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Why is the Pope giving an interview to Italy’s most anti-clerical paper?

Catholic-secular divisions run deep in Italy, so the Holy Father’s interview with a leading atheist is curious

By on Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Pope Francis  (AP)

Pope Francis (AP)

The Pope has given an interview, another one, to Eugenio Scalfari. The English translation of the interview, which appeared in La Repubblica, can be read here. There are reams of comment all over the internet, but one of the best and clearest comes from John Thavis, which can be read here. 

Eugenio Scalfari is not particularly well known outside Italy, where he is a figure of exceptional importance. He was born on April 6 1924 (in the interview he refers to various experiences during the War), which makes him just over six months shy of his ninetieth birthday. Italy has long been a gerontocracy, but even by Italian standards Scalfari is pretty old. Scalfari is a journalist but also a politician (a former member of the lower chamber of the Italian parliament) and he is one of the co-founders of La Repubblica. La Repubblica is probably the most important Italian newspaper in a country where newspapers are little read: it sees itself as left-wing, progressive, and above all laico. This last word, which literally means “lay” (as in the laity), in Italian means secularist, and quite often anti-clerical as well. Scalfari was, in 1955, a founding member of the Radical Party, which is strongly associated with anticlericalism, and the campaigns for divorce and abortion in Italy: its most famous member is Emma Bonino, a noted lifelong opponent of the Church.

Between the Catholic Church and the Radicals there exists much bad blood: for example, during the Jubilee of 2000, the Radicals, along with the Stalinist-inspired Party of Communist Refoundation were the only members of the Italian parliament to boycott the visit of the parliamentarians to the Vatican to meet John Paul II. Most Italian Catholics, with good reason, blame the Radicals (who are a statistically insignificant party) for the transformation of Catholic Italy into its perceived contemporary godless state.

I remember well Fr Rino (now Archbishop) Fisichella telling us all in a lecture at the Gregorian University that he was proud not to read La Repubblica. The Archbishop is now in charge of ‘new evangelisation’. He may well have changed his reading habits.

So why on earth is the Pope giving an interview to Italy’s most anticlerical paper, and talking to its top atheist?

For a start, though La Repubblica calls itself a secularist paper, it is absolutely obsessed with the Vatican and gives wide coverage to Church affairs. Moreover, it employed from 1993 to 2009 Marco Politi as its Vatican correspondent, and Politi is widely acknowledged as one of the experts in the field of Vaticanology. Unlike secularists in some other countries, Italian secularists who read La Repubblica are very well informed about the Church, and they acknowledge that religion is important. They see it as both politically important (as it undoubtedly is in the Italian context) and also metaphysically important. In Italy, philosophy is still taught widely in schools and universities, and Scalfari himself, like many others, see philosophical questions as vital. Hence in the interview, Scalfari talks about Being and beings, language I suspect that a British secularist would dismiss as nonsensical. Indeed it is because Italian secularists are interested in such ideas that the Pope thinks (quite rightly) that they are worthy partners in dialogue. In speaking to Scalfari, he is speaking to them.

John Thavis rightly identifies this interview as an exercise in bridge building. He also says that the two will meet again, and, I am pretty certain, their conversations will be turned into a book. The Pope has form in this matter, having already published a book of dialogues with Rabbi Skorka in Argentina.

What about the interview itself? Is it interesting? Up to a point. There are a few things that might interest those who overhear it. But the main point is this: the two men are talking. That is good. This represents healing after the damage down by the culture wars. Can you imagine Archbishop Vincent Nichols sitting down for a friendly and respectful chat with Professor Richard Dawkins? Me neither. That’s why this Bergoglio-Scalfari dialogue counts for much.