As the Catholic world continues to buzz about the comments Pope Francis is portrayed as making in a documentary film by Evgeny Afineevsky, claims have come from different quarters, of film footage-manipulation and editorial montage that make the pope appear to say something he did not say, or at least to say the things he appears to have said in a very different order from that in which he actually said them. The Vatican communications outfits have so far issued no clarification on behalf of the Holy Father. Here is how the story has unfolded, as of Friday mid-day.
News breaks and develops
The furore erupted Wednesday afternoon, when reports began to reach readers with sensational headlines announcing a major change in Church discipline regarding civil unions for same-sex couples. In the most oft-impugned film clip, the Pope is heard to say:
Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family. They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it. That, which we must create, is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.
The clip does show Pope Francis saying those words in that order. Some news outlets including CNA and the Catholic Herald further quoted the pope as saying, “I stood up for that for that,” or, “I fought for that.” Unofficial papal explainers rushed to parse the quotes, and bishops issued their own statements reiterating Church teaching — some more clearly than others — while journalists on the ground in Rome scrambled to figure out what the story really was.
Some early stories gave the news as good, and announced that it must signify a radical change in Vatican — hence in Church policy toward an enormously complex social policy question that is not only capable but demanding of nuance and careful consideration every time it emerges as a live issue, which it never does in the same way twice — not precisely — and has been fought and won and lost in several jurisdictions already, including a decade ago in Pope Francis’s own native Argentina.
What is reasonably clear is that the top two thirds of the impugned remarks, “Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family. They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it,” track very closely with things Pope Francis has said repeatedly. They also should not be terribly controversial, as it is abundantly clear from other contexts in which he has said very similar things that he is talking about the families into which persons are born, who are sexually attracted to others of the same sex.
His message is essentially that parents should love their children, and shouldn’t either disown them or make them feel ‘less-than’ because of any burden they carry. Same goes for siblings, grandparents, etc.
The bottom third is more controversial even as a stand-alone. As the Catholic Herald noted Thursday, there is a real difference between saying Catholics can support certain kinds of civil unions and saying that Catholics must support civil unions designed specifically for homosexuals. The pope did say that, however one slices it, and a good deal of the heat this controversy has generated arguably stems from the stark terms in which Pope Francis stated his view of the matter.
Several narratives began to compete throughout the day on Thursday, some of which claimed Pope Francis had been more-or-less deliberately mistranslated in respect of one word — convivencias — which some self-appointed papal defenders claimed could not be rendered as “unions” because it referred to a state of fact. That was never plausible, but it got some play. By Thursday afternoon, Pope Francis’s theological assessor (and reputed erstwhile ghostwriter) Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, had gone a good ways toward quashing that line by saying the term is used in common speech as a synonym for uniones, especially in the context under consideration.
Claims also began to emerge regarding the reliability of the clip itself, which appeared to at least one film editor to have been created from as many as four discrete segments.
The rush to explain that Pope Francis had misspoken — again — or had been misquoted — again — or had been exploited in support of progressive ideological commitment — again — continued in the absence of clarity from either the filmmaker or the Vatican.
The film’s director, Afineevsky, was busy on Thursday receiving an Italian award for outstanding documentary filmmaking that highlights social and humanitarian issues. Vatican News reported that Afineevsky would receive the 18th Kineo Movie for Humanity Award in recognition of Francesco, his documentary take on Francis and the current pontificate.
Afineevsky has told journalists Francis made the remarks to him directly, during the course of interviews conducted sometime in 2018. Comparison of the footage, and transcripts, reveal a significant similarity with footage and verbiage captured during recording sessions for a wide-ranging interview conducted by the legendary Vaticanologist Valentina Alazraki, which aired in May of 2019 on Mexico’s Televisa network.
The New York Times quoted Televisa spokeswoman Teresa Villa as saying Pope Francis made the remarks during the course of the interview with Alazraki that ran in May 2019. The company subsequently clarified that the recordings were in the possession of the Vatican television archive, and claimed on Twitter not to be in possession of the unedited version and in fact never to have seen it.
Televisa spokesman Ruben Acosta Montoya told The Washington Post on Thursday evening: “Someone at the Vatican gave us the part that we did broadcast, and later they gave the rest of the material to someone else.” wrote.
If the Televisa tapes are the source of the remarks, as now appears to be the case, then lots of people have lots of explaining to do.
Why were the remarks regarding civil unions specifically edited out of the aired portion of the interview? To hear Televisa tell it, the Vatican made the decision. Why? Why did Mr Afineevsky claim he had the remarks during interviews he conducted? Did Afineevsky really make that claim? Or, was he misconstrued?
In any case, none of the answers to those questions help anyone move directly toward an answer to the overarching query: How did Vatican communications officials let this happen?
Two news cycles have now fully come and gone without any official clarification of the business, even though the Pope made the remarks perhaps as long as two years ago, and despite the ready availability of explanation and contextualisation. There does not even appear to be much of an effort to change the narrative. There was nothing in the noon bulletin relating to the controversy. By way of potential distraction, there were only a decree from the Apostolic Penitentiary regarding plenary indulgences in November — a month traditionally devoted to prayers of suffrage for the faithful departed — and news the Zayed humanitarian award committee were in to see the Holy Father on Friday morning.
November indulgences in corona-tide is a good Catholic story but not the sort of thing likely to grab the attention of mainstream secular news outlets.
The Zayed Award for Human Fraternity is given in recognition of “outstanding work by individuals or entities in creating breakthroughs and driving human progress”. Pope Francis and Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb of Al-Azhar in Cairo were the first to receive the prize, in 2019.
Meanwhile, what we have is an epic — now metastatic — media kerfuffle to which there is no end in sight, and it looks like folks at the Vatican are fairly happy with that.
*This story has been updated to include Televisa spokesman Ruben Acota Montoya’s statement to The Washington Post.
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