This article is Part II of a series. Read Part I here.
The incomprehensible pope
To most of us, a lot of the things Pope Francis says come across as simply unintelligible. Anyone who has listened to him speak in person will know that he rarely speaks clearly or even grammatically. He rambles, he emotes, he uses single-word “sentences” and even facial expressions and hand gestures to convey whatever he thinks he means; the full sentences he does use are often unconnected to anything else he’s said. So much of his speeches is untranslatable babble that the poor souls whose job it is to convey his words have long since been reduced to publishing fragmentary quotes and paraphrases, filling in comprehensible and grammatical sentences for the famously incomprehensible pope.
Even when he’s conveying his ideas in the written form, it can be a chore to figure out what he’s talking about. When he talks a lot of nonsense about “time is greater than space” and “reality is more important than ideas,” people who have not suffered a Jesuit education in the 1970s are left shaking their heads and wondering how he learned all this cant and whether it actually means anything. Amoris Laetitia: “Since ‘time is greater than space,’ I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.”
This aspect of this pontificate has been commented upon extensively, as have the various political uses of his “weaponized ambiguity.” It is certainly well established that it is much more fruitful to pay closer attention to the things he does than the things he says.
There is a thread: Trendy Nouvelle Théologie
What we might be missing is that at least some of what seems to us like incoherent gibberish is familiar to a certain demographic within Catholicism. In fact, very often he’s speaking an Argentinian Jesuit dialect of Nouvelle Théologie, the 20th century’s academic inheritor of 19th-century modernism and, according to at least one book on the subject, the “precursor of Vatican II” and all its glorious fruits. His jargon, and the peculiar, anti-rational ideas behind it, is typical of that class and period. Several times other people who live in the same world and are therefore familiar with the language have assured us that it does at least occasionally mean something.
So how are we to understand this latest Scalfari business? I consulted a real Catholic theologian to see if we can find a working translation.
My friend first reminds us to keep in mind that he rarely speaks clearly on any subject and has repeatedly and regularly laughed off and brushed aside suggestions that believing things is even important: “reality is more important than ideas,” don’t forget. Indeed, he has often condemned as “fanaticism” the ordinary Catholic desire for doctrinal clarity. As I wrote in Part I, it is a bit pointless to try to nail down what this pope does or doesn’t believe; even if you could force it out of him, it’s probably so muddled and self-contradictory as to be unidentifiable as either orthodox or heterodox anyway.
My friend points out also that it’s understandable that whatever the pope said, Scalfari the atheist, without even a catechetical background to guide him, has misinterpreted or misrepresented it. And then it has likely been garbled again by the peculiarities of Italian editorial writing, in which the goal is to be as opaque and circumlocuitous as possible. Scalfari seems to be confused and is relating in a vague way something that was itself conveyed to him in vague and imprecise language. In one line, for instance, Scalfari uses the term “God incarnate” without the indefinite article but then uses “a god” in the next line. “It looks like a sloppy presentation or just a lack of precision.”
“We have to distinguish between Scalfari’s interpretation and what Pope Francis probably actually was saying. But at the same time, what he actually meant should also be criticized,” my friend said.
What Scalfari said the pope said
We must start with a reminder that the source for the latest business was not an “interview,” even by Scalfari’s standards, but a brief editorial claiming to relate something the pope said to Scalfari in a personal conversation at some unknown time in the past. This was, at least this time, not a case of the pope “giving an interview” to send a message. More than usually, therefore, the content must be taken with a pound of salt.
Gleaning what we can from the original Italian text of the editorial in La Repubblica, there are hints at the meaning. This is the relevant portion — with my own translations — of the editorial that appeared October 9 in La Repubblica:
Francesco ha lanciato ormai da anni l’idea del Dio Unico.
Francesco has been launching [“throwing,” “jettisoning”] the idea of the One God for years now.
