Catholicism poses a fundamental challenge to the contemporary belief that everything is relative (except, of course, the truth that there is no such thing as truth). Truth is the person of Christ, and what flows from that belief. It is precisely for this reason that there is concern when any occupant of the See of St Peter seems not to be giving a clear statement of Catholic belief; if the trumpet gives an uncertain sound … and all that. As an academic I am always happy to stir up thinking by questioning the assumptions my students have about their subject, but what is appropriate in one arena is not in another. I happen to believe that the University where I work is a force for good in the world, and even if I had doubts about some of the things it does (I don’t), I would not raise the issue in public. It remains a mystery to me why Pope Francis cannot follow that simple rule.
One lesson he, and the rest of us, can learn from the postmodernists is that it is not the authorial voice which is authoritative; it is what is heard, as much as what was meant by the author, which counts. If people keep getting a certain impression about what the Pope is saying, that does not mean they are right, but it does mean that those who advise him might point out that greater clarity would be useful.
Of course, there will always be those whose perspective is such that they will misread what is said. One of the things which has concerned me from the start of this Papacy is that from the moment Francis stepped out onto the balcony, there were those who were criticising him. They might want to tell us that everything that has happened since justifies their doubts, even as those who oppose them would tell us that such a reaction os simple self-confirmation bias. From there we descend into the world of ‘fake news’. As with President Trump, those who have no time for him will read everything he does and says as confirmation that they are right. Those on the Right who take the view that such a reaction simply proves the Left will never give Trump a break, might, if they are critical of Pope Francis, like to ponder the irony that in the eyes of the Pope’s supporters, they are doing what liberals do to Trump. As so it goes on.
In all of this, what of the faithful? As with much of our political discourse, it may be a sobering reminder that most people do not follow what obsesses parts of the blogosphere.
The Pope is infallible only in certain matters and on certain issues. If the impression has gained ground over the last thirty years that almost everything the Pope says is to be taken as Gospel, then that certainly would not be the fault of those who spent so much time criticising St Pope John Paul II. The irony of those people now shifting their position to the one they used to criticise is not lost on some of us; nor is the irony of their opponents changing places with them.
Contrary to what is sometimes implied, the Catholic Church has always had a lively intellectual life. How could it be otherwise in a living Church? In a world with 24/7 media this allows more of us access to that process, but we should remember that just as we would object to anyone impugning our good faith in taking up a position, so others will object if we do the same. Tone influences what is heard. From His Holiness down, all who engage in such discussions would do well to remember that.