ROME – When I was a child growing up in a small Western Kansas town, my mom from time to time would take me to Main Street to visit the shops. Most had some version of the following sign on display, meant as a warning to be careful with the merchandise: “You break it, you bought it.”
There’s a PR corollary that could be said to go like this: “No matter who breaks it, if you don’t fix it you bought it.” It means that no matter what a leader actually says or does, if he or she allows an impression to be created and doesn’t publicly disown it, then it belongs to them.
The thought comes to mind in light of the emerging mystery surrounding the new pope documentary “Francesco” by Evgeny Afineevsky, which debuted this week and already is a candidate to contain the most-dissected 20 seconds of imagery about a major world leader since the Zapruder film.
In those twenty seconds, Pope Francis makes comments about civil unions for same-sex persons that created a global media frenzy on Wednesday, reported as the first time a pope explicitly had endorsed civil unions. It also appeared to directly contradict a 2003 document from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, prepared by the future Pope Benedict XVI and approved by St. John Paul II, warning that such laws are “gravely unjust” and insisting that Catholics may never support them.
Within 48 hours, however, the narrative began to shift, because it emerges that those celebrated 20 seconds aren’t one continuous statement from Pope Francis, but rather a montage of lines uttered in different contexts stitched together and covered by strategically timed camera cut-aways. One Italian analyst claimed yesterday there were five separate elements of film, and therefore at least four edits, contained in that twenty-second span, which has to be some kind of record.
Moreover, it’s now also seemingly clear that the bit on civil unions didn’t come from Afineevsky’s conversations with Pope Francis but a different interview the pontiff gave eighteen months ago, to renowned Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki – who’s almost as much of an institution in Rome as the papacy – but from which, for some as-yet unclear reason, the line about civil unions had been edited out when the interview was released in 2019.
The overall suggestion is that Pope Francis spoke of giving “legal cover” to same-sex relationships, and of a “law on civil coexistence,” in that 2019 interview, but that since his language has been taken out of context, there’s no way to assess what he actually meant. In some quarters, Afineevsky, in tandem with certain journalists, already have emerged as the villains of the narrative, at fault for creating a piece of “fake news” in order to promote a film or to advance an agenda.
There’s just one problem: The Vatican hasn’t denied that Pope Francis supports civil unions, despite the fact that for the last 48 hours a global impression has been created that he does. Not only has the Vatican not disputed the contents of the film, last night Afineevsky received the “Kineo Movie for Humanity” award in the Vatican Gardens in the presence of senior Vatican communications officials, an indirect seal of approval if ever there was one.
As things stand, therefore, it almost doesn’t matter what slight of hand Afineevsky may have performed in the cutting room. Francis and his team know full well what most people think he said and haven’t done anything to correct it, which means, as things stand, they own the impression.
Obviously, this latest PR conundrum is reminiscent of Francis’s celebrated interviews with the legendary left-wing Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari, founder of Italy’s widely read La Repubblica newspaper. The first came in October 2013, in which Scalfari quoted the new pontiff as saying, among many other things, that church leaders are often “narcissistic, flattered and badly excited by their courtiers.” A couple months later, Scalfari penned a piece asserting that Pope Francis had “abolished sin.” Fast forward to 2018 and another Scalfari/Francis conversation, this time with Scalfari claiming Francis had also abolished hell.
In every case, the Vatican tried to put some distance between Francis and Scalfari, and it quickly emerged that Scalfari, today 96, had not taped the conversations or taken notes, so what he wrote was more of a reconstruction based on his own extrapolations from the exchanges.
Yet in a similar fashion, the point is that Francis kept talking to Scalfari, so the average person can’t help thinking the pope must not be all that upset. As a result, Francis and his team can’t completely disassociate themselves from the take-aways those interviews produced.
In a sense, all this is terribly unfair to a leader whose every word makes news, and who can’t possibly control all the varied uses to which those words may be put. Nonetheless, whether it’s papal generosity and restraint, as his admirers would have it, or a Machiavellian strategy to get a message out while deflecting responsibility, as critics tend to see it, the fact remains that if a leader believes he or she has been misrepresented and yet remains silent, even sending signals of approval, then ownership of that message shifts to the leader.
So, here’s the bottom line.
Did Pope Francis actually say in that 2019 interview what the movie makes it appear he said? Not exactly, because what we see in “Francesco” is a pastiche of phrases uttered in different contexts, and, in the absence of more information, it’s impossible to know precisely what Francis had in mind.
Does it matter? Probably not. If Pope Francis didn’t want you to believe he supports civil unions, he’s got plenty of tools to set the record straight. Until that happens, no amount of breaking down the tape is likely to make much difference.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.