Misunderstanding Pope Francis

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, president of Argentina, with Pope Francis

The act of presenting a message can be tricky, because an audience might totally misinterpret the message.

Martin (2007) writes, “Stuart Hall’s “Encoding-Decoding” model of communication essentially states that meaning is encoded by the sender and decoded by the receiver and that these encoded meanings may be decoded to mean something else. That is to mean, the senders encode meaning in their messages according to their ideals and views and the messages are decoded by the receivers according to their own ideals and views, which may lead to miscommunication or to the receiver understanding something very different from what the sender intended. (Hall, 1993, 91)”

One public figure who is oft misunderstood when speaking is the current leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Speeches made by Pope Francis are sometimes misinterpreted by right-wing English-speaking audiences, because the Pontiff isn’t speaking to them in their language.

People who are accustomed to hearing the Pontiff speak in his own language and within his own background are more likely to receive the message that he intends to send.

Yet, the Pontiff’s messages aren’t restricted to just the audience that he speaks directly to. As a global authority figure, the Pope ends up speaking to audiences other than his immediate one, and his mediated audiences don’t necessarily decode the Pontiff’s messages the same way that his immediate audience decodes them.

Such was the case in May of 2015 when Pope Francis had a meeting with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Blogger J.E. Dyer explains what happened:

Fueled by wire stories from AP and AFP, the mainstream media have been running with a headline that Pope Francis, during a meeting at the Vatican on Saturday 16 May, called Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas “an angel of peace.” The problem: the pope did not call Abbas – aka the terrorist Abu Mazen – an “angel of peace.”

The mistake made by the AP was in how a story originally written in Italian was translated into English.

Even when there isn’t an error in translation, the ideas expressed by the Pontiff can be perceived in a way that he doesn’t intend. This phenomenon might be due to the fact that his speeches are now international news. Prior to him being elected the Pope, the speeches that he gave didn’t get much attention outside of South America. Thus, he didn’t have to tailor his speeches for a global audiences.

Now that Francis has the entire world as his audience, people outside of South America are paying attention to how his words pertain to them. Speeches that the Pontiff gives south of the Equator might be popular to the people living there, because his speeches speak to their particular situation. However, those same speeches might not play so well in English-speaking North America.

Like it or not, the Pontiff’s messages have been decoded in a negative way by conservative pundits in the USA, who react to those messages as they hear or read them. Such negative responses may not be liked by the Pope’s supporters, but, nevertheless, those responses need to be acknowledged and dealt with.

Indeed, Pope Francis himself is acknowledging that he needs to address the issues raised by his critics. Reuters quotes the Pontiff as saying, “I heard that there were some criticisms from the United States … I haven’t had time to study this well but every criticism must be received, studied and then dialogue must follow.”

Granted, there will always be people who misunderstand what Pope Francis says, just as there will always be people who make the false claim that he is a Communist. Thankfully, the Pontiff is known to be a forgiving person.

SIDE NOTE: There is confusion as to what has become of that oxymoron of a crucifix that the president of Bolivia gave to Pope Francis. This writer’s Wizbang colleague Rick Rick has acknowledged that he misinformed this writer as to what the Pontiff did with it. This writer asks the reader for forgiveness for making this particular topic as clear as mud. Mea culpa.

Originally published at The Moderate Voice.

FEATURED IMAGE: Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, president of Argentina, with Pope Francis. Taken from the Presidency of the Nation of Argentina web site, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 license. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

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