Why Context Matters


An article by Auxiliary Bishop that was first published in The Sunday Times of Malta on 8th November 2020.

“A text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext”. I was reminded of this aphorism recently, when reading media reports on the words of Pope Francis.

A global media frenzy was created by a twenty-second clip taken from the documentary ‘Francesco’ by Russian filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky on several highlights of the pontificate of Pope Francis. Pope bashers said his words were heretical and called on the Pope to repent. On the opposite side, some hailed the Pope’s words as a shift in Church teaching, opening a new era.

I looked for the text and the context. The clip used in the documentary put together a pastiche of phrases taken from two separate parts of a long interview that the Pope gave to Valentina Alazraki, a Mexican TV correspondent, in May 2019. The Pope was answering two different questions in different contexts. The documentary edits the Pope’s words taken from this interview, and creates one continuous statement out of these distinct parts.

In the first part taken from the interview with Alazraki, the Pope says: “Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable over it.” The Pope has consistently spoken against homophobia. In the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, n. 250, he says: “During the Synod, we discussed the situation of families whose members include persons who experience same-sex attraction, a situation not easy either for parents or for children. We would like before all else to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, par¬ticularly any form of aggression and violence. Such families should be given respectful pasto¬ral guidance, so that those who manifest a ho¬mosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives.”

In the second part of the clip, the Pope says: “What we have to have is a law of civil coexistence (convivencia civil, translated also as civil union) — that way they are legally covered. I defended that.” What is the context? This is extracted from a different part of the interview with Alazraki, where she pointed out to the Pope that, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, he opposed gay marriage. His reply: “I’ve always defended doctrine. And it is curious about the law on homosexual marriage — it is an incongruence to speak of homosexual marriage. But what we have to have is a law of civil coexistence – that way they are legally covered. I defended that,” he said, referring to his efforts to support an alternative to legalizing gay marriage that would still protect the rights of gay couples in a secular State, when it came to matters like inheritance and health care decisions.

That is the context of two separate parts extracted from the 2019 interview and spliced together as one statement in the documentary ‘Francesco’.

What have I learnt from all this? When following Pope Francis on the media, I will always go to the original text and context of his words, and be sure not to be misled by those who take the text out of context and use it as a pretext for their prooftext.

Joseph Galea Curmi
Auxiliary Bishop

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