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Pope Francis | Eugenio Scalfari

October 17, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — Earlier this month, journalist Eugenio Scalfari claimed that Pope Francis believes, “once incarnated, Jesus ceases to be a God and becomes a man until his death on the cross.”

Scalfari’s claims about the beliefs of Pope Francis have been puzzling Catholics for six years, and from time to time elicit some form of denial from Vatican spokesmen. On this occasion, they pointed out that Scalfari’s apparently direct quotations of the Holy Father are a mere “personal and free interpretation” of his words, and, furthermore, Scalfari has not met Pope Francis for two years. 

Neither statement is exactly decisive, especially as Scalfari claims to have telephone conversations with Pope Francis, a claim that has never been denied. Nevertheless, I was inclined to sympathize with the spokesman, Matteo Bruni, who expressed some exasperation. This claim is so ridiculous, he suggested, that it just goes to show how little we should trust Scalfari’s claims. 

That was until I discovered that Scalfari’s curious formulation reflects a theological theory that actually has some following. Indeed, Pope Pius XII thought it necessary to condemn it, in 1951, in his encyclical Sempiternus Rex Christus:

There is another enemy of the faith of Chalcedon, widely diffused outside the fold of the Catholic religion. This is an opinion for which a rashly and falsely understood sentence of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (ii, 7), supplies a basis and a shape. This is called the kenotic doctrine, and according to it, they imagine that the divinity was taken away from the Word in Christ. It is a wicked invention, equally to be condemned with the Docetism opposed to it. It reduces the whole mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption to empty and bloodless imaginations. “With the entire and perfect nature of man”— thus grandly St. Leo the Great — “He Who was true God was born, complete in his own nature, complete in ours.”

So the idea is that Christ “emptied Himself” of His Divinity, and then re-assumed it at a later date, perhaps at the Resurrection. The theory would have many of the supposed advantages of full-blown Arianism (the simple denial the Christ was God), in allowing us to say that Jesus experienced and did everything in His earthly life as a man, without being God at the same time, but its adherents can also affirm the Creed, albeit ambiguously: They can say that “Jesus is God” because they think He is God now, although He wasn’t during His earthly life, and equally they can say that He preexisted as God.

Of course, the theory is nonsense. It suggests that the Second Person of the Trinity has no continuity with the Child born of the Virgin Mary. Obviously, the Second Person cannot cease to be God, Divinity is intrinsic to Him, so what had He to do with the Babe in Bethlehem, an ordinary human? And the advantages are illusory, since everything we need to say about Jesus being human can be said on the orthodox view that Jesus is “true man,” “like us in all things but sin,” a man with a human mind, a human soul: in short, a human nature. 

The fact that this is an established, if puerile, theological view, does rather change the significance of Scalfari’s claim. Scalfari is an atheist, engaged in a “dialogue” with Pope Francis. It is not uncommon for liberal Christians to imagine that the non-believers they encounter might adopt or return to Christianity if it is made easier for them if some of the intellectual obstacles are removed. So they deny or explain away the miracles of the Gospels and the hard metaphysical claims of the General Councils as if they were manicuring a ski-slope. The idea that Pope Francis is engaged in this kind of activity is vastly more plausible than the suggestion that he simply doesn’t believe in the Divinity of Christ at all.

This is not to say that we should believe Scalfari, who is hardly a reliable source of information. It does mean, however, that the need for clarification is a serious one. Scalfari’s words give comfort to all those who want to bend, twist, and erode the teaching of the Church to make things easier, for themselves and others. This kind of thing urgently needs to be addressed because the general strategy, of which this is just an example, is something we all encounter all the time. 

What liberal Christians forget is that it is easier to believe something which makes sense, and is an honest reflection of the beliefs of the Fathers and Doctors of the past, than something which makes no sense, and has just been made up on the spot. That is at the level of the human intellect. They also forget that faith is gift, a supernatural virtue infused into the soul by God, and that our arguments with non-believers are no more (at best) than a preparation for a conversion which must be more than intellectual.