Both Pontiff and President-elect have caused the press to exclaim 'Did he really just say that?'

It would seem that between the American president-elect and the Pope there is a chasm, the former representing a triumph for those values most antithetical to the preaching of Pope Francis. That is largely true, but what fascinates is their similarities.

Earlier this year Pope Francis remarked that, on account of his plan to build a wall on the Mexican border, Donald Trump was “not a Christian”. The New York Times’s Ross Douthat, one of America’s most astute religious commentators, wrote of this “clash of the populists”:

“For all the ways in which Francis and Trump differ, as figures on the global stage they’re also strangely alike – in the forces that they’re channelling, their style of public salesmanship, and their relationship to the institutions they either head or aspire to lead. [They express] the same exhaustion with institutions, the same desire to somehow ‘‘make a mess’’ (as Francis likes to put it) and start anew.

“This mirroring extends to their rhetoric, where both men have a fondness for, well, name-calling that’s rare among presidential candidates and popes. The insults differ: Trump calls people ‘‘low energy’’, ‘‘liar’’ and ‘‘loser’’, while Francis prefers ‘‘Pharisee’’ and ‘‘self-absorbed Promethean neo-Pelagian’’ (though he’s not above ‘‘whiner’’ and ‘‘sourpuss’’ as well). But their pungent language reflects a shared mastery of the contemporary media environment, in which controversy and unpredictability are the great currencies, and having people constantly asking “Did he really just say that?” is the surest ticket to the world’s attention.”

“Did he really just say that?” has been the unofficial motto of an exuberant Vatican press corps since March 2013. Every time the Vicar of Christ on Earth gets airborne, reporters know that their editors will be hungrily awaiting clickbait for a thousand news sites worldwide.

Last August I wrote in these pages that Pope Francis does not use theological terms in their traditional meanings, so he has to be understood in a different way. When the Holy Father uses “grace”, “conscience”, “absolute” or “heresy”, he does not mean what the theological tradition means by them.

My argument would have been clearer had I known then what Salena Zito would write about Donald Trump in September. In a quotation that has been making the rounds since his election victory, she wrote: “When [Trump] makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” When Zito asked Trump whether that explained his rhetoric, he commented that it was an “interesting” analysis.

Given the Catholic practice of adorning homilies, teaching documents, letters, articles and columns with papal quotations – styled in a gentler age as having been “gathered from the august lips of the Supreme Pontiff” – our default is most certainly to take the Holy Father both seriously and literally. We have now learned that doing that causes no little confusion, as Pope Francis literally expresses himself with hyperbole and invective that cannot be true. Catholics are not used to taking the pope seriously but not literally.

Yet that Trumpian distinction might go a long way to reducing the anxiety over much of what the Holy Father says – as for example last week, when he expressed his lack of enthusiasm for the Tridentine Mass by questioning the psychological health of young people who prefer it.

Consider those four cardinals who asked Pope Francis to clarify the teaching of Amoris Laetitia. They are taking literally a document exquisitely drafted not to be clear. To ask what it means literally is to mistake its purpose.

Oxford Dictionaries announced last week that its word of the year for 2016 was “post-truth”, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. The term became widely employed in coverage of both the Brexit campaign and Trump’s presidential run. “Post-truth” is another way of saying things are to be understood seriously, but not literally.

Pope Francis and president-elect Trump are among the most influential communicators on the contemporary scene. The messages are different, but the messengers have the same manner. Did they really just say that? They did, and they have changed how leaders speak. It remains for audiences to learn how to listen, with an attention that is serious, but not literal.

This article first appeared in the November 25 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here