Fool Me Twice: Francis, Scalfari, and Our Response to Papal Media

Eugenio Scalfari (source)and Pope Francis (source)

Eugenio Scalfari (source)and Pope Francis (source)

No sooner was the latest bombshell report from Eugenio Scalfari on the musings of Pope Francis translated into English than we had our first noisy headline informing us of a Vatican “denial” of the same. In this latest iteration of the telephone game, Scalfari revealed the contents of a recent conversation he had with the Holy Father about the Synod:

“It is true — Pope Francis answered — it is a truth and for that matter the family that is the basis of any society changes continuously, as all things change around us. We must not think that the family does not exist any longer, it will always exist, because ours is a social species, and the family is the support beam of sociability, but it cannot be avoided that the current family, open as you say, contains some positive aspects, and some negative ones. … The diverse opinion of the bishops is part of this modernity of the Church and of the diverse societies in which she operated, but the goal is the same, and for that which regards the admission of the divorced to the Sacraments, [it] confirms that this principle has been accepted by the Synod. This is bottom line result, the de facto appraisals are entrusted to the confessors, but at the end of faster or slower paths, all the divorced who ask will be admitted.” (Translation provided by Rorate Caeli)

As you might imagine, this is creating quite the furor. Despite the fact that more and more Catholics are now waking up to realize what side Pope Francis has taken in the Kasper debate, today’s story is bringing out all the denials and intellectual sophistry we’ve come to expect whenever we get too clear a glimpse of who Francis really is through one of his chosen proxies. Trying to cut through the noise of thousands of Catholics with their fingers in their ears, shouting, “LALALALALALALA!!! I CAN’T HEAR YOU!!! LALALALALALAAAA!!!” can be pretty exhausting.

Nonetheless, we’re going to give it the old college try.

There are three basic parts to the common response of the papal positivists to revelations such as these, which we’ll define as follows:

  1. The Denial
  2. The Obfuscation
  3. The Credibility Question

Let’s break these down for greater clarity, shall we?

The Denial

This is the first reaction of many who simply can’t endure the shellacking their (erroneous) understanding of papal infallibility is taking on Francis’ watch. Responses in this category differ, but they’re usually some variation of the following:

“I don’t believe the Holy Spirit would allow the pope to say X!”

“The media always misreports him and twists his words!”

“He was mistranslated!”

“Fr. Lombardi denied that he said it!”

In the case of the latest Scalfari kerfuffle, it’s the last option. The Catholic Herald screamed out this reassuring headline this morning, Vatican denies Pope told Italian journalist that ‘all divorced’ will be admitted to Communion.”

Some of us, feeling thus reassured, will be tempted to read no further. But in fact, the Vatican did no such thing.

Instead, what actually happened was this (with my emphasis):

Vatican spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi told theNational Catholic Register : “As has already occurred in the past, Scalfari refers in quotes what the Pope supposedly told him, but many times it does not correspond to reality, since he does not record nor transcribe the exact words of the Pope, as he himself has said many times.

“So it is clear that what is being reported by him in the latest article about the divorced and remarried is in no way a reliable and cannot be considered as the Pope’s thinking.”

He added that those who have “followed the preceding events and work in Italy know the way Scalfari writes and knows these things well.”

Let’s dissect this a bit. Fr. Lombardi is making a generalization when he says of Scalfari’s recounting of events, “many times it does not correspond to reality”. “Many times” is not the same thing as saying, “this time.” But by offering a blanket assertion that Scalfari’s reporting is generally not to be trusted, Fr. Lombardi cleverly covers the present episode in this aspersion, making it guilty of inaccuracy by association.

So, no actual denial there.

What about saying that what was reported is “in no way reliable”? Well, that statement derives from the first. “So it is clear…” Lombardi is making an argument that the unreliability of this particular piece of reporting is a consequence of Scalfari’s general (asserted) unreliability. In other words, “This report is unreliable because Scalfari is generally unreliable.” This is what is known as the logical fallacy of argumentum ad hominem – that something a person has asserted is false because the person asserting it has some character flaw, real or imagined. It’s a very common technique in argumentation, and it always falls short of engaging the actual assertion put forth.

Lombardi’s conclusion is therefore derived not from some syllogism, but from his ad hominem attack on Scalfari: the report “cannot be considered as the Pope’s thinking” because Eugenio Scalfari is notoriously unreliable. But not, as you now clearly see, because Pope Francis didn’t say what Scalfari is reporting him to have said. 

My guess would be that Fr. Lombardi actually has no idea what transpired on the phone call. I’ve had sources tell me in the past that poor Fr. Lombardi is often left in the dark by Pope Francis, and then forced to give press conferences with insufficient information. In such a situation, one is left to rely only on clever omissions, mental reservations, and semantic slight of hand.

