Friday, October 30, 2020

Francesco: What Just Happened? UPDATED Nov 2, 7

Fasten your seat belts. This is a really long post. I've had to take all week to work on it because the subject merited research and reflection. This is also being included in my community's newsletter (welcome to all who have come from that link).

Francesco: What Just Happened?

Until ten days ago, if you had asked me to name some international film festivals, I could have come up with a few: the Venice Film Festival, Cannes (the glamorous one), Toronto, and Sundance (for independent films). And then came October 21 and the world premiere of Evgeny Afineevsky’s Francesco. Suddenly the whole world was paying attention to the Rome Film Festival.

Francesco is a documentary about Pope Francis which incorporates footage from a variety of sources, including the Vatican’s own archives. (The Vatican did not exercise any editorial control over the film.) Director Afineevsky is clearly taken with the Holy Father as a man open to all people, someone who does not put human beings into categories. Afineevsky calls Francis “a man of action,” “pro-life” in the most expansive sense of the term.

Somewhere in the course of 1 hour and 56 minutes comes Pope Francis’ familiar voice, in Spanish:

"Homosexual people have the right to be in a family…. They are children of God and have a right to a family…. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable over it…. What we have to have is a civil union law—that way they are legally covered. I supported that."

For the film festival audience, those words were an 18-second bombshell. The first headlines presented the Pope as “changing” a position and even a teaching on same-sex marriage. A media storm ensued. That should not be surprising. Why would an audience composed primarily of movie directors, producers, screenwriters, reviewers, actors, etc., be familiar with the Pope’s many remarks on the subject, or the doctrinal and ecclesial contexts surrounding them? 

What is problematic is not that secular media got this so wrong. It is that some Catholics (including bishops and Catholic media professionals) took those news headlines at face value and responded to them as if they genuinely conveyed something “new” and “unexpected” from the Pope.

Leaping headlong from the headlines

Headlines are just that: “lines” devoid of context.

For many hearers, the Pope’s words (as reported in social media headlines) seemed to indicate approval of so-called “civil unions” as a possible analogue for same-sex marriage. Activists hastened to raise cheers of victory, while some defenders of doctrine and tradition suggested it was time to abandon ship, and even some priests and bishops intimated that Pope Francis just wasn’t that good for the Church. (Seriously.)

All this on the basis of an 18-second video clip, or, in some cases, media reports about it.

First, everyone responded to the headlines.

Then they responded to each other’s responses.

What none of them did in those first heady hours, it seems, was try to find out if Pope Francis really said what the headlines reported, leaving the vast majority of listeners totally ignorant of how the Pope actually expressed himself. 

No one had looked for that.

And yet hints of a fuller truth were available the whole time. The people at Where Peter Is suspected that the clip was a composite. In his blog, Father Matthew Schneider, LC, did the grunt work of comparing the Francesco clip to the source video (from 2019). Father Schneider found a significant portion of the original video (and a transcript of it) right on the Vatican website. Contrary to the director’s early assertions, this interview had not been conducted by Evgeny Afineevsky, but by Valentina Alazraki for the Mexican communications agency Televisa.

Schneider’s work makes two things clear: First, that the 18-second clip in Francesco is an intricately composed mosaic of phrases taken from different parts of the 2019 interview, and second, that Pope Francis has long sought a way of avoiding any kind of equivalence between same-sex partnerships and natural marriage.

Contrary to the assertion of many Catholic contrarians, this is not a matter of the Holy Father being ambiguous. This is a case of a film director moving words around and eliminating clear statements within the very context in which he gave them.

So What Did the Pope Really Say?

The following is a graphic showing a computer translation of the part of the 2019 interview from which the 18-second clip was created.  In bold are words of the Holy Father that have been, to put it mildly, “overlooked.” Phrases are highlighted to show the editing: the first phrase heard in the 18 second clip is highlighted in orange, the second in yellow, the third in green. The words in blue (the final words of the 18-second clip) are not available in the Vatican transcript, but are reported in the October 24 issue of America magazine by Gerard O’Connell, who had access to the complete interview; the translation of that text is his.

From the color code and from the altered order, it is clear how highly edited the 18 seconds from Francesco are. 

Pope Francis has complained about his plain meaning being misconstrued by the media. Ironically, the film Francesco takes a sentence from one of these very complaints and uses it in just that way. (It is providential that this happened right before Media Literacy Week in the U.S. Could we ask for a clearer example of the need for media literacy in the Catholic Church, especially among users of social media?) 

