On March 3, 2014, a stream of troubling, breaking news about Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine was interrupted by another event, this time originating in the Vatican, which similarly reached prominence in journalistic organs. This event, however, was not a child abuse scandal, papal resignation, or another such event that typically brings the ancient Church into the headlines. It was, instead, no more than the fact that the Pope — the most visible scion of holiness in the West — swore.

Immediately, this must be qualified. As Bill Chappell of NPR clarifies, Pope Francis, whose native language is not Italian, made a pronunciation error in his address that led him to verbalize “caso” (“case,” “example”) as “cazzo,” a colloquial equivalent to the English “F-word.” And yet the gaffe was reported in such a manner that made it seem as if the Pope intentionally introduced vulgarity into his speech. For example, the Los Angeles TimesNew York PostDaily Mailand Washington Post (among others) all gleefully headlined the story by referring to the Pope “drop[ping] [an] F-bomb.”

It might be the case that the thought of the Pope “dropping an F-bomb” is simply too delicious not to report in this fashion. To imagine His Holiness intentionally slinging around such words, as if he were a buddy next to you at the bar or a rebellious youth, is so at variance with the gravity of his post — and so potentially endearing to the “common” person who really does use such language — that it inevitably invites one to respond irreverently. It is this variance that produces the warrant for the prominent reporting of this ultimately trivial speech event: there is a sheer novelty produced by the conflict between the perceived event and the role of the person responsible for it. And within this novelty is hidden a heap of social and linguistic-philosophical concerns.

First, we must ask the question: Did the Pope swear? We know that he uttered “cazzo,” but this is not the same as establishing that the Pope said the supreme Italian vulgarity. If I say “ass,” I may be swearing, or I may simply be referring to a donkey. If I am referring to a donkey and you interpret it as a curse, have I sworn? Or perhaps the better question is, have you sworn?

Verbal communication, necessarily resting as it does upon language, is internally fraught with the capacity to fail. Even in a social body that uses an agreed-upon set of signs to accomplish communication, there is never a guarantee that the sign deployed by a speaker will transmit the intended meaning to the recipient, for the sign has, potentially, a differentially subjective existence in each individual. If I tell you that my wife is a graduate of the CIA, I may know full well that this refers to the Culinary Institute of America, but your subjective impression of the sign “CIA” is more likely to have the Central Intelligence Agency as its referent, and thus you will think my wife is a spy when really she is a baker. The success of communication, then, rests upon a consensus as to the connection between sign and meaning that can never be fully achieved.

This is, of course, due to the fundamental arbitrariness of each sign. There is no essential connection between any sign and its referent. Man’s best friend is simultaneously a “dog” and a “perro.” These are two signs with almost no relation to each other that share a common, identical referent. And yet if I know no Spanish, I will not understand a “perro” to be a “dog.” The sign has its own objective existence; it is deployed subjectively. It is very tempting to conclude from this that language is simply a construct we use to represent a reality that is ultimately unrepresentable; that we do our best to graft the clumsiness of signs onto the Truth of our internal experience in order to communicate it to others. In this view, language sets up a barrier between ourselves and reality; it removes us one degree from the purity of experience and reduces all communicated social reality to a mediated compromise — a consolation prize, if you will, for a species unable to transmit pure thought.

Book cover of Mind, Self, & Society by George Herbert Mead © University of Chicago Press | Amazon.com
Book cover of Mind, Self, & Society by George Herbert Mead © University of Chicago Press | Amazon.com

And yet this view does not hold. It is instead the case that language — the very arbitrary system meant to represent a purer reality — is the route of access to that reality. George Herbert Mead thoroughly presented this position in his Mind, Self, and Society. Therein, he convincingly argues that developed thought — what we might call human consciousness, as we know it — is no more than the perception of an event of internal linguistic communication. With ourselves, we use the words we use with others. Signs are not just tools of social interchange; they are the passwords to the perception, even internally, of their referents. If this seems strange, try to form a thought within your own mind without using language.

