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Pope’s Scalfari Message Is for Italians (Not for You)

People on various internet platforms are still expressing their dismay and confusion over the pope’s alleged denial of the divinity of Christ, as conveyed by the Italian journalist and former politician, Eugenio Scalfari. We are certainly at a disadvantage when trying to suss out what the pope “means” by the often strange things he says. First, we normally get his pronouncements second- or even thirdhand, and invariably translated. So when a person like Eugenio Scalfari produces another bombshell editorial claiming to relate something the pope told him, we are almost at a loss. We behave like a flock of partridges being shot at by unseen bird-hunters — a great deal of panicked fluttering and confusion and running about in circles, pecking each other.

To understand the apparently strange reality of the Scalfari-Francis connection, there are a lot of cultural obstacles to get past as well — namely, that we “Anglo-sassone” are not Italians and do not have the mindset that allows us to instantly grasp the political implications and nuances that come naturally to them. We have to translate not only the verbal language, but the social, cultural, and political language as well.

The first thing to know is who and what Scalfari is and what he represents. To Italians, Scalfari is important not so much for the fiddling, picayune details of the things he says — which he admits are often the products of his 95-year-old memory —  but for his position as the patriarch of Italy’s extreme political left.

Scalfari is the founding editor of La Repubblica, the country’s oldest left-wing — and specifically anti-Catholic — newspaper. Scalfari is (or was) the quintessential journalistic opinion-maker on the left. But more importantly, he was also among the founders of the Radical Party, the political force behind the 40-year-long de-Christianization of Italy’s polity. This is the extreme-left party that forced legal abortion on a still deeply Catholic Italy in 1975, running an actual hands-on illegal abortionist, Emma Bonino, as a lead candidate and face of the ideology. That’s what he’s about: not the things he says, but the face and voice and symbol of that ideology and worldview.

We Anglos, obsessed as we are with our silly legalisms like “the words have to be true,” can’t understand why anyone trusts him, but this is because we fail to understand what Italians consider a newspaper to be for. Newspapers are understood to be exclusively political organs here, conveyors of ongoing manifestos; you read La Repubblica either because you are a member and adherent of that worldview or because you want to know what those adherents are thinking. Newspapers here are mostly about what we would call “spin.” Everyone already knows the facts; newspapers are there to tell us how to think about those facts.

We Anglos still labor under the rather charmingly naïve opinion that newspapers are about conveying accurate information, like verifiable quotes, and maintaining at least a pretense of ideological objectivity. To Americans especially, with their country being the world’s first and greatest social experiment in constructing a nation out of a set of political ideals, maintaining the myth of an unbiased and accurate press is of immense cultural and political importance. It’s why an American politician, even one firmly on the left, will bristle at being called a “liberal” [1]. In the United States for a very long time it was dangerous to admit to being a card-carrying communist. To Anglos in general, a news outlet being solely the purveyor of a political manifesto is like an admission of cultural and political degeneration, an admission of defeat.

So anathematic is the idea of media being essentially ideological that there is an entire online sub-genre of journalism focused on “proving” that the BBC is biased toward the left. To Italians — who think nothing of political demonstrations proudly displaying seas of hammer-and-sickle flags — this would just be absurd, a joke, and certainly a waste of energy. Ideological cleanliness is expected by no one of no one, and occasional inaccuracies are just part of the process. Sometimes they’re corrected, and sometimes not, but they’re mostly irrelevant.

What a pope is: Not what you think

In addition, Italians start with the working idea that the pope is primarily a politician. The notion of a pope being about doctrine — indeed, of Catholicism being about doctrine — is just not on their radar, either. So the idea of confirming every word Scalfari the leftist ideologue said about what the pope said just wouldn’t cross anyone’s mind. Agreeing with him isn’t about believing what he says. It isn’t too far out of living memory that the pope was just another temporal ruler — the king of the Papal States, which he had to have wrested from him by force by the glorious Freemasonic revolutionaries in 1870.

The idea, that we are obsessively addicted to, that the pope must be above and outside politics and factions is something they would laugh at as hopelessly, childishly naïve — and indeed, the expression “Anglo-sassone” more or less means that: a person who thinks things should be as they appear and everyone should follow the rules. They think our fussing over exact wording, proofs, recordings, and the like is all just signs that we’re hopeless, parochial bumpkins.

