There’s something of a joke among alert Vatican watchers. Whenever Pope Francis says something that is overtly, unquestionably orthodox, it means that something far more troubling will come out of his mouth just days — possibly even hours — later. If you know what to look for, you’ll begin to notice that this pattern is remarkably consistent. My own theory is that these calculated glimpses of papal orthodoxy lay down a sort of intellectual suppressing fire against faithful Catholics, offering them a reason to trust him again right as he’s preparing to launch another assault.
The most recent example came on January 28th, when the National Catholic Register published a piece with the headline, “Pope Francis Disappoints ‘Progressives’ Once Again.” The report detailed a speech given by Francis to the Roman Rota that, according to writer Glenn Stanton, “has once again put a substantial dent in the hopes of ‘progressives’ that the Church will finally join the modern age on sexuality and the family.”
This was the narrative in the mind of faithful Catholics when, within two weeks, Francis traveled to Mexico, stirring up controversy with his comments about the unchristian character of those who want to build border walls and insinuating that Catholics could use artificial birth control to stop the transmission of the Zika virus. Days later, confused (and conflicted, because of the Rota speech) Catholics were stunned to hear from Vatican spokesman Father Frederico Lombardi that yes, the pope was saying that contraceptives could be an object of discernment in “emergency” cases. Not wasting time, a few days later Francis moved on to a new controversial issue, calling for international leaders to abolish the death penalty:
“The commandment ‘Thou shall not kill’ has absolute value and concerns both the innocent and the guilty,” he said. Even criminals “maintain the inviolable right to life, the gift of God.”
This is not only in direct contravention to the Church’s established teaching about the justice of the death penalty, but seems incongruous with Francis’ most recent public praise for Emma Bonino, a radical politician and former abortionist who claims to have performed as many as 10,000 abortions in a single year. (When asked about this incongruity by a journalist, the pope is reported to have responded, “Whatever, one has to look at the persons, at what they do.”) But even in this latter case, hadn’t the pope just called abortion a “crime”?
Which Francis, many wonder, is to be believed?
At the Catholic Herald (UK), a clearly frustrated Father Alexander Lucie-Smith noted that the Vatican is in the midst of a communications “shake-up”, which is reported to include the departure of the always evasive Father Lombardi from his long-held position. While Father Lucie-Smith seems delighted with the pope’s comments on capital punishment, he was significantly less pleased with the general way in which papal statements are presented to the world, and the effect that they have. Father Lucie-Smith lamented:
Looking around the internet, and reading much of the commentary generated by the in-flight press conference, I was struck by the overwhelmingly negative reaction from Catholics. As for the non-Catholics, their reaction was what one would expect. Take this headline, for example: “If condoms are OK for Zika, why not for AIDS, Pope Francis?” That is a good question, and one not to be dismissed out of hand. But the truth is that it would never have been raised but for that in-flight press conference.
If the Vatican is to develop a coherent communication strategy, and it certainly needs to, then it is going to have to do something about the way stories emerge from the Vatican, because once these stories are out there, they are effectively beyond the Vatican’s control, despite all the efforts of Fr Lombardi to the contrary. This is why in recent days the talk has all been about Zika, condoms and nuns in the Congo, and not about the things that the Vatican and the rest of us would really like to see discussed, such as the inhumanity of the death penalty.
The truth is, as Amy Welborn has observed, we do not really need a Pope who shares with us his every opinion about everything. The Pope has Vatican dicasteries working for him, and he has bishops around the world in communion with him, and it is to these people that much of the task of dealing with matters such as Donald Trump’s Mexican wall and the Zika virus must fall: and it is better that way. The overcentralisation of discourse – the idea that only one voice counts and that is the Pope’s – is a recipe for disaster. And if you don’t believe me, ask yourself this: just what good came out of the last Papal in-flight press conference?
The problem in Father’s analysis is that it begs the question. It assumes that these controversies that arise from the pope’s statements are somehow an accident. That the Vatican is advancing a heterodox narrative through bumbling, rather than a concerted agenda that actually seeks — Hagan lio style — to lose control of the stories out in the wild for maximum impact.
You may recall, when I first shared my thoughts on the Holy Father’s Zika comments, that I said,
Papal apologists are going to parse these words for their life. They’re going to say, “The pope said ‘avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil.’ That’s correct. It isn’t.” They’re going to focus on his comments calling abortion a “crime,” which will serve as a distraction, since it’s the strongest statement he’s ever made on that issue. In fact, it’s so strong, it easily distracts from the more subtle bombshell he drops in the same answer.
