Don Samuelson, Idaho's governor from 1967 to 1971, was famous for getting in front of reporters and saying the impolitic thing. Eventually, when he talked to the press, he'd get three or four words out and then an aide would interrupt with, "What the governor means to say is..."
Those old press conferences came to mind earlier this year, when Pope Francis, the leader of an organization even more powerful and concerned with eternity than the state of Idaho, told Catholics they didn't need to keep breeding like rabbits. Not long after, articles began appearing in Catholic journals saying, "What the pope means to say is..." This, despite papal infallibility, and despite the obvious truth that for poor people, having big families is an effective way of staying poor.
"What the pope means to say" has come up as Francis has pointed out that capitalism has turned a substantial portion of humanity into brutes of one kind or another, and industrial civilization is changing the climate for the worse and business as usual will soon enough wreck the planet. Such statements have not gone down well with Catholics wedded to a comfortable status quo as much as they are wedded to Christ. In-house critics have suggested that Francis' words may need interpretation or even deconstruction.
I took the time to read Laudato Si' (that's "Praise Be to You"), the pope's long encyclical "on the care of our common home." It's addressed to every person on the planet, not just Catholics, and it is a plea to treat Earth way better than we're treating her. It condemns "our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed [her]." Furthermore, it says "The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life."
I take papal infallibility with a grain of salt—if I didn't, I'd probably be a Catholic, and an exemplary one. I do believe firmly in sin, and that every human heart is damaged by it—it's as good an explanation for the sad condition of our world as any. Even if Pope Francis isn't infallible, he does appear to be a man who has good eyes and the courage to tell folks what's in front of them. Of course, he's constrained by his office, and 19 centuries of papal doctrine, and the reluctance of human beings of any religion to understand that there are 5 or 6 billion too many of them.
So here's my version of "what the Pope really means to say." It's a short distillation of a long encyclical. With apologies for my limited experience with Medieval Latin, here goes:
—Humanity is going ka-ka in its own nest. Big time.
—Rich people are treating poor people like crap. Big time.
—Mother Earth is a victim of criminal abuse.
—God sees what's going on, but is reluctant to get involved in what is clearly a domestic dispute.
—We change or we die. Take your pick. Free will in action.
Pope Francis notes that capitalism's imperative for infinite expansion in a finite world is toxic. He calls on people to stop thinking that the meaning of life can be found in owning stuff. He says we cannot keep going the way we've been going, but he says that it's not too late to change.
This last point makes Francis look innocent as far as popes go—they're usually less sanguine about the malleability of human nature, for solid personal reasons.
Jeb! Bush, a once faithful Catholic, has earned himself a few millennia in South Purgatory for his statement that he isn't going to let the pope advise him on economic matters, infallibility be damned. If you're running for president, you're not going to ask folks to stop wanting stuff. It's what folks do.
Jeb! is only one example of what happens when spiritual power comes up against cynical worldly wisdom. Pope Francis might just as well ask ISIS to stop bulldozing Palmyra, or China to stop exporting plastic, or physicists to stop believing in the laws of thermodynamics. (If you don't think the laws of thermodynamics are cynical, you should carefully consider the third one.)
I don't know how the Catholic Church will deal with a leader who demands such a radical reorientation toward the spiritual. I do know that savage political battles are going on in the Vatican right now, and Francis has rebuked powerful members of the Curia for living lives of luxury while poor Catholics do without education, healthcare and food. I know that he has dealt with pure evil in the form of the Argentinian junta, and that he seems to have come through it without becoming evil himself. I know he has removed cardinals from positions of power for protecting pedophile priests.
But hey, he says the impolitic thing. Don't take my word for it. Read the encyclical yourself, especially if you're Catholic. Consider how hard it is to explain away or soften. Consider that this is your spiritual leader talking. Consider, perhaps, that he really is infallible, and that in his infallibility he's seen a need to go up against the inertia-ridden organization he heads, and that maybe his infallibility means you should ignore all those guys who are attempting to explain his words away.