If you cornered an Italian and forced the issue, he’d agree that the world shouldn’t be like this, but at the same time, he’d dismiss the objection as completely irrelevant. To the pragmatic Italian political mind, from time immemorial, the pope is the head of “the Catholic party” and, since the creation of the Italian State and the Lateran Treaty with Mussolini that created the Vatican City State, just another player in the nation’s political life.

All this is the key to understanding why it’s important that it was the pope who originally reached out to Scalfari to offer to give him interviews and doesn’t bother to distance himself from anything the man says. What isn’t very important is whether the words Scalfari uses in his editorialized “interviews” is point-for-point accurate. The Italian understanding is that a pope who does this, who goes to this particular man, is sending a signal of his political affiliation — the Catholic Party’s platform, if you will. In this country, politics is almost exclusively about factions, and the pope by his actions has told the Italian public to which faction he — and the Catholic party of which he is head — belongs.

This is why the things he is reported as saying — even up to denying the divinity of Christ or that bad souls are annihilated or whatever — are more or less beside the point. To be honest, what Pope Francis Bergoglio actually does or doesn’t believe about dogmatic theology is probably so muddled and self-contradictory as to be un-identifiable. Following the oscillating lawn sprinkler of his pronouncements about religion is a mugg’s game. For Italians, who also haven’t failed to notice this about him, it’s doubly pointless. They feel they are capable of making up their own minds on the divinity of Christ and are equally free to do so, and they aren’t looking to a pope (the very idea!) to tell them what to believe.

We all know who and what Scalfari is and what he represents, and the fact that the pope goes to him, talks to him, is friends with him, and doesn’t correct him Is. The. Message. And the message is that to be Catholic means being in the worldview that Scalfari represents. This is something that suits many Italians just fine, particularly those of the political and clerical classes.

They’re wise to him

La Repubblica indeed spelled this out in September last year with an interesting explanatory blog post. When Francis was elected pope, secular media immediately dove for Google and discovered his “conservative” record from Argentina. As Piergiorgio Odifreddi writes in L.R.’s blog, they found “a medieval conservative, who in 2010 had scandalized his country with his anachronistic stand against the proposed law on homosexual marriages.”

In September of his first year as pope, Bergoglio reached out to Scalfari with a letter, published on the Vatican’s website, that Odifreddi said was the start of the creation of the “liberal Pope Francis” as a kind of political icon and rallying point for all the left’s platform planks.

Odifreddi continues: “After his letter to Scalfari, Pope Francis was transformed for him, and consequently also by Repubblica, into a progressive revolutionary, who would be the only point of reference not only religious but also political, of men of good will in the whole world[.]”

(Remembering that “men of goodwill” for the Repubblicanista means those who love them some “gay marriage,” abortion, contraception, divorce, gender ideology, et al.)

“So far so good, or almost so: after all, everyone has the right to renounce their past as a ‘man who did not believe in God and become ‘the man who worshiped the Pope,’ going to swell the nourished ranks of devout atheists, or on our knees, from our country.”

Interestingly, Odifreddi isn’t buying the shtick, accusing Scalfari of making up “fake news” to promote his new obsession and Pope Francis of negligent incompetence at allowing the charade to continue. He all but accuses Bergoglio himself of doing it deliberately to muddy and confuse public opinion.

It shows that the left’s love for the Progressive Pope isn’t monolithic. Apparently, lefties in Italy also have a problem believing that a pope could be an atheist icon. He asks many of the same questions faithful Catholics ask: if Scalfari, who doubled down when confronted, is really having these discussions with the pope and is misrepresenting him, why does the pope continue to meet with him, or decline to issue corrections or denunciations?

Typically, Odifreddi doesn’t answer the puzzle but restricts himself to attacking Scalfari and posing questions. But it’s noteworthy that someone on the far left is asking the same questions, and in Scalfari’s own paper. “Pope Francis’s recklessness led him to be surrounded self-injuringly by a colorful court of miracles, from Cardinal Pell to Mrs. Chaouqui, and Scalfari is perhaps just another umpteenth misjudgment on the part of a pope who has not revealed himself any more adequate than his predecessor to administrative tasks.” Worth a read.

