«Considering those who shamefully call Pope Francis a “lost shepherd,” I’m reminded of Tolkien’s line: “Not all those who wander are lost.” It seems to me that any “wandering” Pope Francis does reflects Luke 15:4-7.»

— David Wanat

A few days ago, the prayerful recollection that Holy Week demands was once again shattered by noise: a racket which was nothing short of satanic, because it tried to distract us from the true meaning of the season with worldly polemics. It is a sad state of affairs that so many prominent Catholics have contributed to this ruckus.

It appeared that Pope Francis had given yet another interview to the prominent 93-year-old atheist Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari, and it was reported that Pope Francis denied the existence of Hell and postulated a kind of annihilationism. Papal critics from within the Church seized the opportunity, as they always do, to bash Francis yet again.

Of course it was all fake news. The Vatican promptly denied the Pope had said such a thing. (See Pete Vere’s post debunking this misunderstanding.)

At the end of the day, both papal critics and papal apologists seemed to agree on one thing: “Why, oh why, does Francis keep giving interviews (or even entertain private conversations) with Scalfari, since every time the Pope talks with him, he twists his words into something heretical?”

Admittedly, it does seem that Pope Francis is being imprudent in sustaining meetings with a notorious and persistent misinterpreter of his words. Therefore, the question, “Why does he keep doing it?” is really an interesting one.

Before I proceed, I must emphasize this: it is not incumbent on the apologist to defend everything Francis does. The Pope may indeed be wrong to continue these appointments to Scalfari, and this does not in any way detract from the soundness of his teachings on the faith. It is one thing to disagree with a pope on his personal prudential judgments, another quite different thing to dissent from his official and magisterial teachings (a distinction often disregarded by dissenters).

However, this question keeps popping up: “Why does the Pope do it?” Whether or not we agree with Francis on this, this inquiry demands answers.

Everyone agrees that Pope Francis is not a fool. In fact, his critics accuse him of the opposite: of excessive shrewdness. According to them, Francis is a covert heretic who uses cunning to sow confusion about fundamental truths of our faith without falling into formal heresy. Such an alleged mastermind can be anything, but a fool he is not.

Of course, such an idea is preposterous, because if Francis really didn’t believe in Hell, why would he have been so clear in preaching about the existence of Hell in prior speeches? It doesn’t make sense in reality, but such notions are not designed to be truthful, but rather to feed self-fulfilling narratives which have an ulterior motive: to justify dissent from official Church teaching coming from Pope Francis. (But I digress and I again refer you to Peter Vere’s excellent analysis.)

We can conclude it is not out of naiveté that Pope Francis keeps entertaining these conversations with Scalfari. Thus the only reasonable conclusion is that Francis must believe he has proportionate reasons to do it, in spite of the constant unreliability of his interlocutor.

What proportionate reasons does he have? We don’t know. We would have to ask Francis himself to know the answer.

But what proportionate reasons might he have? What could be more important than the scandal Scalfari’s interviews may cause in impressionable and uncatechized souls, leading them astray from the One True Faith?

Well, if we could come up with just one sufficient proportionate reason, then we would have to conclude that such proportionate reasons are possible. From that point on, charity would mandate that we ascribe such motives to the Pope and stopped judging his actions on account of our inability to understand them.

For me, there is one possible proportionate reason for the Pope to keep talking to Scalfari: the journalist’s conversion. Indeed, Francis’ missionary zeal compels him to go and meet people where they are, at the peripheries of our faith. Scalfari, as a militant atheist born in a country deeply imbibed with an inescapable Catholic heritage and culture certainly qualifies as such a periphery. Francis’ keen discernment surely is sensitive enough to sense if a soul is listening, albeit with struggles and difficulties. Is it a coincidence that a 93 year old atheist has been consistently misinterpreting the Pope in matters pertaining to the afterlife? Who knows…

Of course, one may object: “Yes, Scalfari’s conversion is important. What about the other souls endangered by all this confusion stemming from Scalfari’s shenanigans?

