Why does this champion of the marginalized favor an unfortunate metaphor?
The spontaneous speech and actions of Pope Francis have revolutionized the image of the papacy and won admiration well beyond the confines of the 1.2 billion members of the Roman Catholic Church. In words and acts the Pope has reached out to those who live on the margins of society, and has encouraged others to do likewise.
While winning many friends, the Pope’s extempore style of communication has also become a matter of concern, particularly to more conservative Catholics. And his repeated use of the term “leprosy” as a metaphor for moral failings has caused dismay among those engaged in the battle for the eradication of the disease.
Last year the WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination and other leaders representing leprosy sufferers wrote to the Pope urging him not to use the disease as a metaphor for sin. The Vatican sent them a courteous response, assuring them of the Catholic Church’s commitment to ending discrimination, but Francis has continued to use the metaphor.
Having used “leprosy” to decry clerical careerism and the court-like atmosphere prevailing in the Vatican hierarchy, Pope Francis has now used the term to condemn the scandal of priestly pedophilia. In an interview published in the Rome daily La Repubblica on July 13, the Pope acknowledged that “even we have this leprosy in our house.”
The interview was a good example of the problems sometimes caused by Francis’ free-wheeling approach to communication. It took place with the 90-year-old founder of the newspaper, Eugenio Scalfari, an avowed atheist who is in the habit of reconstructing his conversations with public figures from memory, rather than taking notes or recording them.
The Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, warned afterward that not all the statements in the interview could be attributed with certainty to the Pope. Some details were incorrect, he said, though he did not deny use of the word “leprosy”.
A Vatican official, who asked not to be named, said he was not sure whether the letter from the leprosy campaigners ever actually arrived on the Pope’s desk. The Pope used the term because of its graphic power and because it occurred frequently in the Bible, he said.
“I can understand the concern here, but in countries where leprosy is an issue you will find the Catholic Church in the front line in health care,” the official said. “It probably doesn’t cross the Pope’s mind that he’s stepping into a dangerous area here.”
In his actions, Pope Francis has done much to combat prejudice. Last November he publicly embraced Vinicio Riva, an Italian man suffering from disfiguring neurofibromatosis, and he subsequently hugged another middle-aged man with large portions of his facial features missing.
“This Pope’s idealism is so clearly readable in his actions that it is missing the point to call him a clever communicator,” wrote art critic Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. But there are some who are beginning to harbor doubts about his “cleverness” in this department.
Giuseppe Rusconi, who reports on the Vatican for a Swiss newspaper, said the Pope’s use of the word “leprosy” was a literary reference based on his reading of the Bible. It was paradoxical that someone who was reaching out to the most marginalized should cite a category of people condemned to live on the fringes of society from biblical times onwards, he said. “Today it’s no longer appropriate.”
Rusconi said the Pope faced a wider problem, however. Speaking mainly in Italian, a language over which he does not have total mastery, he could be drawn into error by the similarities and differences with his mother tongue, Spanish.
“The distinctions are important for a Pope, who is looked to for leadership by hundreds of millions of Catholics,” Rusconi said. “He wants to reach everybody by using simple language, but there is a danger that his message will become imprecise.”
Rusconi said the Pope’s approach to communications, which went down well with non-Catholics, had already caused a degree of confusion and dismay among the practicing faithful. “Everybody knows there’s a problem. Priests, bishops, even cardinals have been talking about it,” he said.
The worry may not have been conveyed to the Pope, because of the reverential fear prevailing in the papal court — condemned by Francis himself — and which may have prevented the leprosy campaigners’ letter from reaching him.
Philip Willan is a Rome-based journalist and author of the book The Vatican at War: From Blackfriars Bridge to Buenos Aires.