In some ways, the Vatican’s speedy disavowal of reports ahead of Easter that Pope Francis had told the elderly Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari Hell does not exist could not have been clearer.
“The Holy Father Francis recently received the founder of the newspaper La Repubblica in a private meeting on the occasion of Easter, without however giving him any interviews,” the Holy See declared. “What is reported by the author in today’s article is the result of his reconstruction, in which the textual words pronounced by the Pope are not quoted. No quotation of the aforementioned article must therefore be considered as a faithful transcription of the words of the Holy Father.”
Without nakedly coming out and declaring the almost-94-year-old atheist journalist and one-time parliamentarian Eugenio Scalfari a liar, the Vatican had essentially declared that his “reconstruction” was not to be trusted: it did not report what Pope Francis had said, and it reported things Pope Francis had not said.
This, at any rate, should surprise nobody with a reasonable memory or with access to the internet and the patience to do a quick online search: Mr Scalfari has met with the Pontiff in September 2013, July 2014, November 2015, and November 2016, and on each of these occasions his subsequent articles have been described by the Vatican as unreliable.
Indeed, Vatican press officer Fr Federico Lombardi said the claims in the November 2015 article were “in no way reliable and cannot be considered the Pope’s thinking”, adding that those who have “followed the preceding events and work in Italy know the way Scalfari writes and knows these things well”.
It’s worth noting that in November 2013 Mr Scalfari told journalists from the Foreign Press Association of Rome that all his interviews are conducted without taking notes, let alone making a recording.
“I try to understand the person I am interviewing, and after that I write his answers with my own words,” he said, admitting that it was therefore possible that “some of the Pope’s words I reported were not shared by Pope Francis”.
In other words, his “reconstructions” are not even reconstructions from memory: they include his own interpretations of his memories of papal comments, presented as statements from the Pope himself.
As John Allen writes at cruxnow.com in ‘Unpacking a non-interview Pope interview, this time on hell’, the notion that Pope Francis denied the reality of Hell has “basically zero-plausibility”.
Francis, he said, 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”.
Over at patheos.com/blogs/davearmstrong, Dave Armstrong detailed in January four clear public examples of Pope Francis speaking of Hell’s reality, and in a post last week he returned to those instances and considered why Pope Francis keeps talking to a journalist with such a track record of reporting him badly.
John Allen reports that in 2013, following the first poorly reported chat, the Pontiff apparently said of Mr Scalfari: “You know, by now he is quite old… we have to be gentle with him”.
This, of course, does not quite explain why he keeps putting himself in this position, but as Jason Horowitz writes at nytimes.com, at least as Mr Scalfari reads it, part of the answer is that Francis is fond of the old atheist. “We’ve become friends,” Mr Scalfari says, explaining that the Pope “has a need to talk with a nonbeliever who stimulates him”.
For Prof. Greg Hillis, author of the entry on ‘Satan’ in the new A Pope Francis Lexicon, this seems to be a plausible explanation. “Could it be that the Pope has extended the hand of friendship to Scalfari?” he asks at his @gregorykhillis Twitter account. “That people are willing to think the worst of this Pope and believe the misrepresentations of Scalfari is not on this Pope. It’s on us.”