The interview that wasn’t, and why it matters anyway

Catholics recently endured the latest scandalizing interview with Pope Francis. Apologists for Francis began to spin, while cooler heads were shaken in weary exasperation; so far so familiar. But this story started to come off the rails when Timothy Card. Dolan destroyed a factual claim that the story put in the pope’s mouth. The interview had Francis recount an event during the conclave that Card. Dolan—like Card. Bergolio a conclavist and thus an eyewitness—said did not happen. The published interview, Dolan was suggesting, coult not reflect what Francis said.

That was astonishing enough. A scandalous interview with the pope; the cardinal archbishop of New York leaping in to rescue the pope’s reputation; whatever next? The Vatican, yet more astonishing, batted away the proffered hand, insisting that no, no, it would rather drown. The interview is “basic[ally] ‘trustworth[y],” spokesmen insisted. With blood in the water, however, the interview found itself under ever-closer scrutiny. Its credibility is now teetering toward collapse with the revelation that “Eugenio Scalfari did not tape his interview with Pope Francis, nor did he take notes, so the text was an after-the-fact reconstruction. Such texts run the risk of either missing some key details or conflating various moments or events recounted during the oral interview….”

What is the upshot? Once again, we have nothing but confusion and doubt. Those who like the interview can emphasize that Francis reviewed the text and, had he been “‘gravely misrepresented,’ he would have said so,” and those who are sounding the alarm about the interview can emphasize that it is “an after-the-fact reconstruction” which does not faithfully reflect the exact words (as it purports) and may “miss[ ] some key details or conflat[e] various moments or events recounted during the oral interview.” And where does any particular point in contention fall between those two extremes? No one can say.

Katrina Fernandez posed an apt question this weekend in her post linked above: “Are we supposed to read Francis’s comments like protestants read their bibles now, through the lenses of their own personal interpretation? It’s exhausting. And confusing.” As Carl Olson said the other day, in our age papal comments “need[ ] to be as precise and clear as possible. Fuzzy language, half-formed concepts, and failure to make important distinctions will eventually result in confusion and frustration. Do they also ‘give ammunition to the enemy’…? I think so….”

This is no way to run a railroad.