Pope Francis and the Art of War – UPDATED

Giotto, Peter striking ear of Malchus, John 18:10

“To see victory only when it is within the ken of the common herd is not the acme of excellence.”
— Sun Tzu

In my column over at First Things today, I hope to lay a calming hand on a few shoulders that had nearly gone spastic yesterday, in response to early reports of Pope Francis’ chat with reporters as he flew home from World Youth Day. A great many voices on social media were yelling that the pope was being “used” by the press to further a gay-sympathetic agenda; the fact that most secular reports dropped the pope’s clear reference to the Catechism, they argued, was evidence of it.

Well, I say never attribute to malice what can be explained by ignorance; I think most secular reporters omitting the reference really had no idea how much it mattered in the scheme of things. It did matter of course — to cite the Catechism is to acknowledge that the pope was speaking the Church’s long-voiced teaching on homosexual persons, in direct refutation of the prevailing “church hates gays” narrative the media promotes. But I’m not sure many reporters realized it.

In fact, I am not sure many people fully realize what Francis did on that plane, so let me tell you: he neutralized the power of the media narrative; he exposed the truth that in Christ there is mercy and forgiveness, and that the church exists to offer this in his name; he set whatever “gay lobby” exists in the church on notice that while he has no intention of acting as gay-priest-witch-hunter, he won’t tolerate a bloc acting against the interests of the church. Do you think I’m kidding? He said it right here:

The problem isn’t this [homosexual] orientation—we must be like brothers and sisters. The problem is something else, the problem is lobbying either for this orientation or a political lobby or a Masonic lobby.

But Francis did one more thing: he showed that Peter still carries a sword, but that he has learned a great deal about tactics and is therefore much more subtle than he was at Gethsemane:

In The Art of War, we read, “Speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy’s unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike him where he has taken no precautions.”

Francis is doing precisely that. Unlike Pope Benedict XVI, who was already despised by the press as Cardinal Ratzinger, Francis is the surprising, not-quite-known entity with whom the press is still unfamiliar and thus only marginally prepared to counter. He keeps people on their toes. He declines interviews, then unexpectedly pops in for one, and then proclaims the reality of Church teachings through a subject the press cannot resist covering.

The fretting and hand-wringing that greets the news on any given day misses the fact that God takes the long view: What seems urgent to us is the merest puff of a moment within the movement of his will, toward his eventual ends. If the press thinks they are moving a socio-political ball forward by quoting a pope who is teaching eternal truths, so what? Why should that trouble anyone? Just as a priest need not be in a state of grace to celebrate a licit mass, the motivations of a reporter who repeats our teachings do not matter. In this way, victory is assured. The headlines are incidental to the action of the Holy Spirit, who exploits them to work God’s own will.

Francis is no fool. He’s a man from South America who went against the Liberation Theology people in his own society, and paid a price for it. He is a warrior. People think they’re seeing defeat, here. I see victory. Read the whole thing, here.

And thanks to Frank Weathers for casually lobbing a Sun Tzu my way. It made it all pretty plain.

Over at Return to Rome, Frank Beckwith
has some excellent further thoughts on Francis; Warrior-Man!

The Holy Father is a rhetorical genius here. For the media, “being gay” means celebrating one’s homosexual identity and living it out. That’s not what Francis means, especially given his strong opposition to state recognized same-sex marriage as well as his reference to the Church’s teachings in the Catechism. Replace “homosexual” or “gay” with any number of nouns that we employ to describe people who have certain inclinations and ask yourself if Francis’ comments cohere perfectly with what the Church teaches. Of course they do!

I think what Francis is doing is something I have suggested for quite some time: use the language of inclusion and openness to advance a countercultural, and distinctly Christian, understanding of the nature of the human person. In other words, speak the truth in love. (Wow, what a radical concept!) So, instead of saying that prolifers oppose abortion–which is the language our adversaries want us to speak–we say, with complete integrity and confidence, that we want a community that is open to all human persons regardless of their size, level of development, environment, or dependency.

Read the whole thing.

Pope Francis uses words when he has to, but increasingly I think he’s going the Full Franciscan route, and only using them when necessary. I know some people are up in arms because he hasn’t used the word “abortion” yet — as though it hasn’t been used and overused these 40 years — I think he’s going another route. When he jumps out of a jeep to kiss a deformed man, or asks — as he did in Rio — to be given a chance to meet and bless a “defective” baby, it says everything the pro-life movement could possibly want him to say: God loves his creation; all life matters.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Ron Turner

    I still don’t know what he actually said. I’m not fluent in Italian or Spanish, and having never seen an official translation of the remarks, am not going to rely on “quotes” generated by an unknown translator.

  • Bob Carlton

    Utterly surreal to see a 600 BCE an ancient Chinese military general, strategist, and philosopher used as some type of rationale for the comments of a Pope. Honestly, how about Mao ? Gen Braxton Bragg ? Gen Noriega ?

