ROME – Just as physics has the laws of thermodynamics – conservation of energy, entropy, and so on – so too Vaticanology has its own laws, which are every bit as universal and inflexible as those in the physical universe.

Here’s one: Every development regarding papal health, whether for good or ill, must be over-interpreted. If he manages a smile and a wave, some will proclaim him all but immortal; if he coughs in public, others will start polishing their obituaries.

The late Pope John Paul II, who weathered more health scares than most, even had a joke about all this among his standard rhetorical tropes. When asked how he was feeling, the Polish pope would often reply, “I don’t know … I haven’t read the papers yet.”

We’ve seen this law of over-interpretation in action a good deal this week, as Pope Francis spent three days in Rome’s Gemelli Hospital with a bronchitis infection, and we’ll see it again now that he’s back in the saddle at the Vatican.

One can, of course, object to the hype, but it won’t do any good. As Nelson Mandela once said of globalization, over-interpreting papal health is the same as winter – whether you like it or not, it’s coming.

Amusingly, the equal-and-opposite tendencies can even play out at the same time.

We saw that dynamic on Friday. While many pundits were still breathlessly recounting his maladies, the Vatican released photos and video of a seemingly happy and energetic pontiff visiting a pediatric ward and baptizing an infant, leading others to proclaim the crisis exaggerated, ill-intentioned and finished.

His performance Saturday upon exiting the hospital, chatting amiably with journalists and a tender moment in which he comforted a young couple who’d just lost their child, but also seeming tired and weak as he spoke to Italian television while returning to the Vatican, probably will strengthen both inclinations. So will his delivery Sunday at the Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square, where the pontiff appeared focused and articulate, but also at points clearly tired.

Inevitably, these competing tendencies – to overdramatize threats and to minimize them – often break down along political lines. Critics of the current pope often will oversell whatever problems he’s facing, while fans and sycophants will proclaim him hale and hearty until the bitter end.

The classic example of the latter tendency came on August 19, 1914, when L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, carried an editorial bitterly denouncing unnamed commentators who had suggested the previous day that the 79-year-old Pope Pius X had a cold.

Less than 24 hours later, he was dead.

(For a hot second, I worried Wednesday that I might become the 21st century version of that unfortunate L’Osservatore editorialist. At lunch, I was part of a panel speaking to a group of leaders from the American Jewish Committee visiting Rome, where I declared that Pope Francis seemed good to go until the Jubilee Year in 2025; maybe an hour after my wife Elise and I had returned home, news broke that Francis was in the Gemelli.)

Now that Francis is back in the Vatican, the over-interpretation seems destined to break anew in competing directions.

One is the trajectory marked out yesterday by veteran Italian commentator Massimo Franco, whose piece for Corriere della Sera Friday was headlined, “Pope Francis’s condition is improving, but now there’s the risk of a shadow conclave.”

The gist was that while the pope has survived, he returns to the job in a clearly weakened and fragile state, with a “sudden, unpredictable physical failure” a real possibility. In that situation, Franco writes, speculation about possible resignation will mount, while at the same time “below-the-radar maneuvers for the next conclave are intensifying.”

The basic problem with that take isn’t that Franco is wrong, simply that it hardly requires a health crisis for pre-conclave maneuvers to get started. In many ways, they’ve been underway probably since 2016 and Amoris Laetitia, which hardened the battlelines in the church in the Pope Francis era and set both his opposition and his base thinking about what might come next.

In the Catholic system, there are no term limits for popes and no fixed dates for papal elections. As a result, of course people are going to start speculating about a conclave every time the sitting pope hiccups. If you find that distasteful – well, see above about globalization and winter.

There’s a different point Franco makes, however, which definitely bears repeating.

“The fact that information about the course of his hospitalization was communicated by the Vatican Press Office and not the doctors of the Gemelli Hospital risks giving rise to the most malevolent voices,” he wrote.

“There were no official bulletins from the hospital, as there weren’t two years ago when Francis had a stomach operation. This absence of transparency allows both enemies and friends to select their preferred narrative, leaving public opinion unable to grasp how things really stand.”

To that, one can only say “Amen” … and I say again, “Amen.”

On the other side of the ledger, some commentators will seize upon Francis’s presence at the Holy Week liturgies to insist that his brief stay at the Gemelli was a tempest in a teapot. That reaction will become stronger with every new decision Francis makes, and every new public appearance he puts in.

Such reassurances ignore the fact that we’re talking about an 86-year-old with a history of health challenges, meaning that the dividing line between “fine” and “in peril” is awfully thin.

Consumers of Vaticanology, therefore, beware. You should probably approach it like scoring gymnastics at the Olympics: Toss out both the high and low scores – or, in this case, the most optimistic and pessimistic interpretations of the pope’s health – and then average the rest.

In the absence of honest medical bulletins, such an exercise may not quite give you objective truth. But it would at least give you something resembling sanity, which otherwise may be in short supply for a while.