Pope Francis against the Fantasy Francis

In an interview with Feruccio de Bortoli published in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera (4 March 2014), Pope Francis takes stock of his first year on the Throne of Peter. There is no full English translation of this interview yet, so, as usual, my English rendering will follow the original Italian text. Fielding questions ranging from his style of governance to his rapport with Benedict XVI to the reform of the Curia, the Pope offers a broad insight into his thoughts on matters great and small affecting the Church and the world. Though not intended as an explicit denunciation of it, this interview seems to strongly oppose the populist image surrounding his public persona. Who better to dispel the myth of the Fantasy Francis than Pope Francis himself?

In one of the more publicized manifestations of the Fantasy Francis mindset, Roman street artist Mauro Pallota painted an image of “SuperFrancis” on a building in Rome, depicting the Pontiff as a superhero in the model of American comic books, seen in the photo above. One of Francis answers in Corriere’s Q&A seems to directly address this image in particular. A few months ago, when Bishop Krajewski, the Papal Almoner, said, “When I tell the Pope that I’m going to the streets to help the poor, there is always the risk that he will want to go out with me” (Se dico al Papa che stasera esco per strada ad aiutare i poveri c’è sempre il rischio che voglia uscire con me), it caused a stir of speculation in English-language media about the Pope actually sneaking around Rome at night handing out alms. Of course, this is almost impossible without anybody spilling the beans, and the Pope also addresses that rumor in this interview.

de Bortoli: Ma è stato compreso questo messaggio [di tenerezza e misericordia]? Lei ha detto che la francescomania non durerà a lungo. C’è qualcosa nella sua immagine pubblica che non le piace?

Francesco: Mi piace stare tra la gente, insieme a chi soffre, andare nelle parrocchie. Non mi piacciono le interpretazioni ideologiche, una certa mitologia di papa Francesco. Quando si dice per esempio che esce di notte dal Vaticano per andare a dar da mangiare ai barboni in via Ottaviano. Non mi è mai venuto in mente. Sigmund Freud diceva, se non sbaglio, che in ogni idealizzazione c’è un’aggressione. Dipingere il Papa come una sorta di superman, una specie di star, mi pare offensivo. Il Papa è un uomo che ride, piange, dorme tranquillo e ha amici come tutti. Una persona normale.

Q: But has this message [of tenderness and mercy] been well understood? You said that ‘Francis-mania’ will not last long. Is there something in your public image that you don’t like?

A: I like being with people, to be with those who suffer, to go into the parishes. I don’t like the ideological interpretations, a certain ‘mythology of Pope Francis’. When they say, for example, that he goes out of the Vatican at night to give food to the homeless in Via Ottaviano– it has never come to my mind. Sigmund Freud said, if I’m not mistaken, that in every idealization there is an aggression. To depict the Pope as a type of superman, a kind of star, seems offensive to me. The Pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps well, and has friends like everybody else– a normal person.

His words are quite striking, even incisive and biting. Francis clearly takes a cynical view of those who display apotheosistic tendencies when speaking about him, and his quotation of Freud certainly reveals a bit of venom reserved for those who irrationally idolize him. Of what “aggression” does he speak? What is so “offensive” about these fanciful depictions and graffitti portraits?

Simple: those sentiments are not rooted in the truth. Like Mauro Pallota’s now-famous portrait, these sentiments are caricatures of the real Francis: they put words in his mouth, attribute to him deeds never done, and expect from him actions he’ll never take. They are palatable falsehoods served wholesale by those who– whether obtusely or mendaciously– want a Pope on whom they can project their modernist and secularizing aspirations.

Of course, when he affirms the teaching of the Church, the Anglophone mainstream media is slow to translate his Italian remarks; but when an accidental mispronunciation happens, suddenly the whole English-speaking world thinks that he dropped an F-bomb. One of the sections of this same interview which will probably not find its way into mainstream news coverage runs as follows:

de Bortoli: A mezzo secolo dall’Humanae Vitae di Paolo VI, la Chiesa può riprendere il tema del controllo delle nascite? Il cardinale Martini, suo confratello, riteneva che fosse ormai venuto il momento.

