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This week: So what DID the Pope say about Christ’s divinity?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 11, 2019

Yet again, an unexpected and unsettling news story snatched top billing from the Amazon Synod in the week’s Catholic World News coverage. Last week it was the police raid on the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. This week it was the stunning claim, by an influential Italian journalist, that “Pope Francis conceives of Christ as Jesus of Nazareth: a man, not an incarnate god.”

Eugenio Scalfari, the founder and editorial analyst of La Repubblica, has dropped this sort of bombshell in the past. On the basis of exclusive interviews with the Pontiff, he has reported that the Pope does not believe in the existence of hell, and that he thinks Communists are true Christians. Each time these stories have appeared, Vatican spokesmen have said—quite accurately—that Scalfari’s accounts of what the Pope said cannot be considered reliable, since he does not record their conversations or even take notes.

But this time Scalfari was not merely claiming that the Pope had a controversial opinion; he was reporting that Bishop of Rome had denied one of the most fundamental tenets of the faith: the divinity of Jesus Christ! Moreover, the cagey Italian commentator was releasing this story at a time when it was likely to have maximum impact: as the Amazon Synod was opening, and Catholics were already energetically debating proposed changes in Church teaching and discipline.

After issuing the now-familiar caution about Scalfari’s questionable accuracy, the Vatican recognized that this story called for a stronger denial, and issued a a second, unmistakably clear statement that “the Holy Father never said what Scalfari wrote.”

Still we are left with a question. What did the Pope say, that left Scalfari with the impression that the Pontiff was departing from Catholic doctrine—or perhaps we should say, gave Scalfari the opening to create that impression?

In his full column, of which Edward Pentin has helpfully provided a full translation, Scalfari recalls discussing a few Gospel passages with the Pontiff, and alleges that the Pope agreed with his own (Scalfari’s) interpretation. Note: this was not a recent conversation; this week’s column was based on an interview that took place many months ago. For his own reasons, the veteran Italian journalist, a professed atheist, decided that now was the time to make his remarkable claim.

As I have already argued, the claim—that the Pope is essentially an Arian—is outlandish. Yet the episode is disturbing, because if the Pope didn’t deny Christ’s divinity—and I’m sure he didn’t—there are only two other plausible explanations for the appearance of the Scalfari column, and neither is reassuring.


Meanwhile, the Amazon Synod did open on schedule, and immediately the most controversial issues—priestly celibacy, ecology, the proper role of native religions— came to the fore. By next week, maybe, these discussions will climb to the top of our news coverage.

Then again, this Sunday will bring another momentous development: the canonization of Cardinal John Henry Newman. Since many commentators will exploit that happy occasion to give a warped presentation of Cardinal Newman’s views on the role of conscience and (especially) the development of doctrine, let me recommend in closing an excellent First Things piece by my friend Michael Pakaluk, reminding us about what the great English convert actually said about development of doctrine, and concluding that “no contradiction is properly described as a development, any more than an axe to the root of a tree can ‘develop’ the tree.”

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: seewig - Oct. 15, 2019 9:55 PM ET USA

    Thank you, Phil, for delving in these reports (rumors?) about the Pope, to clarify the truth at the base of these ‘narratives’, especially spread out cleverly by an activist atheist. I personally have not found much controversial in what Pope Francis has uttered occasionally. However, the constant (false) criticisms of the Pope, eventually leaves a strange taste, combined with a certain prejudice nourished by the constant biased (?) reports. Readiing your posts gives me more balanced thinking.

  • Posted by: SPM - Oct. 13, 2019 1:22 PM ET USA

    Has anyone realized that outside of personal morality, Trump and Pope Francis are pretty similar? Crazy spur of the moment tweets versus spur of the moment homilies and comments to the press. Both show a clear desire to skirt established laws, procedures and norms. When challenged, they don't address the substance but rather attack the motivation of the accuser. Amusing that those who love Trump hate Francis for doing the same things, and vice versa.

  • Posted by: stpetric - Oct. 11, 2019 6:30 PM ET USA

    Why does Eugenio Scalfari continue to enjoy privileged access to the pope? And given his record of dropping bombshells, why does the Vatican not insist on recording his interviews?