Pope Francis’ most recent interview with the Italian publication La Repubblica has caused waves with the pontiff’s remarks about priestly celibacy and pedophilia. But criticism from Vatican spokespersons has cast suspicion on the interviewer’s accuracy and led to a case of deja vu for many observers. This is not the first interview the Argentine rockstar-pope has had with known atheist Eugenio Scalfari, nor is it the only one to create controversy. Last year, an interview with Scalfari led to criticism of the 90-year-old journalist’s understanding of some of the points the Catholic leader made and brought clarification from the Vatican. Today it seems that Pope Francis is repeating history with this latest interview.
This most recent interview with Scalfari tackled the issues of sex abuse scandals in the church, a topic which is well-trod ground for Francis by now. Many people hoped that his papacy would be the start of an avid search to redress the wrongs that were unsatisfactorily handled by his predecessor, Pope Benedict. Francis’ progress has been measured, but marked by concerned observers around the world. Beyond his already forthright apology, the new La Repubblica interview contained the pope’s promise to “confront” the problem with “severity.”
Promises matter very little, especially since they have been uttered by three successive popes with little substantive progress. But some have argued that Francis’ promises are different, constituting a Rubicon moment in which he commits himself more strongly to reform than any have before him. On July 7 during a meeting with victims of sexual abuse by clergy, Francis made the remark that accountability will be had, not just by abusers, but by those in leadership who have been seen to protect them. Bishops and other high-ranking clerics who do not “help foster the protection of minors” will be punished along with sexual offenders. Pope Francis seems to be acknowledging the problem of pedophile priests in a much different way than previous popes, who were largely responsible for covering up abuse scandals. Ostensibly this increased accountability includes the pope himself, who would be culpable for any ongoing abuse under his watch, and it is perhaps this fact that makes his statements so different.
The recently published interview referred to this issue and it also represented a change in rehtoric. Apparently, the pope referred to “reliable data” he received from colleagues at the Vatican which indicated that two percent of all clergy were engaged in sexual abuse of minors. He included in that number high-ranking officials such as bishops and cardinals, as well as the priests who are most often referred to. This seems to be a widening of the net on those who would be suspect from just lower orders to the highest levels of the clergy.
In addition to conversation about sex abuse scandals in the church, the pope and Scalfari discussed the issue of priestly celibacy. For what may be the first time, the pope publicly acknowledged that he would be seeking to examine the practice, which he pointed out only dates back to the last 1,000 years of church history. According to the published interview, Francis called celibacy a “problem” to which he would like to find solutions. This represents a drastic change from the last 1,000 years of Catholic history and shows that Francis’ steering of the church might be more liberal than any of his predecessors.
In what is a repeat of recent interview history, official Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi issued a statement in which he cast aspersions on Scalfari’s journalistic practice, particularly regarding Pope Francis’ comments on sexual abuse and priestly celibacy. He referenced Scalfari’s well-known habit of not taking notes or recording interviews, instead preferring to write from memory unaided, looking to undermine the journalist’s credibility in reporting accurately. This lack of accuracy, Lombardi said, made certain remarks unattributable to the pope directly and meant that the more controversial statements should be taken with a grain of salt. The Vatican official seemed particularly interested in downplaying the importance of the pope’s remarks on celibacy and the existence of cardinals in the ranks of pedophile priests.
It seems clear Lombardi is interested in protecting the reputation of the church. The acknowledgement that the highest officials of the church could be involved in sex abuse would be a serious blow to its credibility and trust in its leadership. The supposedly reliable data the pope referenced could be truly damning if it was found to be true. Thus, damage control on the part of the Vatican is meant to protect the credibility of its internal investigations. The issue of priestly celibacy, while important from a religious standpoint, is not as politically motivated. However, the Vatican has proven itself to be very conservative on such matters and the labeling of celibacy as a “problem” may be too much for it to handle at this stage. Whether or not the pope actually said such things and whether or not he means to see them through, the Vatican will have to be involved and at the moment, it seems oppositional.
Nevertheless, there seems to be at least some acceptance for the interview and its credibility. The Irish Times reviewed the article and Lombardi’s statement, concluding that the substance of the interview was “incontrovertible.” The Times also reminded readers of the case of Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who confessed to sexual misconduct unbecoming a clergyman. While this statement does not refer directly to pedophilia, it does show that even cardinals are not above sexual misconduct and, therefore, that they cannot be left out of the equation. Thus, at the very least, Lombardi’s denial of the existence of cardinals in the two percent figure seems disingenuous and unrealistic.
Should the most recent Scalfari interview be accepted at face value? Without recording or notes, the whole controversy descends into the realm of “he said, Vatican said” accusation. Neither side seems wholly credible in that situation. Viewing Pope Francis’ record, however, the statements do seem to be in the spirit of the pontiff, who is becoming notorious and famous for his reformist bent. The real question is, however, with Scalfari’s well-known habits and the previous problems with the pope’s interviews with La Repubblica, why did the pope submit to the interview at all? If Francis was aware that he could be misunderstood or misconstrued, why did he talk to the liberal writer in the first place?
That is the most interesting question of the whole story, as well as the most difficult to answer. Whether this represents a rift between the pope and the seemingly more conservative Vatican officialdom is not clear. Francis does seem to lean more to the left of the political and doctrinal spectrum, which may account for his ongoing relationship with Scalfari despite its issues. Just how much Lombardi’s statement represents the pope’s own views is also not clear. He is indeed the Vatican spokesman, but the Argentine pope has a habit of speaking for himself. No matter what the reason for the interview and its subsequent controversy, Pope Francis has made his move, repeating interview history and leaving the rest of the world to wonder what it means.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury