ROME — When Pope Francis arrived in the Philippines Jan. 15, both his mind and his heart were focused on the people he was coming to see. His primary motive was to comfort the survivors of an almost apocalyptic 2013 super-typhoon, but he also knew the entire nation would be ecstatic that the pope — any pope, really — was in town.

The Philippines — 81% Catholic — arguably represent the greatest home court advantage for a pope on the face of the planet, and Francis wanted to return the favor.

Yet popes, like politicians, tend to craft their messages for multiple audiences. Although Francis’ principal concentration may have been on the Filipinos who defied a tropical storm to turn out in the millions, he simultaneously seemed to be speaking to a much smaller group, one that wasn’t even physically present.

In effect, Francis appeared to be talking to the roughly 300 bishops and other Church leaders who will make up the next Synod of Bishops on the Family in October.

One way to read what the pope was trying to accomplish is as a reboot of the synod debate, reassuring conservatives that whatever happens in October, the basics of Catholic teaching on sexuality and the family are not at risk.

Let’s start with a premise: In his heart of hearts, Pope Francis would like to see some accommodation made for Catholics who divorce and then remarry outside the Church, and who are thus barred from Communion.

His response when asked about the divorced and remarried aboard the papal plane last July cuts in that direction, as did his choice of Cardinal Walter Kasper, the champion of the permissive line, to prime the pump for the synod debate in a meeting of cardinals last February. Almost every time Francis has taken up the subject, his basic sympathy for the reform position seems clear.

Watching last October’s synod play out, Francis surely realizes that discussion of the divorced and remarried was swept up into broader tensions over other topics — how welcoming the Catholic Church ought to be for gays and lesbians, for instance, and how positive its evaluation should be of all sorts of other “irregular” relationships, such as living together outside marriage.

Clash over those issues was monumental, and the divisions profound. There’s absolutely no indication that’s any less true now than it was last October; indeed, in a recent Crux interview, Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, a member of the drafting committee for the synod’s final document, predicted that the rough distribution of opinion will be the same in the next meeting.

Francis is nothing if not politically astute, and thus he grasps that if he wants something resembling consensus on the divorced and remarried question, he’s got to separate it from the controversies over sexual morality.

Politically-minded observers will find it difficult not to think that’s part of what his messages on the family in the Philippines were designed to accomplish.

On Friday night in Manila, Francis held a meeting with 20,000 Filipino families in which he blasted what he called the “ideological colonization” of the family. It’s a phrase that requires some unpacking for the outside world, but is immediately recognizable to Catholic cultural conservatives.

It refers to the strongly held belief among many Catholics in places such as Africa, Latin America, and Asia that Western governments and NGOs, as well as international bodies such as the United Nations, are using their control over development aid to compel cultures in the developing world to adopt more liberal sexual mores — to distribute condoms, for instance, as a condition of receiving grants, or guaranteeing gay rights in order to get favorable consideration for other forms of economic assistance.

In a briefing, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, confirmed that Francis partly had gay marriage in mind when he used the “colonization” phrase and also referred to attempts to “redefine” the meaning of family. (Anyway, you don’t have to be an expert exegete to figure out what the latter means.)

That night in Manila, Francis also departed from his prepared text to offer a strong defense of Pope Paul VI and his controversial 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae that upheld the contraception ban.

“He had the strength to defend openness to life at a time when many people were worried about population growth,” Francis said.

Anyone who’s been watching this pope knows that when he goes off-the-cuff in Spanish, it’s because whatever follows is truly important to him.

Francis came back to these subjects in an airborne news conference on the return flight to Rome on Monday.

Before the flight departed, word came back to the press corps that the pope wanted to be asked about “ideological colonization.” Eager to hear what he had to say, we were happy to oblige.

Francis gave a long answer, the gist of which was that such attempts at colonization are real and that he’s witnessed them himself.

The pontiff told a story from his time as an Argentinian bishop about a government education minister needing a loan to build schools for the poor, and getting an offer on the condition that textbooks in these schools contain references to “gender theory.”

That’s another phrase opaque to most, but also immediately recognizable to Catholics invested in family issues. Basically, it refers to the idea that sexual identity is a social construct, not part of any natural law, and thus all types of sexual orientations and behaviors are perfectly acceptable.

Francis described this colonization as an assault on the right of peoples to make their own choices and to preserve their own identity.

He also cited the African bishops as having brought this up at the last synod. During that summit, the Africans emerged as a strong center of resistance to any liberalization on sexual ethics, and by aligning himself with their diagnosis about ideological colonization, the pontiff indirectly let them know he’s not the enemy.

Some headlines from that news conference focused on the pope’s green light to limit the size of Catholic families, in part because he served up an irresistible sound-bite: “To be good Catholics, we don’t have to breed like rabbits.”

Yet as insiders parse the pope’s words, they’ll discover that he was in no way talking about contraception, since he once again praised Paul VI and even said that Pope Paul was trying to ward off a “neo-Malthusian” ideology of population control.

Instead, Francis was talking about Natural Family Planning, the Church-approved method for limiting and spacing births, which has long been a passion of the conservative wing of Catholic discussion over the family. They’ll likely to be thrilled that Francis found a way to make traditional Catholic teaching on responsible parenting, which has been around forever, suddenly seem hip.

The bottom line is that the Church’s pro-life camp may look at what Francis had to say in the Philippines and conclude that whatever happens on the divorced and remarried question, the balance of the Church’s teaching on human sexuality is safe.

It’s noteworthy that amid all this talk about the family, Francis never said word one about the divorced and remarried. The seeming implication is that it’s a separate question.

In terms of why Francis would have chosen the Philippines for this reboot, there are two obvious reasons.

  • First, it’s a country that recently passed a controversial Reproductive Health law guaranteeing universal access to contraception over strong Catholic opposition. Had he been mute about it, pro-life Catholics might have been tempted to conclude that Church teaching on the subject just isn’t a priority for this pope.
  • Second, Francis needed a big stage, far enough in advance of the October summit to make a difference. Anytime a pontiff sets a new world record for attendance at a Mass, people are bound to pay attention.

Only Francis can say whether broadcasting a message to the 2015 Synod of Bishops was part of his explicit agenda in the Philippines.

It would seem a remarkable coincidence, however, if a pope many Argentines believe is among the most gifted politicians their country ever produced somehow managed to deliver a performance ideally calculated to reboot the debate, and it was nothing but an accident.