Vatican officials are uneasy and perplexed after the publication this week of a conversation between Pope Francis and an atheist journalist who, for the third time in his conversations with the pontiff, didn’t record the exchange.
The officials’ discomfort also extends to the Pope’s spontaneous telephone calls to strangers, a couple of which implied he deviated from Church teaching but, being private and unrecorded conversations, are difficult to verify.
On Sunday, Eugenio Scalfari, co-founder of the Italian daily La Repubblica, published in the newspaper a long account of a conversation he had with the Pope last week.
Francis didn’t say anything particularly unusual, but some of the subject matter was highly sensitive including clerical sex abuse, priestly celibacy and the mafia.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, clearly not notified in advance of the conversation nor present during the exchange to record it, was unable to offer satisfactory clarification but — as has become usual — had to pick up the pieces.
In a statement, he was quick to point out that the published quotations of the Pope were drawn from Scalfari’s memory (it’s fairly common for Italian journalists not to record an interview but rather report on the spirit of it) and could therefore not be attributed to the Pope.
Scalfari is also 90 years old.
Given the controversy over Scalfari’s first exchange with the Pope last September, Vatican officials cannot fathom why Francis would give him another interview. Last year’s conversation, in which the Pope is alleged to have said proselytism is “solemn nonsense” and that “there is no Catholic God” — also wasn’t recorded. Remarkable, given the importance of the interviewee and the deep significance of the subject matter. The Vatican newspaper, which published that exchange in full, eventually removed it from its website.
“1.2 billion Catholics have the right to know precisely what the Pope said, especially on subjects so delicate and interesting,” veteran Vatican correspondent Marco Tosatti wrote on his blog this week. “If the interlocutor, for whatever reason, refuses to use a recorder, perhaps the Holy See should buy him one.”
The Pope is naturally free to speak to whoever he wishes, but perhaps he would be better served if Vatican aides were present when a veteran journalist such as Scalfari comes to the Vatican with the intention of publishing the conversation.
The overlooking of the obvious has led some to speculate that a possible strategy might be at play. This could entail using Scalfari’s foggy memory, radical views and tendency towards sensationalism to exaggerate certain issues in order to provoke a debate while avoiding the possibility of pinning anything on the Pope. This is unlikely but not impossible, and many Catholics would consider it scandalous if true, causing an unnecessary amount of confusion.
Already it is compounding what some perceive as lack of clarity over dogma during this pontificate. One unhelpful factor, critics say, has been the Pope’s out-of-the blue telephone calls to members of the public.
Although very popular for showing the Pope’s down to earth, caring and pastoral nature, they haven’t always been helpful. In April, the Pope called an Argentine woman to allegedly tell her that her divorced and remarried Catholic husband could receive communion, even though the church has always forbidden it.
The Vatican said the woman’s account was unreliable but, because it was private, it couldn’t completely rule out that such a conversation had taken place. The call caused widespread concern, not least among officials.
Lombardi, who declines to answer any questions over the latest Scalfari conversation, is placed in an almost impossible position if such incidents recur. Some even think he should threaten to resign in protest at having his job undermined in such a way.
At the very least, a number of Vatican officials and many lay faithful want to see such future conversations handled professionally, with less equivocal accounts and without any possible hidden agendas.
A new Vatican committee on media reform headed by Lord Patten, a former chairman of the BBC, will no doubt wish to address this. In the meantime, officials will be encouraged about one thing: since April, out-of-the-blue phone calls about sensitive matters appear to have ceased.
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