“It’s a literary style that supports a thinking style, and if you ignore the poetry of it, you’ve lost the genre.”


This Pope is confounding more than just a few folks and I’m not merely talking about his encyclical Laudato Si.

His latest off-the-cuff-stream-of-consciousness comments, delivered before a crowd of young people in Turin, Italy, are being widely criticized:

It makes me think one thing: people, leaders, entrepreneurs that call themselves Christians, and produce arms! This gives some mistrust: they call themselves Christians! “No, no, Father, I don’t produce them, no, no …. I only have my savings, my investments in arms factories.” Ah! And why? “Because the interest is somewhat higher …” And a double face is also a current coin today: to say something and do another. Hypocrisy …l But let’s see what happened in the last century: in ’14, ’15, in ’15 in fact. There was that great tragedy in Armenia. So many died. I don’t know the figure: more than a million certainly. But where were the great powers of the time? Were they looking elsewhere? Why? Because they were interested in war: their war! And those that died were persons, second class human beings. Then, in the 30s and 40s the tragedy of the Shoah. The great powers had photographs of the railroad lines that took trains to the concentration camps, such as Auschwitz, to kill the Jews, and also Christians, also the Roma, also homosexuals, to kill them there. But tell me, why didn’t they bomb that? Interest! And shortly after, almost contemporaneously, were the lager in Russia: Stalin … How many Christians suffered, were killed! The great powers divided Europe among themselves as a cake. So many years had to pass before arriving at “certain” freedom. It’s that hypocrisy of speaking of peace and producing arms, and even selling arms to this one who is at war with that one, and to that one who is at war with this one!

Into the midst of the seemingly conflicting words of Pope Francis wades Jennifer Fitz with food for thought:

Is the Pope rolling around on the podium, tormented by a hawk on one shoulder and a dove on the other?  No.  Rather, there are several important language and thought patterns being used here that we need to recognize and understand.

1. “High Context” vs. “Low Context” Speech

When we say someone’s manner of speaking is “high context” what we mean is that there’s a whole backstory you need to know if you want to understand the real message.  “Low Context” means that everything is completely spelled out for you.  The statement stands alone, crystal clear.
Some cultures are well-known for being “high context.”  Communication is subtle.  You’re expected to read between the lines.  People who don’t “get it” are considered a bit thick.  They try your patience.  High-context speech works well if the people communicating have the common experience necessary to pass subtle cues.  This is why my older sister and I used to be able to win Pictionary every time: We could draw on a whole lifetime of references to inside jokes, family stories, and preferred words and phrases to quickly get a point across.
Americans as a nation use “low context” speech.  We’re a nation of immigrants, and that massive diversity means that your neighbor probably doesn’t know what you’re referring to in your subtle hints or witty references.  You have to spell everything out.  We dislike jargon, we resent people who won’t say plainly what they mean, and we expect you to mean what you say and say what you mean.
Interestingly, though, American Internet Catholics are a high-context people.  We have a whole collection of cultural references that quickly paint a picture of what we mean.  Say, “the Spirit of Vatican II,” and an astute reader will look at the source (National Catholic Reporter or National Catholic Register?) and know exactly what is being implied, no further explanation necessary.
Because AIC’s live in this dual world, when someone uses a high-context reference to mean something other than what it usually (to us) implies, we expect it to be spelled out.  If you tell someone on the internet, “I’m a social justice Catholic,” you know that you have to quickly say, “who is faithful to the magisterium of the Catholic Church!” unless you wish to be taken for someone who picks and chooses among the doctrines of the faith.  Our high-context habits require low-context speaking to clarify anytime we deviate from code.
This creates a huge conflict with Pope Francis: He’s a high-context speaker, but who is using a completely different set of contexts than we American Internet Catholics are used to.  His frame of reference is the deposit of the faith and his decades of living between two worlds: The richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor.  We AIC’s are used to questioning whether someone believes and accepts the entirety of the Catholic faith; Pope Francis takes it for granted that it’s his job to promulgate the fullness of truth.  We AIC’s are used to moral discussions focused on our particular corner of the world; the Pope is often referring to circumstances utterly unlike our own.

Ms. Fitz goes on to cite linear versus interconnected thinking and sound bite versus developed arguments as thought and language patterns that need to be understood before we understand Pope Francis.

That of course is going to be problematic in a largely meme driven society that expects philosophy to be summarized and tweeted in 140 characters.

The challenge for Catholics and the rest of the world is to think, and I do mean seriously ponder, the Pope’s words before reacting to them.

Not exactly an easy thing in a culture that values shallowness and triteness.

Crossposted at Brutally Honest.

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