It is interesting that bloggers were the first to notice and parse out the editing that created so much confusion. Of the professional Catholic media, America magazine offered the most thorough treatment, with Rome correspondent Gerard O’Collins finally getting access to the full, unedited version of the 2019 interview, though that took several days. Some other Catholic media and media personalities complained that “the Vatican” should to do more to respond to similar misunderstandings and distortions—but where there are Catholic media professionals in a culture, isn’t it part of their mission to notice and respond to such things?

Money, not truth

Headlines are summaries, but they are also spin: interpretations that often miss or skew the point for the sake of drawing readers, clicks, retweets. In the Internet economy, these are what generate income for headline producers. The more radical the headline, the more money it makes for the organization behind it, including “Catholic” organizations that traffic in the Pope’s name, words, and image.

Catholics should not depend on secular filmmakers for their understanding of what the Pope teaches or be surprised when “the world” acts like… the world. We do not get our knowledge of the faith from media headlines or from media (not even Catholic media!), but from the Magisterium.

Context is vital in understanding not only the words of the Holy Father, but the reactions on the ground, especially from people who pride themselves on being faithful Catholics. So many of the reactions I saw on Twitter and Facebook reflected fear, anxiety, confusion and anguish. There is a context for that, too.

This media storm happened a week and a half before an emotionally charged U.S. Presidential election, and (again, in the U.S.) during the politically divisive confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barret.

What all of three headliners have in common is leadership at the highest levels of their respective communities. 

It matters that people in key posts, whether in the Church, in government, in finance, business, medicine, education, etc., be people of integrity and knowledge. The survival of an enterprise cannot depend on the luck, pluck, or cunning of the person at the top. When it does, though, fear makes a lot of sense. When trust in the underpinnings of an institution runs low, it can be tempting to put all one’s hope in the person at the top. If people are longing for a specific kind of leadership, they may feel let down that Pope Francis refuses to conform to that image. 

As Catholics, we do not put our faith in the human character and personal qualities of the Pope. Our trust is in the promise Jesus made to Peter, the first man to hold that office.

Human Nature has not Changed.

In numerous ways, on many occasions, including his document on marriage (Amoris Laetitia), Pope Francis has refused to budge on the nature of marriage and the family. It was precisely this point he was confirming in the video passage that was surgically altered to create an 18-second clip. The Church’s teaching on marriage has not changed and will not change. It is close to the core of the faith itself, as Paul indicated in Ephesians (5:31-32), where he wrote that the one flesh union of husband and wife is a profound mystery that bespeaks “Christ and the Church.” 

What can change, and must change, are the ways Church institutions and ministers can best navigate society as it currently is, through changes of law, language, and expectations, while continuing to communicate the central truths and values of Divine revelation. When these are presented in a way that confirms the beauty, uniqueness and unrepeatability of the person we are with, those truths offer life in abundance. But defended with anxiety, fear, or even hostility, even the holiest truths can wreak damage on a soul. 

Pope Francis clearly thinks that government recognition of some kind of civil union (not necessarily limited to same-sex couples) could provide protection of important legal rights without creating a kind of quasi-marital institution that could compromise the rights of children to a mother and father. This is a moot point in the United States, where same-sex marriage has been the law since 2015.

As to the wisdom of this approach, Catholics are free to disagree with each other (and even with the Pope). But what is unacceptable is casting aspersions on the Pope as an authoritative and reliable teacher of faith. A Catholic’s default presumption should be one of respect for the Pope: for his person, for his authority, for his teaching. When people who offer commentary on matters of faith routinely respond to headlines about the Pope with anything but actual respect and a willingness to delve deeper, they are not recommending themselves to Catholics no matter what their position is, how many degrees in Sacred Theology they hold, or how many YouTube followers they have. At best, they may be intellectually lazy. 

Putting People First

Most of the reservations I saw to the Pope’s position seemed to assume that Francis was promoting something objectively wrong, or that was potentially “an occasion of sin,” or that was “redefining marriage” (which he explicitly ruled out in the same interview). The most revealing response I have seen to all this was published in The Washington Post by Catholic writer Eve Tushnet (the emphasis is mine). Tushnet opened by identifying herself as belonging to “the tiny community of LGBT Catholics who accept the church’s sexual ethic” and quickly got to the point: “[M]any Catholic priests and other leaders still assume that gay people’s biggest spiritual problem is lust, when in my experience the most common and deadly spiritual problem for gay Christians is despair.”

So many words about the Sixth Commandment…but, she says, this is not the problem people like her face on a day to day basis. The real issue is the most foundational commandment of all: the First Commandment, the one in which God, the Lord, is welcomed as the all-good Creator and Foundation and Goal of one’s life; the one who called us into being and sustains us at every instant out of love. Despair is the sin in which this God of love, goodness, and beauty remains unrecognized.

