In Italy, a burning question: Is the Vatican’s routine denial of another alleged papal ‘interview’ making the situation worse?

Ferment around Pope Francis’ latest bombshell “interview,” in which the pontiff was quoted denying hell, shows no signs of fading, as an Italian columnist was fired after saying the interview was “fake news,” and the Italian bishops’ daily defended the pope’s friendship with 93-year-old journalist Eugenio Scalfari as a healthy challenge to the “catholically correct.”

After the interview appeared on Holy Thursday the Vatican issued a denial, saying it was not a “faithful transcript” of what the pope had said. The language echoed denials the Vatican issued after earlier “interviews” published by Scalfari in 2013 and 2014.

Piergiorgio Odifreddi, a well-known Italian mathematician and logician, has also been a popular columnist for the widely read, left-leaning newspaper La Repubblica for the past 18 years, the newspaper Scalfari founded in 1976 and where his three “interviews” with Pope Francis have appeared.  

Odifreddi announced April 3 via a blog post that he’d been fired for a piece he’d posted the previous day on Scalfari.

In the post, Odifreddi wrote that Scalfari conceded in November 2013 that he never takes a voice recorder or a notebook to his interviews, and later writes up the conversation in a nonliteral way using his own words.

Of his conversations with Pope Francis, Scalfari said then, “I didn’t cite some of the things the pope said, and some of those I did cite he didn’t say.”

Noting that April 2 was the World Day of Fact-Checking, Odifreddi asked why La Repubblica “doesn’t put a stop to the fake news of Scalfari and even pretends not to notice it, when the whole world talks about it and is scandalized by it?”

“My impression is that, at bottom, truth doesn’t matter at all to newspapers,” Odifreddi said. “If a false news story gets people talking more than a true one, than what’s needed is more of the former.”

La Repubblica editor Mario Calabresi later clarified in a note to Odifreddi that he’s been fired not for criticizing Scalfari, which he said is part of a “free discussion,” but for giving offense to his colleagues at the newspaper.

“The one liberty you can’t take is that of insulting or deriding the community with which you work,” Calabresi wrote. “We do our jobs with passion and professionalism, and the gratuitous nature of your words yesterday hurt us.”

Meanwhile, another well-known Italian columnist, Father Mauro Leonardi, took to the pages of Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, to respond to critics who’ve suggested that Pope Francis should stop meeting with Scalfari, knowing that his words are likely to be distorted and sensational, and misleading headlines will result.

Leonardi wrote that what those critics fail to appreciate is that Pope Francis and Scalfari are friends — in fact, he writes, Scalfari is “in love” with the pontiff.

“Talking about the conversations between Scalfari and the pope, we should focus most that the pope, through Scalfari, the pope speaks to us, and he does it like the Holy Spirit: The pope speaks, and his friend, Scalfari, understands him ‘in his own tongue,’ with his own codes,” Lenoardi wrote.

“For the pope, that’s fine, and he won’t correct him,” he said. “When the pope is with Scalfari, he’s Jorge Mario, not Francis,” Leonardi said, using the pope’s given name.

“If Eugenio believes that Jorge Mario thinks, like him, that hell doesn’t exist, it’s fine with Jorge Mario, he won’t correct him,” Leonardo said. 

“Being friends isn’t about proselytism but finding common ground, without fearing the contamination and distortions that come with every friendship.”

Leonardi then turned to the pope’s critics.

“This is the real reason for the scandal among some ‘catholically correct’ personalities,” he wrote.

“The friendship between Scalfari and the pope upsets people and draws criticism because it’s not on anybody’s side,” Leonardi said. “It’s neither secular nor Catholic, it’s friendship, period, and friendship can’t be caged for any institutional agenda or personal advantage.”

Father John Wauck, an American priest of Opus Dei based in Rome who teaches at the group’s Sata Croce University, and who’s a frequent media commentator on Catholic affairs, said he didn’t take the alleged “interview” terribly seriously when he heard about it.

“My first reaction, especially because this wasn’t the first time, was, ‘There goes crazy Scalfari again’,” Father Wauck said, speaking on “The Crux of the Matter,” Crux’s weekly radio show on The Catholic Channel, Sirius XM 129, which airs Mondays at 10 a.m. Pacific time.

“He’s getting a headline out of something outrageous, that seems to be in complete contradiction to the Christian faith and other things Francis has said,” he said.

Rather than being scandalized, Father Wauck sees it as an opportunity.

“I would say it’s a teaching moment,” he said, in this case a chance to better explain what the Church teaches on hell.

“Hell is actually God’s way of taking us seriously,” Father Wauck said.

“If we’re able to determine our eternity in a good sense, meaning eternal life, God, happiness, delight, all of which will last forever on the basis of what we’ve done, it makes sense there’s a flip side,” he said.

“Sometimes we think hell seems kind of disproportionate, but heaven’s also disproportionate,” Father Wauck said. “God has skin in the game … he’s given us everything, and hell is a reminder of what we can turn our back on, which is something infinite.”

Given that, Father Wauck said he was surprised Pope Francis didn’t take advantage of the unexpected teaching moment he’d helped to create.

“I must admit, I’m a little surprised the pope hasn’t seized on it, right now. We were in Holy Week, with the traditional teaching that Christ descends into hell, the ‘harrowing’ of souls that were awaiting the redemption; it was right at this moment that the front page of secular newspapers all over the world were saying, ‘What does the pope think about hell?’ ”

“It would have been a great moment to come out and say something,” Father Wauck said. “Certainly for priests on the ground, it’s a teaching moment. It’s an opportunity to talk about it. When’s the last time you had all these secular people asking questions about Catholic eschatology?”