The growing mantra among Catholics dissatisfied with the Pope is that he “causes confusion” in the Church when he speaks or writes. What I notice, however, is that the confusion usually stems from how people read the news reports about the Pope and interpret quotes about what he says. For example, despite the existence of the Vatican website providing transcripts that prove otherwise, some Catholics still believe the Pope said, “Who am I to judge?” regarding the morality of homosexual acts. This interpretation is false, and whether one approved or disapproved of the misinterpreted “teaching,” it was those who spread the misinterpretation who caused confusion, not the Pope.
Throughout the pontificate of Pope Francis, this story has been repeated. People presume that the Pope intends to change Church teaching and either praise or condemn him, depending on what they think about this “change.” Never mind the fact that the Pope said his position was that of the Church. Never mind that none of his writings from before he became Pope showed any sign of wanting to change Church teaching. People who assumed that he wanted to change Church teaching—for whatever motive—interpreted anything they were unfamiliar with as “proof” of changing Church teaching. Seeing this, I have to ask: Who is really causing confusion in the Church? The Pope who speaks on complex subjects? Or people who break these complex subjects down into soundbites?
At this point, people will probably think about the dubia controversy and claim the Pope could “easily” clear up any confusion by answering the questions. Some of these people are no doubt sincere. But others have a history of hostility to the Pope or to the long held teaching of the Church, and seize on whatever can be twisted to suit an agenda. I will not put any specific Catholic in that category, but we need to be aware that this category exists. If Catholics in this category misrepresent the intentions of the Pope and give his words an interpretation that suits their agenda, the Pope is in a no-win situation. No matter what he says, it will continue to be interpreted by those who have an agenda, and they will continue to twist his words to support their agenda.
I think the problem we need to face is this: In a culture of smart phones we have instant notifications of oversimplified reports from people who do not understand the theological nuances. People give these notifications far more weight than they should. Isolated quotes are not given context. The result is, people fill in these blanks with their own interpretations, even though they have neither the information, nor the knowledge to do so. Then, when a full transcript is released, people who misinterpreted the Pope blame him for their own misinterpretation. When an explanation is given on how people misinterpreted the Pope, people claim “the Vatican” is walking it back.
So I have to ask, how can the Pope hope to answer the dubia satisfactorily when it is a no win situation? If he answers the dubia in their Yes/No format (which I think was a mistake on the part of the cardinals, but I don’t accuse them of malice), people will assume he’s either “walking back” or denying Church teaching. If he answers in depth, people will again take quotes out of context and interpret them according to their own views.
The Smart Phone problem will not be easily resolved. Not every theological issue can be explained in 140 characters or a Facebook comment. Study of texts is needed to prevent error from false interpretation. But there is one thing we can do to avoid confusion.
We must stop assuming that the Pope is heterodox or incompetent and intends to change Church teaching. If we assume these things, we will misinterpret what he says and writes through that lens. But if we assume he is orthodox, we will see what he says in light of Church teaching and carry it out in that light. That won’t end confusion. Church history is full of dissenters questioning a teaching and using that dissent as “proof” that the teaching is contested. There will always be people in the Church who seek to twist the meaning of what the Church teaches to justify what they want to do anyway—look at how pro-abortion Catholics abuse the concept of Double Effect to “justify” abortion. But if we assume the Pope is orthodox, then the interpretations that try to turn “X is a sin” into “X is not a sin” will be revealed as the counterfeits they are.
So let’s stop accusing the Pope of “causing confusion” when it is clearly those who misinterpret or, in some cases, misrepresent that cause the confusion.