Thursday, 12 September 2013

Francis on Atheists

As mentioned previously, Damian is not a theology student, nor is he an italian student, but here is his translation of a letter that Pope Francis wrote to Eugenio Scalfari, one of the founders of the Italian daily La Repubblica which he edited from 1976-1996. He was a founder memer of the Italian Radical Party which persued policies of anti-clericalism and social liberalism. He was an independant member of the Chamber of Deputies during which time he was associated with the Socialist party. He is, as you may have guessed, also an atheist.


4th September 2013
Dear Mr Scalfari

It is with an attitutude of profound respect that I wanted to answer, even if only in broad terms, the letter which you addressed to me dated the 7thJuly in The Republica and which you later embellished in the same paper on the 7th August, by drawing on some of personal reflections.

Thank you, first of all, for the attention with which you read the encyclical letter Lumen fidei .  Indeed, the intention of my beloved predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who conceived and drafted most of it, and from whom, with gratitude, I inherited it, is directed not only to confirm the faith of those who already believe in Jesus Christ but also to provoke a sincere and rigorous dialogue with those who, like the letter’s author, call themselves “a non-believer for many years concerned and fascinated by the preaching of Jesus of Nazareth”. I therefore feel it is only positive to pause to talk about something as important as faith, not only for us individually but also for the society in which we live, which draws on the preaching and figure of Jesus.

I think that there are two factors in particular which mean it is our duty to engage in this valued dialogue. Besides, as is well known, this dialogue was one of the main goals of the Second Vatican Council, called by Pope John XXIII, and the ministry of the popes who, each with their own concerns and contributions, since then until today have followed the way laid out by the Council.

The first factor - as the first pages of the encyclical recall - stems from the fact that, across recent centuries, there has been a paradox: the Christian faith, whose novelty and impact on human life from the beginning have been expressed precisely through the symbol of light, has often been branded as the darkness of superstition which is opposed to the light of reason. So the Church, caught between and the culture of Christian inspiration on the one hand, and of the modern culture of the Enlightenment on the other, has become uncommunicative. Now the time has come [to resolve this problem], and Vatican II has infact opened this period with an open minded and unbiased reopening of the doors for a serious and fruitful meeting.

The second circumstance, for those seeking to be faithful to the gift of following Jesus in the light of faith, comes from the fact that this dialogue is not an accessory of secondary importance to the believer, it is instead an intimate and indispensable expression of faith. Allow me to quote from the encyiclical on this very important matter, since the truth to which the faith testifies is that of love, "clearly faith is not intransigent, but grows in respectful coexistence with others. One who believes may not be presumptuous; on the contrary, truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us. Far from making us inflexible, the security of faith sets us on a journey; it enables witness and dialogue with all. ". It is this spirit that animates the words that I write to you.

My faith was born from a personal encounter with Jesus, who has touched my heart and gave a purpose and a new meaning to my existence. But at the same time this meeting was made possible by the community of faith in which I lived and through which I gained access to the intelligence of Sacred Scripture, the new life that flows like water gushing from Jesus through the sacraments, the fraternity with all people in the service of the poor, the true image of the Lord. Whilst I am aware that the immense gift which is faith is preserved in the fragile clay pots of our humanity, believe me when I say that without the Church, I would not have been able to encounter Jesus.

It was precisely from this position, from this personal experience of faith lived within the Church, that I am comfortable in listening to your questions and to seek, alongside you, the paths along which we can perhaps begin to make a little progress together.

Forgive me if I do not recount step by step the arguments you proposed in the editorial of July 7. It seems to me more fruitful - or at least is more congenial to me - to get to the heart of his considerations. I will not go into an explanation of the methods behind the encyclical, in which you see a lack of a section on the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth.

To begin with, I note that such analysis is not unimportant. The logic that guides the unfolding of the encyclical is in fact intended to focus attention on the meaning of what Jesus said and did, and so, ultimately, of what Jesus was and is for us. The letters of St Paul and the Gospel of John, to which particular reference is made in the Encyclical, are in fact built on the solid foundation of the messianic ministry of Jesus of Nazareth: culminating in its completion in his sacrificial death and resurection.

So we need to be faced with Jesus, I would say, in the reality and harshness of his story, as recounted particularly by the oldest gospel, that of Mark. Thus, we note that the "scandal" that the words and the practices of Jesus caused around him stem from his extraordinary “authority”, a word taken from the Gospel of Mark which is not easily translated into Italian. The Greek word is "exousia", which literally refers to what "comes from being". Thus, this is not something external or forced, but something that emanates from within rather than imposing itself. Actually, Jesus strikes and breaks with what went before him, takes us by surprise with his innovations, starting - as he himself says - with his relationship with God, whom he familiarly called Abba, which gives him this "authority" so that he may be sacrificed for the good of man.

So Jesus preached "as one who had authority": healed, called his disciples to follow him, forgave... In the Old Testament all of these things belong to God, and to God alone. The question that Mark’s Gospel repeats - "Who is this that?" - comes about because the identity of Jesus is born from the finding of an authority different from that of the world, an authority that is not intended to exert power over others, but to serve, to give others freedom and fullness of life and to do this to the point that people are willing to stake their own lives, to the point of the experience of misunderstanding, of betrayal, of rejection, the point of condemnation to death, up to be sealed in the state of abandonment on the cross. But Jesus remained faithful to God to the end. 

And it is precisely then in Mark’s Gospel, as the Roman centurion exclaims at the foot of the cross, that Jesus is shown, paradoxically, as the Son of God! Son of a God who is love and who wants with all his heart, for man, every man, to discover and live as his true son as well. This, according to Christian belief, is certified by the fact that Jesus rose: not in order to triumph over those who rejected him, but to bear witness that God's love is stronger than death, God's forgiveness is stronger than all sin, and for that message, it is worth spending one's life, to the end, as a witness to this great gift.

The Christian faith believes this: that Jesus is the Son of God who came to give his life in order to open way of love to all. It is for this reason that you are right, dear Mr. Scalfari, that the Incarnation of the Son of God is the cornerstone of the Christian faith. Tertullian wrote, "the flesh [of Christ] is the hinge of salvation". The incarnation, that is the fact that the Son of God has taken on our flesh and has shared our joys and sorrows, the victories and defeats of our existence, even to the cries of the cross, experiencing everything in love and fidelity to Abba, testifies to the incredible love that God has for every man, in whom he recognizes inestimable value. Each of us, therefore, is called to turn our gaze on the choice of the love of Jesus, to make it his way of being, thinking and acting. This is the faith which I described with all the expressions in my recent encyclical.

In the editorial of July 7, you ask me also how to understand the originality of the Christian faith as it hinges precisely on the incarnation of the Son of God , as compared to other faiths that revolve instead around the absolute transcendence of God. The originality, I would say, lies in the fact that faith gives us a share in Jesus, in the relationship he has with God who is Abba and, in this light, the relationship that he has with all other men, including enemies, in sign of love. In other words, the sonship of Jesus, as presented in the Christian faith, is not intended to be an insurmountable obstacle to mark a separation between Jesus and everyone else, but to tell us that, in Him, all are called to be children of the Father and brothers amongst ourselves. The uniqueness of Jesus is for communication, not for exclusion.

Of course, - and this is not a small thing - the distinction between the religious sphere and the political sphere that is enshrined in Jesus’s affirmation that we are to "give to God what is God's and to Caesar what is Caesar's” upon which the history of the West was laboriously built following from this. The Church, in fact, is called to sow the yeast and the salt of the Gospel, the love and mercy of God that reach all men, pointing to the afterlife and the final destination of our own destiny, whereas civil society and politics approaches the daunting task of articulating and embodying justice and solidarity, in law and in peace, making life more humane. For those who live the Christian faith, that does not mean escaping from the world or research of any hegemony, but it does mean service to mankind  to the whole of mankind and to all men, starting from the periphery of history and keeping awake the sense of hope that drives us to do good in spite of everything and to always look further ahead.

At the conclusion of his first article, you also ask me what to say to our Jewish brothers about the promise made to them by God: has it come to nothing? It is - believe me - a question that challenges us radically, as Christians, because, with the help of God and especially taking the lead from the Second Vatican Council, we have discovered that the Jewish people is still, the root from which Our Lord was germinated. During the course of the friendship that I have cultivated along all these years in Argentina with our Jewish brothers, many times I questioned God in prayer, especially when reflecting on the memory of the terrible Shoah. What I can say, with the Apostle Paul, is that never has God's faithfulness to his covenant with Israel failed, and, through the terrible trials of these centuries, the Jews have preserved their faith in God. For this, we as a church but also as the human race, can never be sufficiently grateful to them. It is precisely by preserving the faith of the God of the Covenant, that they roused all, along with us Christians to the fact that we are always waiting, like the pilgrims, for the Lord's return, and that we must therefore always be open to Him and never hide behind what we have already achieved.

And so I come to the three questions that you put to me in the article of August 7. It seems to me that, in the first two, what is in your heart is to understand the Church's attitude toward those who do not share the faith of Jesus. First of all , you asked if the Christian God forgives those who do not believe and those who do not seek to do so. Given that - and this is the key thing - God's mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart, the solution for those who do not believe in God is to obey their consciences. Sin happens when one goes against one’s conscience, even for those who have no faith. To listen to it and to obey it means, in fact, is to make a choice when faced with what one perceives as good or as bad. And on this decision rides the goodness or evil of our actions.

Second, you asked me if the belief that there is no absolute at all and therefore no absolute truth, but only a series of truths relative and subjective, is an error or a sin. To begin with, I would not speak, not even to those who believe, of “absolute” truth in the sense that absolutism is what is untied , what is lacking in any relationship. Now, the truth, according to Christian belief, is the love of God for us in Jesus Christ. So, the truth is a relationship! So much so that each of us takes the truth, and expresses it from within ourselves, from our history and culture, from the situation in which we lives and so on. This does not mean that truth is subjective and variable, far from it, but it does mean that it is always given to us but only as a way and a life. Did not Jesus himself say "I ​​am the way, the truth and the life"? In other words, the truth is ultimately being one with love, it requires humility and an openness in order to be sought, welcomed and expressed. Therefore, we must understand each other according to these terms and, perhaps, leave the confines of antagonism, of absolutism to post the question again in depth. I think that there is currently a compelling need to engage in the peaceful and constructive dialogue for which I hoped at the beginning of my response.

The last question asks me if, with the disappearance of man on earth, the ability to think of God would also disappear. Man's greatness certainly lies in being able to think about God in order to live in a conscious and responsible relationship with Him, but the relationship is in between two realities. God - this is my thought and my experience of this, but how many, yesterday and today, share it! - is not an idea, however high, or the result of man's thought. God is Reality with the 'R' capitalized. Jesus reveals it, as does living in a relationship with Him as the Father of infinite goodness and mercy. God does not depend, therefore, on our thoughts. Moreover, even with the end of human life on earth - and for the Christian faith, in any case, this world as we know it is destined to fail - humanity will not cease existing and will not end, and also, in a manner we do not understand, even the created universe will persist alongside him. The scriptures speak of "new heavens and a new earth" and states that, in the end, in the where and the when which is beyond us, but which we approach in faith, with desire and expectation, God will be "all in all".

Thus, Dear Mr. Scalfari , I conclude my reflections, stirred by what you wanted to tell me and to ask me. Welcome them as the tentative and provisional answer, but a sincere and trusting one, to the invitation to take a walk together. The Church, believe me, despite all the delays, infidelities, mistakes and sins she may have committed and can still commit in those who compose it, has no other meaning and purpose than to live and bear witness to Jesus: He who is was sent from Abba "to bring glad tidings to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord".
With fraternal closeness,


My first response is that it's what Benedict XVI would have said but in soundbytes. 

You could see his influence very heavily in the bit about the historical Jesus. It was Ratzinger's exegesis which comprehensively united the Christ of the gospels with the historical Jesus. The talk of scandal is a reminder that today Catholics have to stand up and say unpopular things because we have no choice but to defend Jesus like we would any other brother of ours. His talk about suffering is intensely human and must touch every person who reads it, even in my clunky translation.

As with everything he says, there is nothing new in it, he is faithful to Christ who is unchanging, but the way he says it is decisively new and fresh. Whilst he discusses this explicitly later, it is most clearly demonstrated by his words on Judaism. The idea that our Christian faith benefits from the experience of being in contact with Jews faithful to the Old Covenant is a new paradigm as far as I'm aware and one that I look forward to thinking about further. There's a great American nun, Rosalind Moss, who converted from Judaism who says that the most Jewish thing a Jew can do is become a Catholic. Maybe a closer reexamining of this relationship will teach us more about our Catholic faith and identity. Dom Abihu is fond of saying that we live in a post-Christian Christian society, but maybe in fact we live in a post-Christian Judeo-Christian society and need to relate to it more in terms of judaism than of Christianity to get our universally applicable messages on social justice, abortion, gay marriage, poverty and so forth. I recently found out that we don't use the name of the God liturgically and should not do so in speech out of respect for our jewish brothers, but maybe we could internalise the practice as our own to get a sense of respect for the Holy Name. The Catholic priests actions are echoes of those of the priests in the temple, maybe remembering that would give a fuller understanding of the mass as the sacrifice of Calvary and what that sacrifice means. Maybe a clearer understanding of why we need to do good deeds can come from their concept of "Mitzvah" and thus refute sola fideism.

His emphasis on dialogue as an essential part of our faith reminds me of something Fr Timothy Radcliffe said during a talk that Cosmas and I went to last year. He said that when Jesus is presented with a quandary in the Gospels he pauses and talks to people about it. Obviously he is all knowing so why did he bother to do that? So that we could learn from his doing it that when we don't know what to do we need to engage in dialogue to work it out. This is not something first called for by Vatican II, it was Jesus Himself who did so.

I particularly liked his response to the third question from the August editorial in which humans had ceased to be. He makes it clear that the second coming might happen some time after the extinction of our species and illustrated nicely that we depend on God, not vice versa. The answer to the second question which touched on the nature of truth made me think of one of the antiphons at the Office of Readings for Trinity Sunday which runs "the Father speaks the Truth, the Son is the Truth he speaks and the Holy Spirit is Truth; O blessed Trinity. He also made an important about the nature of truth. I for one certainly believe there to be an absolute truth, but know that I do not have the mind to comprehend it. Since all things in existence and experience are interconnected, it would require an infinitely large mind to do so and there is only one of those in existence. The first of the August questions also outlined a subtle theological point in very approachable terms: that it is possible for there to be objective evil without the perpetrator of that sinning.

His responses to the questions posed in the July article were just as interesting and much more detailed. He makes it clear that we cannot compromise our beliefs when we encounter people of opposing views, but that this should not stand in the way of the fraternity that should come from the common bond of humanity if not from the fact (whether the other person agrees or not) that we are brothers and sisters in Christ because we share a Father. I find it very easy to relate to the birth of his faith, it's certainly where I've found mine.

His discussion of authority was genuinely though provoking and I haven't come to the end of the thought processes it's sparked yet. It is a deeply attractive Catholicism and of course that's as it should be. It is proactive and in the world and on the streets and doing good. 


Cosmas, instead of giving his response to Francis, will respond to Mr Scalfari's question regarding the historicity of the gospels, in a post coming soon.

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