Applied chaos

Odifreddi points out that the results of this whole business have worked very much to Bergoglio’s political advantage:

But we must not forget that Bergoglio is still a Jesuit, who could hide a lot of cunning [‘furbizia’ — meaning low cunning common to petty white-collar criminals, cheats] behind his apparent banality. After all, a minimum of blandishment exercised against a hypertrophic [‘ipertrofico’ — inflated] ego has brought him and maintains the open support of one of the two major Italian newspapers, which has gone from a substantially secular position to an obviously pro-Vatican [‘filovaticana’ — literally ‘Vatican-loving’] one.

An example of how this mess-making and chaos-building works in Italy’s secular politics — where Catholicism is a key football — is playing out right now in the region [2] of Umbria, where there is a election campaign ongoing, and “immigration support” has been firmly set opposed to “pro-family.” Umbria has long been considered a leftist, “communist” region, but the flood of illegal immigration from Africa and the Middle East and burgeoning rates of crime have swung the vote against the traditional position and created a ripe field for the anti-immigration Lega. The Lega, the party of the rosary-waving Matteo Salvini — whom Bergoglio loathes — is running against the candidate of the Partito Democratico (P.D.: that includes the former Italian Communist Party), and both are busily claiming the Catholic ground, on completely opposed principles.

The Lega candidate is running on a platform that includes promoting the family as one man and one woman in marriage and opposing the “womb-for-rent” or maternal surrogacy, both key issues for what we would call Italian “social conservatives.” For his party’s anti-immigration, pro–law and order, pro-family, and anti–gender ideology positions, Salvini has been attacked and denounced in a multitude of editorials from priests in the Catholic and secular press, with some going as far as calling him the “antichrist.” The Italian bishops’ own newspaper, Avvenire, infamously ran a front-page headline calling Salvini “Satan.”

A Lega senator, Simone Pillon, summarized the party’s position, saying, “As Matteo Salvini said, it’s enough with empty cradles, impoverished families left alone with elderly or disabled people. In the family there are mom and dad and not parent 1 and parent 2. Children are born from the love of parents and are not bought with the uterus for rent.” Lega party candidates and M.P.s attended a Family Day in Perugia — the regional capital — on Thursday, October 17, where the cardinal-archbishop of Perugia — the papally appointed president of the Italian bishops’ conference and leader of the Bergoglian faction of the hierarchy, Gualtiero Bassetti [3] — was prominently absent.

But with Francis himself openly aligned on the opposite side of John Paul II in the Italian version of the Culture Wars — a “Scalfarian” pope — the P.D. is free to denounce such ideas as anti-Catholic rhetoric, and just more evidence of the Lega’s personal score-settling with Papa Bergoglio. In response to the Perugia event and family manifesto, the P.D. candidate Andrea Fora told journalists, “Those who support Salvini cannot call themselves Christians because he [Salvini] rejects the commandment to love,” referring to the Lega’s opposition to unlimited acceptance of illegal migrants.

Fora refused to sign the Lega’s Family Manifesto, and the P.D. manifesto for Umbria includes an explicit commitment to not only the retention of the new Umbria law against “homophobia” and “transphobia,” but a hefty budget to enforce it. Salvini, asked to respond to Fora’s comments, said, “I’ll pray for him.”

How the pope’s uninhibited and uncompromising promotion of illegal migration has gone over with Italians can be judged from the incredible wave of pro-Lega sentiment, and the sweeping out of the ruling, heavily pro-European Union P.D. in the last general election. The rise of Salvini’s Lega up and down the boot — even in traditional leftist strongholds like Perugia — is a testament to Italian common sense. The country experienced an awakening of hope — after heavy decades of gross corruption on one side and pandering Euro-socialism on the other as the only political choices. A pope who appears bent on doing everything he can to squash that hope is not popular.

(By the way: The race between the Lega and the P.D. in Umbria, where I live but cannot vote, is very close and considered an important test of post-Salvini politics. The latest polls show the Lega with 47–51% and the PD at 39–43%.)

This is Part I of a series. Part II is forthcoming.

[1] Also, let’s face it: your “left” is everyone else’s right.

[2] Regions include Tuscany, Umbria, Lazio…the equivalent of a state in the U.S. or province in Canada.

[3] And my own bishop, by the way.

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