Consummate as he is as a communicator, Pope Francis is learning to his chagrin that it’s not prudent to rely on sound bites while speaking to the media and communicating with the public.
What he gains in brevity is paid for in misunderstanding and sometimes controversy.
Sound bites have the exceptional ability to telegraph one’s message or thought to the public in a memorable way. But users sometimes also have to pay a price. A sound bite can bite you back.
On the way home to Rome after his highly successful and memorable visit to the Philippines, during a chat with media traveling with him, the Holy Father took a bite (as it were of the apple) in a way that could become the single most unsettling papal statement during his five-day visit to Manila, ironically when the visit was already over).
Francis surprised reporters on the papal plane when he recounted an anecdote about how he
had once asked a mother who had seven children by caesarian section and was pregnant with her eighth if she wanted to “leave behind seven young orphans.”
“She said, ‘I trust in God.’ But God gave us the means to be responsible,” Pope Francis said.
“Some think — and excuse the term — that to be good Catholics, they must be like rabbits.”
There’s a crucial point here. The holy Father said, “excuse the term”, but the media did not let the rabbits comment pass, unreported and unremarked.
Fair is fair, the statement should be fair game for the media. We have been roasting President Aquino no end for his ill-considered remarks during his holiness’s courtesy call in Malacañang. The Holy Father must also take the heat for comparing some members of his flock to Bugs Bunny.
And Catholic theologians and teachers must consider its implications for current and traditional Church teaching.
After being reported in the media, the rabbits comment went viral and global in a flash.
Reaction among Catholics was uniformly alarmed, as some thought the Supreme Pontiff had effected a major revision of church teaching and policy.
It resonated back here in the Philippines, where he had just extolled the fortitude, devotion and resilience of Filipino families amidst the many disasters and adversities that have visited the country. Some, who bear the scars of the bitter fight over the Reproductive Health Law, immediately conjectured that Francis must have been misquoted.
It was not surprising therefore that soon after arriving in Rome, Pope Francis moved to walk back his comment about Catholics and rabbits.
He said that large families are “a gift from God.”
Following the Church’s teachings on contraception did not mean “Christians should have children one after the other.”
He reasoned that an unfair economic system is the primary cause of poverty, rather than overpopulation.
He paid tribute anew to the families he had met in the Philippines. “The meetings with families and young people in Manila were stand-out moments during the visit,” he told a crowd of around 7,000 gathered in St Peter’s square for his weekly audience.
“Healthy families are essential to the life of society. It provides us with consolation and hope to see so many large families who welcome children as a gift from God,” he said.
“These families know that each child is a blessing.”
A teachable moment
The row will pass soon enough, but for Pope Francis, this has clearly been a teachable moment
Besides being able to dance the Argentinian tango, it appears that Pope Francis has another not so well-known skill – a gift for pithy and memorable statement. He knows how to mint memorable sound bites from burning issues of the day.
The rabbit comment followed a statement in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, that anyone who mocked someone else’s faith could expect a violent response.
“If a good friend speaks badly of my mother, he can expect to get punched,” he said jokingly.
This comment was widely criticized by liberals, as almost justifying the violent response of radical Islamists to the merciless satire of Charlie Hebdo.
Francis similarly spoke pithily of “a Church for the poor” at the very start of his papacy, when he sought to reach out to the world’s downtrodden, while simultaneously shaking up the Vatican bureaucracy.
On the subject of homosexuality, the Pope famously said, “Who am I to judge,” expressing a more compassionate approach than the one the Church has traditionally followed.
This last bite alarmed many Catholics who fear that the Church will soon be besieged by a lobby for the benediction of same-sex marriage.
Coined during Reagan era
Appropriatey enough, the term “sound bite” was coined in the 1980s, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, an arch conservative. He was famous for short, memorable phrases like, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” in reference to the Berlin Wall.
In the context of journalism, a sound bite is characterized by a short phrase or sentence that captures the essence of what the speaker was trying to say, and is used to summarize information and entice the reader or viewer.
After it was coined, politicians have increasingly employed sound bites to summarize their positions and catch attention.
The columnist and famous speechwriter Peggy Noonan feels that sound bites have undeserved acquired a negative connotation but they are not inherently negative. She says:
“What we now think of as great historical sound bites—such as “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” the most famous phrase in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first Inaugural Address—were examples of eloquent speakers unselfconsciously and “simply trying in words to capture the essence of the thought they wished to communicate.”
Pope Francis was also trying to succinctly summarize his beliefs in a memorable way. But he unfortunately stumbled on the rabbits as a metaphor. And it captured the phenomenon of procreation too well. It bit him back.