This is a very reasonable concern, one that I share as well. However, I would like to invoke one particular biblical image pertaining to Our Lord: the Good Shepherd. According to the parable, the Good Sheperd would leave his flock of ninety-nine sheep out in the wilderness to search for his one lost sheep.

When I was younger, I always thought this was very reckless of the Good Sheperd. Leaving ninety-nine sheep out in the wilderness to find just one? What if, in His absence, one other sheep from the ninety-nine got lost? Or even (gasp!) more than one? Then He would have found one sheep (if He ever found it) and lost more than one! The math just didn’t add up! Worst still, those sheep might not just be lost (in which case they could be found again, given enough time)… but they could be killed by wolves while the Shepherd was gone!

From my human perspective, this parable didn’t make any sense. But then again, that’s what Jesus did in most of His parables. He took our human logic and turned it upside down. That’s why workers who labored only one hour got the same wage as those who toiled all day. That’s why a son who wasted all his inheritance away could be welcomed by his father. That’s why a heretic Samaritan could be a better observer of the Law than an anointed priest.

And that’s why a Good Shepherd would gamble ninety-nine of his sheep to regain just one. For there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous.

This divine logic is indeed scandal for the Jews (the rigorists) and foolishness for the Greeks (the rationalists), but His thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways are not our ways, for as heavens are higher than the earth, so are His thoughts above our thoughts and His ways above our ways.

For what is more precious in this entire universe than saving a soul, image and likeness of our God Himself, from being led astray into the eternal torments of the fiery pits of Hell? Nothing. Those who decry Francis are the first ones to acknowledge this fact.

Who knows if these continuous meetings with Scalfari will result in his conversion, resulting in his salvation from the Hell he seems so bent on denying. Maybe we will never know. Maybe this conversion will happen on his deathbed, in the intimacy of his soul, unheard of no one else until the Last Judgment. Who is to say this is impossible?

But what about the other souls?” – cries the critic.

That’s where the apologists come in. Paradoxically, the secular media seems to have been more eager to correct and demystify this fake news than many in the apologetics community or Catholic media. This alone is a miracle for which we should be grateful.

But if Pope Francis has seen his words misconstrued, then the apologists should just have rolled up their sleeves and set the record straight. It is not the Pope’s job to make the apologist’s life easier, it is the apologist’s job to defend the Pope whenever his words are twisted. This was true at the time of Benedict XVI and John Paul II, so it’s certainly true now.

It is not the apologist’s function to make a public declaration of frustration by saying: “I am tired of cleaning up this mess”, especially when said apologist wasn’t really enthusiastic about defending the Pope in the first place because he doesn’t agree with his teachings. It is not the apologist’s task to panic in front of the uncatechized masses, scandalizing them even more.

Most of all, it is not the apologist’s duty (in fact, it is the very denial of the apologist’s purpose) to help spread the confusion he should be trying to contain. And worst still, to profit from it.

The apologist was made for the Church, not the Church for the apologist. If the apologetics community is so concerned with the ninety-nine sheep the Good Shepherd left in the wilderness (as I am), they should do everything in their power to keep them together until the Good Shepherd returns with the lost sheep (as I and others have tried to do on this blog and elsewhere). This is done by strengthening in the ninety-nine the faith that the Good Shepherd didn’t abandon them, but had good reason to go and fetch their wayward sister. But if some of the ninety-nine sheep ascribe to themselves the role of shepherd, then the flock will be divided, the fault will not lie with the Good Shepherd (who is good), but on those who rebelled.

From a purely human perspective, a shepherd who wanders off following the trail of a lost sheep looks like a lost shepherd, when in fact he knows exactly where he is going and what his goal is. But at the end of the day, the shepherd who risks being “lost” with his sheep is the only one worthy of being called a shepherd.

[Photo credit: “The Shepherd’s love“, by StefyMante, 2010; Source: Wikimedia Commons; License: CC BY-SA 3.0)

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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.

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