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A Pope and an Atheist Sit Down for a Chat

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Eugenio Scalfari, aged 90, is truly one of the grand old men of Italian politics and journalism. Trained as a lawyer, he has been active in Italian Socialist causes since World War II and edited and/or founded two of Italy's most influential newspapers -- L'Espresso and La Repubblica.

He has also clearly become one of Pope Francis' good friends. In late September 2013, the two men sat down for a conversation. Scalfari later published a summary of their exchange. Working from memory, trying to capture the "essence" of what the Pope had said, Scalfari published a summary that rocked the closed and cloistered world of inside-the-Vatican politics. The two men spoke about the need for social justice. The mass unemployment of the young was a tragedy and a consummate waste of human talent and promise. The Pope looked to Scalfari to make common cause on this issue.

Scalfari and the Pope reflected together on the nature of the divine -- "God is Love," the two men agreed, with the Pope connecting that point to the Incarnation. The two men went on. Believers and non-believers are alike called to work for the common good. Pope Francis assured Scalfari that it was not his intention to proselytize -- "proselytism is solemn nonsense," the pontiff announced. Instead he hoped in some small modest way to love others as Jesus had loved.

They even talked about the Vatican court, the infamous "curia." It was a place full of intrigue. The curia, Pope Francis told his friend, is "the leprosy of the papacy."

Published in La Repubblica, for almost two months the interview also stood on the Vatican website where it attracted many complaints, especially by conservative Catholics. The Vatican itself finally removed the article from the website in November, 2013. The Pope, a Vatican spokesman said, did not really mean to compare his own curia to leprosy.

The Catholic right-wing, which had clucked in disapproval now made their discontent even clearer. This was no way for a Pope to comport himself. He might sow confusion. He should speak carefully, in the old and approved forms. When the interview came down from the Vatican website, they thought they had scored an impressive triumph.

A lesser pope might have been chastened by the experience. He might have bowed to critics and thereafter steered far away from someone like Scalfari. But this is not Pope Francis' style. And so, once again, in mid-July, 2014, Francis sat down with his friend Scalfari for another talk.

Unsurprisingly, once again Francis made news. He was said to have hinted broadly that the practice of priestly celibacy -- mandatory in the Western Church -- might be reconsidered. He told his old friend that two percent of the Catholic clergy are pedophiles. He let it be known that even some members of the hierarchy were guilty of this heinous crime -- bishops, cardinals.

Predictably, the Vatican rushed out a correction. No, the Pope did not really say that there were pedophiles among the cardinals. The remainder of the interview was allowed to occupy a kind of gray area -- neither officially confirmed as accurate nor officially denied as false. Scalfari freely admitted that he took no notes and reconstructed the conversation afterwards, trying to capture its essence if not the precise words that were used.

To dwell overly much on the content of the two conversations, to ask whether this or that phrase is transcribed exactly as it was pronounced is to miss I think what is truly most important about these interviews. For it is not so much the words and the content of the interviews, but the fact that they are happening at all that is meaningful.

If we consider that there were two interviews, that the second one occurred even against the backdrop of a great deal of criticism directed at the first interview, then several features are worth noting:

First, Pope Francis and Eugenio Scalfari are plainly friends. They like each other. And in their friendship they might be said to reflect the way in which the secular and the religious spheres might find common ground. The secular world and the realm of faith are not irreconcilable. So, how might these two worlds come to know each other better?

Again, I think a focus on the fact that these conversations occurred suggests ways in which the spiritual and the secular might cooperate, and that is through sincere and respectful dialogue. Women and men of faith must not take as their default position hostility towards all things secular. They must instead recognize the humanity of their conversation partners. They must show their emotions and share their vulnerabilities. They must in other words bare their souls. Such earnestness, Scalfari's response illustrates, will be met more than halfway. Both sides in this conversation must appreciate their shared priorities -- they must work for a world of justice and mercy, a world of love that crosses boundaries and worldviews. They must, in other words, show respect. They have more in common than they realize.

If friendship, dialogue, and respect are among the lessons to be drawn from these conversations, a final feature is also worth noting. Here, as in so much else he has undertaken, Pope Francis is rewriting the rules on how to be a pope for the modern world. Popes of the last two centuries have watched their words carefully. Their speech follows certain prescribed rules -- encyclicals are solemn, apostolic exhortations a little less so, allocutions and sermons just slightly more relaxed. What Pope Francis is doing fits none of these rules. What he is doing, rather, is what his namesake, St. Francis instructed his followers to do: teach first by example and use words only when necessary. He is doing nothing less than modeling the relationship of Church and the world.