Chi ha avuto, come a me è capitato più volte, la fortuna d’incontrarlo e di parlargli con la massima confidenza culturale, sa che papa Francesco concepisce il Cristo come Gesù di Nazareth, uomo, non Dio incarnato. Una volta incarnato, Gesù cessa di essere un Dio e diventa fino alla sua morte sulla croce un uomo.
La prova che conferma questa realtà e che crea una Chiesa completamente diversa dalle altre è provata da alcuni episodi che meritano di essere ricordati. Il primo è quello che avviene nell’ Orto di Getsemani dove Gesù si reca dopo l’ Ultima Cena. Gli apostoli che sono a pochi metri da lui lo sentono pregare Dio con parole che furono a suo tempo riferite da Simon Pietro: “Signore – disse Gesù – se puoi allontanare da me questo amaro calice, ti prego di farlo, ma se non puoi o non vuoi io lo berrò fino in fondo”. Fu arrestato dalle guardie di Pilato appena uscito da quel giardino. Un altro episodio, anch’ esso ben noto avviene quando Gesù è già crocifisso e lì ancora una volta ripete ed è ascoltato dagli apostoli e dalle donne che sono inginocchiate ai piedi della croce: “Signore, mi hai abbandonato”.
Whoever has had, as I have several times, the luck of meeting him and speaking to him with the utmost cultural confidence, knows that Pope Francis conceives Christ as Jesus of Nazareth, man, not God incarnate. Once incarnated, Jesus ceases to be a god and becomes a man until his death on the cross.
The proof that confirms this reality and creates a Church completely different from the others is proved by some episodes that deserve to be remembered. The first is what happens in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus goes after the Last Supper. The apostles who are a few meters from him hear him pray to God with words that were at one time reported by Simon Peter: “Lord” — said Jesus — “if you can remove this bitter chalice from me, please do it, but if you can’t or you don’t want to, I will drink it all the way.” He was arrested by Pilate’s guards as soon as he left the garden. Another episode, also well known, occurs when Jesus is already crucified and once again repeats himself and is listened to by the apostles and by the women who are kneeling at the foot of the cross: “Lord, you have forsaken me.”
Quando mi è capitato di discutere queste frasi papa Francesco mi disse: ‘Sono la prova provata che Gesù di Nazareth una volta diventato uomo, sia pure un uomo di eccezionali virtù, non era affatto un Dio’.”
When I happened to discuss these sentences, Pope Francis said to me: “These are the ‘proof-of-proofs’ [the sense of the idiomatic Italian expression “prova provata” being equivalent to “absolute proof” — we might say “proof positive”] that Jesus of Nazareth, once he became a man, though a man of exceptional virtues, was not a god at all.”
It’s not good, it’s not Catholic, but it’s also not quite exactly the outright repudiation of the Divinity of Christ and consequent declaration of atheism that perhaps Scalfari took it for.
My theologian friend commented, “It seems that the general proposal is that these instances named were ‘proof positive’ that Jesus was not ‘God incarnate’ until after the Resurrection.” This distinction is key to identifying the particular strain of theological error being described.
And indeed, if this were true, then Scalfari’s conclusion — that it would “create” a completely different Church — would be spot on. If it were true, then the Council of Chalcedon that condemned Nestorianism and upheld the Hypostatic Union and two natures of Christ, fully divine and fully human, was wrong, and the Catholic Church ought to be Nestorian.
The atheist has correctly identified the core of all the theological proposals of the Catholic Church: the divinity of Christ, as defined by the orthodox theologians, popes, and saints for 2,000 years. Even Scalfari — an Italian after all — understands that the Church is quite literally founded on it:
When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?
And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.
He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?
And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon bar Jonah: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.
And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
The significance of the successor of Simon bar Jonah denying this key doctrine is not lost, even on Scalfari.
“Kenosis” and “low Christology”: Who is Jesus Christ?
