Since the news broke early this week that the nonegenarian atheist socialist editor of Italy’s La Repubblica, Eugenio Scalfari, claimed that Pope Francis told him during one of their many conversations that he did not believe Jesus was God, the Catholic commentariat has been engaged in a rhetorical battle to the death over who to believe, whether it’s true, and what it all means.
For those willing to look objectively at the matter, it becomes clear that the confusion is the result of an intentional strategy on the part of the pope and his communications team. Inasmuch as deception is a key component of this strategy, they will never admit it, but it is my hope to demonstrate here that this is the only reasonable explanation.
Who Do You Trust?
I’d like to begin by addressing a question I’ve seen asked many times, if in different words: Why should we believe a 95 year old atheist socialist who doesn’t even take notes instead of the pope?
And to be clear this isn’t a caricature, here’s an actual quote:
He didn’t say it. And denied it. And the guy who made the allegation is ****a 90 year old atheist who takes no notes****
I’m no fan of Pope Francis, but I do have to wonder, if an atheist with an axe to grind against the Church, is the best “witness” to anything the Pope says? This just seems too “convenient,” if you know what I mean?
One variant, this time from Catholic Answers staff apologist Trent Horn:
CORRECTION: the Pope has not given any recent interviews to Scalfari and this detail comes from older interviews with the Pope from a few years ago (mea culpa). But I am dismayed that so many people (myself included sometimes) fail to give the Holy Father the benefit of the doubt
— Trent Horn (@Trent_Horn) October 10, 2019
This sentiment is understandable, and demands an answer.
The Scalfari Strategy
The first time Pope Francis caused controversy in an interview with Eugenio Scalfari was in 2013, at the very outset of his papacy. In that interview, he made statements that immediately became infamous:
- “The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.”
- “Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”
- “Convert you? Proselytism is solemn nonsense. You have to meet people and listen to them.”
Ironically, it was this interview that indirectly gave birth to the idea of OnePeterFive. It was this interview, and the reception to the piece I wrote about it at the time, that alerted me that my concerns about Francis were shared by a great many Catholics. This realization led, ten months later, to the launch of this project. Suffice it to say I’ve been following the Scalfari saga from the very beginning.
If you’ve also watched these developments for the past 6 years, it has no doubt become clear to you that the pope is using Scalfari to propagate his most extreme ideas under a veneer of plausible deniability. Recall again what Fr. Lombardi, then papal-spokesman, said in response to controversy over that first 2013 interview:
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.
There is the current denial in nascent form: not a verbatim transcript, but — and this is the part they no longer admit, because they can’t — a representation that “accurately captures the sense of what the pope had said.”
As for the promised correction of any grave misrepresentation, it never came. Not that time, not any of the NINE times, by my count, that interactions between Scalfari and Francis have made the news. Here those are, with links:
If the pope had an objection to the way Scalfari represents him, wouldn’t you think he would have said something by now?
Now, it’s impossible to say how many actual conversations the two have had. In 2016, after five published interactions with the pope, Scalfari said: “I am honoured to receive frequent phone calls from Pope Francis, we have not met in person for over a year. So I was very pleased to receive his invitation.”
The Vatican has never even attempted to deny that the two meet or converse over the phone. In fact, the Vatican has officially published some of their conversations. As I wrote last year:
Of course, at least one of the interviews — the first one that got the ball rolling — did appear on the Vatican website. Before it was taken down in late 2013. Then briefly re-appeared in 2014. Then disappeared again.
This same interview also appeared — along with other Scalfari interviews — in an Italian-only book called Interviews and Conversations With Journalists (Interviste e Conversazioni con i Giornalisti), published by the Vatican’s official publishing arm, the Libreria Editrice Vaticana. As Italian journalist and author Antonio Socci wrote in 2015, “the interviews of Pope Bergoglio in Scalfari…have never been denied.” He continues, “Indeed they have been republished in full on the L’Osservatore Romano, and they have even just been completely republished by the same Argentine pope in a book signed by him from the Libreria Editrice Vaticana. So they are, in effect, official…”
Among the other controversies that have arisen from their interaction, Scalfari reported on four separate occasions — once in 2018, twice in 2017, and once in 2015 — that Francis held a bizarre eschatology in which there was no hell, and the souls of the unrighteous would be “annihilated.”
None were corrected.
He also told us, in 2015 — months before Amoris Laetitia was published — that Francis had confided in him his thoughts about the outcome of the synod that would lead to that exhortation:
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)
Obviously, Scalfari wasn’t misrepresenting anything on that topic.
Let’s return now to the present controversy. If you’re still doubtful, let me ask you a question: If someone you have treated as a friend, who has been a respected journalist for 65 years and who runs a major publication in your country, told the world that you, a Catholic, believed Jesus wasn’t truly God — even if you weren’t the pope — how many people would it take to hold you down and keep you from personally refuting every word, and making a declaration of faith? How long would it be before you found a microphone to declare your fidelity to Christ and condemn the vicious calumny you had been subjected to?
