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Why on earth does Pope Francis still trust Eugenio Scalfari?

Eugenio Scalfari (Photo: PA)

To call this latest one a head-scratcher is to put oneself in the running for understatement of the year. The facts are that Eugenio Scalfari, the 93-year-old atheist founder of Italy’s centre-left daily, La Repubblica, had a conversation with Pope Francis at the Domus Sanctae Marthae on Tuesday, on the basis of which he wrote a story that ran two days later in the pages of the paper Scalfari founded. Titled, “Pope: ‘It is an honour to be called a revolutionary’,” the piece contains direct reports of speech in which the Holy Father is quoted as saying many things that, did he say them, would be newsworthy to say the least.

Beyond that, it is nigh on impossible to be morally certain about anything regarding this affair.

According to Scalfari’s report, the “colloquy” Pope Francis entertained with him ran the gamut: from the things like cosmogenesis — the origin and fate of the created order — to the social, political, and cultural complex and worldview we catch under the rubric of “Modernity”, to the present and future of Europe. Right in the middle of the conversation — one that reads like that, which could be carried on by any pair of intelligent and cultured old men at a pensioners’ club over wine and cards — there is discussion of the eternal fate of those who die in sin.

About that last thing, Scalfari quotes Francis as saying, “[The souls of] those, who do not repent and [therefore] cannot be forgiven, disappear. A ‘hell’ does not exist: what exists is the disappearance of sinful souls.” If the Pope said that, or anything that fairly amounts to that, he would be a heretic. There were other highly problematic expressions, which Scalfari put in the mouth of the Pope, as well: talk of “divine nature” and inert creation brought to life by a sort of divine or semi-divine “energy” that sounds exciting and speculatively daring in the ears of hippies and devotees of the New Age, but that really come to hackneyed and sixth-rate rehashings of primitive cosmological speculation.

Knowing what they come to, however, tells us nothing about where they’ve come from: Scalfari’s head? Pope Francis’s mouth?

The Press Office of the Holy See issued a statement on Thursday afternoon, denying Scalfari’s report is a faithful representation of Pope Francis’s ipsissima verba — his exact words — but avoiding a repudiation of the Pope’s ipsissima vox — that is to say, the general sense, meaning or purport of his remarks:

The Holy Father recently received the founder of the daily La Repubblica in a private meeting on the occasion of Easter, without, however, releasing any interview. Everything reported by the author in [Thursday’s] article is the fruit of his own reconstruction, in which the verbatim words pronounced by the Pope are not quoted. No direct report of speech, therefore, may be considered a faithful transcription of the words of the Holy Father.

One has the impression they took great care to avoid such repudiation. That may or may not be the case. It is also neither here nor there. The statement is not satisfactory. To be perfectly frank, nothing in this situation is satisfactory, or even close to it. The headlines generated around the world declaring hell abolished and the Catholic Church changed forever are false. The story they headline, however, is not.

The universal pastor and governor of the Church is reported to have given expression to ideas that, should he be found to have expressed them, are contrary to the faith. Pope Francis must disown not only the precise verbiage Scalfari reported in his piece, but the ideas foisted upon him therein — at least the ones that are manifestly heretical. The longer he does not, the stronger the case becomes for believing he cannot.

For the record, Pope Francis has spoken of hell as though he believes it is real. The Pope has threatened Mafiosi with it, should they fail to repent, and explained to a Girl Scout at the Tor Bella Monaca parish he was visiting in 2015 that anyone can go there who clings to the delusion of self-sufficiency and refuses to beg God’s mercy (which God will not refuse anyone who asks Him it), and described it during the course of a November 2016 fervorino in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae as a place in which one exists deprived of God’s charity.

Why Pope Francis would continue to trust that man, Scalfari, is beyond reckoning. Nearly half a dozen times since Francis’s election, have we been treated to a round of Scalfarism, the circuit of which is predictable enough, but each time more pernicious in its effect. Even if Pope Francis believes that Scalfari’s soul depends on continuing their conversations and allowing Scalfari to take egregious license with his reportage of them, he must know that the inevitable results of his commerce with the man are confusion and scandal, hence that his persistence in it constitutes a failure in his mission to confirm the brethren.

It is easy to believe the Holy Father motivated in his continued commerce with Scalfari by genuine charity, by desire that Scalfari’s soul be not lost. If the Pope’s intentions in all this are blameless, his judgment is nevertheless —indeed all the more — appalling. If the Pope’s solicitude for Scalfari’s soul is indeed so great, and Scalfari’s protestation of friendship sincere, then let Francis resign the office and go talk with his friend all day long over vino burino and briscola.