ROME – From a believing Christian point of view, of course, Holy Week is hardly about a news cycle, because it represents the most sacred period of the year. From a strictly PR perspective, however, it’s also a collection of showcase moments on the Roman stage, when a pope has the world’s attention and thus a chance to get a message across.
Pope Francis, however, has never needed the help of news cycles or choreographed moments to draw attention – and, it has to be said, sometimes he displays a remarkable capacity to upstage even himself when those moments do roll around.
Holy Thursday this year served up a classic example of the pope stepping on his own story. The big news was supposed to come from two cornerstone liturgical moments, the pope’s Chrism Mass with priests in St. Peter’s Basilica and the Last Supper Mass, including the traditional foot-washing ceremony, at Rome’s best-known men’s prison, Regina Coeli.
Instead, Vatican-watchers spent most of the day talking about Hell.
The frenzy unfolded in the wake of yet another maybe, maybe-not papal “interview” with legendary 93-year-old Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari – a self-professed non-believer, who repeated in his write-up of this latest exchange with the pontiff that he regards Jesus as “a man, and no more than a man.”
It was the fifth meeting between the pope and Scalfari, and, as on earlier occasions, Scalfari did not tape his conversation or take notes at the time. That didn’t stop him, however, from publishing a blow-out version of the exchange in the form of a Q&A in La Repubblica, the newspaper he founded, creating the impression of quoting the pope verbatim and at length.
And, also like before, the Vatican swiftly (and, by now, predictably) washed its hands of the whole thing. Vatican spokesman Greg Burke issued a statement mid-afternoon Rome time on Thursday, saying Scalfari’s piece was not a “faithful transcript” of the pope’s words.
From a news point of view, the most explosive portion of the alleged interview came when Scalfari described Francis saying that Hell doesn’t exist, and that sinning souls which refuse to repent simply disappear. The headline-form takeaway was along the lines of, “Pope says no such thing as Hell.”
Three things suggest themselves about the situation, which can only be described as border-line surreal.
First, there’s basically zero plausibility that Francis actually said what Scalfari cites him as saying on Hell, at least as quoted, since Francis has a clear public record on the subject – he actually talks about Hell more frequently that any pope in recent memory, and he has never left any doubt that he regards it as a real possibility for one’s eternal destiny.
During one of his daily Masses in 2016, Francis told the story of going to catechism classes as a child and hearing a priest talk about Hell. The kids were incredulous, he said, thinking the priest was only trying to scare them.
The priest, he said, insisted, “No, it’s true! Because if you do not take care of your heart so that the Lord is with you, and you always live far from the Lord, perhaps there is this danger, the danger of continuing to be distanced from the Lord for all of eternity.”
It was clear the pope approved of the thought.
One could go on compiling examples, but there’s no need to belabor the point. (How one understands the nature of Hell, of course, and whether it’s legitimate to hope it’s empty, are different matters, ones over which theologians have squabbled for centuries.)
As a related matter, one might wonder why no one at La Repubblica paused to ask if the pope could possibly have said something like this, and sought confirmation before rushing it into print — one might, that is, unless you know even a little about how Italian journalism works.
Second, one has to wonder why, since the pope was quoted saying something that so clearly distorts a core matter of Catholic teaching, and that also seems blatantly at odds with his personal thinking, didn’t the Vatican issue a stronger denial?
Yes, Burke’s communique says the quotes can’t be trusted, but nowhere does he explicitly come out and say, “The pope didn’t say that and doesn’t believe it.” Why not?
At a raw level, the Vatican probably doesn’t want the embarrassing spectacle of being forced to release a statement along the lines of, “Just to confirm, the pope believes in Hell.” The satires and snarky tweets to which such a thing undoubtedly would give rise aren’t much fun to contemplate, at least if you’re part of the Vatican communications team.
There may also be a personal dimension behind the soft approach.
I remember asking a cardinal close to Francis after the first Scalfari “interview” appeared in 2013, the big headline from which was Francis denying that God is Catholic, why the Vatican hadn’t come down harder.
The cardinal said he’d asked Pope Francis the very same question, and here was the pope’s answer: “You know, by now he [Scalfari] is quite old … we have to be gentle with him,” which is consistent with the pope’s repeated pleas to respect and cherish the elderly.
Francis’s Vatican team, sensing the pope’s preferences, may have gotten the message that when it comes to Scalfari, normally the gloves stay on.
It’s also worth remembering that in 2015, when Scalfari quoted Francis as having said that “all the divorced and remarried who ask will be admitted” to Communion, the then-Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, added a very telling aside to the official denial.
Those who have “followed the preceding events and work in Italy,” he said, “know the way Scalfari writes and know these things well.”
In other words, the Vatican officials who approve public statements may have thought that it’s all been said before — forgetting, naturally, that the share of humanity that’s followed the preceding events and works in Italy is, in all honesty, staggeringly small.
Third, the real question is why Francis keeps putting himself in this position at all.
There’s no law, after all, that says he has to talk to Scalfari, and even if he wants to keep doing it, he could make not publishing anything afterwards the price of admission. The pope has people over to the Santa Marta all the time, and few come out and print allegedly word-for-word accounts of the conversation.
Further, Francis also has to know that for many people who trip across this story somehow, and who don’t know the background, personalities and context, the lone impression they’ll take away is that maybe Catholics don’t believe in Hell anymore. Regardless of what he may personally believe about the consequences of that, he also has to know that many in his own flock will be outraged, and it’s likely to exacerbate what is already at times a fairly tense internal ecclesiastical environment.
Especially hard on the heels of the “Lettergate” affair, involving a ham-handed Vatican attempt to suppress part of the content of a letter from Pope Benedict, this episode easily could come off as a headache no one needs.
Without too much speculation about the pope’s inner motives, what seems clear is that Francis is less concerned about precision in such a situation than with dialogue, and he appears to believe that even if he may be misrepresented or misquoted – or, even if he lets the doctrinal fine points slide, for the sake of keeping the back-and-forth going, and gives off a false impression of what he really thinks –it’s still worth it to be in conversation with Scalfari and the cultural world he represents.
In miniature, that would seem to be Francis’s model for dialogue generally – friendship first, clarity later.
That approach, obviously, has a downside, and it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. No doubt, experts on the papacy will argue for a long time over whether Francis should do things like this – whether it opens doors and reduces prejudices, which is what he appears to believe and what Scalfari himself insists it actually does, or whether it simply lets loose chaos and creates unnecessary distractions, which is what critics regard as the inevitable outcomes.
While that debate goes on, here’s a tip: The next time you hear about a bombshell papal interview, do a keyword search for the name “Scalfari.” If it pops up, you’ll know the story won’t be over until we get the Vatican’s next kid-gloves attempt to deny the story, without denying the man behind it.