  • Tony

    Lizzy, you are the best! I hope your summer is improving, from the sounds of your last few post, it seems it is, God Bless!

  • vox borealis

    I hope you’re right, but I’m a little jaded and gun shy and cynical. I’m much more comfortable with the way the media dealt with Benedict XVI. They hated him, true, and they took him out of context, but at the end of the day they reacted to Benedict by crying “look at how old fashioned and conservative and backward and Catholic he is…the church is never going to change those unpopular dogmatic teachings.” And of course, this is correct, the Church will not change dogma. With Francis, so far it’s “look how this pope is changing things.” And it doesn’t matter if it’s not true, because the *message* will actually cause more scandal, I predict.

    But I do so hope Anchoress is righter than I.

  • tj.nelson

    I think you are right. I really believe he knows exactly what he is doing, however, I do not think he is actually, deliberately employing particular tactics – I doubt he sees ‘others’ as the enemy. He speaks simply and straightforwardly, abandoning protocol and ‘bishop-speak’. He thinks clearly and speaks clearly. We just aren’t used to such clarity. MSM did neglect to catch the catechism reference, which grounded what he said, but the upshot is that non-religious gay people see the Pope and the Church in a much better light.
    That said – what Pope’s words haven’t been twisted to suit other people’s agendas in recent times?

  • Cincinnatus1775


  • mmr

    thank you, thank you, thank you…..

  • Bob Carlton

    Imagine if progressive Catholic suggested using strategies from the ART OF WAR in their efforts.

  • joannemcportland

    There is no question that he used the word ‘gay.’ I’ve seen the footage, and that English word was what he used in his remarks, not some Italian or Spanish equivalent. People can argue about whether that has positive or negative or neutral consequences, but not about whether that was the word he used.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    I’ve come now to think the media is making a mountain over a molehill. The Pope hasn’t changed a thing. That he used the word “gay” is the big deal? I think the media is overly parsing language that came off the cuff. Respect for homosexuals was always the position of the church. It was the gay activists who were unhappy with the lack of acceptance to their lifestyle who polarized positions. It was the gay community that was shutting off communication. They heard what they wanted to hear. If the gay community wants to take that parsing as a sign of acceptance, great. They have finally heard what the Catholic Church has been saying. If the Pope is that great a communicator then that is great. I look forward to more stereotyped notions of Catholic doctrine to fall away. Frankly I think events just rolled themselves out, and just like the “gay lobby” quote was off the cuff, so was this.

  • MeanLizzie

    Rationale? No. Comparison.

  • MeanLizzie


  • MeanLizzie

    I know that there are some who would prefer that Catholic bloggers and pressfolk NOT discuss what the pope said until the “official” Vatican translation is available, but that won’t be here for a while yet, and the news won’t stop for it, so we are forced to do our poor best with what we have. In this case, we have John Allen and Cindy Wooden, who are very professional and reliable reporters, and we have the videotape, which folks who speak Italian have confirmed. We would all love it if the Vatican could give us a fast turnaround on translations (and even 24 hours would be fast) but that’s not possible, right now. Hopefully it will be, someday.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    You make a good point. The new media narrative may divide Catholics and cause internal strife. I had not thought of that.

  • Gemma L Rivera

    Pope Francis is a genius and most are slow to catch on to this Pope from the ends of the earth. They mistake his humbleness & congeniality with weakness. However, the secular media is also a tsunami – it devastates whatever truths that lie in its wake. So the conservative media cannot be complacent and just hope that beauty of our faith will eventually reveal itself. There is, indeed, a delicate war waged here.

    One of the best angles to this story is Teahan’s (was under her byline earlier) of Catholic Herald http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2013/07/30/catholic-herald-view-pope-franciss-plain-speaking-is-perfect-for-our-age – she confirms that the Pope & of course, the Church welcomes everyone including gays. But what was special about the Francis’ talk is that it is Evangelical! It is a call to communion by following the path of holiness.

    Another great analysis is by Lawler http://www.catholicculture.org/commentary/otn.cfm?id=989 he sets the discussion straight and goes further – looks at how we can expect Pope Francis to go about his reform in the curia not by expelling everyone en masse but through forgiveness & conversion.

  • DarthLevin

    When the news reports that the Holy Father said something that doesn’t seem to comport with my understanding of the faith, I try to do two things:

    1) I remember that the secular media is famously ill-informed, particularly on matters of faith, and that the primary function of media is to provide sensationalism rather than journalism.

    2) I ask if my understanding of the faith is in some way misaligned with the Church, and do I need to change my mind or heart?