Certainly, emotion does not require articulation and can be experienced without language. And sometimes we run into that wall where we know we know there is a concept we mean to verbalize, but “just can’t find the right word.” But we only know this concept in the first place because we have once accessed it through language; it is not a primordial concept seeking expression. It is only a matter of finding the sign again. To paraphrase Saussure, the idea did not exist before words. These situations are as close as we can get to “pure experience.” Without the internal use of language, our experience becomes experience-as-such, an ongoing, unarticulated string of meaningless sensory perceptions. It is our knowledge of signs that gives definition to our experience; without signs, there are no referents. This state of being was dramatically reported by Jill Bolte Taylor, who temporarily lost her language abilities after a stroke and consequently could not formulate even simple concepts, but instead only register pure sensory intake. It is ultimately the case, then, that we have the choice between an imperfectly mediated experience or an experience that does not strike us as human at all.

So, then, this arbitrariness, this subjectivity, this reliance upon the linguistic for experience, sets the Pope up to fail. In the communicative event in question, there is a speaker with an intent and an audience who cannot access that intent but through the speaker’s words. When the Pope, then, says “cazzo” instead of “caso,” a rupture appears in reality, in which meaning and communication break down, in which what was said becomes, maddeningly, two: what the Pope clearly meant to say, and what the audience chose to hear. This event consequently forces us to ask serious questions about reality itself. In an existence in which no individual has access to the internal experience of another, can reality ever be objectively established, or is “reality” only the product of consensus? If a jury finds me guilty of murder (using, of course, the performative function of language), but I committed no such crime, does the “Truth” really matter? I will be known as a murderer and will be treated and punished as such. For everyone but me, it is true that I committed murder, and reality will unfold accordingly. There are, then, two realities: the objective truth, which actually occurred but can never be known, and the consensus, which may be based in falsity but becomes the reality on account of the inability of the objective to be discovered.

In the Pope’s case, he may have really said “example,” but he now also really said “the F-word,” because this is what the audience has taken away from his error. And this raises questions as to who is really the agent, who is really the “creator,” in a communicative event. Earlier I asked whether it might make more sense to ask whether the audience, as opposed to the Pope, was responsible for “swearing.” After all, if the speaker’s intent to cite an example was misinterpreted by its recipients as a curse, then the act of cursing was completed by the latter, who have created something that was not given to them. It is similar to the problem created by seeing art or hearing music in nature: if the “piece” is incidental and not purposively created, is not the “creator,” the “artist,” the very person who perceives it? We must therefore ask, is it not then the case that all social exchange is an act of dual agency, where there is a primary actor, and a subject of that action who also acts by interpreting? And is not “reality” then subject to all the failures inherent in this dual activity?

Pope Benedict XVI speaks from the balcony of the Monastery of Saint Benedict in São Paulo © Fabio Pozzebom/Agência Brasil | Wikimedia Commons
Pope Benedict XVI speaks from the balcony of the Monastery of Saint Benedict in São Paulo © Fabio Pozzebom | Agência Brasil

For as J. L. Austin points out, even when a speech act fails, it is not necessarily thereby rendered unproductive. He gives the example that a person unqualified to marry on account of already being married will not have accomplished matrimony by saying “I do,” owing to external legal restrictions. That person, however, will have accomplished bigamy. The Pope may have failed to cite an “example,” but his misutterance was extremely productive. It unveils a hidden social fabric; the Pope’s “F-bomb” throws a glaring spotlight on relations of social power. For the pontiff to utter a severe curse word is to violate his social role and the expectations attached thereto. The utterance of “cazzo” reveals the otherwise routine social relations between those in power and the commonality, as well as the tension between individual and role. Objectively, there is nothing but people; constructively, there is a supreme religious figure of great authority and respect, whose failure to stay within the boundaries of his particular construct sends those below him into a frenzy. And what is this frenzy? It is the sheer pleasure of a commonality experiencing a figure of authority as one of its own, of seeing the Pope as a man. It is the validation of reducing power to equality (the Pope becomes “one of us”), or raising commonality to identification with the socially superior (the Pope becomes “no better than us”). The Pope’s gaffe provides an opportunity for the public temporarily to rip apart the social fabric and sew it into new patterns as it wishes.

And all this from the simple act of speaking. This event reminds us of the enormity of language. On its back rests the complex web of social relations and all their tensions, and in its palm is held reality itself; yet it is so fragile, so imperfect that failure is periodically inevitable. Our existence is therefore a tenuous one of pure construction, which can be reorganized at any moment by a single word.