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What the Anglophone Press Misses About the Pope

It turns out that Western liberals’ favorite pope has the sexual sensibilities of an 87-year-old Italian-Argentinian man.

Pope Francis Delivers His Weekly Audience At The Vatican
(Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

Vatican-watching is, without a doubt, the lowest form of journalism, lower even than gossip or “media analysis.” For one thing, the substrate from which you’re working is, invariably, the Italian press, which has a much vaguer relationship with the truth than its Anglophone counterparts. For another, the Roman Church is one of the last tattered European imperial bureaucracies—a leaky, factionalized collection of cliques and camarillas whose various members will say more or less anything to do down their rivals at court.

Throat-clearing aside, Pope Francis most definitely said there is too much frociaggine (“faggotry”) afoot in the seminaries of Italy in response to the Italian ordinaries who proposed loosening rules against allowing gay men into the priesthood. Temporizing, equivocating, and apologizing ensued—although via emissaries. The successor of Peter himself has not taken to the airwaves to express any kind of remorse.


An anonymous source informs us that “‘frocio’ and its derivatives are the most offensive anti-gay slurs in Italian before the real top-tier ones”—apparently all the high-test stuff involves explicit references to the fundament.  

He added, “If some non-Anglophone immigrant who lived here for 10 years decided to start railing against ‘n*ggers,’ nobody would be like, ‘Well, it’s not his first language, and I respect that.’” So much for the philology.

This has been a confusing news cycle for the American press, which, since the infamous 2013 “Who am I to judge?” airplane interview, has been determined to shoehorn Francis into Western social liberalism—a lefty antithesis to the alleged hidebound dogmatism of the late Benedict XVI, whose reactionary credentials included acting as secretary for the revolutionary faction of the Second Vatican Council and penning vociferous defenses of social democracy and world government. It may not have anything to do with reality, but it sells papers. Unfortunately, our press has the habit of believing its own nonsense. When it turns out that Francis has the sexual sensibilities of an 87-year-old Italian-Argentinian, it is very distressing. 

The real Francis is much more interesting. He is not an even superficially coherent character. He has, above all, an unrefined taste for making people uncomfortable—the through-line between the airplane interviews and frociaggine and the fact that he is always talking about Satan. He gleefully headlined and then seemed instantly to regret the antics at his own Amazonian Synod. He has in large part suppressed the old form of the Mass and has gone to great lengths to insult those who hold Latinity fondly, but has regularized relations with the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X and says the modern Divine Office in Latin. (To give you an idea of how unusual this is, just the books to do the Latin Liturgy of the Hours will run you $300 in America. Not many people do it! It’s a pain in the neck!) He has cultivated “the synodal way” with much fanfare (and, along the way, has given up a massive amount of the Church’s arguments with the nation-states from the 18th century until, well, the beginning of this pontificate), but has wrung his hands publicly about the Germans taking it all too far. He happily wears native headgear and hands out red hats to the farthest-flung, smallest portions of the Church, but Eurocentrically listens to Wagner on his own time. Jorge Bergoglio, the man, is much more complicated and conflicted than Pope Francis, the liberal legend.

No, the American press has it all wrong; they also miss the point. All but one or two of Francis’s ideas and predilections are irrelevant in explaining the Vatican’s behavior. There are basically three major determinants of the Roman court’s policy under this papacy. First, the Vatican is functionally broke. This gives wealthy pressure groups—like the liberal, taxpayer-funded German prelates—outsized say in what is going on in the Eternal City. Second, Francis does genuinely dislike Americans; he has consistently broken with custom to stick it to the historical bastions of Catholicism in America, most visibly by denying red hats to the archbishops of Philadelphia and Baltimore. Third, Francis values personal control. His constant reorganization of the Curia and reassignment of personnel within its reorganized bodies, and his preference for keeping compromised loyalists around under his sole protection, strengthen his position as the singular axle on which the Roman wheel spins.

Maybe he’s born with it; maybe it’s Peronism. In any case, the Francis papacy’s story, when it is written, will not be one of clashing ideologies, let alone the glorious onward march of a progressive, enlightened Catholicism. It will be something more shadowy, more idiosyncratic, and more personal. There may not be much left of the Church as an institution, but what does remain will bear the mark, not of a party or a politics or a theological school, but of a man—of himself.