasses them by saying things they shouldn’t in public. The racist joke, the sexist comment, the unsolicited conspiracy theories…the options run the gamut. Sometimes, they might even say something you might agree with in private, but would never say around strangers. Whatever the case, you just wish they’d try silence for a while.

Catholics in 2016 find themselves in the unenviable position of having this same experience with the pope. Our efforts at evangelization are often undermined by the inevitable moment where we have to explain him. I was at the bank recently, dealing with some financial matters for 1P5, when I was asked what we do. When I explained that we are a Catholic publication, the manager got a wry smile on his face and asked, “So…what do you think about this pope?”

I have generally assumed, due to the number of heterodox prelates in high places, that the Vatican is more fully staffed with those who take pride in Francis, rather than those who find his “Off-the-Cuff Papacy” to be a serious challenge. But lately, I’m beginning to wonder.

I’ve already made note of the trend of both the Vatican and Vatican-friendly Catholic news services to mistranslate (in a favorable way) or simply omit things from papal statements that are excessively controversial. In June, we saw the transcript of a papal address edited after the fact to change a highly provocative comment in which the pope said “the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null”; the updated transcript — issued without the standard editorial note of correction — changed this to “a portion of our sacramental marriages are null.” This was, of course, not the first time we’ve seen editorial meddling after the fact. In the above-linked post, I noted:

In fact, I’ve caught this kind of transcript tinkering before, if not on the part of the Vatican itself, then with those agencies most invested in carrying its message. In a plane interview on his return from Greece this past April, Pope Francis responded to the Wall Street Journal’s Francis X. Rocca’s question about whether there are new concrete realities for the divorced and remarried, post-AL. In his response he said, “I can say yes. Period.” At the time we first reported this, there was no English translation of his Italian comments, so we provided our own.

But the Catholic News Agency, America Magazine, and others (including Vatican Radio, if I recall correctly) ran a different translation, one in which the pope said, “I can say yes, many. But it would be an answer that is too small.”

So I went back to my translator and asked for a complete English transcript, which I then sat for hours and painstakingly used to subtitle the video of the presser. I then had that work double-checked, and then I published the video. A video which simply cannot be refuted, because it’s absolutely clear.

Within a few days, the CNA link we provided showing the discrepancy in the translation was instead using a version that matched our own. You will note that no correction was issued, and the transcript was not notated in any way to show that a change had been made.

The bad translation — which mitigated the severity of his comments — just went down the memory hole.

This is Orwellian, it is deceptive, and it is unbecoming of the Vicar of Christ – or his surrogates.

In September, I wrote an essay entitled A Vatican That Can’t Be TrustedIn it, I cited the observations of Professor Roberto de Mattei, who (citing two recent examples) said:

Information, disinformation, truths, half-truths and lies all seem to be jumbled up in the communication strategy of the Holy See. The history of the Church is being written through interviews, improvised discourses, articles on semi-official blogs and media-rumours, leaving the field wide open to all interpretations possible and giving rise to the suspicion that the confusion is deliberate.

This week, it’s happening again.

Yesterday, I told you about Francis’ address to a thousand Lutheran pilgrims to Rome in advanced of the Vatican-involved commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant “Reformation”. The address had its own clear problems, which I parsed out in my post. But the Vatican transcript entirely omitted a Q&A that took place afterward (link goes to a Spanish-language website), which had one particularly striking statement that topped everything else that was said (my translation):

“It is not lawful to convince others of your faith. Proselytism is the most potent venom against the ecumenical journey.” has a few excerpts of the same speech, translated into English. Their translation of the above reads:

“The last thing you must do is ‘to say, to convince’. It’s not right to convince someone of your faith,” he said. “Proselytism is the strongest venom against the path of ecumenism”.

Without an official transcript, it’s impossible to say which of these is closer to what was actually said. But they certainly give us the idea, and either are consistent with his constant admonitions against proselytism.

The error of the statement, however it is translated, should require no explanation. “Doctors of the law” have been raising challenges to the Francis maxim that “proselytism is solemn nonsense” for years. While it is true that the word “proselytism” has taken on a negative context, it can also be understood to mean “to recruit someone to join one’s party, institution, or cause”. (That’s Merriam Webster’s definition, not mine.) “Evangelization” and “proselytism” used to be virtually synonymous. The attempt to set up a false dichotomy between them is troubling.

Actions, of course, speak louder than words, and the testimony of a number of people makes clear that the disdain Francis has for proselytism extends to evangelization as well. I’ve documented several examples of Francis making clear that he does not seek to gain converts to Catholicism. In fact, he has in some cases actively discouraged this (most tragically, in the case of Tony Palmer, the Anglican bishop who wanted to become Catholic but was dissuaded by Cardinal Bergoglio, only to die a few years later in a tragic accident.)

If anyone has any example of him doing something to the contrary — of trying to make converts to the Catholic Faith — I would love to hear it.

So we are left with a flatly controversial statement at an obviously controversial event. Nothing new for Francis. But why was this not reported by the Vatican, since it was done in the light of day? It’s not as though one can hide a thousand Lutherans. Why is there no official transcript or translation?

Sources in Rome have spoken of rumors that the Q&A was intentionally not published by the Vatican for reasons that have not been made clear. If this is the case, has Francis finally pushed even the permissive Vatican apparatus too far? Are they attempting to curtail his speech in the hopes of minimizing the damage? Is this yet another example of the common Italian media mentality — related to me by friends who live there — that the true story is whatever the people telling it want you to hear, and you’re just expected to believe it?

I can’t say I like any of these options, but in the event that this is a sign Francis may no longer be able to operate without any resistance, I’ll take it. As the proverb goes, the longest journey begins with a single step.

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