My friend said that the words attributed to the pope are qualified by the phrase “once he became man,” and this gives us a hint as to the exact heresy that Scalfari is attributing to the pope (and that the pope has not yet denied holding). It rests on the concept of “Christological kenosis” and comes from the reference to Christ’s “self-emptying” described in Philippians 2:5–11:
Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;
And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The Greek text of verse 7 uses the word “κενόω” (kenóō) “to empty.” The “kenosis” of God is the “self-emptying” of the Logos at the hypostatic union. In Catholic orthodoxy, the “kenosis” is only the assumption by the Logos of humanity and the “occultation” or hiding of divinity, subjecting Himself willingly to the abasement of being human, having to be born and grow as a man and be voluntarily limited by human nature.
Jesus of Nazareth, once he became a man, though a man of exceptional virtues, was not a God at all.
My friend the theologian tells me that if the pope did say this, or something like it, it could be a version of the “kenotic” or “kenosis” heresy, in which it’s proposed that the self-emptying the Logos undertook to become Man included His divinity. That is, in shortest possible terms, that Jesus the man was not God during His earthly life, that he “laid down” His divine nature entirely, but then underwent some kind of “re-divinization” after His death on the cross and resurrection.
“It involves taking the concept of ‘kenosis’ or self-emptying and taking it to an extreme conclusion — that is, that during the Incarnation Jesus actually emptied Himself of His Divinity — that is, He gave up being God for a while. Obviously, this is utterly irrational.”
“Kenosis theology can be orthodox or heretical,” my friend said. “In its orthodox form, it is mostly a moral attitude to be inculcated in Christians,” meaning we must follow the example and not seek worldly glory. “In its heretical form, it is Christological, essentially Nestorian, dividing the Second Person of the Trinity from the man Jesus.”
Scalfari seems to be saying that Pope Francis holds the heretical, Nestorian version, conceiving the Christ as Jesus of Nazareth, a man, not God Incarnate. Once incarnate, as Scalfari claims the pope says, Jesus ceases to be “a god” and becomes a merely virtuous man, up to His death on the Cross.
It explains a lot
If this is the case, it would certainly explain the pope’s repeated denials and downplayings of the miracles of Jesus in the Gospels. He has doubled down on his assertion, for instance, that the multiplication of the loaves and fishes was nothing more than “a parable of sharing.” This heterodox theory, popular among progressivists since Vatican II, holds that the Lord didn’t miraculously multiply the food — as the pope put it, like a “magician” — but by His example inspired the people present to share food they’d secretly brought with them.
It would also explain why he could imagine that the Son of God could have owed an apology to His mother and Joseph for His “little escapade” when He was found among the teachers in Jerusalem. To a person with an orthodox Catholic Christology, the idea that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity could “owe His mother an apology” is outrageous. It is nothing less than a suggestion that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity could have sinned.
But a man who believes that Jesus of Nazareth was just an ordinary man, albeit possessed of “extraordinary virtues,” could easily picture a 12-year-old boy worrying his mother by thoughtlessly going on “a little escapade.” (It would also gravely downgrade the status of the Blessed Virgin Mary if she was, as Protestants and Nestorians claim, merely the mother of Jesus and not the Mother of God. A low Christology necessarily implies a low Mariology.)
This low Christology — that places an overemphasis on Christ’s humanity — would also fit with Pope Bergoglio’s obsession with power. A man like that cannot conceive of a Man-God who would go meekly to His death on the cross, or suffer fear or cry out in agony in His last moments. Such a Man of meekness and obedience would, to a man of power like Jorge Bergoglio, hardly be worthy of the title God. It is essentially Nietzsche’s response to Christianity. It is certainly telling that all of these “proofs” of Christ’s non-divinity are moments of His apparent weakness, in the worldly sense.
Condemned by his own predecessors: A brief papal catechism of Christology
If this is indeed what Pope Francis believes, it has been very specifically repudiated multiple times, from ancient times to our own. Most recently, as this archaic Christological heresy resurfaced in the 19th and 20th centuries, it was condemned again by Pius XII, who wrote against the low Christology of kenotic theory in the encyclical Sempiternus Rex.
