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Pope Francis interview calls church leaders 'narcissists,' conversion 'solemn nonsense'

| Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013, 9:18 p.m.

Pope Francis on Tuesday cranked up his charm offensive on the world outside the Vatican, saying in the second widely shared media interview in two weeks that each person “must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them” and calling efforts to convert people to Christianity “solemn nonsense.”

The Vatican's head seemed intent on distancing himself from its power, saying church leaders “have often been narcissists.”

The interview with atheist Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari set off another round of debate about what the pope meant: Was he saying that people can make up their own minds, even if they disagree with church teachings? Or was this self-described “son of the church” using casual language to describe classic church teaching about people coming to Catholic doctrine by free will?

A top official with the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, took the unprecedented step of rebuking Francis. He wrote that the pope's interview was “a theological wreck” and that Francis was dabbling dangerously in relativism.

“What these interviews seem continually to do is what evangelical theologian Carl Henry warned Protestants of in the 20th century: of severing the love of God from the holiness of God,” wrote the Rev. Russell Moore, a dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and head of the convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “We must speak with tenderness and gentleness, but with an authoritative word from God.”

Some conservative Roman Catholics were taken aback by the interview.

“My email is filled with notes from people who need to be talked off the ledge,” wrote the Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, author of one of the more popular blogs for Catholic conservatives.

In what is quickly becoming classic Pope Francis, the back story of the interview was dramatically simple. The leader of the largest church in the world picked up the phone and called Scalfari, founder of La Repubblica, who had requested an interview.

“Why so surprised?” the pope asked Scalfari. “You wrote me a letter asking to meet me in person. I had the same wish, so I'm calling to fix an appointment. Let me look at my diary: I can't do Wednesday, nor Monday; would Tuesday suit you?”

Once they set the time, Scalfari said he wasn't sure how to end the call and asked for an embrace by phone.

“Of course, a hug from me, too,” the pope said. “Then we will do it in person. Goodbye.”

The interview included the pope's story of a Communist friend he had as a young man (later tortured and killed by the Argentine military), movie recommendations and a mystical experience he had the night he was picked to be pope.

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