Pope Francis, Bullshit Artist


It is difficult to recall now what my life was like before I was baptized into the Catholic Church as an adult, fourteen years ago, but some things never quite vanish from the memory.  Life is always filled with confusion, but I was in graduate school at the time, being exposed the vagaries of postmodern thought was a of rite of passage for graduate students in humanistic disciplines.  (I was studying history.)  I had entered university with no faith in a benevolent, transcendent God, and my graduate study did little to quell my sense of cosmic ennui:  that the whole word was basically chaos, randomness.  I was like the ancient tourist who visited the Pyramids in Egypt, and upon encountering Egyptian hieroglyphs scrawled graffiti on one of them that declared, “I, Dioskorammon, looked upon this nonsense and found it bewildering!” If you had asked me at that point in my life what my personal philosophy was, I would have said “Nietszchean” or something like that, though I doubt I knew what that meant at the time.  Knowledge was not certain, could not be; as Nietzsche put it, “truth” was little more than an “army of mobile metaphors” marshalled for one purpose or another, none being more “true” than the rest. It was all nonsense, all the way down.

I did not know it then, but I was suffering from anxiety and depression, something that I realize now began when I was a teenager.  It is only in recent years that I have begun to receive treatment for them, and only now do I see clearly the connection between my emotional disorders and the agonizing unbelief I experienced during my early adulthood, before I underwent my conversion.  My turning to Christ in the Catholic Church had much to do with the belief that the teaching of the Catholic Church was consistent, and clear, capable of being understood by an ordinary person over oceans of time, going back to the ancient world.  I believed, and still believe, it is the Church that Jesus Christ founded, and the primary vehicle by which God offers his salvation to mankind. The sense of permanence the Church conveys is, as you can imagine, a great consolation for someone suffers from these sorts of afflictions.

If you have read this far, you are probably wondering about the title of my essay, and how this personal history relates to the current Bishop of Rome.  My focus as an historian was on the history of the press, and so I am interested in communication, how ideas get expressed, and received.  Moreover, I have been a teacher now for many years, and as a matter of habit I think about these things obsessively. This essay is about Pope Francis’ communication style, and what it portends for his portrayal of the Catholic faith to the world—with the help of a modern philosopher, whose premise does indeed have to do with “bullshit.”



Readers may be familiar with the work of the late Harry Frankfurt, a philosophy professor at Princeton, whose essay “On Bullshit” he turned into a small book in 1986.  The term, though a vulgar one, was the one he chose to denote that category of statements that were not true but also not outright lies.  For Frankfurt, the essence of bullshit, as opposed to lies, is that the former is concerned with truth:  to lie, someone must believe there is a truth that he/she wishes to conceal.  But in the case of bullshit, that is not the point:  whereas the liar wants to conceal the essential reality behind his lie, but the bullshitter doesn’t care if what he saying matches up to objective reality.  That is not the purpose of his utterance. Nor need bullshit necessarily be false, as the lie must be, precisely because of its lack of concern for truth.  “The essence of bullshit,” writes Frankfurt, “is not that it is false, but that it is phony.”  The bullshitter is a fake, whose main purpose is to hide, not the truth, but his intentions:  the bullshitter wants to conceal his lack of concern for the truth, his unwillingness to submit to the constraints of reality to which both the truth teller and the liar in their own way must submit.   Frankfurt compares bullshit to humbug, a related term, and finds it is similar in that though it comes short of lying, it is a form of misrepresentation.  But it cannot be a misrepresentation of truth, or knowledge. Frankfurt gives the example of politician whose Fourth of July speech prattles on at length about the Founders, the greatness of the country, its divine destiny, and so on.  The speaker, Frankfurt says, cares little about the accuracy of what he is saying.  “He is not trying to deceive anyone concerning American history,” writes Frankfurt.  “What he cares about is what people think of him.  He wants them to think of him as patriot, as someone who has deep thoughts and feelings about the origins and mission of our country.”  Bullshit, then, differs from lies in that it is not about truth, or knowledge, but about the subjective state of the speaker and his intended audience.  Bullshit is not necessarily deceptive, though it can be, but even that is almost irrelevant: what matters is the effect (or affect?) it has on the audience.  The speaker might be quite sincere in his depiction of his subjective state, and still be bullshitting you.  Indeed, Frankfurt identifies “sincerity” as the correlative of an anti-realism which presumes that we cannot know what things truly are in themselves, about objective reality.  And hence, we cannot judge people on the accuracy or coherence of their ideas or beliefs, but only on the sincerity or lack thereof in their self-representations.

