The Game of Interpreting the Pope
I’ve noticed among my fellow papists deep concern that Pope Francis, by shooting the breeze with journalists and chatting in informal and imprecise language, is risking the salvation of souls. They want him to be clear, dreadful, and authoritative so there’s no question about what we all have to believe and do in order to avoid an unending marshmallow roast with Gozer the Gozerian. Instead the pope’s talking in ways they feel give easy excuse for error, sin and vice. Vinz and Zuul must be whispering in his ear. Or maybe Bobby McFerrin.
I’ve gotten the sense that Pope Francis knows that neither he nor his office is all that money. Ross Douthat describes the Pope Francis’ strategic engagement with the world as a “deliberate demystification of the papacy.” Sounds about right, and I for one am pleased to see this demystification happening. Observers both inside and outside the church understand the pope’s function as dictatorial and maybe even a little magical, when the pope’s responsibility really is more like the Dude’s rug tying the room together.
As a leader responsible for a global church, he has global power, but even he’s subject to the rules of the game. At times he gets the final say, but he still has to speak in congruence with the established interpretation of tradition. If the pope one day proclaimed with the full office of his authority that Jesus Christ never existed, the church wouldn’t unravel, but he’d effectively be done as pope. His faithful followers would claim that he wasn’t speaking as the supreme teacher, even though minus the message he appeared to be doing so by invoking the authority of his office.
This particular scenario sounds fantastic, I know, but I pose it because it shines a light on the double interpretation papal authority engenders. Whenever the pope speaks, his audience interprets not only the meaning of the message, but also the kind and degree of authority with which the message was given. It sometimes becomes a political game among the faithful. Those whose beliefs the pope affirms insist that the message is true and, if there’s a basis for doing do, insist the manner in which the pope spoke demands obedience of the mind and will. Those who disagree with what the pope says, but who want to appear or actually be faithful to the teaching office of the church, explain why the pope wasn’t speaking definitively or infallibly or otherwise authoritatively. I’ve played the game myself.
The field on which this interpretive game is played has its limits, of course. It’s game over if you deny that the pope has any authority. You wouldn’t get anywhere but out the door by dissenting from doctrines without which the church and its good news would fall to the table like a house of cards. The game has rules, but it’s still played with space for creative fidelity and faithful dissent. You’d think with the church being concerned with matters of eternal life and death, it would have an easily accessible and understandable infallible list of infallible teaching, but no such list exists. So far as we know. Jeff Lebowski might have stolen it. The point is no pope pontificates free of ambiguity. No teaching of his washes away all possible uncertainty. Popes set out to clarify doctrine from time to time, but this always occurs within the twofold structure of interpretation and the game that accompanies it.
I’ll risk having my own personal Antonin Scalia in-the-media moment by confessing my belief that God exists and speaks through human authors. However, when I look at the ways in which I believe revelation has taken place, I’m led to conclude that instilling clear certainty of meaning is not high on the Almighty’s agenda. God spoke and there was ambiguity. The Bible is more open to conflicting interpretations than The Usual Suspects. The prophets it features were squirrely social outcasts. Jesus spoke his mind with parables and deconstructive rhetoric. Even the Ten Commandments raise more questions than they answer. If there is some gnosis that we all better understand to get and stay on the good Lord’s good side, God sure didn’t make acquiring clear knowledge of it easy. Quite the opposite. Could be God’s tantalizing us for his own amusement, but I’m more given to believe that this life ain’t about obtaining an unshakable hold on secret, salvific knowledge.
Obviously I’m not troubled by the pope’s decision to demystify his role by speaking off the cuff and without caveats and clarifications to make sure we’re not in doubt about exactly what he means. No question he has a message to impart and he wants to be heard and understood, but I bet he also knows that understanding is an open and creative process over which he cannot have complete control. And he doesn’t believe that he’s at the beck and call of Cthulhu.
Pope Francis isn’t playing with the usual pieces. He’s relying heavily on non-authoritative means of communication like Twitter and newspapers. This focus alone has disrupted the interpretive game. By speaking as any ol’ spiritual leader, without the authoritativeness that says “Listen and obey,” Pope Francis is in effect asking his teaching here to be considered with respect to the value of its content rather than with respect to the fact that he’s the pope speaking. It’s not for nothing that Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi said the church needs a “new hermeneutic.”