In sum, this was not a denial – it was misdirectionIf a reporter were to ask Lombardi the question directly, “Can you categorically deny that the pope said to Eugenio Scalfari that the divorced and remarried who ask will be admitted to communion?”, you would no doubt get a very different answer. We’ve seen this before. When it was reported in April of last year that the pope made a phone call to an Argentinian woman who was living in an adulterous second marriage to tell her she could receive communion, this is what we heard from the Vatican on the matter, when pressed:

A Vatican spokesman confirmed the telephone call but would not comment on the conversation’s content.

“It’s between the Pope and the woman,” said the Rev. Thomas Rosica, a consultant for the Vatican press office.

Rosica said that any comments made by the Pope should not be construed as a change in church doctrine. “The magisterium of the church is not defined by personal phone calls.”

But that’s Fr. Rosica, I hear you object. We were talking about Fr. Lombardi!

Indeed we were. But I wanted the record to reflect how multiple Vatican press officials were handling the matter. So  here, now, is what Fr. Lombardi had to say:

Several telephone calls have taken place in the context of Pope Francis’ personal pastoral relationships.

Since they do not in any way form part of the Pope’s public activities, no information or comments are to be expected from the Holy See Press Office.

That which has been communicated in relation to this matter, outside the scope of personal relationships, and the consequent media amplification, cannot be confirmed as reliable, and is a source of misunderstanding and confusion.

Therefore, consequences relating to the teaching of the Church are not to be inferred from these occurrences.

Are you starting to see how this part of the game is played?

The Obfuscation

This is the one where people tell you that the thing you just read doesn’t mean what it clearly means. Most often, this happens through some narrow interpretation of what was said that either completely excludes the context or takes something entirely too literally.

In this case, what we’ve seen several times is an obsessive focus on the omission of two words from the pope’s alleged statement: “and remarried.”

This is bottom line result, the de facto appraisals are entrusted to the confessors, but at the end of faster or slower paths, all the divorced [and remarried] who ask will be admitted.

Because he didn’t say the words “and remarried” — or at least, because Scalfari didn’t report that he did — objectors are saying that this is totally orthodox; that since divorce itself is not (necessarily) a grave sin without remarriage, he’s not saying anything off-base here.

Please.

In the context of a discussion about what was being debated at the Synod, it’s clear that this was a question of those who are divorced and civilly remarried. Otherwise, there’s no point in even bringing this up. It’s not a subject in contention. It already exists in practice. It’s not something that needs to be mentioned in future tense: “will be admitted” as opposed to “already are admitted.”

When it comes to The Obfuscation, all I can think of is this:

The Credibility Question

This is the big one, particularly when it comes to Eugenio Scalfari interviews. But that’s certainly not the only time it comes up. This argument essentially amounts to a game of who are you going to believe, Person X, or the POPE?!?

Every time someone who has met with Pope Francis speaks to the media about what he told them — and it’s invariably something controversial — we hear that they can’t be trusted. “It’s second-hand information,” they tell us. “We shouldn’t believe this unless we hear it from Pope Francis himself.”

Other than the fact that most of these people are sincerely grateful for whatever the pope said to them and have nothing to gain by lying in general, many of them consider themselves his friends – as does Eugenio Scalfari. What kind of person lies about their friend and intentionally damages their reputation if they value the friendship? And what about the fact that these people are saying things about Francis that they believe to be positive attributes? I’ve covered this here and here.

The fact is that Francis is a very, very shrewd man. His Argentinian friends “describe him as a ‘chess player,’ one whose every day is ‘perfectly organized,’ in which ‘each and every step has been thought out.'” He has been described elsewhere admiringly as  “a master tactician” who has made moves “to outflank various groups and people that continue to oppose many of his initiatives”.

If Francis is, as so much evidence now indicates, sympathetic to the agenda to give communion to the divorced and remarried, he must proceed cautiously, but with determination. This would explain why he stacked the deck at the Synod with cardinals who align themselves with the Kasper proposal. It would shed light on the evidence of Synod manipulation. It would make sense of why he rebuffed the 13 cardinals who expressed their concerns. It would help us to understand the noises he’s making about a decentralized, synodal Church. It would explain why he cautioned against a “hermeneutic of conspiracy” and lashed out at those who sought to uphold doctrine within the Synod (which caused some to misconstrue the event as a “conservative victory“).

