The pope and Scalfari: Which Francis are we supposed to believe?
April 5, 2018 (L'Espresso) – In theory, all the Vatican media should work in concert in transmitting to the world the faithful image of the pope.
But in practice this is not what happens. The Vatican press office has carefully kept its distance from the recently failed attempt to exploit a private letter from Benedict XVI. It has left in the lurch none but Monsignor Dario Edoardo Viganò, prefect of the secretariat for communications, saved from ruin only thanks to the protection of the pope, who really does not want to be deprived of this disastrous "spin doctor" of his.
The pope, that's just it. Because even Francis often does it all on his own in communicating with the world, without orchestrating anything with anyone. And he does so in at least three ways:
- by saying in public and in person what he wants, without going through any precautionary check or inspection;
- by having others say in public what he says to them in private conversations;
- by promoting persons who say what he himself does not say either in public or in private, but is happy to have said.
In recent days Francis has enacted all three of these modalities of communication. With variously disruptive effects.
He used the first modality in the homily for Easter Sunday. He did not read from any written text, but spoke off the cuff, in Italian. And in exalting the great "surprises" that God prepares, in particular with the proclamation of the resurrection, he expressed himself like this: "To say it a bit in the language of the young people: the surprise [of God] is a low blow" (in italics in the official transcription of the homily).
Except that the expression "low blow" does not belong to youthful language, but to that of boxing. It designates a punch struck below the belt: prohibited, reprehensible, and disqualifying. A cheap and sneaky shot. Truly a terrible image for illustrating the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus, in the Easter homily in Saint Peter's Square.
The fact is that Francis's "low blow" remark was a hit in the media. In Italy, it was even used in the headline of an important evening news program.
The second modality was adopted by Francis in inviting for a conversationlast Tuesday of Holy Week his friend Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the newspaper "la Repubblica" and a leading figure of the Italian secular intelligentsia.
In this as in other previous conversations with the pope, Scalfari did not make a recording or take notes. But then he reported the contents as always in "la Repubblica," here and there with removals and additions in the pope's words "so that the reader may understand," as he himself explained in a press conference after the publication of his first account. And this time he attributed to Francis, among other things, the following statement:
"Evil souls do not go anywhere in punishment. The souls that repent obtain the forgiveness of God and enter the ranks of the souls that contemplate him, but those that do not repent and therefore cannot be forgiven disappear. There is no hell, there is the disappearance of sinful souls."
Bombshell news. That same morning, the "Times" of London ran the headline: "Pope Francis abolishes hell." And many publishers around the world did the same. To the point that in the afternoon the Vatican press office had to issue a statement informing that what Scalfari reported "must not be considered as a faithful transcription of the words of the Holy Father."
Very bland, as a denial. So much so that "la Repubblica" did not publish it and Scalfari did not comment on it. He limited himself to confirming for the "New York Times" that this was not a matter of an interview but of a meeting, that "I can make mistakes" but that in any case, as far as he recalls, the pope truly told him that hell does not exist.
And in effect three times before, after as many conversations, Scalfari had reported that Francis had told him that there is no hell and that wicked souls are not punished but annihilated: on September 21, 2014, on March 15, 2015, and on October 9, 2017. This last time, the pope is alleged to have said more to him, again according to what he has reported: namely that not only does hell not exist, but neither do purgatory and heaven.
After the first and second of the five conversations between Scalfari and the pope, Fr. Federico Lombardi, at the time the director of the Vatican press office, had warned that caution should be used in regard to the words attributed by the famous journalist to the pope. Subsequently, however, the press office in a sense gave up, declining to issue any more statements. If it has intervened again, this is because the affirmation of the nonexistence of hell was for the first time put in quotation marks, in the mouth of the pope.
In this state of affairs, it is in any case highly credible that Francis truly said such things to Scalfari, seeing that he reported not once but four times in a row without the pope feeling the need to clarify anything, in each subsequent meeting with his friend.
From the United States, the Jesuit Thomas Reese, former editor of "America" and a prominent columnist for the "National Catholic Reporter" and for the "Religion News Service," believed he could refute Scalfari by fishing out an affirmative reply from Francis to a girl scout from a Roman parish who on March 8 of 2015 had asked him if hell exists, and why.
