ROME — During a brief press conference aboard the papal plane yesterday, returning to Rome from a day trip to Strasbourg, a French journalist asked Pope Francis if he’s a Social Democrat. The question was based on a line from one of the pope’s speeches in Strasbourg in which he took a shot at multinational corporations.

If you don’t follow European politics, the Social Democrats are the main center-left party, so it’s a bit like an American asking the pope if he’s a Democrat.

Francis actually laughed out loud, and then said: “Caro, questo è un riduzionismo!”

The Italian basically translates as, “My dear friend, that’s an over-simplification!” Francis went on to talk about how he tries to follow the Gospel and the social teaching of the Catholic Church, not any party line, and ended by thanking the reporter, Renaud Bernard of France 2 TV, for cracking him up.

What the question, as well as the pope’s response, illustrate is that Francis’ brief outing on Tuesday to the European Parliament and the Council of Europe offers a classic illustration of how media narratives shape the way we perceive public figures.

In truth, the idea of Francis as a Social Democrat in Strasbourg — and, therefore, as a repudiation of the Catholic Church’s perceived drift to the political right under Pope Benedict XVI — depends entirely on listening to only part of what Francis had to say.

Yesterday’s trip was not only the shortest foreign trip in the papacy’s history, less than four hours, but it also set a record for the ratio of words spoken to time on the ground. His speech to the parliament topped out at 3,500 words and the one for the council came to 3,100, which means Francis pronounced 28 words for every minute he spent visiting Europe’s most prominent political institutions.

(Cynics might say that since the only thing European parliamentarians seem to have mastered is speechmaking, the pope’s verbiage was entirely appropriate, but that’s another conversation.)

Both speeches were dense, and both covered a wide range of issues. In many ways, they were the closest Francis has come to the kind of rhetoric associated with Pope Benedict XVI, starting with lofty and abstract principles and then working down toward specific conclusions.

The comparison with Benedict is even more apt at the level of content, because both of the speeches Francis delivered yesterday were ones it’s easy to imagine Benedict having given. Aside from the use of certain stock phrases associated with Benedict, such as “dictatorships of relativism,” consider the following points Francis made in Strasbourg:

  • In order to be healthy, Europe needs God: “A Europe which is no longer open to the transcendent dimension of life is a Europe which risks slowly losing its soul …”
  • Abortion is an example of a Western culture that treats human beings as “mere cogs in a machine.” As examples, Francis cited “the terminally ill, the elderly who are abandoned and uncared for, and children who are killed in the womb.”
  • Europe needs to stop denying its Christian identity: “A two-thousand-year-old history lines Europe and Christianity …. A Europe which is capable of appreciating its religious roots … will be all the more immune to the many forms of extremism spreading in the world today, not least as a result of the great vacuum of ideals which we are currently witnessing in the West.”
  • Secular Europe is running out of gas. Francis said that the world today has become “less and less Eurocentric,” that today, Europe “gives the impression of being somewhat elderly and haggard,” and that it’s “less and less a protagonist.” In part, the pope implied, that decline is due to an aversion to reproduction, saying that Europe is “now a ‘grandmother’, no longer fertile and vibrant.”

Had it been Benedict XVI who went to Strasbourg to say those things, one can imagine the storyline would have been, “Pope scolds Europe for lack of values.”

Instead, because it was Francis, who carries around the narrative of being a maverick and a progressive, those elements in his speeches were largely ignored in favor of his points about immigrants, labor, the environment, the arms trade, and human trafficking. The headlines were, “Francis demands that Europe care for the poor.”

Probably the most quoted line from Francis in Strasbourg was when he talked about the waves of poor migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe who risk their lives doing so, saying, “We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery!”

Benedict XVI said similar things, but the difference is that media outlets today believe Francis means it and so such utterances draw wide play.

In truth, Benedict had a social agenda every bit as populist as Francis.

Benedict’s great uncle on his father’s side, Georg Ratzinger, was one of the towering Bavarian figures of the 19th century, a Catholic monsignor with a strong track record of engagement on behalf of the poor. He was twice elected to the Bavarian and the federal legislatures, and helped found a political party, the Bauerbund, which represented the interests of poor farmers against large capitalist industrial concerns. Its chief goal was a system of social supports that would insulate poor farmers and small traders from “boom and bust” cycles.

As a result, Benedict had a strong streak of skepticism about free-market capitalism. When he traveled to Brazil in 2007, he defined both communism and capitalism as “failed ideologies,” the kind of language Francis routinely invokes.

None of this means there aren’t real differences between the John Paul II/Benedict XVI era in Catholicism and the new winds blowing under Pope Francis. Today the theological moderates in the Catholic fold feel emboldened, while conservatives and traditionalists are on the defensive.

Still, the contrast between Francis and Benedict is only one part substance, while it’s every bit as much about perception. Never has that been clearer than Francis’ trip to Strasbourg, when he gave two speeches eerily reminiscent of his predecessor and still had to face questions about whether he stands on the political left.

Had it been Benedict who journeyed into the heart of secular Europe and said the exact same things, the question likely would have been: “Holy Father, are you on the far right?” The difference has little to do with what Francis actually said, and everything to do with how the narrative dictates he should be perceived.