The kind of person who excels at this sort of thing does not care about the objectivity, the truth or falsity of the things he or she says, but about whether his statements gain him the approval of his audience.  This kind of person, though he or she is not exactly master craftsman, does possess a certain amount of discipline to pull off their bullshitting.  This is captured by the colloquial phrase “bullshit artist,” which implies not a systematic line of thought but rather the practiced improvisation of an actor or stand-up comedian.  No one cares if an actor or comedian believes what he or she says either, as long as their performance is convincing.  And this what leads me to Pope Francis.



It is no secret that Francis likes to talk, and that many of things he says publicly are, to say the least, confused and often contradictory.  This obviously has not affected his popularity.  When they elected Francis, some Cardinals were reportedly concerned about what some have called the “Catholic Brand.”  What the Church needed was not another academic or theologian, but someone with a “pastoral” touch who could burnish its image and make the Church “marketable” again.  And at least personally, this has worked: if one believes the polls, Francis is quite popular, both within and without the Church. (The Church itself? Not so much.)

The Pope’s garrulousness recalls Frankfurt’s discussion of a “bull session.”  A bull session is an informal gathering in which the participants are encouraged to say whatever is on their minds about sensitive subjects, with the understanding that nothing that is said in it should be taken too seriously.  The purpose of the bull session is to clear the air on sensitive topics, and not to communicate specific beliefs or ideas.  At the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis said that he wanted to encourage “parrhesia” in the Church—openness of speech.  His Holiness has not been shy about exercising “openness” in his manner of speaking, and it is in this that I think lies the key to understanding the way he communicates.

Linguists use the term “phatic” communication to refer to expressions people use when they “make a connection” with someone, but don’t communicate anything in particular.  For example, if I run into a friend I’ve not seen for some time, I might say to him, “hey, what’s up?”  And he’ll respond, “nothing much.  How about you?”  This is phatic communication; we exchange no real information, and I don’t expect him to tell me anything new.  It is just a way of “reconnecting” after not having seen someone for a while.  This is one way of interpreting Pope Francis’ otherwise puzzling statements: they are not meant to convey knowledge of the faith, but only to reconnect with those who have been estranged from it.  This seems to me the best way to understand Pope Francis’ often confusing attempts to communicate the Catholic faith to the wider world.



Except: can this communication style also be—I beg your pardon, dear reader—“bullshit,” in Frankfurt’s sense of the term?  I do not think the two are mutually exclusive.  He could be “phatically” attempting to communicate in different ways with different audiences, and yet still saying things without much care for their truth.  This is certainly what his more acerbic critics would accuse him of.  It’s worth noting he has another mode of communication he uses quite often; we could call it his “declamatory” or “prophetic” style.  He frequently denounces “Pharisees,” the “rigid,” the “doctors of the law,” the wealthy, and this plays a prominent part of his communication style.  It would be hard to argue that he doesn’t care about the content of what he is saying in that mode.  He does think those who emphasize “rules” at the expense of mercy are hindering the spread of the gospel.

But Pope Francis is vague most of the time about what “rules” he is referring to, or who those “Pharisees” are, and one could make the case that his inflammatory statements should not be taken literally.  He recently compared the detention camps for immigrants in European countries to Nazi concentration camps, and insisted when asked that they were erected for the same purposes.  This analogy is so obviously false that one hopes he was merely mistaken, and not malicious in making it.  But there is another explanation:  Julian Sanchez dubbed public statements made by partisans about former President Obama’s birth status as “symbolic beliefs.”  He meant by this that the people who said things like “Obama is a Muslim” didn’t care about the truth of the statement, but only the feeling it expressed—in that case, the feeling that Obama was not authentically American.  (In the blog post in which he coined this phrase, he cited Frankfurt.) Similarly, one could argue when the Pope denounces “Pharisees” and the like only means to convey his feeling that such people are not authentic Christians.

One other aspect of his “prophetic” mode is his emphasis on spontaneity.  Francis appears to believe that speaking in an unplanned, non-deliberative manner is more open to the Holy Spirit than planning what you say ahead of time.  This is a questionable idea; Jesus says something very like this to his disciples in the Gospels, but He was talking about a specific situation (being brought before kings and all that) where Francis appears to think this is the way you should communicate everything.  Francis contrasts this with more traditional ways of understanding the faith, and has stated that the Holy Spirit cannot be confined to past forms; to deny this in his mind seems to deny the power of God to influence the world now.  Hence the Pope’s attempts, sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle, to present himself to the world as a prophet, delivering direct God’s message of mercy to the people, while also “speaking truth to power.”  To give one recent example of this, during the ceremonies marking the one hundredth anniversary of the visions at Fatima, Francis declared he came as “a pilgrim of the Hope that the Spirit awakens…as a prophet and messenger to wash the feet of all.”  Whatever his actual intentions, Francis often gives the impression he is in direct contact with God via the Holy Spirit, rather than merely protected from error by it.

Francis’ conception of communication is almost entirely personal, as one would expect from a speaker who considers his speech to be “prophetic”:  what matters is not the specific details of what a person is saying, but rather their sincerity, their authenticity, their “spirit”—whether they are open, warm, smiling, rather than closed, cold, rigid.  This would explain why Jorge Bergoglio as a cardinal could make statements affirming John Paul II’s teaching on divorced and remarried Catholics not being admitted to communion in Familiaris Consortio in 2005 in the most absolute terms, but as Pope make statements that confirm the opposite, even while allowing the traditional ban on communion to remain where bishops call for it.  This is also consonant with Francis’ rhetorical emphasis upon mercy: mercy is preeminently a personal act, whereas justice is supposed to be blind, impersonal.  Mercy is an elective virtue, dispensed as the giver of mercy pleases, as opposed to objective standards.  This personal style is evident in one other aspect of Francis’ rhetorical strategy: silence.  When it comes to making objective, definitive statements about doctrine, he is almost wholly silent, as in his refusal to answer the dubia the four cardinals put to him last year. Making definitive statements would, of course, restrict his freedom to say whatever occurs to him in the moment.



That, at least, is the most charitable rendering I can muster to describe the way Francis communicates.  One could certainly construct a more cynical interpretation.  His most fervent English speaking defender, Austen Ivereigh, has stated in several outlets that Francis is as much a politician as pastor, and learned much of his craft as a “leader” from Argentine politics.  This would make sense, given the fact that Francis was never a pastor of an ordinary parish, and his time as superior general of the Jesuits in Argentina was a divisive one by all accounts.  Moreover, one can easily see a good deal of deliberate purpose in many of his “spontaneous” remarks.  Issuing confusing public statements is a good way to hide one’s real beliefs; a good politician will always keep his cards close to his chest.  If one wanted to believe Francis’s method was to hide his opinions till he could express them openly (to change the irreformable teachings of the Church), there is ample circumstantial evidence to support this idea.  And Francis knows that most people care for the details of what he is saying almost as little as he does.  Indeed, it is probably one of the reasons he is so popular.  His photo-op gestures, his off-the-cuff remarks, his bumper sticker like “tweets,” to say nothing of his general disdain for any sort formality or self-discipline in communication, unite him to his admirers as much as the content of his magisterium, if not more so.  His style suits the almost autistic informality of our present age to near perfection.

And yet, there is still room for ambiguity, even in this picture.  One could call Francis a politician in a more positive sense of the term:  someone who wishes to unite a fractious body divided over points of doctrine, to unify the Church with his personal leadership.  One could paint his critics as an embittered minority, whose opinions are not worth considering.  (And they are a minority, to be sure.) After a long period in which the Church has publicly taken a beating, you could argue that an extended bull session is just what the Church needs to spread its message, to let people air their grievances free of concern for condemnation.  After three decades of Supreme Pontiffs who were both academics and insisted on a strict adherence to doctrine, communicating the faith in a more informal style was not automatically a bad idea.  One could make the argument that one must win hearts first, then instruct them later in the finer points of doctrine—to start in a “phatic” mode and then move on to more formal means of communicating the faith, as a means of evangelizing a skeptical modern world.

Except that Francis never seems to get around to the second part of that equation.  A certain amount of “bullshit” is inevitable for everyone (“each of us contributes his share” wrote Frankfurt) but Francis acts as if the papacy were merely an ongoing bull session, one in which he and his close advisors can bruit anything they like about Catholic teaching without serious consequence.  The papal office is a priestly, not a prophetic one; he is not the President of the Mormon Church.  The First Vatican Council defined the charism of papal infallibility in stark terms: “the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter so that by His revelation they might disclose new teaching, but that, by His assistance, they might devoutly guard, and faithfully set forth, the Revelation handed down through the Apostles, the Deposit of Faith.”  (To be fair, Popes have been sounding off on seemingly every “issue” under the sun long before Francis.  There is a reason St. John Paul II was called “the Pomo Pope,” and since Leo XIII, Popes have issued endless encyclicals, exhortations, and verbal interventions of every kind, as if they need to prove that the papacy is still important in world affairs to compensate for the loss of the papacy’s temporal authority.) Garrulity is no sure sign of inspiration, by the Holy Spirit or anything else.  Rabbinic commentators after the destruction of the Second Temple employed the euphemism “words of prophecy” to refer someone who spoke nonsense.  There is a reason why the Church long ago declared the era of public prophecy ended with the death of the last Apostle.  By contrast, Francis seems bent on reopening it again in his own person.




To return to Frankfurt, he ended his original essay by attacking the ideal of “sincerity” as it related to the anti-realism mentioned above.  “One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by the pursuit of a quite different ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking to arrive at accurate representation of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself.”  He noted how difficult our subjective selves are to fathom, and expressed incredulity at the idea that it is “the truth about himself that is the easiest to know.”  Our own personal natures are “elusively insubstantial—notoriously less stable and less inherent than the nature of other things.  And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.”  I know good and faithful Catholics who swoon over nearly every soundbite, every photo-op, every gesture of the Pope with rapture, and the difference between their reaction and my own baffles me. What sound to me like the most trite and banal slogans dredged up from the miasma of the post-conciliar Church of the 1970s, seem to them signs that Francis is a genuine man of God, an authentic Christian voice.  Everything about Francis’ public and private statements screams “ersatz” to me, but rings in their ears as sweet music to them.

If it is not clear already, I believe the Pope models Frankfurt’s description of a “bullshit artist” to a tee. I do not doubt his sincerity at all.  I am sure he believes every word he says, but his articulation of what constitutes the Catholic faith is so personal, so subjective, that it severely distorts it, with consequences that he either is not aware of or simply indifferent to.  A fair observer who disagrees might object, not wrongly, that it is unseemly, not to say irreverent, to characterize the words of a Pontiff of Rome as “bullshit,” or himself as a “bullshit artist.” I can only aver that I do not make such statements lightly.  And for the sake of those good and decent Catholics, who likely will not understand my objections, I think I owe an explanation for why I am willing to do so.

I began these reflections with an autobiographical detail about my conversion.  I should state that when Francis was first elected, and started giving his jarring interviews on airplanes, to Antonio Spadaro, to Eugenio Scalfari, and the like, I nearly through something of a crisis of faith.  To hear the Bishop of Rome saying things like converting people to the faith is unnecessary, that it is better to be a “good” atheist than a “bad” Christian, and, in general, acting as if the only thing that distinguished being a member of the Catholic Church from other Christian denominations, perhaps even from other religions and even from those of none, was personal preference, and not a matter of obedience to the truth; and, worst of all, seeming to directly contradict infallible statements made by previous popes—I felt sure I was going to lose the Catholic faith altogether, if not my mind.  In time, as I realized the Pope’s disdain for formality and rules likely preclude him from ever issuing a statement that rises to the level of an ex cathedra declaration, such fears have subsided.  But his continuous denigration of the “rigid,” of those who need “rules,” those who are too attached to tradition, etc., often feels as if it is directed toward me personally. I believe in the Catholic Church, not because of the personality of its leaders, but because by faith I believe that what it is and what it teaches is not merely “authentic,” but true. My inner life is chaos; but “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever.”  To hear the Pope of Rome, whose office is to protect the faithful from errors of belief, denigrate as “rigid” or “pharisaical” those who fear that the Church might alter the faith that God gave her—well, it sure sounds like bullshit to me.

~ by Alypius on May 27, 2017.

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