08/01/2013 04:39 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

What Exactly Did Pope Francis Say?


What did Pope Francis actually say? All the media sources agree that he asked a question: "Who am I to judge them?" But there seems to be some uncertainty about who it is that Francis does not feel able to judge. If you read The New York Times, he said that he would not judge gay priests, a stance that, according to the article, sets him apart from his immediate predecessor, who blamed the sex scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church on gay men and sought to keep them from ordination. The website of the Milanese daily Corriere della Sera, however, narrows the scope significantly: The pope refused to judge "gays in the Vatican," a relatively small number of church functionaries, priests and laity alike. That is, at least on one page. On another, the headline is closer to that of America, a publication of the pope's own Jesuit order, which gave his words the broadest possible sense: "Pope on Gays: Who Am I to Judge?"

So who exactly is not being judged here? Gay Vatican bureaucrats, gay priests, or gays, period? And does it really matter? At the risk of being a nitpicking professor, trained in the close-reading habits of a literary scholar, I would argue that it does matter. But before I explain how, it might be good to try to answer another question: Why did these differences in the interpretation of the pope's words arise in the first place? I would suggest three reasons: transcription, context, and the desire of readers to see what they want.

For all our talk about "new media," we still rely on that ancient technology called reading. And if someone wants to read what the pope says, someone else needs to write those words down. This is particularly true for English-speaking audiences who do not know Italian. Transcribing the pope's words might seem a fairly straightforward thing, but even someone with no knowledge of Italian can see that the transcriptions circulating on the Internet do not agree. You can do this yourself. Go to the transcription on the website of America, and the one on the website for Corriere della Sera. Try searching for the string "non ho trovato." When you find it, compare the sentences that contain that string on the two websites, and you will see that the words are not the same.

Context is the second reason that the pope's words have inspired different takes. The pope's statement came in response to questions about Monsignor Battista Ricca, head of the Istituto per le Opere di Religione (IOR), the Vatican bank, who has been connected with the so-called "gay lobby" in the Vatican bureaucracy. This seems to explain the qualification in Corriere: The pope was thinking about the workings of the Vatican. And in this light, the take of The New York Times looks like a bit of a stretch. The pope's comments might lead to a slackening in efforts to chase gays out of the seminary, but it doesn't look like Pope Francis was thinking about this when he spoke.

The third problem is desire. And desire runs deeper than we realize. The New York Times article exemplifies the almost universal desire to read into the pope's words what we would like to see. It is no secret that there is a desire in media outlets like the Times to see in Pope Francis a movement toward a more "modern" Catholic Church, just as there was a desire to see in his predecessor a retreat into the past. This is not to say that there aren't real differences between the two living popes (it seems so strange to write those words), but "modernity" and "the past" might not be the best way to understand them. And it might not be honest to frame things this way if you do not admit that this is the way you want the world to work, that you desire the modernist narrative of progress, in part because you want to be on the side of modernism, the side of the winner. Journalists are supposed to report on the news, not on themselves. But that raises a very real question about whether journalists dedicated to objective, balanced reporting can ever be completely honest about their desires.

This is not just a problem for the media. Many people want to believe that the pope is speaking about them, that he is speaking to them, and that he is saying what they want to hear. A friend of mine posted on Facebook, "Finally!!!!! The hierarchy of the Catholic faith make one small step toward the modern concept of ideal. Hope it feels as good to him as it does to those who have kept the faith while still under the thumb of judgement, by those who should not cast the first stone." I received a mass email from another friend who leads the gay men's ministry at my parish, who said that Francis was "on fire." He meant on fire with the Holy Spirit, not that the pope was flaming.

So are my friends seeing the pope's words any more clearly than did the reporter at The New York Times? What's clear is that Pope Francis took this as an opportunity to talk about lobbies. What he said about lobbies seems to have confused the reporters. According to Corriere, he said, "Se è lobby, non tutte sono buone" ("If it's a lobby, not all of them are good"). According to America, he said, "Le lobby, tutte le lobby, non sono buone" ("The lobbies, all lobbies, are not good"). The first implies that there are some good lobbies. The second says that there are not.

I attempted my own transcription based on a video clip posted on Corriere, and what I hear the pope saying is closer to the version in America: "Le lobby, tutte, non sono buone." This is not exactly elegant Italian. It looks as if the pope started saying, "Lobbies are not good," and then, mid-sentence, threw in the word tutte ("all") to clarify that he made no exceptions. The roughness of his words is worth thinking about. Watching the video, it's clear that Pope Francis is thinking on his feet, searching for words in an Italian that, while very good, is still not his native language. After centuries of carefully scripted moments, we aren't used to that. It's risky. It's real. We like it.

According to the transcripts, Pope Francis singled out business lobbies, Masonic lobbies, gay lobbies -- none of them are good. I find his words interesting. In recent posts I've spent some time criticizing the tendency we Catholics have of imitating the cultural and political forms of the world surrounding us. "Lobbying" might seem an inevitable part of modern, democratic political life. It has almost replaced "petitioning," the almost quaint notion of asking for something simply because it's just. "Lobbying" seems self-interested, concerned with the ends more than the means, indifferent to the effects that our actions have on others. At the risk of stretching the words of the pope, I might argue that these words still imply a criticism of gay people in the church. There can be no gay lobby. There can be no modern lobby, no premodern lobby, no postmodern lobby. The Gospel is not conservative, not liberal, not democratic, not monarchic, neither Greek nor Jewish, neither male nor female. I hear the gospel in the loving resistance that causes us to stretch out for something better, even when we cannot see it. I hear it in Pope Francis' words, even though it is clear from the rest of the transcript that he considers gayness "a tendency" and still seems to associate it with sinfulness.

And yet he did say (and here the words in the video are all clear), "If a gay person seeks the Lord and has a good will, who am I to judge them?" He did not need to add these words to make his point that lobbies are not good. They are completely gratuitous. And when I use that word, I am taking it all the way back to its Latin root: "gratia." This was a moment of grace.