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ROME – When the Italian soccer team laid an egg earlier this week in the World Cup qualifiers, tying 1-1 against a Bulgaria squad they were supposed to beat handily, many commentators here chalked it up to the so-called “September curse.” The idea is that it can be tough to shake off the cobwebs after the August doldrums, sometimes with embarrassing results.
Right now, Pope Francis could be forgiven for feeling like he’s been hit with the curse of September himself. The last few days, to put it mildly, have not been kind to the pontiff.
He’s given a major interview to the Spanish broadcaster Cope, discussing matters of vital importance ranging from Afghanistan to his own health, yet all anyone seems to be talking about is the fact that Francis confused Angela Merkel with Vladimir Putin, praising Merkel for something Putin actually said about Western efforts to impose democracy on other countries.
Then on Thursday, Rome’s chief rabbi joined a chorus of Jewish protest of remarks Francis had delivered on Aug. 11 during a General Audience, in which the pope said “the Torah does not give life.”
The term “Torah” refers to the first five books of the Jewish Bible, and, more generally, to the system of law that governs many aspects of Jewish life.
“It does not offer the fulfilment of the promise because it is not capable of being able to fulfil it,” Francis said. “Those who seek life need to look to the promise and to its fulfilment in Christ.”
That language drew protest from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, who styled it as part of the “teaching of contempt” for Judaism by Christianity which supposedly had been set aside at the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s and the in the practice of subsequent popes.
The pontiff might have hoped the damage could be contained, but on Thursday – the same day Italy came out flat against Bulgaria, by the way – Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, who heads Rome’s small but symbolically important Jewish community, joined the bandwagon.
“These ancient messages are the basis of hostile divisions, in which Judaism is presented as an obsolete religion, formalistic, legalistic, lacking moral principles in daily life,” Di Segni, voicing the hope that Francis will show greater “sensitivity” in the future.
Things may not get any easier next week, when Pope Francis begins a brief trip to Hungary and Slovakia. He’s already off to a somewhat rocky start, since, in that Cope interview, he claimed not to know whether he’ll meet Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
“I don’t know if I’ll see him. I know the authorities are coming to greet me … [but] I don’t know who’s coming,” he said.
It was an odd declaration, given that when the trip was announced there was much media speculation about such a meeting. Orban is famously the sort of national populist, opposed to immigration, who’s antithetical to Francis, and the details of how the two men will encounter one another in Budapest next Sunday morning were subject to lengthy and detailed negotiations.
In context, many took the pope’s remarks as a deliberate swipe – one Italian newspaper declared that Francis had delivered a “low blow to Orban” in its headline.
From the beginning, part of Francis’s charm has been his spontaneity. This is not a pope who consults widely before he speaks, not one to rely on a communications team to craft messages on his behalf. He doesn’t convene a war room of pollsters and spinmeisters before he tackles difficult subjects, preferring to let it all hang out, even at the expense of sometimes putting his foot in his mouth.
Had Francis talked through the Cope interview in advance with his communications staff, for instance, the alleged Merkel quote might have come up and someone might have had the chance to Google it. Certainly his experts on Jewish-Catholic relations would have urged a more nuanced approach to the Torah, and his diplomats probably would have advised not picking a fight with a politician who’s going to be hosting the pontiff in just a few days.
That, however, just isn’t how Francis rolls. He actually addressed that aspect of his operating style in the Cope interview.
“One of my ways is not to go around with a script,” he said. “When I am in front of a person, I look him in the eyes and let things come out. It doesn’t even occur to me to think about what I’m going to say if I’m with him, those potential future situations that don’t help me. I like the concrete; thinking about potential future situations makes you tangled, it is not good for you.”
As I said, such unpredictability is part of what many people like about Francis. For sure, journalists who cover the Vatican like it, because it means potential headlines and TV airtime whenever the pope opens his mouth.
On the other hand, Francis’s free-wheeling manner can also create tensions where either they didn’t exist before or, at least, were in hibernation, adding further instability and anger to a world already awash in both.
Either way, the early days of September 2021 seem unlikely to be remembered among the shining moments of this papacy. Now, we just have to see what the rest of the month may bring.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr