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Reconstruction or Construction?

The now infamous "Interview" of Pope Francis with the self-avowed atheist, Eugenio Scalfari, was recently removed from the "Francis" page of the Vatican website where it had been placed under the rather curious designation, "Speeches."

Since its original publication in La Repubblica, the Italian daily which Scalfari founded, it has come to light that the session with the Pope had neither been recorded, nor had notes been taken at the time. The exchange was reconstructed by the eighty-nine year old Scalfari after the fact.

Now, in a true interview with foreign journalists working in Italy, things become curiouser and curiouser. Scalfari says that he told the Pope when he sent his version of the exchange for permission to publish it:

Keep in mind that I did not include some of the things that you said to me. And that some of the things that I attribute to you you did not say. But I put them there so that the reader may understand who you are.

Despite this friendly warning, he received the "ok" to publish his version. But Scalfari goes on to admit to the reporters he was addressing:

I am perfectly willing to think that some of the things that I wrote and attributed to him are not shared by the pope, but I also believe that he maintains that, said by a nonbeliever, they are important for him and for the activity he is carrying out.

Reported in Chiesa.

About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.



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Perfectly willing, huh?   How obliging.

I'd think that anything in that interview, at the very least, should be taken with a huge grain of salt.  That the Holy Father approved the content suggests that the interview story in its entirety isn't thoroughly discredited, but it seems to fall somewhat short of thorough credibility.

Next Friday, when Francis' first solo run at an encyclical, Spe Salvi, appears, it will be interesting to see how Chiesa and company approach it. The techniques they have been practicing on "soft interviews" and spontaneous Papal comments  presumably won't work on an Encyclical.  And they will have to think very carefully about the future implications of any line of approach they choose to the reception of future Encuclicals, by Francis or anyone else.

Sorry, in that last line above, Encyclicals of course.


is this that to which you meant to refer?:

With his apostolic exhortation "Evangelii Gaudium" (The Joy of the Gospel), which the Vatican has scheduled for publication Tuesday, Pope Francis finally makes his real debut as papal author.

Spe Salvi is a wonderful encyclical written by Pope Benedict XVI.  

Thanks, Fr. Imbelli and Charles Ryder.  Write in haste, repent at leisure!

Still, given the difference between the formal, official document and  casual communications such as off -the- cuff homilies, remarks to journalists, etc. It should be interesting to see how the next Encyclical will be received .


Having appreciated the Pope's sermons to the young people at World Youth Day in Rio, I very much look forward to Evangelii Gaudium.

And I agree with Charles that Spe Salvi is indeed "a wonderful encyclical!"

I am surprised that so many people, including you, Fr. Imbelli, are so huffy about the Scalfari "interview." Was it really "infamous"? Golly, no. It didn't seem to bother Pope Francis, so why should it bother everyone else unless he really needs to be protected from his own naivete. I mean, if  you think he is too simple minded to be pope, say so.

Now let it be said that making up things the pope didn't say so people can "understand him better" is a far cry from conventional standards of journalism in this country. It doesn't seem so odd for Europe, where Rupert Murdoch reigns as the ethics-setter (what's that buzz on my phone?).  It probably won't seem odd much longer in the United States since our media are relying on cheap, young Brits brought up on Murdoch to cover stories that American media used to assign to Americans. And for that matter, Rupe has enough American media now to claim to reign as our ethics czar. We call that market capitalism. But that is a gripe of a whole different color.



Mr Blackburn, I am relieved at your concession:

Now let it be said that making up things the pope didn't say so people can
"understand him better" is a far cry from conventional standards of
journalism in this country.

I believe it's also known as deceit.

I presume that Signor Scalfari has not been consulted for Evangelii Gaudium.

Just yesterday I was sorely tempted to teach history, not as it is, but as it should have been.

I very much wanted to teach that Joan of Arc was the patron saint of the Résistance in France during WWII. That would have been a pure figment of my imagination (as far as I know), but it felt right. Had I yielded to that temptation, with luck the story might have gone viral and later become accepted as a little known historical fact. It would have helped correct the image that people have of her. Wouldn't it be just a little fib for the sake of a larger truth? Claiming something that didnt happen so that my students could "understand her better"?

In the end I compromised and said that she was "popular" in the Résistance in France during WWII. I don't have any evidence for that either, but surely it has to have been true at least among some people...


Deceit? What a quaint term In Washington it's known as "spin."

The various interviews with the pope have been unimpressive:  America's Freudian slap at women, Commonweal's lame attempt at humor, Scalfari's fiction.

It will be interesting to see if the forthcoming "exhortation" will be more trusting of its intended readership.



'...a far cry from conventional standards of journalism in this country.”

I can’t see how this can be improved, except perhaps swapping out “country” for “universe.”    I’m sure any reputable publication that favorably quoted this guy’s fabrications will be anxious to make amends.

"The now infamous...".  Really? It is now infamous because of whose opinion?  We do agree the only indisputable absolute is God, right?  The rest is opinion, right?

"...the eighty-nine year old Scalfari...'.  Yikes!  I do wonder how it came to be we actually valued the lives and opinions of those who a certain revered bit of writing claims to lived 120 years and another quite literally 950 years.  Well, some folks are now more than a little obsessed with youth so I guess the comment's clear drift from historical usefulness makes sense.

Deceit?  My goodness, what was the story about glass houses?

Tom Blackburn


Thank you for pointing out the much ado about nothing in the coverage of this Scalfari interview.  Why is the right so obsessed with it? The one with the Jesuits says so much more and has yet to be deconstructed.  Doing away with Scalfari accomplishes nothing.  What is curiouser and curiouser is the right's obsession with him.

Dear MightBe,

"We do agree the only indisputable absolute is God, right?" Right!

"The rest is opinion, right?" Wrong!

As for houses of glass, I would say deceit is deceit, whether perpetrated by Murdoch or Scalfari, whether by a cover-up or a false accusation.

Professor Mitchell,

"Much ado about nothing?" I fear now you are being "un po ingenuo."

Had the subsequent revelations about the Scalfari "interview" not come to light, the words "of the Pope" would have been bruited about to no end or, rather, to the end of those whose interest would be served. One of the strengths of the conversation with Father Spadaro is that we trust that he has conveyed the "ipsissima verba Francisci," and not a fabrication thereof.

As for "the right's obsession" – all Contributors here are card-carrying Commonweal Catholics.

Scalfari should have recorded the interview and transcribed it. Short of that, he should have informed readers about the nature of the piece. But the pope approved the text, so calling it deceitful seems, well, pretty nasty. What was the point of noting his age, by the way? 

Speaking of wonderful encyclicals, since that suggests the existence of not-so-wonderful encyclicals, how about  a blog post on "Encyclical lowlights"? That would be a fitting sequel to "Papal lowlights". 

I am a Commonweal subscriber but not an intellectual and often barely a thinker.  Pope Francis' deeds and words, as conveyed by the press, put a spring in my step and hope in my heart.  It seemed to me that he had eluded his handlers and taken it to the street (and Scalfari).   The official backtracking from that interview awakened my rhinencephalon with a whiff of the appointment of Greg Burke, formerly Fox's Rome correspondent, as Vatican media wrangler in June 2012.  As the appointment occurred shortly after the leaks and other embarrassments, I assumed that his role was to suppress news.  As this blog is discussing the Scalfari phenomenon MailOnline is heralding Greg Burk as  "The PR genius who helped make the Pope popular: Francis's marketing mastermind" I was hoping that he was a vestige of Pope Benedict's tenure and would quietly return to journalism.  It was my hope that Pope Francis was a brilliant and compassionate priest of mature years with nothing to lose moved by the Holy Spirit to turn our gaze to Christ's teachings, pure and simple.  It would be a great disappointment to learn that he has been branded, puffed and painted to increase enrollment.

Christina, just a note -- the Mail article is a ripoff/rewrite (British journalistic standard can be even lower than Italian standards, believe it or not) of a Vice magazine (unfortunately named!) article on Greg Burke.

And as someone quoted in the Vice piece, I should be consistent and come to Greg's defense -- or, rather the defense of Pope Francis, who does not seem to be someone who is easily manipulated. I think Greg was a very smart hire, and I hope he can help bring some organization to the Vatican communications machine, such as it is.

This is not about controlling the message or the pope -- Greg was hired well before Francis became pope, and the place was still a mess. All of a sudden Francis was elected and Greg fixed everything?! No, I don't think that's how it worked. The messenger and the message changed. I think the Vatican communications people were as surprised as anyone, and as much as anything need to get out of the way rather than controlling.

But the bureaucracy will try to "tame" Francis. That's the way it works in every system, liberal or conservative. Staying free and in contact with the outside world will be a constant challenge for the pope. Let's hope he succeeds.

Bob Imbelli -- As far as being a "card-carrying Commonweal Catholic," I think it should be pointed out that Commonweal Catholicism is not like Soviet Communism, and that contributors and subscribers have a range of views. Just as the term should not be used to disparage an entire group of Catholics, not should it be used as a shield against criticism of one's own views.

I personally find it almost comical the way Magister and others of the Old Guard are scrambling to try and seize on anything to try to reinterpret Francis as in fact amenable to their old ways and as pointing to an inevitable disappointment to the vast majority of Catholics and others who see Francis as a fresh presentation of the Gospel.

But I too am a contributor here, and we obviously have different views in this regard.

Father Imbelli is a voice of reason, rationality and respectfulness.  I appreciate his contributions to Commonweal.  

Dave Gibson,

what is truly amusing are the pirouettes being performed to ignore or make light of Scalfari's astonishing claim: "I am perfectly willing to think that some of the things I wrote and attributed to him are not shared by the Pope." "Sono dispostissimo a pensare che alcune delle cose scritte da me e a lui attribuite, il Papa non le condivida."

If you fail to find that shameful, then indeed, we have different views in this regard.

I wouldn't call the Argentine pope's unwillingness to argue with the old man a pirouette.  (Maybe a colgada.)

Bob, I was an early and vocal critic of Scalfari's awful journalism. I just don't feel the need to try to use it to advance an agenda. Those are two separate things.

Not as amusing as suggesting the pope stop referring to himself as a Jesuit. 


I'm glad we can agree that it was "awful journalism."

A question: when you made your critique, were you aware of his recent admission quoted above?

If not, are you willing now to go beyond "awful" – perhaps to "shameful" and, yes, "deceitful?"


Father Imbelli, how do you explain that pope Francis approved the article before publication? Surely that gives it some weight in spite of the, on its face, astounding admission of not-writing-what-was-said and writing-what-was-not-said.

Good question, Claire. 

Bob, I'm not going to play your games, nor would I attempt to induce others into name-calling against others. You are building yourself a glass house.


I can only surmise that the Pope, pressed for time, did not review the article carefully. Whether this was being "un po furbo" or "un po ingenuo" (his words to Father Spadaro about himself) or a combination of the two, I can't say. It is possible (though this too is only surmise) that he now regrets it, hence its removal from the Vatican website.


no further questions.

Alrighty then, Bob.

Deceit.  A while back in history the Schwartzs were having their friends the Steins for dinner.  A knock at the door.  The door is answered by Mr and Ms Schwartz.  Standing at the door are two very neatly dressed fellows in tidy uniforms demanding help in their efforts to locate the Steins.  They are under strict orders to round up all Steins ASAP.  Without hesitation the Schwartzs lie.  The deceit works.  The Steins lived another day.

Arrogance.  Nope.  Cannot think of a single scenario when that behavior is remotely acceptable.

Bob, you use words as if you and only you were in connection with God.  That ain't so.  The most compelling attribute of the fellow who joined Christ on a rather remarkable journey that day on the cross was not his scholarly presentation.  It was his humility.


Bob, you use words as if you and only you were in connection with God.

Father Imbelli does no such thing.  


I see all the usual suspects are up to all the usual tactics.   Apparently trying to advance the cause of good and fair journalism, and maintain the integrity of papal teaching,  is now, take your pick:



Advancing an "agenda";


Not the finest hour for Commonweal's editors.

I propose a new journalism award: the Anti-Anti-Scalfari Prize, to be bestowed upon the lefty making the most outrageous assertions about any non-lefty critic of a Scalfari-type interview.  Competition will be brisk - we may already have some winners.

Quit your day job. 


You write: "I can only surmise that the Pope, pressed for time, did not review the article carefully." But Scalfari phoned TWO times, two different days explaining  to the pope's secretary " that I did not include some of the things that you said to me. And that some of the things that I attribute to you you did not say" Scalfari insisted over this point  and the pope said it was OK anyway. So the pope knew the Scalfari approach and he approved it.

I daresay most of us aren't immersed in the canons of Italian journalism, and just because an unsavory commercial practice has a precedent, it doesn't follow that therefore it's ethically acceptable.  In my view, I don't think it's going too far - in fact, it's just simple truth - to note that the original Scalfari interview, as published, sans any notice that here were elements of reconstruction or embellishment, misled the world into supposing that the published words actually were those of the Holy Father.   I know I was misled.  

Of the many fine English adjectives we have to describe such a situation - dishonest, misleading, fraudulent and so on - "deceitful" seems to do the job as well as any other.

That Scalfari later 'fessed up to reconstruction and embellishment is important, but it was quite some time after the initial publication, long after the original "interview" had made its impression on the worldwide readership.  Also, it's doubtful that Scalfari's admission received the same blaze of publicity that the original interview did.  

That the Holy Father allegedly approved the content prior to publication also seems important - although, as Fr. Imbelli notes, in that case it also seems important that the piece now has been pulled from the Vatican website.  And I'm not sure that the papal approval materially alters the ethical analysis.  We were bamboozled.



As I said I was merely offering a surmise. But, as you have followed the pre-publication exchange, you know that it was uniquely with Monsignor Xuereb, the Pope's secretary. As I read their exchange, Scalfari had not heard back about the letter and the text he sent, so he called Xuereb. Xuereb said the Pope gave the "ok" to publish. Scalfari, to his credit, responded, "but did the Pope read my accompanying letter?" Xuereb said he didn't know, and Scalfari urged him to check again. The Secretary said the Pope was out and would return at 2:00 and he would check with him. At 2:15 Xuereb called and told Scalfari the Pope said: "give him the 'ok' again."

So yes, the Pope said "ok." Did he read it carefully and realize the "liberties" Scalfari had taken?, I don't know. The time-line suggests haste on the Pope's part. It's clear that I do not think it was wise to publish the edited exchange, and I'm glad it was removed from the Vatican website.

The question of Scalfari's journalistic practices and ethics are one thing -- deplorable, to my mind, as I have said from the beginning.

The larger question, the one raised here, is the effort to try to rewrite Francis by undoing this "interview." The reality is that there is very little in the Scalfari interview that the pope has not said elsewhere, in actual recorded interviews, and with greater force and detail.

The panicked Old Guard seems to think that highlighting the unreliability of this interview undermines everything else that Francis has said. That seems to be a hard sell.

Then again, he was speaking off-the-cuff in those interviews and they are not infallible ex-cathedra statements, so even if he did say what he said we can freely ignore it ...


