Pope Francis was greeting the crowds during his New Year’s message at the Vatican, when a woman forcibly grabbed his hand and pulled him toward herself. The pope could be seen (in the video) immediately — seemingly involuntarily — grimacing in pain (my strong impression, anyway). Then he slapped the woman’s hand as she was shaking his, scolded her, and walked away with a scowl.
These are the bare facts. I will examine them more closely in a minute. CNN (the good ol’ “fake news network”) saw fit to interpret this with an outrageous and indefensible headline: “Pope Francis slaps woman’s hand, then denounces violence against women.”
The secular media thought this was an earth-shaking story, that the pope (a human being like all of us) momentarily lost his patience. So tons of media outlets were quick to report on it. To be fair, many (if not most of the same ones) also noted his apology.
On New Year’s Day, the pope (visibly upset) apologized, saying,”The patience of love: love makes us patient. So often we lose patience. So do I, and I apologize for yesterday’s bad example.” That ought to put an end to it, according to elementary Christian teaching on repentance and forgiveness. But we know that it won’t. I expect our beloved Catholic reactionaries to be all over this in a day or two.
Here’s a bit of “news”: the pope is human like anyone else. Catholic teaching doesn’t hold that popes are perfect (impeccable); only that they are infallible: and that only in specifically defined instances on particular topics (not all topics). After all: who was the first pope appointed by Our Lord Jesus? It was St. Peter: the tempestuous and impulsive (yet lovable and zealous) disciple who denied Him three times.
St. Paul later famously rebuked him for hypocrisy (while not disagreeing with his teaching). He wasn’t perfect. No pope ever has been, and the Catholic Church has never taught such a silly thing. Nor does it teach that saints (save the Blessed Virgin Mary) are perfect and sinless. St. Paul himself wrote:
Romans 7:14-15, 19, 24 (RSV) We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin.  I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . . .  . . . I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. . . .  Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
In the next chapter — thankfully — he triumphantly provides the solution for himself and all Christian believers: it’s the Holy Spirit and Jesus’ death on the cross and God’s grace and His indwelling that enable us to be “more than conquerors” (8:37). Yet we all stumble quite frequently on the journey and have to repent and ask forgiveness. In this respect, the pope is one of us. Now, it’s perfectly normal to expect his overall behavior to be exemplary, but he is human and ultimately, inevitably imperfect, like all of us.
Nor is anger and a loss of temper unknown to saints and other spiritually notable people. Philip Kosloski, in his article, “5 holy hotheads who worked for heaven” (Aleteia, 7-21-16) mentioned five examples: St. Peter, St. Jerome, Dorothy Day, St. Francis de Sales, and Mother Angelica:
Jerome was very outspoken about his impatience with mediocrity. He spoke his mind freely . . . His words would often get him into trouble and many did not like him. However, he was quite aware of his shortcomings and lived a life of penance. . . .
Saint Francis de Sales, confessed his blood would boil when overhearing certain jokes or humiliations. He battled his temper for over 19 years until he finally had it under control. This experience would help form his Introduction to the Devout Life, where he wrote extensively on anger. . . .
Mother Angelica . . . was known as a “hothead” and struggled to keep her strong feelings from boiling over. Mother Angelica was a passionate woman who was extremely stubborn and – when she believed injustice or error was involved – would even squabble with the Church hierarchy.
She had some great one-liners, and gave evidence of her own struggle with losing her temper when she said, “St. Jerome used to hit himself with a rock every time he lost his temper. I’d be dead as a doornail with no ribs if I did that.”
Other saints who had terrific tempers or “anger management” problems included St. Vincent de Paul, St. Benedict, St. Anthony, St. Padre Pio, and St. Thomas More.
Now, back to the incident itself. The first thing to be noted was how forcefully this woman (no doubt caught up in the excitement: to grant her all charity) grabbed him. This is quite relevant, because the pope is known to suffer from sciatica. According to an August 2017 article in Crux:
[T]he 80-year-old pontiff is receiving both massages and injections twice a week in order to reduce pain in his leg. . . .
Pope Francis first revealed that he suffers from sciatica, a nerve condition usually resulting from the herniation of a spinal disk, in 2013, during an in-flight press conference on his return from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, following a World Youth Day celebration.
In response to a question about his health, Francis said, “The worst thing that happened – excuse me – was an attack of sciatica – really! – that I had the first month, because I was sitting in an armchair to do interviews and it hurt. Sciatica is very painful, very painful! I don’t wish it on anyone!”
Generally speaking, the pain caused by sciatica is confined to one side of the body and is felt in the back and leg, although under some circumstances it may occur on both sides.
This pain from sciatica has even caused Pope Francis to fall on occasion (example: in Poland in July 2016). Interestingly (in relation to our immediate topic), this same article (in The Sun) stated:
Francis has stumbled before, most recently during a trip to Mexico when a crowd member pulled his arm. [my emphasis]
The latter incident appears to be similar to this one. A February 2016 article in The Telegraph (including the ubiquitous video footage) stated:
[T]he pope went over to greet the faithful, at which point two arms reached out to grab him.
The person, who is not seen in the video footage, did not let go, even after the pope lost his balance and fell onto a child in a wheelchair.
After aides and security men stopped the pope from falling to the ground, a flash of anger crossed his face as he stood upright.
Staring at the person, he raised his voice and said twice in Spanish: “Don’t be selfish!”
