ROME — The Vatican issued a statement Wednesday refuting claims Pope Francis had denied the divinity of Jesus Christ, saying the words attributed to the pontiff were a “free interpretation” of what he actually said.
On Wednesday, journalist Eugenio Scalfari published an essay in the Italian daily La Repubblica declaring, among other things, that the pope told him that he believes that Jesus of Nazareth was an exceptional man, but not God incarnate.
“As has already been stated on other occasions, the words that Dr. Eugenio Scalfari attributes in quotation marks to the Holy Father during talks with him cannot be considered a faithful account of what was actually said, but represent rather a personal and free interpretation of what he heard, as is quite evident from what was written today about the divinity of Jesus Christ,” reads the statement by papal spokesman Matteo Bruni.
According to Scalfari, founder of La Repubblica, “Pope Francis conceives the Christ as Jesus of Nazareth, a man, not God incarnate. Once he took flesh, Jesus ceased to be a God and became a man until his death on the cross.”
Scalfari goes on to say that the pope told him that Jesus’ words from the cross “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” testify to Christ’s merely human nature.
“Pope Francis told me: ‘There are the proof that Jesus of Nazareth, once he became a man, even a man of exceptional virtue, was in no way a God,’” Scalfari wrote.
The divinity of Jesus Christ is a central tenet of Christianity. The Nicene Creed, a summary of Christian belief, reads (in part): “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father.”
This is not the first time the Vatican has been obliged to issue a clarification following papal interviews with Mr. Scalfari, which has led many to suspect that the pope continues to grant him interviews because he desires the confusion and ambiguity that Scalfari’s articles sow.
Pope Francis has repeatedly downplayed the importance of doctrine, the official teaching of the Church on matters of faith and morals. Being a Christian does not mean primarily “adhering to a certain doctrine,” Francis has said, but rather in binding one’s life to the person of Jesus. He has moreover often criticized whose who insist on right doctrine as being “rigid,” “pharisaical,” and “legalistic.”
Over the years of his pontificate, the pope has granted Mr. Scalfari numerous informal interviews and it has been generally understood that he uses this vehicle to get his ideas out, especially more controversial ones, while always maintaining a certain degree of plausible deniability if something Scalfari relates causes problems.
After one such papal interview with Scalfari in 2013, veteran Vatican analyst John L. Allen offered advice as to how these conversations should be read. He noted that though the words may not always be precise, the content is generally trustworthy.
“Look, Italian journalism has many strengths, but a passion for factual accuracy is not among them. It is what it is,” Allen said.
“The takeaway is, the big picture is accurate,” he said. “I don’t think, in any fundamental way, he misrepresented the pope’s thought. But I also think it’s impossible to know where Francis ends and Scalfari begins, at the level of detail. I would just be very careful. I, myself, will not take any direct quotes out of that interview and present them as coming from the pope.”
Pope Francis himself has never denied anything that Scalfari has written about him and seems content to continue granting him interviews.