But that's Francis. One time he says that there is a hell, another time he lets it be reported that he said the opposite. It is a saying and gainsaying that he uses often on the most varied issues. One of his memorable responsesremains that which he gave to the Lutheran woman who asked him if she and her husband, a Catholic, could both receive communion at Mass. In replying to her the pope said everything: yes, no, I don't know, you figure it out.
Moreover, it must not be overlooked that the idea that hell does not exist has long been at home in the Church, even at the highest levels. The cardinal and Jesuit Carlo Maria Martini, a great forerunner of the pontificate of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, wrote in the book that acted as his testament:
"I nourish the hope that sooner or later all may be redeemed… On the other hand, I am unable to imagine how Hitler or a murderer who has abused children could be close to God. It is easier for me to think that such people would simply be annihilated."
One can also assign to the second modality of communication the radio interview given on April 3 to Crónica Anunciada/Radio Cut by Argentine sister Martha Pelloni, an activist for rural women and a candidate for the Nobel peace prize in 2005.
Speaking on how to plan births while avoiding recourse to abortion, the sister said:
"Pope Francis said three words to me in this regard: 'condom, transitory, and reversible,'" meaning - she immediately explained - by the second word the "diaphragm" and by the third "tubal ligation," which "we recommend to the women of the fields."
The sister did not say how and when Francis, who has known and admired her for some time, said these things to her.
In public, the pope has never expressed himself the way the sister related. But it is also clear that he wants to get over the condemnation of contraceptives formulated by Paul VI in the encyclical "Humanae Vitae."
And Francis gave a veiled go-ahead on the recourse to contraceptives, in cases of necessity, during the press conference on the flight back from Mexico, on February 17, 2016.
Finally, the third modality of communication dear to Francis had as its "partner," in recent days, a Benedictine monk and psychologist among the most widely read in the world, the German Anselm Grün.
Last February 15, in conversing behind closed doors with the priests of Rome, as he does every year at the beginning of Lent, Pope Francis recommendedthat they read a book by Grün - whose affectionate reader he is too - describing it as "modern" and "close to us."
So then, Grün is the one who in an interview with the "Augsburger Allgemeine" on March 30, Good Friday, said that "there are no theological reasons that speak against an abolishment of priestly celibacy or against female priests, female bishops, or a female pope." It is an "historical process" that "needs time" – he added – and 'the first step has to be now the ordination of women as deaconesses."
An ordination, this last, that turns out to be among the short-term objectives of Francis, on a par with the ordination of married men to the priesthood.
While on the subsequent steps of the "historical process" delineated by Grün, that of women priests, bishops, and pope, Francis has not yet gone off the rails, either in public or in private (*).
But meanwhile he has recommended listening to someone who enunciates them as goals to be reached, no matter if these are in stark contrast with the "non possumus" of all the previous popes.
(*) ERRATUM - In correction of what is written above, Pope Francis has spoken out at least twice on the ordination of women to the priesthood.
During the press conference on the flight back from Brazil, on July 28, 2013:
"In reference to the ordination of women, the Church has spoken and says: 'No.' John Paul II said so, but with a definitive formula. That is closed, that door."
And during the press conference on the flight back from Sweden, on November 1, 2016:
"On the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, the last clear word was given by Saint John Paul II, and this remains."
By way of documentation, here are the links to the accounts of his conversations with Francis that Eugenio Scalfari has published in "la Repubblica."
There are five conversations, but Scalfari has reported on them more than once. Moreover, the first conversation is preceded by an exchange of written messages between Scalfari and the pope.
September 11, 2013
> Papa Francesco scrive a Repubblica: "Dialogo aperto con i non credenti"
October 1, 2013
> Papa Francesco a Scalfari: Così cambierò la Chiesa
September 21, 2014
> San Pietro era sposato ma seguì Gesù e lasciò a casa la moglie
March 15, 2015
> Quel che Francesco può dire all'Europa dei non credenti
March 29, 2018
> Il papa: "È un onore essere chiamato rivoluzionario"
(English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.)
Published with permission from L'Espresso.