I cannot remember the level of explanation some posters seem to find necessary for Pope Francis ever being applied to Pope John Paul II. He wrote a number of things I gave up reading because I found I was never going to understand what he was talking about. No one but The Wall Street Journal ever bothered to try to explain him to me. I find it insulting to Pope Francis that so many folks think he needs to be explained.

I would hope no one was writing a doctoral disertation or a book of moral theology that depended on direct quotes from the Scalfari interview. If anyone did, I would vote not to award him his degree or would not read her book. Those are the only people, ISTM, who have a dog in the Scalfari fight, and there can't be very many of them.


The pope said in the interview for America and la Civiltà Cattolica that sometimes he trusts people to much

He trusted Scalfari and didn’t reread the interview.

I think the same happened for the letter  for the Council of Trento anniversary where he praises  the  hermeneutic of continuity quoting Benedict. This letter is strange, because he uses the pluralis maiestatis, that lately was abandoned even by Benedict, then it contradicts previous statements but also contradicts his acts: only two months ago  Francis fired the 4 liturgical consultants , conservative, appointed by B16, and appointed his advisors, followers of Bugnini, the creator of the conciliar Mass, and the bête noire of conservatives.

So I think, he signed a letter that he never read. This is only my take of course.

Isn't it time to close down this thread?

The larger question, the one raised here, is the effort to try to rewrite Francis by undoing this "interview."

I don’t think this is the larger question, nor the one raised here.   But I do think it will be interesting if the Pope, or perhaps the Papparatchiks, will be more circumspect going forward about the procedures for interviewing the Pope.    That would be a good thing, I think, as long as they don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Bernard Dauenhauer:

You wrote,

Isn't it time to close down this thread?

With all respect, I strongly disagree.  Yes, it's been a bit rough, but that's no reason to shut it down.  Light can come from these exchanges.  I say, allow time and space for that to happen.  What's to be gained by shutting it down?  What's to be lost by keeping it open?  If some readers don't like the tone or content, they can simply tune out. 


Bernard and Gene --

It seems to me you all have hit upon the most painful issue here -- do the faithful have a right and/or a duty to face apparent contradictions which sometimes appear in the teachings coming out of the Vatican?  The liberals say Yes, the conservatives seem to say No, just reinterpret what Rome says and hope the problems go away.  

ISTM that it's time for each and every one of us to look at our own, individual motives for wanting to consider or to ignore the very real problems of faith and morals and to admit to ourselves that there ARE some problems.. 

We must ask ourselves:  Am I responding through fear that I might have been seriously wrong before, or, worse, that popes themselves have been and are being seriously wrong?  And if the answer is Yes, have I been ignoring some real problems, then the question becomes:  what attitude ought I to take towards the Pope's inconsistencies?  Should the liberals crow "See?  See? I was RIGHT!!" ?  Should the conservatives cover their ears, shut their eyes and pray that the problems will just go away? Neither response is a good one, I say.  Everyone can be wrong.  Including popes.  To know the Truth, first we must face the truth, like it or not.


Good advice Ann.  It would clear the air greatly if  the temptation to re-interpret events and public statements from an interested point of view could be seen as the  dead-end it is, no matter who is doing it. Still, the fact that an occasion has provoked this sort of response may say something about the  difficulty of handling "authoritative" contributions to any conversation on an important topic. How best to get past this sort of roadblock is the question.

These discussions should not be shut down until the disputants simply stop disputing and whatever is said has become repetitive, abusive or borrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrring.

Yes, boring is in the ears of the listener, but when the listeners stop listening ....

I agree with my friend Gene, and will stipulate that if I believed half the things that liberals think I, as a conservative, believe, I’d hate me too!

"As for "the right's obsession" – all Contributors here are card-carrying Commonweal Catholics."


Thanks for the chuckle of the month. Did you delete from the Vatican website the infamous review of Chaput's brilliant book? Or did Scalafari do that." It might be more reprehensible to deny being far right than actually being far right. But I defer to Stephen Colbert..