    Pope Francis is challenging, and in a good way. He is helping me to examine myself in ways I haven’t done in a long time, if ever. I’ve reacted to several of the Pope’s reported statements with, “What?! Did he really say that!” and then thought, “He is the Pope, after all, don’t dismiss what he said out of hand”. If nothing else, it brings a pause that invites reflection rather than a knee-jerk reaction.

  • John Bugay

    The real issue shouldn’t be any change in homosexual policy. The real issue should be that Ratzinger’s document said “the Bishop or major superior, before admitting the candidate to ordination, must arrive at a morally certain judgment on his qualities”, whereas Bergoglio is saying “Who am I to judge?”

    For Pope Francis, it’s an abrogation of duty.

  • Teri

    this article is perfect!!! Thank you…

  • SteveP

    Ah ha! Sun-Tzu source revealed!

  • kmk1916

    “The good Lord, he made them all…”

  • Illinidiva

    In the past, the sin has been overemphasized. Even though Francis just quoted the Catechism, the change in tone was a big deal. It is obvious that Francis has no interest in fighting the culture wars. He basically said as much in his press conference.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    You think you can tell Francis has “no interest in fighting the culture wars” from that ambiguous statement? I don’t know. It seems to me that being Pope he is responsible for defending the Catholic culture. Frankly I think you’re wrong. The way he slapped down the LCWR, otherwise known as the Liberal Nuns, tells me he very much is engaged in the culture wars.

  • Illinidiva

    “You think you can tell Francis has “no interest in fighting the culture wars” from that ambiguous statement?”

    The fact that gay marriage and abortion have come up only in passing reference suggest that he really isn’t interested in sexual morality. In fact, he mentioned as much in his impromptu press conference when someone asked why hot button social issues didn’t come up during WYD. Francis pointed out that the Church’s position is clear and he really didn’t feel like mentioning it again during WYD.

    He does mention it obliquely and will show rather than tell. But it is clear Francis is more interested in economic inequality and social justice. He also sees himself as a moderate figure between the rigid traditionalists and liberal hippy wings of the Church. I think that his whole message is that the reason why the Catholic Church is in such dire straits is because both wings have spent years snapping at each other rather than finding lost sheep and engaging the world.

    “The way he slapped down the LCWR, otherwise known as the Liberal Nuns, tells me he very much is engaged in the culture wars.”

    Just because he is refusing to engage the cultural war on the conservative side doesn’t mean he is suddenly going to declare Vatican III or endorse liberal Catholic pet projects like the LCWR want him to. Additionally, they are engaging in self-promotion of the sort that annoys Francis. I don’t think that a Sister Simone type would have been embraced in Buenos Aires. Francis doesn’t see riding around in a bus surrounded by TV cameras and going on entertainment talk shows as social justice. What is happening in the LCWR is similar to the careerism and self-promotion that annoys him with priests.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    The fact that he didn’t want to bring it up on WYD only means he didn’t want to step on the WYD message. Frankly I cannot believe he will have a papacy turning a blind eye to sexual morality, possibly the central issue of the modern world. The reason the modern world, despite all its riches, technical advancements, medical achievements, has gone wrong is mostly due to the failure to uphold sexual morality. So what are you saying, he’s suddenly going to shrug his shoulders at homosexuality, premarital sex, and pornography just to save a few souls from leaving the church?

  • Illinidiva

    “The fact that he didn’t want to bring it up on WYD only means he didn’t want to step on the WYD message.”

    Francis has alluded to social issues in the past, but hasn’t really discussed them as much as his previous two predecessors. He did applaud the March for Life participants, but those are his only comments with the actual words abortion. His idea of a “throwaway culture” includes abortion and the unborn, but he is also concerned about young adults and the elderly as well. I think that he plans to focus on the entire “seamless garment of life” rather than one small part of it.

    “I cannot believe he will have a papacy turning a blind eye to sexual morality, possibly the central issue of the modern world. The reason the modern world, despite all its riches, technical advancements, medical achievements, has gone wrong is mostly due to the failure to uphold sexual morality.”

    Francis would disagree with you about the central issue of the modern world. He sees economic injustice as much more important.

  • Sven2547

    “Rhetorical genius”? He really just repeated what the official party line has been for years.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    “Francis has alluded to social issues in the past, but hasn’t really discussed them as much as his previous two predecessors.”
    He’s only been Pope for four months. Neither of us can make any judgement on what are his central issues. I think everyone is hearing what they want to hear. That’s the sign of a master politician. Frankly I will be shocked if he shrugs off social issues. He will find that the church has zero power on effecting economic issues (no country is going to change their economic policy over what the Pope says) and some power to effect social issues.

  • Illinidiva

    I agree that it is too early to tell, but also think that Francis is deliberately taking a softer tone and dialing back on social issues. There is enough hints from Argentina that suggest he is more of a moderate (at least in tone and somewhat in policy.. i.e. civil unions) to suggest a different tone. And he definitely is positioning poverty and social justice at the center of his pontificate.