Let's not get bent out of shape over 'Transcriptgate'

Let’s not get bent out of shape over ‘Transcriptgate’

There’s nothing objectionable about a pope correcting what he said, as long as we’re sure it’s actually the pope making the corrections. The alternative would be for a pope to never open his mouth until his utterances have been vetted by a team of theologians and spin doctors.

A small fracas broke out Friday over the Vatican’s “editing” of remarks made by Pope Francis on Thursday during a convention of the Diocese of Rome – an event which was broadcast on Vatican TV, and which can easily be found on Youtube.

At one stage, the pontiff was asked a question about how to prepare young people for marriage today when they have a “fear of the definitive,” meaning an aversion to lifetime commitments of any sort.

Among other things, Francis unmistakably says that due to a contemporary “culture of the provisional,” a “great majority of our sacramental marriages are null, because [couples] say, ‘yes, for my whole life,’ but they don’t know what they’re saying.”

In the official Vatican transcript released Friday morning, that remark is changed to “a part of our sacramental marriages are null.”

Predictably, the retouching has elicited howls of outrage, with some charging the Vatican with attempting to rewrite history and others suggesting Vatican officials, or Francis himself, were cowed into making the change by blowback to the remark that unfolded on the Internet.

Two quick points are worth making about what could be termed, in tongue-in-cheek fashion, “Transcriptgate”.

First, Pope Francis is hardly the first churchman to suggest that incomprehension of permanent commitments in the modern world may render many marriages contracted in church “invalid” by the traditional test of informed consent.

During the 1999 Synod of Bishops on Europe, the French language group noted that many couples today seek a church wedding in order to ritualize an important moment in their lives or to offer their marriage stability. In many cases, the group said said, couples do not appear to grasp the full theological meaning of a church wedding because of their assumption of impermanence.

This raises the question, the group concluded, of whether these marriages are actually valid.

One can debate that idea, but the point is that it didn’t fall from a clear blue sky in the pope’s remarks on Thursday. In truth, Francis probably thought he was doing little more than voicing fairly conventional pastoral wisdom.

For the record, the pope was not saying “most marriages are null, therefore let’s throw in the towel.” His basic point was that a “culture of the provisional” requires more thorough efforts at marriage preparation and ongoing formation.

Second, a Vatican spokesman said Friday it’s normal practice for the pope or his aides to review transcripts of his impromptu remarks, and to make small changes before releasing an official version.

In the past, the problem with this sort of thing was that it wasn’t always clear it was really the pope making the changes. Famously, an anonymous editor at l’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, admitted in a 1962 interview with Time to taking the edge off the words of Pope John XXIII’s speeches about the Second Vatican Council whenever the pontiff said something the editor worried might stir controversy.

Under Francis, however, there’s little question of anyone “censoring” the pope, and it’s equally clear that changes to his transcripts wouldn’t be made if they didn’t basically reflect his will. This is, after all, a highly “hands-on” pope.

In other words, there’s nothing objectionable about a pope correcting what he said, as long as we’re sure it’s actually the pope, or someone who truly knows his mind, making the corrections.

Here’s what the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said on Friday.

“When it’s a matter of topics of a certain importance, the revised text is always submitted to the pope himself. This is what happened in this case, thus the published text was expressly approved by the pope.”

In the shoot-from-the-hip Pope Francis era, perhaps the right way to look at things is this: In effect, an audio or video recording of a papal event and the transcript of it serve two different purposes. The former captures what the pope actually said, while the latter conveys what he meant to say upon reflection.

(The same point, by the way, applies to transcripts of his in-flight press conferences during foreign trips. In May 2014 on his way back from the Holy Land, for instance, the pontiff got the date wrong for his first meeting with sex abuse victims, and the transcript was adjusted accordingly.)

In this case, Francis and his advisers probably realized that the phrase “vast majority” could be taken to suggest that faithful Christian marriage today is a near-impossibility, which would be discouraging to both pastors and couples, and it could also have serious consequences for the Church’s marriage tribunals.

As a result, they walked the quote back to make it clear that what the pope really meant is simply that because of cultural pressures, many couples don’t fully understand what they’re getting into at the beginning. Phrased that way, most spouses – this one certainly included – would probably concur.

The bottom line is that if we want popes to be spontaneous and open, we need to accept that this sort of thing is going to happen every so often, and not get unduly bent out of shape about it.

The alternative would be for a pope never to open his mouth until his utterances have been vetted by a team of theologians and spin doctors – and that, folks, is not a consummation devoutly to be wished.

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