Like the release of some obviously orthodox statement before a torrent of heterodox words, this technique of highlighting an egregious evil to make the lesser evil that comes after it seem less problematic by way of contrast is, I believe, completely intentional.
At the Register, Ed Pentin has taken note of this same pattern in recent Vatican communications:
The controversy over the exceptional case of administering contraceptives to religious sisters at grave risk of rape in the Congo civil war of the 1960s points to a pattern in this pontificate of introducing new or exceptional pastoral approaches that give primacy to conscience, while at the same time purporting to affirm Church doctrine.
It’s an approach that could be used to promote new pastoral practices in the Holy Father’s eagerly anticipated post-synodal apostolic exhortation, expected before Easter.
On the plane back from Mexico last week, Pope Francis underscored that abortion is “a crime, an absolute evil” but went on to explain that the “lesser evil” — avoiding pregnancy — “is not an absolute evil.”
He then proceeded to refer to how “Paul VI — the great! — in a difficult situation, in Africa, allowed the nuns to use contraception for cases of violence.”
Questions surrounding the official nature of the case aside, the approach the Pope and Father Lombardi took towards this issue points to a pattern of floating controversial pastoral innovations, which critics say conflict with Church teaching, by firmly underscoring an element of doctrine and then presenting exceptional cases that underline the primacy of conscience.
In this most recent case, the evil of abortion was stressed first, then followed by the “lesser evil” of avoiding pregnancy, which Father Lombardi would later confirm involved contraceptive use, before saying it should be left to “discernment of conscience” in cases of “particular emergency and gravity.”
Other examples of this approach include the Pope’s comments to Lutherans in Rome last year. The Pope emphasized there is only “one faith, one baptism, one Lord”, before telling a Lutheran woman married to a Catholic that intercommunion “is a problem to which each person must respond” and that she should “speak with the Lord and go forward.”
A similar pattern was seen in the final report of last year’s Synod on the Family: Pope John Paul II’s firm teaching on denying Holy Communion to civilly remarried divorcees was reasserted (though some crucial passages were omitted), before it went on to stress the importance of the “internal forum” — in other words, the formation of conscience with a priest — to come to a “correct judgment on what hinders the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of Church.” Some critics, most notably Cardinal Raymond Burke, said the relevant paragraphs lacked clarity. Others, including Cardinal Walter Kasper, said the document “opened the door” to Communion for the divorced and remarried.
Stressing the importance of doctrine and affirming that it won’t be changed was a popular refrain among the synod organizers, but so, too, was an emphasis on conscience which became the most contentious issue in the draft final document of the meeting. Archbishop Blaise Cupich of Chicago was one of the most prominent of the synod fathers to emphasize the primacy of conscience for the divorced and remarried and for homosexuals during the synod. This is in spite of past popes arguing that conscience should not be the only, or even the most important, category for moral doctrine.
Catholics trying to make sense of the present pontificate by trying to make it fit within the paradigm of orthodoxy are being openly and cruelly manipulated. Francis and his advisors have not staged an obvious coup at the Vatican. They’re waging a disinformation campaign, using the tactics of subversion, not overt and total change. They’re working almost entirely within the confines of the existing doctrinal framework, while carrying out a slavishly-adhered to communications strategy that seeks to undermine and cast doubt on that same Church teaching wherever possible through easily-dismissable non-authoritative statements and actions.
This is why people who say that the pope’s comments on a plane can simply be ignored are demonstrating extremely poor judgment. By placing excessive emphasis on the non-authoritative character of informal statements, they’re underestimating the damage that such things do to existing formal teaching.
If Father Lombardi is leaving his post, perhaps it’s because after years of non-denials phrased as denials, he has about as much credibility as Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, the former Iraqi Information Minister under Saddam Hussein. “Baghdad Bob,” as the American media liked to call him, was made famous for his comically absurd public statements denying that Iraq was losing the war to the Americans while overwhelming evidence to the contrary mounted. Like Leslie Nielsen in Naked Gun telling passers by staring slack-jawed at the explosions behind him that “there’s nothing to see here,” Lombardi has long since ceased to be taken seriously by any but the most credulous among the faithful.
But we mustn’t expect a significant change in tactic, even when he’s gone. If anything, he will be replaced by someone more skillful, less scrupulous in the deployment of mental reservation, and far more comfortable with overt deception. Whoever that is, Pentin offers us the exact blueprint we should be looking out for in all future Vatican communications:
[A]ffirm doctrine, then highlight extraordinary cases or exceptions to the rule, and where possible, appeal to the primacy of conscience.
It’s a strategy that has worked well so far, and it’s not an accident. There is no reason for Francis or his staff to change it.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.