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Clarity Is Next to Godliness

The latest game of Vatican Telephone should remind Pope Francis (and us) to exercise prudence and precision when evangelizing

Jimmy Akin

Here we go again. It’s a predictable pattern:

  1. Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari, an atheist, publishes an article attributing shocking statements to Pope Francis.
  2. The press and the blogosphere freak out.
  3. The Vatican Press office issues a statement saying that Scalfari isn’t reliable.
  4. Things die down for a while, but lingering damage is done.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

This time, on October 9, Scalfari said in an interview:

Those who have had, as I have had many times, the good fortune to meet him and speak to him with the greatest cultural confidence, know that Pope Francis conceives Christ as Jesus of Nazareth, man, not God incarnate. Once incarnated, Jesus ceases to be a God and becomes a man until his death on the cross. . . .

Another episode, also well known, occurs when Jesus is already crucified and there again repeats and is heard by the apostles and women who are kneeling at the foot of the cross: “Lord, you have forsaken me.”

When I happened to discuss these phrases, Pope Francis told me: “They are the proof that Jesus of Nazareth, once he became man, even if he were a man of exceptional virtue, was not a God at all.”

The director of the Vatican Press Office promptly put out a statement the same day. Public consternation continued, and the next day, the Holy See Press Office issued an even more forceful denial:

“The Holy Father never said what Scalfari wrote,” Vatican communications head Paolo Ruffini said at an October 10 press conference, adding that “both the quoted remarks and the free reconstruction and interpretation by Dr. Scalfari of the conversations, which go back to more than two years ago, cannot be considered a faithful account of what was said by the pope.”

“That will be found rather throughout the Church’s Magisterium and Pope Francis’s own, on Jesus: true God and true man.”

Scalfari isn’t a reliable source, for several reasons. To be blunt:

  1. People often aren’t careful when describing the views of those who believe differently than they do.
  2. Scalfari doesn’t use a tape recorder or even a note pad; he reconstructs the quotations he attributes to the pope from memory. And at age 95, it’s unlikely that Scalfari’s memory is what it used to be.
  3. He is a journalist, and journalists frequently slant and distort things they were told to gin up sales and clicks.
  4. The Vatican Press Office has issued repeated warnings and denials concerning Scalfari.

Frankly, Francis should stop talking to the man. Perhaps he granted interviews to Scalfari, his friend of many years, to engage with secular culture, as a form of evangelization. The pope’s intent may have been to evangelize Scalfari specifically—as he is on eternity’s doorstep.

But every time the pope engages in “interviews” with Scalfari, the Church takes a hit, and some of the faithful doubt Francis’s orthodoxy. Prudence says Francis should stay away from the man.

He may already be doing so. The Holy See’s statement of October 10 notes this latest claim from Scalfari is based on his recollection from an interview more than two years ago, which suggests Francis hasn’t met with Scalfari in some time. Good.

What about the claim that Scalfari attributes to Pope Francis—that God somehow stopped being God when he became incarnate and remained simply a man until his death on the Cross?

This claim makes no sense. God can’t stop being God. He is immutable. The Second Person of the Trinity took on or added a human nature to his divine nature. He didn’t switch from having one to the other.

The conceptual incoherence of the claim gives us immediate reason to doubt it.

Francis has been clear on the fact Jesus remained God during the incarnation. A few moments of searching on the Vatican web site turns up multiple statements. A few examples, in chronological order:

  • The grace which was revealed in our world is Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, true man and true God (Homily, Dec. 24, 2013).
  • God became mortal, fragile like us, he shared in our human condition, except for sin, but he took ours upon himself, as though they were his own. He entered into our history, he became fully God-with-us! (Angelus, Jan. 5, 2014).
  • [For men and women of today, we have] to bring them the Gospel, Jesus Christ himself, God incarnate, who died and rose to free us from sin and death (Message for 48th World Communications Day, 2014).
  • When you touch the wounds of the Lord, you understand a little more about the mystery of Christ, of God Incarnate (Address, Apr. 30, 2015).
  • One Person of the Trinity entered into the created cosmos, throwing in his lot with it, even to the cross (Laudato Si 99).
  • God chooses an uncomfortable throne, the cross, from which to reign by giving his life (Angelus, Oct. 21, 2018).

Could Francis have said something that may have led Scalfari to misrepresent Francis’s beliefs? Sure. In fact, there are even lines in Scripture that, without context, appear to say that Jesus was just a man.

In Philippians, Paul writes:

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:5-8).

Paul’s point is that, although Jesus actually was equal to God the Father, he was nevertheless willing to humble himself in the Incarnation. He took on human form and lived as a man, being “obedient unto death” on the Cross.

Also, Hebrews notes that, Jesus was “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning” (Heb. 4:15).

Do we find this same thinking in Francis’s writings? Yes, we do.

[Jesus] does not reveal himself cloaked in worldly power and wealth but rather in weakness and poverty: “Though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor.” Christ, the eternal Son of God, one with the Father in power and glory, chose to be poor; he came amongst us and drew near to each of us; he set aside his glory and emptied himself so that he could be like us in all things (cf. Phil 2:7; Heb 4:15) (Lenten Message 2014, 1).

In looking to his face, what do we see? First of all the face of an “emptied” God, of a God who has taken on the condition of servant, humbled and obedient unto death (cf. Phil 2:7) (Address, Nov. 10, 2015).

Here we have all the elements that Scalfari mentions:

  • The pre-incarnate Christ is God
  • He becomes man
  • He lives in a human mode, “even if he were a man of exceptional virtue” (i.e., “without sinning”)
  • He returns to a glorified mode of existence after his death on the Cross

It looks like Scalfari may have simply mangled something Pope Francis said based on the teachings of St. Paul and Hebrews—mistaking, like some heretics in Church history, Christ’s self-emptying as a loss of divinity. But this is not what Paul said or meant. As Pope Francis has said, Jesus is “true man and true God.”

This incident provides us with several lessons that apologists should keep in mind:

  1. Christology is a subject that involves precise distinctions that must be carefully made. In fact, it took the Church centuries to hammer out the correct language for articulating those distinctions.
  2. It’s important that we communicate the Church’s teachings using clear and precise language at all times.
  3. There are some individuals with whom the costs of engaging in dialogue outweigh the benefits.
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