Did the Pope Ask Atheist Scalfari Really Not To Convert?

Co-founder of 'La Repubblica' newspaper recounts Pope's words, most probably made in jest.

(photo: Screenshot)

The Italian atheist Eugenio Scalfari has told a large audience in Rome that Pope Francis asked him not to convert to the Catholic faith because then he’d have to find another stimulating non-believer to speak with.

Such a task, Scalfari quoted the Pope as saying, would be “a hell of a job”.

Scalfari, 91, who has built up a close rapport with the Holy Father and conducted a number of interviews with him from memory without recording them, was speaking in Rome’s main auditorium Jan. 14 to mark the 40th anniversary of the left-leaning La Repubblica newspaper which he co-founded.

Asked if there is one thing above all during his life that he was most proud of, he answered he had lived a "strange, very fortunate life" and singled out his friendship with the Pope. "Many atheist friends have asked me: you now have such affection for Pope Francis that there’s a risk you’ll convert,” he said.

He mentioned this to Pope Francis, telling him: “You know, many of my friends…". He then imitated to the audience the Pope wagging his finger, indicating “no” and saying to his atheist friend: "It cannot happen.”

Scalfari replied: "’Why can’t it happen? I know it won’t happen, but why are you telling me this?’"

He continued that the Pope gave “various reasons that I won’t say now, but the last of them, which it must be said is very funny, was that he told me: ‘Since I want to talk to an atheist, because he stimulates me and I stimulate him, then if you convert, I’ve got to find another like you and it would be a hell of a job, so don’t convert!".

Scalfari said: “A Pope that speaks like this … then I embraced him and he embraced me.”

The video of Scalfari recounting the story can be found here.

If Scalfari’s account is correct — and the controversies surrounding his previous unrecorded interviews with the Pope means that’s not a given — the Pope probably meant it as a joke which would be in keeping with Francis’ playful humor.

But that doesn’t discount the other reasons the Pope gave which Scalfari preferred not to mention. It would also be somewhat consistent with the first interview the Holy Father gave to Scalfari in 2013. After telling Francis that his friends thought he wanted to convert him, the Pope replied: "Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us.”

Again, it’s questionable whether this is exactly what the Pope said, although Scalfari reiterated last Thursday that he sent Francis to check the text of that interview and Francis gave it the all clear, and the Pope has since made similar remarks arguing against proselytism.

But the Pope has also reportedly urged other non-Catholics not to convert. In July 2014, he told a group of Evangelicals at a lunch in Rome: “I’m not interested in converting Evangelicals to Catholicism. I want people to find Jesus in their own community.”

And as cardinal, he once reportedly said the Anglican Ordinariate “was quite unnecessary” as the universal Church needs those wishing to convert to stay “as Anglicans." 

He also advised his late Protestant friend Tony Palmer not to convert after Palmer said he wanted to become Catholic. Then-Cardinal Bergoglio told him: "We need to have bridge-builders”. Palmer was killed in a motorcycle accident in the summer of 2014.

An atheist Italian friend who went to 40th anniversary evening last Thursday alerted me to Scalfari’s comments, saying with a fair amount of glee: “The Pope told Scalfari not to convert!". So I asked him if such an approach would, in any case, make him want to at least consider converting — that is, if he didn’t feel pressured to do so.

He said what he liked about the rapport between the Pope and Scalfari is that “when intelligent people come together, they’re able to speak with one another even if they have a different culture and beliefs.” He also said that Scalfari “has shown not only Pope Francis’ great open mind but also that of his own.”

Even so, on the question of whether it made the Church more attractive to him and more likely to join the faith, he replied: “It didn't change my mind: I’m not attracted to the Mass and don't feel a need to go.”

But Benjamin Harnwell, director of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, a Rome think tank close to the Vatican, said he found it hard to believe the Pope wouldn’t want Scalfari to convert.

“Wouldn’t it implicitly go against his recent prayer intention video calling for greater dialogue?” he asked, explaining: “When the Catholic Church calls us to dialogue, the ultimate objective has to be conversion, because no one who loves the Lord would not want to share that love with someone whose life was empty of Christ.

“It is far more probable,“ Harnwell concluded, “that the 91 year old, masonic Communist atheist Scalfari has confused his idea of a perfect pope (that is, a masonic Communist atheist pope who doesn’t call lost sheep to conversion) with the real thing.”