ROME –Eugenio Scalfari, a highly acclaimed journalist who helped found Italy’s Radical Party and its most widely read leftist newspaper, who also made waves throughout the Catholic world for his eyebrow-raising and often questionable conversations with Pope Francis, died Thursday at 98.
Scalfari is widely regarded as one of the most acclaimed Italian journalists of the 20th century.
His most prominent analyses focused on the areas of politics and the economy. However, more recently his writings touched on issues related to secularism, morality, and philosophy.
After his death was announced, Scalfari was praised by Italian President Sergio Matarella as not only an accomplished journalist, editor, essayist, and politician, but also a “lucid and passionate witness” to the history of the Republic.
“In recent times, he masterfully dedicated himself to the great existential issues of man with the usual effectiveness and depth of reflection,” Mattarella said.
A self-proclaimed atheist who was often critical of the Catholic Church’s role in Italian politics, Scalfari became somewhat of a lightening rod in the Francis papacy early on, as he was famous for publishing exclusive conversations with Pope Francis under eye-grabbing headlines that caused a stir among readers and alarm among Vatican personnel.
The pope’s relationship with Scalfari began with two editorials Scalfari published in La Repubblica in July and August of 2013 containing a list of questions he would ask the Argentine pope, who was elected in March of that year, if he ever got the chance.
Francis read those columns and sent a letter of response that was published in the paper, in which he said that God had never abandoned his covenant with the Jewish people, and that the Catholic Church “can never be grateful enough” to the Jews for preserving the faith despite the horrors of the Holocaust.
The pope also insisted that God’s mercy “does not have limits,” and therefore extends to non-believers, for whom sin would be failure to obey one’s conscience rather than a lack of faith in God.
He was also quoted as saying that truth is not “variable or subjective,” yet he also refrained from calling it “absolute,” saying truth possesses man, not the other way around, and is always expressed according to a person’s “history and culture, the situation in which they live, etc.”
Pope Francis made waves again a few weeks later in another article, which was the result of a phone conversation he had with Scalfari, and which quoted Francis as calling the trappings of a royal court in the Vatican “leprosy,” and complaining that too many church officials are “Vatican-centric.”
Asked at the time about the reliability of these quotes, then-Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the text accurately conveyed the “spirit” of the conversation, but he stopped short of saying that every line was literally what the pope had said. Instead, he said the piece represented a new genre of papal speech that was intentionally informal and unconcerned with precision.
Scalfari admitted that he never recorded these conversations and wrote largely based on loose notes and his own memory, attempting to capture the spirit of what he believed the pope intended to say, rather than what he actually said.
In 2017, La Repubblica ran another article on a conversation between the pope and Scalfari in which Francis apparently voiced concern about “very dangerous alliances” between global superpowers that he said had “a distorted vision of the world,” and named the United States, Russia and North Korea, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Pope Francis was also quoted in that conversation as saying that Europe needed to assume a federal structure as soon as possible, saying, “either it becomes a federal community, or it will count for nothing in the world.”
In March 2018, the pope was quoted in another conversation with Scalfari suggesting that Hell doesn’t exist, describing creation in terms of energy, and expressing pride at being called a “revolutionary.”
Each time a new Scalfari “interview” with the pope came out, the Vatican Press Office released a statement cautioning readers not to take the pope’s quoted remarks to heart, as they were not the result of an interview and were not what the pope literally said, but were rather the fruit of Scalfari’s “own reconstruction.”
In 2013, after the first poorly reported chat between the pope and Scalfari made waves, Francis, when asked about Scalfari’s portrayal of the conversation, reportedly told a senior Vatican official, “You know, by now he is quite old… we have to be gentle with him.”
Yet despite the Vatican’s consistent notes of caution, these so-called interviews played a key role in shaping the image of an informal, maverick pope who pushed the bounds of pre-established customs and was comfortable with imprecision, who was an outsider critical of internal Vatican culture and intent on changing it.
That vision of the pope has accompanied him through much of his nine-year papacy and has largely endured to this day. While Pope Francis’s words, actions, and remarks in other interviews have all contributed to this vision, Scalfari’s early framing of the Francis papacy was crucial in laying the foundation.
After news of Scalfari’s death broke Thursday, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni was quoted by Italian news agency ANSA as saying that Pope Francis had learned “with sorrow about the death of his friend.”
Pope Francis, Bruni said, “fondly preserves the memory of the meetings, and of the dense conversations on man’s final questions that he had with him throughout the years and entrusts his soul to the Lord in prayer so that he may welcome him and console those who were close to him.”
Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the former Pontifical Council for Culture – which was recently merged into the Dicastery for Evangelization as part of Pope Francis’s reform of the Roman Curia – sent a tweet after news of Scalfari’s death recalling him as a “great journalist” and a “protagonist of secular culture.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen