It seems like the beginning of a bad joke.
And, in fact, it is.
A very bad joke, in fact…
All of Rome this morning was in an uproar about the story that a Japanese doctor based in the United States who works in an Italian clinic two or three times a year had (allegedly) diagnosed a small (non-malignant) tumor in Pope Francis’ brain. Here is a link to the original story in Italian (link).
The Vatican then denied the truth of the story in the most categorical of terms. The Pope is healthy, has no brain tumor, and never saw the Japanese doctor at any time (Link; see the full text of the Vatican’s two statements from today below at the end of this letter.) Here is a link to an ANSA article which has embedded in it a brief video of Vatican Press Director Father Federico Lombardi‘s denial the story at mid-day today: link.
The Osservatore Romano went further. The Vatican’s newspaper said the story was not only false, but was released at this time — with just three days to go in the Synod on the Family — in order to cause confusion and chaos. “E il momento scelto rivela l’intento manipolatorio del polverone sollevato,” the paper said (“And the moment chosen reveals the manipulative intent of the outcry that has been created”). (link)
The office of the doctor in question, Takanori Fukushima, the Carolina Neuroscience Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina (link), also categorically denied that Fukushima ever met or examined the Pope. Lori Radcliffe, practice administrator for Fukushima at the Carolina Neuroscience Institute, described the report as “absolutely false.” She told Reuters (link) that Fukushima saw the Pope and shook his hand alongside thousands of people this year at a general audience at the Vatican but had never treated or evaluated him. (link).
The story would seem to be, then, a fabrication. A false story.
Nevertheless, the director of Quotidiano Nazionale, Andrea Cangini, continues to affirm the truthfulness of the paper’s story. “The (Vatican’s) denial is understandable and was expected,” he said. “We did not publish this story for a long time in order to make all necessary checks. We do not have the slightest doubt as to its merits. We seriously debated whether or not to publish it. We felt that what is true for a head of state or government also applies to the Pope: the enormous public responsibility that these personalities have leads us to believe that the right to privacy is less important than the right of the public to be informed.”
The world’s press, of coure, immediately picked up on this story.
In fact, it is worth taking 15 or 20 seconds to scroll through a listing of these many stories at the following link (link).
What this huge number of headlines shows is that this story was immediately “trampolined” throughout the world’s press.
In that sense, it became, instantaneously, and quite effectively, a part of the “global consciousness” regarding Francis and his papacy.
This makes this otherwise odd little story interesting, and important, to all following this papacy, and the unfolding history of the Roman Catholic Church.
Clearly, if someone wished to attack Pope Francis, and lessen his authority and effectiveness, there would be no better way than to invent, or spread, the story of a “brain tumor” — referred to as a “small shadow” on his brain.
Indeed, it hardly matters whether the story is true or false. The mere rumor, in this case, is sufficient.
It alters the narrative.
The story is, in a certain sense, logical, if one thinks in terms of ecclesial, or even global, in-fighting.
To cripple this pontificate, what better way that to suggest that everything Pope Francis is saying and doing, from his denunciations of the evils of an unrestrained and globalizing capitalist system to his calling of the present Synod on the Family, is “affected” by a “brain tumor” — that he isn’t responsible for his actions, that he is acting under the influence of a “shadow” in his brain.
In other words, this story is an absolutely direct, diabolically clever and undeniably powerful attack on Pope Francis by someone, or some group, wishing, for whatever reason, to weaken him.
Who, then, is the originator of this story?
The story originated with an Italian publication, Il Quotidiano Nazionale (“The National Daily”), a newspaper that since 1997 has fused together three formerly independent regional Italian dailies, Il Resto del Carlino of Bologna, La Nazione of Florence and Il Giorno of Milan.
The first director of the 3-fold paper was Vittorio Feltri, one of Italy’s leading journalist and editors. The most recent director, since December 1, 2014, has been Bruno Vespa.
Feltri is described in his Wikipedia profile as “above all a monarchical constitutionalist” who supports the return of the Kingdom of Italy under the House of Savoy. (link).
As for Vespa, perhaps the leading television journalist in the history of Italy, there is a famous story about his relationship with Pope John Paul II.
In 1977, as a young television journalist, Vespa interviewed the then-cardinal of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla. Wojtyla then became Pope John Paul II the following year, in October, 1978.
Twenty years later, in 1998, during Vespa’s popular “Porta a Porta” television program on the 20th anniversary of Wojtyla’s election, Pope John Paul II telephoned Vespa (photo left) in the middle of the live program and so was “on air” during the broadcast.
It was an unprecedented journalistic accomplishment.
On to the story itself.
In a cover piece published late on Tuesday, October 20, on its website, the Quotidiano Nazionale launched this astonishing (alleged) “scoop”:
(1) an unnamed nurse at a clinic in Pisa in north-central Italy reveals to the paper that Pope Francis, in March this year, seven months ago, flew secretly in a helicopter to Pisa to be examined by a Japanese doctor working in Italy, who also works at Duke University in North Carolina, a neurosurgeon, named Dr. Takanori Fukushima;
(2) Fukushima (allegedly) examined Pope Francis’ brain;
(3) Fukushima (allegedly) determined that Francis had a small brain tumor — one which was not malignant and did not require any sort of surgery;
(4) Francis (allegedly) then flew back to the Vatican without anyone knowing anything about the visit.
In another version of the story, published by ANSA, an Italian news agency, the Japanese doctor (allegedly) flew into Vatican City in a helicopter in January, and at that time met with the Pope and diagnosed the Pope’s (alleged) brain tumor.
So, suddenly this morning, the Vatican press corps was in an uproar about this “world scoop” concerning the Pope’s health and possible brain tumor.
How was the health of Pope Francis? Was he on the threshold of a serious illness, even death? Was the Vatican hiding the truth about his health? Would he resign soon because of ill health?
All this erupted during the space of three or four hours this morning.
Here is a link to a brief Rome Reports video clip on the story (link).
Then, the entire story unraveled and collapsed.
A total farce.
Because none of it was true.
There was no tumor.
There was no examination of the Pope’s brain.
There was no helicopter landing secretly in the Vatican in January.
All of it was a complete hoax.
Except for one thing.
There was, in fact, a Japanese doctor, Dr. Fukushima.
Fukushima is in fact a consultant at the clinic of San Rossore di Barbaricina near Pisa, in north-central Italy.
But questions have arisen about these photos. Are they authentic?
The background behind the Pope and the doctor seems to change between the photos, and the alleged handshake between the Japanese doctor and the Pope, which seems authentic at first glance, seems problematic when examined at a higher resolution — almost as if the images have been photo-shopped.
So, we seem to have these elements to work with:
(1) the Vatican denies that Fukushima ever treated Pope Francis;
(2) Dr. Fukushima’s office denies that he ever treated Pope Francis;
(3) The newspaper that published the report just three days before the end of the Synod — after having sat on the story evidently for some months — says it stands by its story, but offers no named source whatsoever;
(4) Dr. Fukushima does claim that he met with Pope Francis, though the meeting was not to treat the Pope or to diagnose him — but the alleged photos of this meeting on his website seem problematic.
Conclusion: this strange story of the Pope having a brain tumor is not confirmed by any source or by any evidence whatsoever.
The Vatican’s Official Statements
Father Lombardi, the Pope’s spokesman, took the unusual step today of mentioning the matter on two separate occasions.
On the first occasion, Lombardi said this:
1st Statement from the Director of the Holy See Press Office
“With regard to the unfounded news on the health of the Holy Father, the director of the Holy See Press Office, Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J., has issued the following statement:
“The circulation of entirely unfounded news regarding the health of the Holy Father by an Italian newspaper is gravely irresponsible and unworthy of attention. Furthermore, as is clearly evident, the Pope is carrying out his very intense activity in an totally normal way.” (link)
On the second occasion, Lombardi said this:
2nd Statement by the Director of the Holy See Press Office regarding false information on the health of the Holy Father
“I fully confirm my previous statement, having verified the facts with the appropriate sources, including the Holy Father.
“No Japanese doctor has visited the Pope in the Vatican and there have been no examinations of the type indicated in the article.
“The competent offices have confirmed that there have been no arrivals of external parties in the Vatican by helicopter; similarly, there were no arrivals of this type during the month of January.
“I am able to confirm that the Pope is in good health.
“I reiterate that the publication of this false information is a grave act of irresponsibility, absolutely inexcusable and unconscionable.
“It would be equally unjustifiable to continue to fuel similarly unfounded information. It is hoped, therefore, that this matter be closed immediately.” (link)
What is the glory of God?
“The glory of God is man alive; but the life of man is the vision of God.” —St. Irenaeus of Lyons, in the territory of France, in his great work Against All Heresies, written c. 180 A.D.