THERE are two schools of thought on Pope Francis as a lightning rod of theological controversy: 1) he is a manipulative Peronist who enjoys upbraiding ‘rigid’ (meaning non-liberal) Catholics via the press; or 2) reporters cherry-pick and sensationalise anything allegedly novel in his utterances and animadversions – especially when the subject is sex – to caricature him as a bomb-thrower. I now read his modus operandi as being more complex – but not necessarily less damaging – than such a dichotomy allows. Anyone who took the media at its word last week would have believed the pope had told parents to accept the homosexuality of their children no matter what. But his Wednesday address didn’t mention homosexuality. It was, in fact, a splendid homily on the voice of God in the four dreams of Saint Joseph. Only in passing did Francis cite “sexual orientation” as one potential ‘problem’ in a child that should not be remedied with condemnation.
What is also clear, however, is that a reference to sexuality in that passage was not really necessary. Francis habitually does this: he encourages a light touch with a heavy hand. Why does he sabotage or, at the very least, dilute the impact of his own preaching by inserting drive-by subject-matter he must realise will be swooped upon by reporters to the detriment of the edifying whole? In a word, vanity. What Boris Johnson signifies with his hair, this pope signifies with his ‘humility.’ Ever since he was elected, Francis has drawn attention to himself by extravagantly eschewing attention. Thus, he didn’t want a big car but a smallish one (making life more difficult for his bodyguard); he didn’t want to speak from an elevated dais (making it harder for people to see him); he doesn’t want the faithful to reverence the Ring of the Fisherman (thereby conflating his own person with the office) – not even an octogenarian cardinal like George Pell. Similarly, when he sermonises, Francis adds a culture wars nugget so the secular peanut gallery can never quite dismiss his worldview as lousy with Catholicism. He courts and revels in ambiguity – but humbly.