ROME – Pope Francis long has had a tendency to step on his own story. His 2013 “Who am I to judge?” soundbite, for instance, delivered on the papal plane back to Rome, meant that his trip to Brazil for World Youth Day was forgotten even before the confetti could be cleared from Rio’s Copacabana beach.
Yet even by his own standards, Wednesday’s bombshell was a doozy. Aboard another papal plane carrying him to Mozambique, the pope told a French reporter that he considers it “an honor to be attacked by Americans.”
That French reporter, Nicolas Seneze of La Croix, has just published a book chronicling conservative American opposition to the pope, and Francis responded in a brief exchange during the flight. The pope’s remark thereby forms the latest chapter in what has been, from the beginning, a love/hate relationship between history’s first Latin American pope and its great neighbor to the north.
To be clear, Francis wasn’t speaking at a press conference or in any formal setting. He was chatting briefly with someone who’s written a book trying to defend him, and he no doubt just wanted to say something nice. Nevertheless, he was speaking on a plane crowded with reporters, and anyway, it’s often unreflective things said in casual settings that reveal someone’s true thoughts.
At a first-blush level, four quick reactions suggest themselves.
First, not all Americans dislike Francis, nor does he dislike all Americans. The most recent Pew poll from last year, which found a sharp drop in approval of the pope due to the clerical sex abuse scandals, still showed that 51 percent of all American adults rate Francis favorably and 70 percent of American Catholics.
Francis clearly has plenty of Americans he likes, including the three American cardinals he’s named – Kevin Farrell, who runs a Vatican department on laity and the family, plus Blase Cupich of Chicago and Joseph Tobin of Newark. That’s three Americans out of 70 new cardinals he’s created, or four percent, not terribly out of line with the percentage of the overall global Catholic population the U.S. represents of six percent.
Further, Francis also made a highly successful trip to the U.S. in 2015, including a stop in New York for which he had to invent an entirely new word in Italian, stralimitata, or “beyond all limits,” to describe the experience. I can’t think of another country visited by the pontiff for which he was driven to neologisms to talk about it afterwards.
In all honesty, Francis’s beef has really never been with your average American Catholic, but elites who, in his own view, want to use the Church for political ends — which is to say, of course, political ends of which he doesn’t approve.
So, things aren’t all bad.
Second, let’s state the obvious: Many American conservatives were already convinced that Pope Francis dislikes them intensely, and it’s not as if the pontiff hasn’t given them grounds. Two years ago, for instance, key allies of Francis published an article in a Vatican-edited journal accusing conservative American Catholics of being engaged in an “ecumenism of hate” with Evangelicals.
To say the very least, the latest papal utterance won’t do anything to disabuse those notions. It’s likely to cement the antagonism, guaranteeing a permanent source of resistance to pretty much anything Francis says or does from an influential segment of the American Catholic population.
No doubt, some will say that such a reckoning was long overdue, while others will see it as another example of an unprovoked papal poke in the eye. Either way it’s a forecast for conflict, suggesting that of all the various roles a pope is called upon to play, “bridge-builder” in this specific case may not be Francis’s strong suit.
Third, let’s also admit that Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni’s attempt to frame the pope’s remarks as a backhanded tribute to the U.S. – “he always considers criticisms an honor, particularly when it comes from important thinkers and, in this case, of an important nation” – deserves points for creativity, but it’s also only about 50 percent convincing.
Sure, Francis probably is honored that some Americans take him seriously enough to be mad at him. But, come on – as a Latin American, as a social justice-minded Catholic from outside the U.S., and as a someone who sees himself as a tribune of the developing world, there’s just part of Francis who doesn’t cotton to what he sees as American arrogance and privilege. That’s been obvious for a long time, and Wednesday’s soundbite is soaked in it.
In other words, you can spin this any way you want – this is the 21st century, after all, in which Lewis Carroll’s famous adage that a word “means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less,” is pretty much the currency of the realm – but even by those standards, trying to present this as a compliment is a little much.
Fourth and finally, let’s also acknowledge the irony that this “pope of the peripheries” has pretty much ensured that it will be his attitude towards the center, meaning the U.S., that dominates the news cycle, and not whatever it is he’s in Africa to try to accomplish.
Granted, Francis probably didn’t stage-manage this moment. He was presented with a copy of a book and reacted, rather than setting out to deliver himself of an opinion about the U.S. Still, if I were from Mozambique, I’d probably wish that Francis had waited until he were back in Rome – or, really, anywhere else – before waving a red flag in front of the global media, inviting them to ignore his trip to my country.
That, perhaps, is the final proof that Francis meant what he said. In effect, he was willing to risk something about which he genuinely cares, meaning global attention to the developing world, in order to troll a group of Americans who’ve bedeviled him from the beginning – and who, let’s face it, are even less likely to stop now.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
Crux is dedicated to smart, wired and independent reporting on the Vatican and worldwide Catholic Church. That kind of reporting doesn’t come cheap, and we need your support. You can help Crux by giving a small amount monthly, or with a onetime gift. Please remember, Crux is a for-profit organization, so contributions are not tax-deductible.