The head of the Vatican thinks fake news is a load of crap and that anyone who spreads it is suffering from a mental disorder. In a savage tirade on Wednesday, Pope Francis drew a disturbing, though stunningly apt, comparison between spreaders of fake news and coprophiliacs — people who get turned on by shit.

“I think the media have to be very clear, very transparent, and not fall into — no offense intended — the sickness of coprophilia, that is, always wanting to cover scandals, covering nasty things, even if they are true,” Pope Francis told the Belgian Catholic weekly Tertio, according to Reuters. The problem with putting a lot of shit into the world, he implied, is that people also like to eat it up: “And since people have a tendency towards the sickness of coprophagia, a lot of damage can be done,” he said, making his revolting parallel even more vivid.

Fighting dung beetles
Shit: Cool for dung beetles, not for humans.

Coprophilia is listed in the fifth volume of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as an “other specified” paraphilic disorder. Paraphilia is a broad term used to describe a type of sexual arousal or gratification that is atypical or extreme, while a paraphilic disorder is one where the atypicality or intensity of the behavior is problematic and potentially harmful. Coprophilia, sometimes referred to as scatophilia or scat, is troubling as a sexual behavior for obvious reasons. As a metaphor for the passion for fake news that has many in the media aroused, it is helpful for illustrating just how terrible the consequences may be.

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What happens when one spends their time grasping at actual excrement? Feces is not always poison; it may not be sterile, like urine, but depending on its source and who is touching or ingesting it, it may be benign. What ultimately makes poop potentially dangerous is the bacteria within it. Unless you have a bacterial infection, the bugs in your poop are the same ones that are in your gut, which are obviously not life threatening. But the bacteria in someone else’s shit is a completely different story. Evolutionary biologists think that coprophobia — that is, the fear of feces, which is present at baseline levels in most humans — stemmed out of the early human realization that fiddling around with other people’s (or other species’) turds can make you really fucking sick. Coprophagia, in turn, really only exists in animals so starved for food that they want to re-digest their turds to get every last bit of nutrition out.

In comparing fake news slingers to coprophiliacs and gullible crowds to coprophagics, Pope Francis provides an interesting biological insight into the way fake news spreads and poisons. Fake news is a load of bullshit, but it is mostly benign when it is contained within the small shit-flinging community that perpetuates it. Unfortunately, that is not how the media works. The fake news coprophiliacs are slinging turds of dishonesty toward the unwitting strangers most susceptible to getting sick. It seems that too many of those targets are coprophagic, perhaps for lack of access or an inability to find more honest, “nutritious” news.

When a cultural issue becomes so concerning that God’s mouthpiece himself becomes a literal pottymouth, you know shit has hit the fan. Knowing whether his admonishment — that fake news spreaders are a bunch of sinners — will flush coprophilia out of the media, however, is even beyond Francis’s abilities.

Photos via Flickr / Jochen Smolka