Francesco: Tutto dipende da come viene interpretata l’Humanae Vitae. Lo stesso Paolo VI, alla fine, raccomandava ai confessori molta misericordia, attenzione alle situazioni concrete. Ma la sua genialità fu profetica, ebbe il coraggio di schierarsi contro la maggioranza, di difendere la disciplina morale, di esercitare un freno culturale, di opporsi al neo-malthusianesimo presente e futuro. La questione non è quella di cambiare la dottrina, ma di andare in profondità e far sì che la pastorale tenga conto delle situazioni e di ciò che per le persone è possibile fare. Anche di questo si parlerà nel cammino del Sinodo.

Q: A quarter century from Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae [the controversial 1968 encyclical confirming, among other things, Catholic teaching against abortion and contraception], can the Church re-examine the issue of birth control? Cardinal [Carlo Maria] Martini [SJ, former Archbishop of Milan], your fellow Jesuit, thought that the moment had now arrived.

A: It all depends on how Humanae Vitae is interpreted. Paul VI himself, in the end, recommended plenty of mercy and attention to concrete situations on the part of confessors. But his genius proved prophetic; he had the courage to oppose the majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise a cultural pause, to oppose present and future neo-Malthusianism. The question is not of changing doctrine, but to go deeper and to ensure that pastoral practice recognizes these situations, to recognize that which is possible for people to do. This will also be discussed during the Synod.

The Pope is, as many faithful Catholics will recognize, saying nothing new. He praises Paul VI’s courage to defend Church teaching on human life, even against an overwhelming majority. One cannot, on the basis of the Pope’s words (here and in prior speeches and writings), argue that Francis is aiming to change Catholic teaching on abortion and contraception.

Of course, de Bortoli asks Francis about the issue of same-sex marriage and unions. Francis’ answer, while stating nothing different from anything said by Benedict XVI, is somehow being twisted in many Anglophone news sources to say that Catholic doctrine on marriage can change.

de Bortoli: Molti Paesi regolano le unioni civili. È una strada che la Chiesa può comprendere? Ma fino a che punto?

Francesco: Il matrimonio è fra un uomo e una donna. Gli Stati laici vogliono giustificare le unioni civili per regolare diverse situazioni di convivenza, spinti dall’esigenza di regolare aspetti economici fra le persone, come ad esempio assicurare l’assistenza sanitaria. Si tratta di patti di convivenza di varia natura, di cui non saprei elencare le diverse forme. Bisogna vedere i diversi casi e valutarli nella loro varietà.

Q: Many states regulate civil unions. Is this a path that the Church can understand? But to what point?

A: Marriage is between a man and a woman. Lay states [secular nations] want to justify civil unions to regulate diverse situations of cohabitation, stirred by the need to regulate economic aspects between persons, such as to ensure health assistance, for example. One is speaking of cohabitational agreements of various natures, of which I wouldn’t know how to list the different forms. One must see the various cases and evaluate them in their variety.

That first sentence should be enough to show that not even Pope Francis will change teaching on marriage. When he speaks of “different forms”, he is not strictly referring to same-sex civil unions– his reference to “diverse forms of various cohabitational agreements” already implies that he is thinking about civil unions as a broad category, not as a strictly same-sex arrangement. This is clear in Italian, because in Italy, heterosexual couples form the vast majority of civil unions. The same is true in Argentina. To refer to civil unions primarily to homosexual relationships is largely an American [United States] phenomenon. Again, as in the episode of the Pope’s so-called “F-bomb”, English-language mass media is imposing Anglophone idiosyncracies on Italian and South American cultural contexts.

Back to Francis’ quotation from Freud: “Behind every idolization is an aggression”. So strong is the aggression toward the traditional teaching of the Church that modern secularist culture is attempting to hijack Pope Francis’ persona and to transform it as a weapon against the doctrine of the Church. When the Synod on the Family concludes this autumn, I am ever so certain that, once again, those who desire for the Church to mutilate her doctrine and sacrifice the integrity of her faith to the ever-shifting winds of popular opinion– just like those who in 1968 called for Paul VI to permit contraception and abortion– will be sorely disappointed.

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