It is a core principle of psychology that one’s experience of parental love or rejection has profound implications for a person’s image of God. And so Pope Francis urges families, especially parents, not to reject their children with same-sex attraction. This is especially important in countries where people suspected of homosexual tendencies may be at risk of violence and even death. 

As a pastor of souls in Argentina, Pope Francis dealt closely with people who experienced same-sex attraction. He listened to them, “accompanied” them, shepherded them. They are not abstractions for Pope Francis: they are people with names and faces and personal, individual stories. They are not instances of “near occasions of sin,” but concrete people with experiences of rejection, despair, welcome, hope, peace, and growth. This focus on the individual person is a hallmark of Pope Francis’ ministry.

People’s spiritual survival (and sometimes their actual survival in this life) depends on their “knowing and believing in the love God has for us” (see 1 Jn 4:16). This is not trivial. This is the essence of evangelization. This is what the Church exists to proclaim.

What about the Rest of the Film?

I haven’t seen the documentary Francesco yet. If not for those unfortunately edited 18 seconds, it might have been something to recommend as the basis for conversations on a variety of topics with people of many faiths, or of no faith. Judging from the trailer, the almost two-hour long film may still be the basis for fruitful conversations with people on the Church’s peripheries, as long as the Catholics who go into a film viewing are sufficiently well-informed about the Pope’s convictions and teachings about marriage and about the dignity of the human person. 

The Pope Still Holds the Keys

Take a deep breath.

God is still in charge.

Jesus Christ is still the head of the Church. 

The Pope, yes, Pope Francis, still holds the keys.

What this means, practically speaking, is giving the Pope at the very least, the benefit of the doubt when it comes to provocative headlines in the media. 

Standing with Pope Francis, we will not be deceived. But we will have to work to stand with the Pope, whether it is Pope Francis this year, or some future Pope in years to come who may be quoted out of context. We cannot rely on middlemen who might be using his words, wittingly or not, inappropriately.

This gives us homework to do. We are to delve past the headlines, refusing to be sucked into a predetermined interpretation by the breathless declaration of unheard-of novelty or devilry coming from the only person on earth with a guarantee from Christ that “the gates of hell will not prevail” against the Church under his care (see Matt 16:18).

Watch the trailer here:

NOV 2: The Vatican has issued a statement about this; at the moment it is only available in Spanish. It confirms that the Holy Father was responding to different questions about completely different situations.

NOV 7: Here is a link to an October 30  letter from the Apostolic Nuncio to the US (Archbishop Christophe Pierre) to Archbishop Gomez, President of the US Catholic Bishops' conference:

Here are my sources, plus some additional links you may find helpful:

Fr Matthew Schneider LC’s treatment, including going to the original video interview (and transcript) from which the controversial clip was taken:
Fr Matthew Schneider LC’s follow-up, confirming that analysis of the full transcript of the original interview shows precisely what was edited out of the documentary, changing the meaning of the Pope’s words:


Gerard O'Connell is America magazine's Vatican Correspondent. Here is his article on the Vatican's Communications Dicastery and where it has been in all this:

Also from America, an article on Pope Francis' history of thought around civil unions; this article by Colleen Dulle was published the day after the Francesco premier:

Two reflections on the context surrounding the Pope’s words and how video editing influences how words are understood:



Fr Agustino CFR has done a few videos as he tried to make sense of the clip. In this 10 min. video he corrects his earlier videos. He uses Franciscan Spirituality to inform and help listeners love the Church and “stay beside her.”


Fr Raymond de Souza confirms that Pope Francis did not change Church teaching, recalling also Archbishop Levada’s decision in San Francisco about civil unions. (Levada was later made head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by Pope Benedict XVI.):


Thomas Reese SJ affirms that Church teaching hasn’t changed; he includes reflection on how civil unions might impact areas of the world where homosexual persons are subject to loss of basic rights (his point #3).

Eve Tushnet in the Washington Post gives her perspective as a Catholic in the “LGBT community” who accepts the Church’s teachings on sexuality:

Statement by Cardinal Sean O’Malley:


“Pope Francis and Civil Unions,” statement by Archbishop Cordileone (San Francisco):


Errol Hove said...

This has been a very simple, clear and thought provoking explanation of a complex and controversial issue. Thanks be to God for your gift that certainly enriches the Church.

Errol Hove said...

This has been a very simple, clear and thought provoking explanation of a complex and controversial issue. Thanks be to God for your gift that certainly enriches the Church.

Anonymous said...

