ROME – Barely had the original furor over Pope Francis’s use of a bit of anti-gay slang begun to subside when it emerged – at least according to never confirmed, but also never denied, media reports – that his May 20 commentary to the Italian bishops was actually even more off-color than initially believed.

Not only had the pope used a vulgar Italian term roughly meaning “faggotry,” but, according to those reports, he also used another pejorative Italian term in the same conversation, checche, referring to stereotypically effeminate homosexual men, to suggest that even “semi-oriented” gays should be weeded out of Catholic seminaries.

As if that weren’t enough, yet another bit of papal shock talk made the rounds a few days later, this one involving not gays but women.

Once again according to media reports, Pope Francis told a group of recently ordained priests in Rome on May 29 that gossip – he used the colloquial Italian term chiacchiericcio, roughly meaning “petty little chatter” – is a “women’s thing,” adding, apropos of men, that “we wear the trousers, we have to say things.”

These revelations have stirred controversy not merely because they suggest a pontiff with a salty tongue, but also because they seem at odds with the popular narrative of Francis as a pro-gay, pro-women progressive.

The resulting cognitive dissonance has given rise to three popular theories to explain the apparent gaffes, which aren’t mutually exclusive and often can be found bundled together:

  • First, that the 87-year-old Francis is beginning to lose his grip, showing his age by reverting to expressions of Latin American machismo that may be part of his early formation, but which don’t represent his developed thinking or genuine pastoral instincts.
  • Second, that Francis is not a native Italian speaker and doesn’t understand the shock value or negative connotations some of these linguistic formulae may carry.
  • Third, that these revelations are not only violations of the pope’s confidence, since he believed he was speaking informally and off the record, but they’re being ripped out of context and put into circulation by enemies seeking to destabilize and weaken the papacy.

Though each of these explanations probably contains some degree of merit, there’s an unspoken assumption common to all three that deserves to be questioned: To wit, that the pope’s utterances were mistakes. All three theories, in other words, presume that these were slips of the tongue, and that whatever scandal has been caused was therefore unintentional.

Just for the sake of it, suppose that assumption is wrong.

Suppose, instead, that Francis actually is still fully alert and on top of his game, that his command of colloquial Italian is thorough and impressive, and that he isn’t so naïve as to believe that whatever he says in a room full of more than 230 bishops, or more than 100 priests ordained in the last ten years – some of whom, he knows full well in both cases, aren’t his biggest fans – wouldn’t leak out.

For the record, those suppositions are consistent with the repeated insistence from admirers of Francis over the last 11 years that he’s a savvy, world-wise figure, fully aware of what’s going on around him. In that light, it seems at least worth considering the possibility that his self-awareness and calculation didn’t simply disappear over the last fortnight.

If so, then why would Francis deliberately have used expressions he must have known would cause consternation? At least two possible explanations suggest themselves.

The first is the element of surprise, to wit, that a slightly mischievous part of Francis simply enjoys keeping people guessing. The moment he senses that people think they have him figured out, he’s often inclined to cut in a different direction.

This is a pope who doesn’t want anyone thinking they know his mind, and keeping people on their toes in terms of whatever he might say next serves that purpose.

Secondly, the content of Francis’s controversial recent utterances, on gays and women, were tailor-made to elicit irritation and criticism from what one might call the “liberal elite,” both inside and outside the Catholic Church. The same might be said, though without the shock value, of his recent “no” to women deacons.

Is there some reason Francis might actually want to provoke that constituency right now?

Well, consider that we’re now just three months away from the final act of Francis’s long-running Synod of Bishops on synodality, with the concluding summit set for October. All along there have been fears about what this process might produce, especially among more conservative and traditional Catholics, who don’t always take Francis at face value when he insists he has no intention of changing doctrine but merely pastoral practice.

Perhaps in the wake of the recent contretemps, such fears will recede a bit, reducing some of the turbulence surrounding the synod.

Longer term, at 87, and facing a concentric series of health challenges, Francis has to be considering the question of what might come after him. If he wants to clear a path for someone cut from the same cloth to succeed him, part of the electoral math may be reassuring centrist and right-leaning figures in the College of Cardinals that his agenda isn’t actually as radical as it’s been styled in some circles.

The sight of this pope being skewered by the liberal elite, even if only for a moment and only half-heartedly, might therefore serve his purposes in terms of trying to shape the landscape for the next conclave.

Are these considerations truly what Francis had in mind while channeling his inner Howard Stern?

I have no idea, in part because the pope himself has not addressed the situation. However, this reconstruction at least does Francis the courtesy of not assuming he’s going into decline, or that he’s suddenly turned into a naïf overnight.

Instead, it presumes a pope who knows exactly what he’s doing, even if it upends people’s expectations or offends their sensibilities – i.e., it assumes a pope very much like the one we’ve got.