This document was issued, quite deliberately, on September 8, 1951, the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin and 1,500th anniversary of the 4th Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (8 October to 1 November, A.D. 451). Chalcedon definitively corrected the Eutychian, and by extension the monophysite and Nestorian, Christological heresies by declaring Christ fully and equally human and divine.
It is one of Catholic life’s little ironies, as Pius XII wrote, that the resurgence of this ancient heresy is “led by an excessive desire for new things.” But if our modern heretics suffer from a lack of historical education, the Church herself tends to remember things for quite a long time. Pius summarizes the no doubt fantastically complex Christological controversies  of the 5th century:
Eutyches asserted that two moments of time should be distinguished: thus before the Incarnation there were two natures in Christ, the human and the divine; after their union, however, only one existed, since the Word had absorbed the human nature (hominem); the body of the Lord came from the Virgin Mary, but was not of our substance and matter.
Pius blows this one to tiny smithereens in a single sentence: “Eutyches did not grasp that before the union the human nature of Christ did not exist at all.”
Pius goes on to relate the story that at Chalcedon, the famous (and previously suppressed by the false Synod of Ephesus) letter of Pope St. Leo the Great to the martyred Bishop Flavian was read to the assembled bishops. These, the reader scarcely having finished, rose up as one and declared, “This is the faith of the Fathers, this is the faith of the Apostles. So we all believe, and so believe all orthodox Christians. Let him be anathema who does not believe this. Peter has spoken through Leo.”
The ecumenical council went on to directly answer, 1,568 years later, a pope who is alleged to hold or at least willing to assert the opposite:
It is because there was only one person in both natures, that the Son of God took flesh from the Virgin from whom he was born. And again the Son of God is said to have been crucified and been buried, because he suffered these things in the weakness of his human nature, not in the divinity itself, for through the divinity the only Begotten is co-eternal and consubstantial with the Father. Wherefore in the Creed we all confess “the only Begotten Son of God to have been crucified and buried.”
And we can, perhaps, dare to make our own the indignant rebuke of the holy Pope Leo:
I am surprised that this absurd and perverse statement should have escaped the severe reprimand of those who gave judgment … the Only Begotten Son of God is impiously described as being of two natures before the Incarnation and, equally wickedly to the Word made Flesh is attributed only one nature.
We’re back to weaponized ambiguity
My friend adds one more point that must be kept in mind: Pope Francis himself has asserted the orthodox belief. A few days after the appearance of the Scalfari editorial, during the canonization Mass of John Henry Newman, he said:
We see that when they approach Jesus, they “kept their distance” (Lk. 17:12). Even though their condition kept them apart, the Gospel tells us that they “called out” (v. 13) and pleaded with Jesus. They did not let themselves be paralyzed because they were shunned by society; they cried out to God, who excludes no one.
The lepers are the first people, in this Gospel, who called on the name of Jesus. Later, a blind man and a crucified thief would do so: all of them needy people calling on the name of Jesus, which means: “God saves.” They call God by name, directly and spontaneously.
My friend notes that these and multiple other quotes from Francis “are explicit affirmations of the divinity of Jesus during His earthly life.”
Nonetheless, we would be fools to say this puts to rest all questions. Remembering that the first rule of Pope Bergoglio is “Don’t like something he’s said? Wait 24 hours. He’ll say exactly the opposite tomorrow,” the question of what the pope really thinks appears to be impossible for the moment to work out, and this is doubly true if we are taking our information from Eugenio Scalfari’s memory.
But it is worth pointing out — again — that for there even to be a hint of a suspicion that the pope does not hold to the definitions of the Faith held by the apostles and “all orthodox Christians” for 2,000 years, is itself a grave scandal.
The faithful have the right to hear the truth, and only the truth, from the supreme pastor of the whole Church.
 Invariably mixed up with literally Byzantine political machinations.
After two dream-like years living in Norcia, the cradle of Western Monasticism, Hilary moved unexpectedly with her three cats to the area near Perugia, where she gardens a great deal and tries not to worry too much.