It’s clearly wrong to pull a pope’s arms so hard that he literally would have fallen down if aides (and a poor child in a wheelchair) hadn’t prevented it. Perhaps that incident didn’t involve pain. But it may have: just as this one very well may have. In an article about sciatica from New Jersey Neck and Back Institute, it was observed:
Sciatica is a term used to describe pain that begins in the lower back and radiates downward to the buttocks and through the leg, sometimes even reaching the foot. The pain is the result of compression of the sciatic nerve.
Generally affecting only one side of the body, the pain can range from a mild ache to excruciating sharp-shooting pain. Sciatic pain can sometimes feel like an electric jolt down your back and leg. It may even feel worse with sudden jerking movements, such as sneezing or coughing. [my emphasis]
I think we can put two and two together: the sudden grabbing of his arm caused him to be temporarily off-balance, which quite likely brought about quick severe pain from sciatica: the direct evidence of that being his grimace (the usual reaction to a flash of pain), and then (like most of us human beings have done 500 times) he lost his temper and slapped the woman’s hand.
Is any of us immune from an instant less-than-ideal reaction to terrible pain brought on by the actions of a human being or an inanimate object (like the quintessential bumping one’s head or smashing a finger with a hammer)?The woman made her “move” after the pope turned to walk away. The inappropriateness of this is shocking and staggering. As an analogy from my own experience: back when Reagan was President (that’s back in the 80s, for you youngsters), his VP, George H. W. Bush took part in a 4th of July parade here in metro Detroit. He was one person away from me when he decided to cross to the other side of the street.
Now, would I or should I have grabbed his arm so that I could shake his hand? It would be unthinkable (it would have never even crossed my mind in any conceivable universe): all the more so with the pope: especially at his age.
It’s the same with regard to the protocol for meeting the Queen [or King] of England. A July 2017 BBC News article, “Regal rules: The dos and don’ts for meeting the Queen” explains: “Don’t . . . Touch Her Majesty. Only shake her hand if she offers it.”
This abnormal and utterly improper “grabbing” or “yanking” of Pope Francis’ arm is evident in the video and was accordingly described as such by many of the reports (it’s not just my own impression):
[A] woman violently grabbed his hand . . . abruptly grabbing Francis’ hand from behind a barrier and yanking him towards her . . . (Fox News)
[A] well-wisher who grabbed him and yanked him toward her. . . . reached out and grabbed the pope’s hand, pulling him violently toward her. (News.Com.Au)
. . . holding on to him and pulling him toward her . . . (Time)
As he turns away, a woman in the crowd grabs his right hand with both of her hands and yanks the 83-year-old pope back, causing him to momentarily lose his balance. (New York Times)
[A] woman who yanked him toward her . . . when he begins to turn away, she grabs his hand and pulls him sharply toward her. (USA Today)
[S]he grabbed his hand and yanked him towards her. (BBC News)
So the consensus is that the gesture was too forceful; otherwise it wouldn’t be consistently described as it was above by all these journalists. Not so frequently noted, however, was the connection with sciatica. Newsweek, to its credit, mentioned it:
The pope appeared to have support on social media. Harvard legal professor Adrian Vermeule tweeted to his 24,000 followers that Francis “is an 83 year old man with bad sciatica,” adding, “being jerked around like that may have been quite painful.”
That was the only major media outlet I could find that incorporated the Holy Father’s sciatica into its reporting.
Even four years ago, the pope was walking slowly, not steady on his feet, and in need of assistance on steps:
The 78-year-old pontiff, currently on a whirlwind tour of Cuba and the United States that ends Sunday, has been observed walking slowly with faltering steps and getting help from accompanying priests when going up or down stairs.
“He has some problems in the movement of his legs. Some days are better than others,” Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told reporters . . . (Yahoo! News)
The same news outlet noted in May 2013, shortly after he became pope, that the Holy Father “walks with a slight limp because of apparent lower back pain . . .”
Even atheist David Gee, writing on the Friendly Atheist blog, gets it:
There are plenty of things the pope has done to warrant criticism, but this shouldn’t be on the list. Yes, he could’ve found a more patient way to deal with the woman, but he’s human (and hardly a conduit to God), he was possibly in pain, . . . (Consent applies even when you’re the pope!) I suspect many of us would’ve done the same thing in his position.
Apologizing for failing to represent a higher morality is more than appropriate here. Those suggesting the pope’s actions were malicious, violent, or hypocritical seem to be looking for any reason to condemn him. There are plenty of valid reasons to be critical of the pope. This isn’t one of them.
Of all the controversies the Church has been embroiled in over the years, this may be the least offensive of them all.
All things considered, I would say that the pope’s quick apology was exceedingly humble, if in fact, severe pain was involved (as seems very likely to me). He never mentioned that. He simply apologized for his bad behavior (as if pain had nothing to do with it). Again, how many of us would do that? He would have been fully justified to say something like, “I suffer from sciatica, and that partially caused me to react as I did; not to excuse it . . . ”
And people would certainly understand that (all of us having experienced similar things). But he didn’t. This is what humble people do. They refuse to make a remark in self-defense, even in partial self-defense, and even when it is fully warranted, and has significant explanatory value.
Nor did he mention being improperly “yanked” so violently. He preferred to simply make the moral point that it was wrong to react as he did: to be an example of a Christlike person who knows he is not perfect and recognizes when he has sinned (even if it is a fairly light sin, as I would submit), and publicly repents of it within 24 hours. It’s one of the many reasons that he is a great man and a great pope.
See also the vigorous discussion of this article on my Facebook page.