Sister, the problem here isn't that this may or may not have been take out of context. It's that Pope Francis keeps saying things that beg to be taken out of context. He has done it too many times to count since his reign started. And the enemies of the Church are the first to jump on them.

I don't remember one time in all the years of his reign that Pope John Paul II said anything that needed clarification. He stayed true to scripture and Church teaching, so when he spoke it was always authentic and clear.

The same for Pope Benedict XVI.

Leo Lantz said...

Good golly, Miss Molly; the Pope haters want to hate! The reasons Pope Francis gets taken out of context is because he has the intestinal fortitude and the Franciscan "world view" to actually address the messed up aspects of our humanity in a courageous attempt to save us, whilst taking the risk that others will try and use his statements for less than righteous purposes. It is shameful how Catholics allow their biases to be used in condemning a good man in the name of their own agendas.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your view on this. It was a confusing few days, however after going to confession and speaking with the priest I have decided to wait till I've seen the documentary before commenting. As for Pope Francis I need to be more respectful. Pray for me Sister Faustina.

Brandr said...

Great article! Good research. I try to give this pope the benefit of a doubt when headlines seem out of bounds....but it is hard to do at times. He just made some shady Bishops into Cardinals......

Anonymous said...

I appreciate this explanation. I first heard about this from my mother, who asked me to help her understand the headlines that led everyone astray. Since I was unfamiliar with what Francis said, all I could tell her at the time was that I was sure that the media had taken what he said out of context, which which they had done in the past. It appears that is the case here again, and I will direct my mother to this wonderful article.

Still, this problem seems to occur a lot with this pope. I don't recall Pope St. John Paul the Great nor Pope Benedict having this problem.

I have prayed that God will help the pope speak in a clear manner which cannot be misunderstood. I think the current pope needs to learn a lesson here, which is the media is not his friend and that he needs to exercise close control over what he says to them.

This situation is the classic definition of a scandal - something that raises a roadblock that causes doubt for the faithful and draws scorn from the unfaithful. The main blame is with the media of course, but at some point the pope has to be more proactive in doing what he can to prevent misunderstandings by being clear in what he says, and working to clear misunderstandings up when they occur.

I am frankly very disheartened by this situation.

Sister Anne said...

I will be writing later about why I believe Pope Francis seems to be holding his own aides back from reacting to these mischaracterizations by the media. I have to reflect further, do more research, a deadline on another project first!

Sister Anne said...

The Vatican issued a statement on November 2 with the express permission of the Holy Father. It affirms that the Pope was answering two completely different questions, and his answers were combined to make it seem he was answering a different question. The specific matter of "civil unions" was in relation to a proposed law in Argentina ten years ago, so his words were about that specific historic fact.

Currently there is only an official Spanish language version. Here is an unofficial English translation in the meantime:

Unknown said...

I read the article with interest. I am not sure how to talk with my college and high school kids about the Pope's comments. They are unclear. I understand the part about marriage- I can explain that part to them. Marriage is between a man and a women. I also understand the profound respect we afford to every individual. The civil union part doesn't hold up and I can't explain this to them. They are thrilled with the Pope's 'news' as are many young people. Not a good situation.

Sister Anne said...

According to the Vatican statement (see above), the Pope was specifically responding to a question about a proposal in Argentina 10 years ago. That is why he said "I supported that" (past tense). He supports civil union laws RATHER THAN "marriage equality" laws.

In addition, he seems to see that civil unions could also be used in a way that would help support the rights of people who were not necessarily in a "romantic" type of relationship: siblings, for example; or single friends who share a house or apartment and are each other's primary caregivers or only real support. (This was also the rationale of Archbishop Levada when he supported something similar in San Francisco: Why are these law proposals making people's sexual lives the determining factor? Government has no compelling interest in that!)

I think we also have to keep in mind that while in North America and most of Europe, same-sex relationships have become socially acceptable (and discrimination illegal), in other parts of the world (not only under Sharia law) people even suspected of homosexual tendencies face violence, exclusion, loss of rights (such as inheritance), etc. Since we do not live in a Christian society, supporting laws to protect them can be appropriate, as long as these unions are not made to seem the equivalent of the marriage of a man and a woman, and as long as children's rights to be raised by a father and a mother are not overturned in the interest of adult's "rights" to a child. (Because no one has a "right" to another human being, but a child does have a right to be raised by his or her own parents.)

Sister Anne said...

NOV 7: Here is a link to an October 30 letter from the Apostolic Nuncio to the US (Archbishop Christophe Pierre) to Archbishop Gomez, President of the US Catholic Bishops' conference: