The Vatican’s PR machine has swung into action following reports that the Pope used a crude slang term in reference to the prevalence of homosexuality in seminaries.

The incident reflects a curious feature of the modern papacy that is the informal, but very real, PR safety net which grows up almost spontaneously around every pontiff. It’s forged in part by the Vatican’s own official communications channels, but even more so by outside commentators and media platforms heavily invested in selling a given pope’s story to the world.

Throughout his papacy, John Paul II enjoyed a wide network of friendly commentators and analysts, forever prepared to interpret the Pope in the best possible light. Benedict XVI had his own support system, though smaller and quieter by comparison.

The fact that Francis has such a coterie – not the same people, obviously, but doing much the same thing – has been made abundantly clear in the last 24 hours or so, vis-à-vis news reports that he used a crude slang term in referring to homosexuals during a session with Italian bishops on 20 May.

Ironically, it’s possible that in this case, the Pope’s mediatic Praetorian Guard actually may be misrepresenting the pontiff in order to protect him, but more on that in a moment.

On 20 May, Pope Francis was in the Vatican’s synod hall in order to address the spring plenary assembly of the Italian Episcopal Conference (known by the acronym CEI). There were roughly 230 bishops in the room, along with other clergy and supporting staff, meaning this wasn’t just a casual chat among a handful of friends.

Technically, Francis’s remarks to the bishops are considered private, meaning the Vatican doesn’t release an official transcript. Yet with that many people in the room – some of whom have particularly cozy relationships with reporters – it’s generally foreordained that whatever the Pope says will get out. Certainly, the media-savvy Francis would have understood that whatever he said in that space was unlikely to stay there.

One of the topics that arose was the question of the admission of homosexual men to Catholic seminaries. Soon afterwards, rumours began to circulate that Francis had used an off-colour term in the context of the discussion, saying there’s already too much frociaggine in seminaries, which translates roughly to “faggotry”.

The root term in Italian is frocio, the most widely used pejorative term in Italian for a gay man, the etymology of which has been lost in time. (One theory traces it back to the 1527 sack of Rome, when feroci, or “ferocious”, invading troops supposedly raped men and women indistinctly, but nobody really knows.) The suffix -aggine denotes a quality or characteristic; for instance, Italians take the word stupido (which means what you think) and turn it into stupidaggini to convey acts of stupidity, i.e., “nonsense”.

The rumour that Francis used the word frociaggine was first made public by the Italian blog Dagospia, which is more or less the country’s equivalent of the Drudge Report, and was then picked up by mainstream media, first in Italy and then around the world.

In presenting the news, a striking share of media outlets have done so in ways seemingly intended to let the Pope off the hook, in terms of the charge of being offensive, noting high up in their coverage that Italian is not his mother tongue and suggesting he may not have understood that the term in question is offensive.

One prominent Italian newspaper, for example, pointed out that growing up in Argentina, the future pope spoke the Piedmont dialect rather than today’s standard Italian, and the paper quoted unnamed bishops present at the time who said “it was obvious Francis was not aware of how much in our language the word is weighty and offensive”.

Many media outlets suggested the Pope must not have known what he was saying, given his reputation as the pope of “Who am I to judge?” fame. Francis has built a reputation for being LGBT friendly, so the coverage holds, meaning that he must have used the term almost accidentally, without intending to shock or offend.

What should be made of these interpretations?

To begin, it’s true there may be a generational discount to be applied. Francis, after all, is 87, and at times may use outdated expressions in ways that if someone younger were to say it, the effect would be different. My grandad had a heart of gold, but could sometimes use racial vocabulary that would make anybody cringe.

At the same time, throughout his career Francis has been known occasionally to indulge in off-colour expressions of all sorts. Some find that aspect of his personality crude or off-putting, others see his capacity to employ the argot of the street as part of his pastoral charm: carrying the “smell of his sheep”, as it were. In any event, it’s a trait that doesn’t necessarily always reflect the Pope’s developed thinking, but rather something more akin to shooting from the hip.

And, yet.

I didn’t grow up in an ethnically Italian home like Francis, I haven’t spoken Italian all my life, and the primary language in which I work every day isn’t Italian either. When Francis speaks Italian, he sounds like a native; when I do, I come off as an immigrant in Italy with a comically thick American accent.

Yet, even I know that the word frocio and its variants are strong medicine, and definitely not something you say in mixed company.

I recall distinctly in my first Italian class here in Rome a quarter-century ago that we had a gay teacher, and, at one point, a teenager in the class called him frocio – the response was immediate and unmistakable, with at least a half-dozen people shouting at the teenager to put a sock in it.

The bottom line is that it strains credulity, to put it mildly, that Pope Francis simply didn’t understand the language he was using. Moreover, it’s striking that many of the same people now urging us to believe in the Pope’s naïveté more typically are the ones extolling his savvy, deeply in-touch command of the moment.

Given all that, there’s another interpretation of his statement to the Italian bishops, which is that he meant what he said: In his view, there’s an overly strong element of what is sometimes referred to as a worryingly “gay lifestyle” in at least some seminary environments, and which warrants caution in terms of admitting gay candidates.

At the moment, CEI is considering a new set of admissions guidelines, a draft of which distinguishes between orientation and behaviour in the evaluation of gay candidates. Perhaps Francis deliberately wanted to trigger a yellow light; an invitation to slow down and be careful about inadvertently encouraging unhealthy elements in seminary life.

From Crux via the Catholic Herald