Francis’ strategic gifts would also explain his preference for using surrogates to advance his most controversial ideas into the public forum. If one understands the strictures on a pope — placed there in large part by the expectations of the faithful, to say nothing of the Holy Spirit — one could certainly see how a man who has been elected to the papacy and wants more drastic change than his position would reasonably allow would benefit from sending his stalking horses into the global media by means of those with whom he has private conversations. The irresistible urge to talk to the press about some exciting or controversial thing the pope has said to a person is sufficient motivation for them to break their silence, but one can only assume that Francis does not discourage this. It’s not hard to imagine him, with a wink and a smile, reminding those individuals with whom he has shared such delicious unorthodoxies that he’s here to ¡Hagan lío!, and wouldn’t complain if somehow the media got wind of the story – all unofficially, por supuesto.

Which brings us back to Scalfari. After two years and multiple — inevitably controversial — interviews, one would think that Pope Francis would steer clear of the curious old atheist editor of La Repubblica, particularly since it has long since been disclosed that when Scalfari quotes a person, he’s reconstructing their interview from memory – hardly a credible journalistic practice.

In March of this year, LifeSiteNews editor John-Henry Westen succinctly summed up the legacy of the Scalfari interviews thus far:

Eugenio Scalfari, the famed atheist, has published a fourth article on a new interview with Pope Francis.  The controversial anti-Catholic’s previous ‘interviews’ with Pope Francis were published also on the Vatican’s website and listed as official interviews with the pope.

However, an October 2013 interview created a firestorm after which the Vatican pulled the interview from their site and Scalfari admitted that his writings are reconstructions from memory, as he does not use a recorder or take notes.  That interview had Pope Francis saying that the “most serious” evils are “youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.”

Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi said at the time: “One may consider the interview to be reliable in a general sense but not word for word. This is not an official text of the Holy Father.”

The most recent interview, published March 15, is no exception.  In it Scalfari has the pope denying hell.  The article says: “What happens to that lost soul? Will it be punished? And how? The response of Francis is distinct and clear: there is no punishment, but the annihilation of that soul.  All the others will participate in the beatitude of living in the presence of the Father. The souls that are annihilated will not take part in that banquet; with the death of the body their journey is finished.”

The text does not have quotation marks around any of the statements attributed to the Holy Father. Moreover, the Vatican has not published this latest interview on their website.

Fr. Thomas Rosica, English-language assistant to the Holy See Press Office, told LifeSiteNews, “All official, final texts of the Holy Father are found on the Vatican website,” and since they were never published by the Holy See Press Office they “should not be considered official texts.” They were, said Fr. Rosica, “private discussions that took place and were never recorded by the journalist.”

“Mr. Scalfari reconstructed the interviews from memory,” Father Rosica added.

There’s that plausible deniability again.

Like so much else with this papacy, we are perpetually left to discern what about Pope Francis is true and what is false. This growing sense of mistrust toward him whom we should be able to look for clarity and guidance grows wearisome, especially when the reports of disconcerting papal opinions grow in number, with never a word of correction from the Holy Father himself, and are left with only the vague, half-hearted denials fielded from the Holy See Press Office to console us.

Scalfari’s unreliability is a matter of perspective. He is reliably atheist. He has been reliably anti-Catholic. He is reliably committed to his own way of conducting interviews and then reconstructing them from memory – as Fr. Lombardi said in the statement quoted above, those who have “followed the preceding events and work in Italy know the way Scalfari writes and knows these things well.”

Then why dear reader, it is so inexcusable that Pope Francis has given to Scalfari a total of five (by our count) such interviews – particularly when the first one was so blatantly controversial and sparked such scandal and backlash among the faithful. And despite persistent denials that these interviews accurately represent the mind of Pope Francis, we would do well to remember a very important concession made by Fr. Lombardi after the very first one was published:

Pressed by reporters on the reliability of the direct quotations, Lombardi said during an Oct. 2 briefing that the text accurately captured the “sense” of what the pope had said, and that if Francis felt his thought had been “gravely misrepresented,” he would have said so.

This, it seems, is the rhetorical smoking gun. Pope Francis reads what Scalfari writes about him (La Repubblica is his favorite newspaper and he reads it every day) and does not feel that he has been “gravely misrepresented” by any of Scalfari’s reconstructions. In fact, some of those interviews seem to make recurring appearances on the Vatican website, and some have been published in an official anthology of the pope’s conversations with journalists.

What reasonable person could believe that Pope Francis feels any disdain for the way Scalfari represents his opinions in La Repubblica? Where is the evidence that having been burned before, he has made an effort not to be misrepresented again? Five interviews over two years. As someone wrote elsewhere today, “Once is a mistake; several times is a preference.”

There’s an old saying that bears repeating here: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

Interpret these interviews however you want, fellow Catholics. I will not to join you in playing the fool.

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