In just three years, Pope Francis has taken the world by storm, and it is largely on the back of his great, tweetable soundbites. But the reason why those soundbites have been so effective is because they’re so multilayered.
Part of what makes Francis’s soundbite strategy successful is that they’re often vague, acting as a Rorschach Test for every constituency. This is deliberate, and there is a very good reason that goes unremarked upon: The quotes are designed to work on several levels at once, addressing a different message to different constituencies.
In this, he is the consummate Jesuit, always playing multidimensional chess several moves ahead. But he has an even more hallowed precedent—none other than Jesus Christ.
Jesus also liked to stun audiences with shocking, deliberately vague and multilayered soundbites.
Take the famous “Give back to Cesar what belongs to Cesar, give to God what belongs to God” in response to whether Jews should pay taxes to a Roman occupier they viewed as illegitimate. On one level, the quote meant that resistance against the Romans should be peaceful. On another level, it was a putdown against Caesar—the Roman emperor claimed to be a god, but the quote reminds that he is a mere mortal, and to be regarded with indifference. And of course on a third level it was an important statement that politics cannot save us.
Jesus was rejecting violent radicalism while strengthening his legitimacy as a Jewish prophet of national liberation; giving Rome what they wanted while undermining their claims to power. No wonder he made such an impression.
Like his predecessor John Paul II, he has keenly and rightly identified one of the key challenges of the Catholic Church in the 21st century as overcoming its negative image and presenting its faith as more than a long list of “don’ts.”
But, as Francis well knows from his decades of church governance, this problem is a symptom of an underlying problem. The church, for all its impressive size and institutional and cultural resources, has in many ways become a ship of spiritually lukewarm passengers led by complacent bureaucrats.
Thus, his soundbites work on two levels at once, delivering one message to the world at large, and another to the Catholic faithful.
Take one of his most famous quotes: “Who am I to judge?” regarding gay Christians who strive to follow church teaching. Was he changing doctrine? No. Was he trying to signal a change in doctrine? No. Did he know what impact that statement would have? You bet.
So, what is going on? On one level, he is saying to the world at large: “Take another look. We’re not who you think we are.” On the other, he is giving the profound spiritual advice to faithful Catholics to refuse to judge their brethren.
Or take his exhortation to build a church that “goes out to the peripheries” of society. On the one hand, he is reminding the world at large of the church’s doctrine on social justice and the immense work it does for the poor every day. On the other hand, he is reminding faithful Catholics of their duty to the “least of these.”
This multifaceted aspect of his rhetoric is why some Catholics find him infuriating, but it is also a very canny way to fulfill his office. It’s a clever strategy, and also one that shows us how he is a pastor in the classical Christian mode, who sometimes has to shock us out of our everyday complacency to bring us closer to God.