Scalafari did it – it's above my pay grade!

I don't know that there is a left/right split in all this.  What I see is the professional journalists not being as put out about the Scalfari affair as some of us laypersons (in the journalistic sense).

Jim McCrea wrote:

These discussions should not be shut down until the disputants simply stop disputing and whatever is said has become repetitive, abusive or borrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrring.

Yes, boring is in the ears of the listener, but when the listeners stop listening ..

Again, with all respect, I disagree.  I’d say discussions shouldn’t be shut down, period.  And in fact, that’s the rule, right?  Interest in a thread peters out, comments stop coming in (or, as Jim put it, “the disputants stop disputing), and the thread dies a natural death – as opposed to someone coming in and shutting it down.

Jim raised the possibilities of threads becoming repetitive or boring; but what some will find boring, others will find worthwhile.  Why should someone in the first group have the right, the power, to say, “I’m bored, so regardless of whether the rest of you are bored, too, I’m shutting this sucker down.”  That person should simply turn his/her attention elsewhere, drop out of the conversation, and let the others continue, if they so desire.    

"Again, with all respect, I disagree.  I’d say discussions shouldn’t be shut down, period"

Gene --

Right!  And your advice needs to be heeded in the Catholic colleges that are the subject of a new thread here.  I didn't go to a Catholic college, and I'm grateful for it.  Why?  Because too often in "Catholic" colleges discussions are shut off when the discussions become threatening.  Certain things simply could not be considered -- see, most egregiously -- the Index of Forbidden Books.  Of course you'll win all your disputes when your opponents are muzzled.

"Catholic" means "all-inclusive".  When the Catholic Church does not allow all opinions to at least be heard, then it isn't being Catholic.   True, not all opinions can be true -- they contradict each other.  But most opinions can be improved by submiting them to criticism.  In the Middle Ages ALL opinions were given a hearing.  No,they certainly weren't all approved, and disapproval could have horrilble consequences.  But all werre heard, and theology was the better for it.

Jim Pauwels makes an interesting point (at 12:39 a.m.) when he says he doesn't see journalists here as put out about Scalfari taking liberties as the journalistic laity. As one of said journalists, I suppose I have to respond affirmatively, at least for myself.

Fifty years ago I would have been very disgusted with Scalfari. Thirty years ago, I would have been put out about him. Ten years ago, I still wouldn't have done what he did but I would have no longer been surprised. Today?  Meh. I don't know if anyone still working has ever heard of the Hutchins Commission or the ethics of journalism. I do know that Humbert Wolfe's old poem now applies to much that goes on in the US of A:

You cannot hope to bribe or twist,

Thank God, the British journalist;

But, considering what the man will do unbribed,

There's no occasion to.

Look at what's begun to pass for journalism in my lifetime. Start anywhere, say Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe. Or network anchors with, for Pete's sake, agents. No ink-stained wretches, they. Or cable "news." Or Cooke, or Miller at the WaPost and NYTimes respectively, both of which were once known for having editors. Or what some of our superannuated columnists with a Pulitzer on the shelf and mold in their heads continue to be paid for.

So  am an old fart banging my cane on the porch and talking about how it used to be. Jim, you may be happy to know I still shout at the radio and TV and hurl the morning paper (what there is of it) across the floor. But get surprised? No, I have stopped being surprised.

Tom B. --

And you can write.  :-)


I am not concerned on this post with "inconsistencies" nor with "contradictions," but with acknowledged misrepresentations. My question is simply: are people prepared to tolerate or even condone such? Remember this goes beyond not taking notes or not using a recorder.We already knew about those and that would not have warranted a new post.


let's go back "fifty years" to the thrilling days of yesteryear (to quote a radio program of the time) – it seems the moral sense was keener (or at least there was a higher shame index).

Jim, you may be happy to know I still shout at the radio and TV and hurl the morning paper (what there is of it) across the floor.

I am indeed :-)


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