The Mischief of The Two Popes

At first glance, it may appear that the title of this column refers to the film of the same name, which has garnered abundant praise and criticism. It has been widely acknowledged that the two actors portraying Benedict and Francis have given performances of high caliber. It has also been admitted, even by avowed partisans of Pope Francis, that the depiction of Benedict as calculating in his quest to become pope and neolithic in his theological concerns is a caricature. I have seen the film, but I have no intention to revisit it here.

It may seem, then, that the title refers to the recent, much-discussed and, by some, deplored collaboration between Cardinal Robert Sarah and Pope Emeritus Benedict in putting forth a small book, From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy, and the Crisis of the Catholic Church. The issues and concerns raised by and about the book are real and urgent. But the simultaneous existence of two figures in white, both addressed as “Holy Father,” and the confusion generated thereby is not the “mischief” I here intend.

Rather, I refer to the latest tête à tête between Pope Francis and Eugenio Scalfari, the nonagenarian founder and patriarch of the left-wing Italian newspaper, La Repubblica. Those who follow the daring adventures of the current pope know that among the problematic elements of his pontificate is the series of interviews, beginning quite early in his tenure, that he has accorded Signor Scalfari.

Scalfari, an avowed atheist, has nonetheless received privileged access to the pope on numerous occasions. He has then written of the encounters in his newspaper, quoting Francis liberally, while admitting that he neither records the pope’s words nor takes notes during their conversations. He merely questions, listens, responds and transmits – indulging, to be sure, a certain creative freedom.

The result of these idiosyncratic, if not irresponsible, procedures is that on several occasions the Vatican Press Office has been forced to issue vague retractions of the rather extreme views attributed to Pope Francis, such as calling into question the divinity of  Jesus of Nazareth. Scalfari reported just last fall that “Pope Francis conceives Christ as Jesus of Nazareth, man, not God incarnate.” This last claim eventually evoked a more robust disclaimer from Paolo Ruffini, the layman who heads the Vatican Dicastery for Communications. Ruffini insisted: “the Holy Father never said what Scalfari wrote that he said. Therefore, both the quoted remarks, and the free reconstruction and interpretation by Dr. Scalfari of the colloquies – which go back to more than two years ago – cannot be considered a faithful account of what was said by the pope.”

It is, thus, all the more perplexing, indeed, alarming, that Pope Francis continues to exercise a “privileged option” for Scalfari, a man who has shown himself less than trustworthy in his reporting. That privileged option was recently on striking display in the January 16th issue of La Repubblica, with three prominent pages devoted to the latest colloquium between the “two popes”: Francis representing the Catholic Church and  Eugenio representing the Secular Left. The headlines blare: “Francis: I, Ratzinger, and Saving the Earth,” but one might be entitled to read it more simply as, “Francis and Me.”

Scalfari boasts of his “intense relation with the Holy Father.” And since the Sarah-Benedict collaboration had just made headlines, Scalfari assures his readers of Francis’s equanimity. Indeed, he contends that Benedict had conveyed to Francis his full “solidarity” (tutta la sua solidarietà), along with the confession that he, Benedict, had “never authorized” a joint authorship of the book (mai autorizzato un libro a doppia firma). I quote, of course, Scalfari’s words, though, presumably, they represent what he gleaned from Francis.

Having amicably dispensed with such momentary unpleasantness, the conversation then passes to more pressing concerns shared by the two Pontiffs. It may appear that I am being frivolous here. But Francis urges his esteemed friend to cease the too otherworldly appellation, Santità, (“Holiness”) and have recourse to the more earthly “Pope Francis,” or just simply “Francis.” After all, he winningly declares: “We’re friends, no?” (Siamo amici, no?) Henceforward the two Popes will be two regular guys: Frank and Gene – perhaps even sharing beer and pizza like their counterparts in that Netflix bromance.

Released now from stilted inhibitions and divides, the two gallop through a range of issues that would give pause to less stalwart souls. Augustine on grace and predestination, who qualifies as a “mystic?” (Augustine and Ignatius of Loyola, no; Francis of Assisi, yes, says Francis); the elusive sense of self, its freedom, and its struggle between good and evil.

From there one passes rapidly to immigration, climate change, and a quirky reference to Jesus as a person of “authority,” which manifests itself in his coherence of life and his witness (coerenza e testimonianza). You have the dizzying sense, in this breathless circuit of the Big Questions, of what a friend calls “roller-skating through the Louvre.”

But what seems really to bond the secular pope and the ecclesial pope is religion’s social and political function: its ability to advance an agenda. Why else the persistent cultivation of Eugenio by Francesco? Why else would Scalfari’s La Repubblica devote such lavish space to a pope whose predecessors it spurned? Both could warmly embrace, upon taking their leave of one another, in the assurance of a common commitment “to bring our collective spirit into sync with modern civil society” (di aggiornare il nostro spirito collettivo alla società civile e moderna). No hint here of the danger that conciliar “aggiornamento” might degenerate into cultural capitulation.

Every language has certain lynchpin words that it turns to so frequently that they reveal something of its existential grammar. In Italian, one such word is strumentalizzare – to instrumentalize, co-opt, use for one’s purposes.

For six years now, I have wondered who is making use of whom in this fascinating pas de deux between the two Popes. Assuredly no “proselytizing” is taking place. But neither is any “evangelizing.”

Instead, there’s a palpable, rather romantic rendition of Francis of Assisi by them both. It’s the Francis of Laudato si’, who had a mystical rapport with nature, even with wild animals; who journeyed afar to meet the Sultan in respectful dialogue; and who, according to Papa Francesco, as channeled by Papa Eugenio, died in a meadow with his hand upon the hand of Clare (disteso su un prato con la mano sulla mano di Chiara). Franco Zeffirelli, call Santa Marta!

Or is there more than Italian romanticism at play? Perhaps that momentary unpleasantness mentioned above has not been left behind. Perhaps it actually drives the present interview, so prominently trumpeted on the pages of Repubblica.

After all, the pressing issue of the Sarah-Benedict collaboration concerns priestly celibacy. And the Scalfari-Francis collaboration – two men astute at image-making – leaves us with the image of the poor man of Assisi, the deacon, dying hand in hand with Clare. And, they solemnly assure us, she too, no less than he, santa! Is the ordination of the vir probatus being signaled in this newly-minted, carefully crafted image? And, eventually, that of the mulier probata? St. Francis and St. Clare, pray for us!

“Far-fetched, Father!” some may protest. But I have always taken Pope Francis at his word. In the first of what has proven to be an interminable series of interviews, Pope Francis responded to a question posed by the Jesuit editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, Antonio Spadaro: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” The new pope pauses, reflects, and confesses: “I am a sinner.” Then, upon further thought, he adds unbidden: “perhaps I can say that I am a bit astute. . .a bit naïve.” (Un pò’ furbo. . .un pò’ ingenuo.)

Now furbo too is one of those quintessential Italian expressions. The English translators of the Spadaro interview use “astute” as their equivalent. But furbo also sounds undertones of shrewd and cunning. If you wanted to say of someone in Italian, “he’s a clever operator,” you would likely say: “è un furbo.”

In recounting the genesis of that inaugural interview of August 2013, Father Spadaro asserts that the Pope had spoken of “his great difficulty in giving interviews.” Indeed, that Francis preferred “to think carefully rather than give quick responses to on-the-spot interviews.”

Would it were so, Santità; would it were so.

Fr. Robert P. Imbelli

Robert P. Imbelli, a Priest of the Archdiocese of New York, studied in Rome during the years of the Second Vatican Council. He has taught theology at Saint Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, at Maryknoll School of Theology, and at Boston College. He is the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination: Theological Meditations on the New Evangelization.