And yet, for some reason, Francis hasn’t even preached a homily in his daily Masses for the past two days — the exact timeframe in which this entire controversy has been most heated:
— Vatican News (@VaticanNews) October 10, 2019
— Vatican News (@VaticanNews) October 11, 2019
So why should we believe Scalfari?
Because Scalfari has everything to lose, pitting his reputation against the Roman Pontiff, and nothing to gain. The pope, even this pope, has the moral high ground, and a global audience. He could destroy Scalfari with a word, and the latter, whose death cannot be far in the future, would go to his grave under a cloud of scandal and ignominy, his hard-earned reputation in tatters, his legacy — the only thing an atheist like Scalfari can really believe he will leave behind when he’s gone — lost due to his own careless, casual, repetitive fabrications.
What would be worth that?
Why we should believe Scalfari is the wrong question. The question is why we should believe Francis, who has made no effort — not even once — to distance himself from these remarks, to clarify his positions, or to cease his interactions with Scalfari himself.
The Second Vatican Non-Denial – Don’t Be Fooled
Looking again at the most recent Scalfari claims, the Vatican, as we predicted they would in our analysis of his editorial, issued a pseudo-denial of the allegation that the pope had denied the divinity of Jesus. This has become standard operating procedure when dealing with Scalfari claims, as we have demonstrated in the past.
“As already stated on other occasions,” said Matteo Bruni, director of the Holy See press office, on October 9, “the words that Dr. Eugenio Scalfari attributes in quotation marks to the Holy Father during talks with him cannot be considered a faithful account of what was actually said but represent a personal and free interpretation of what he heard, as appears completely evident from what is written today regarding the divinity of Jesus Christ.”
In other words: “He didn’t say exactly the words Scalfari quoted him as saying.”
Not, “Pope Francis categorically denies that he ever questioned the divinity of Jesus in Scalfari’s hearing, and he wishes to affirm again at this juncture that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, made incarnate for the salvation of our sins.”
After the first pseudo-denial did not quell the outrage, the matter was addressed again yesterday, this time by Paolo Ruffini, Prefect of the Secretariat for Communication:
“The Holy Father never said what Scalfari wrote,” Vatican communications head Paolo Ruffini said at an Oct. 10 press conference, adding that “both the quoted remarks and the free reconstruction and interpretation by Dr. Scalfari of the conversations, which go back to more than two years ago, cannot be considered a faithful account of what was said by the pope.”
“That will be found rather throughout the Church’s magisterium and Pope Francis’ own, on Jesus: true God and true man,” Ruffini added.
On first glance, this appeared to represent progress. I even bought it for a minute. It almost looks like an actual denial.
But it isn’t. It’s just a clever re-packaging of the earlier denial.
“The Holy Father never said what Scalfari wrote” is simply a more forceful way of dissembling. It still means, “He didn’t say exactly the words Scalfari quoted him as saying.” It doesn’t mean anything more than that.
And it’s absolutely not a refutation of the substance of the claim.
Talking about the “free reconstruction and interpretation by Dr. Scalfari” is merely a wordy description of Scalfari’s interview style, without notes or recordings. This is, it should be noted, an interview style Francis clearly favors when floating his trial balloons, because then it can be called into question when the heat is on.
Just like they’re doing now.
It is also not conclusive to cite things Francis has said in the past about Jesus as a refutation of what he may have said to Scalfari. Never forget The Peron Rule. Self-contradiction is part of the game.
No Answers Forthcoming
This is almost certainly the last we’ll hear from the Vatican on the matter. Francis won’t address it. Archibishop Vigano has challenged the pope to make a personal statement on the matter, but we all know that the pope’s response to anything Vigano says is obdurate silence. It’s possible one or two other bishops or cardinals — the usual suspects like Burke or Schneider — will echo the challenge.
But that will be the end of it.
It is probably useless to speculate whether Francis truly believes that Jesus is God. He is not known for his Eucharistic reverence. He certainly does not act like Christ’s teachings are divine and immutable. Even so, the Scalfari claims won’t establish him in any formal way as an apostate. The suggestion that he may be will be added to the ever-growing pile of Bergoglian scandals, and this suggestion, based on everything else he’s doing, will nevertheless be considered unthinkable by many. Those who find it plausible will be dismissed as conspiracy theorists and lunatics.
Of course, if a recent report by Church Militant is to be believed, Francis has said he wants confusion. A confusion that will, according to the report, “upend the established order” which will “promote a type of conflict, and from that conflict, a new reality will be ushered in.”
Wasn’t that always the point of his call to hagan lio? To “make a mess”?
I have long believed that Francis uses Scalfari as a primary means to launder his most extreme ideas, allowing them to take root in the Catholic consciousness while keeping him free of any proven guilt. Scalfari benefits because the Church is no friend to his ideology. Even the Wikipedia entry on his publication states that “La Repubblica used to be known for its critical stand vis-à-vis the Catholic Church, but this position has drastically changed after the onset of the papacy of Pope Francis.”
It is a naturally symbiotic relationship between two men who appear all too comfortable with anti-Catholic ideals and a vision for a world free of the traditional mores and teachings of the Church.
Only the most naive among us think the ongoing collaboration of these two is an accident.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.