Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Pope Francis’ letter to non-believers

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That Pope Francis cares deeply for non-believers1 is nothing new, with his previous declaration that Jesus has redeemed atheists too having lead both to very positive responses and to a great media muddle. In today’s issue of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Francis continues in this dialogue with non-believers by responding to questions sent to him by the atheist journalist Eugenio Scalfari regarding Francis’ encyclical Lumen Fidei, and I would like to share my favorite parts of his letter with you here.2

Francis starts out by arguing that dialogue between the followers of Jesus and non-believers is “necessary and valuable” today for two reasons: First, the paradox that “Christian faith, whose novelty and impact on human life have since the beginning been expressed through the symbol of light, has become branded as the darkness of superstition that is opposed to the light of reason,” resulting in an absence of communication between Christian and Enlightenment-based contemporary culture. Second, for those who seek “to follow Jesus in the light of faith, […] this dialogue is not a secondary accessory[, but …] an intimate and indispensable expression of faith instead.” This, Francis argues, is expressed by §34 of Lumen Fidei, from which he proceeds to quote:
“Clearly, then, 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.”
After a beautiful exposition of how Francis himself came to believe in God and how the Christian faith has Jesus’ incarnation and resurrection at its heart, through which all of humanity is shown God’s love and connectedness to each other - to every single human being,3 he proceeds to answering the three questions Scalfari put to him.

The first of Scalfari’s questions regards whether “the God of Christians forgives those who don’t believe and don’t seek faith.” Here Francis’s response, which I particularly like, is the following:
“Given that - and this is the fundamental point - the mercy of God has no limits if one turns to Him with a sincere and contrite heart, the question for those who don’t believe in God is about obeying one’s own conscience. Sin, also for those who don’t have faith, occurs when one goes against conscience. Listening and obeying to it means, in fact, taking decisions in the face of what becomes understood as good or as bad. And it is on the basis of this decision that the goodness or evil of our actions plays out.”
Wow! While this is in some sense nothing more than what the Catechism has been saying explicitly since Vatican II, having it presented in the above universal way is great. I have often argued in exactly these terms and have faced quizzical looks from other Catholics, who wouldn’t quite believe it. It also confirms me in the answer I have given to several of my best, atheist or agnostic friends when they have asked me whether they should want to believe in God, which was “no,” with the caveat of seeking to be honest in front of their consciences.

Scalfari’s second question asks whether “thinking that there is no absolute and therefore no absolute truth either, but only a series of relative and subjective truths, is a mistake or a sin.” Great question! :) To this Francis responds by saying:
“To begin with, I wouldn’t talk, not even to those who believe, about “absolute” truth, in the sense that the absolute is that which is disconnected, which is devoid of any relation. Now, the truth, according to Christian faith, is the love of God for us in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the truth is a relationship! It is also true that each one of us takes it, the truth, and expresses it by departing from oneself: from one’s history and culture, the circumstances in which one lives, etc. This does not mean though that the truth is variable and subjective. Instead, it means that it gives itself to us always and only as a journey and a life. Didn’t maybe Jesus say the same: “I am the way and the truth and the life.”?4 In other words, truth, being ultimately all one with love, requires humility and openness when sought, accepted and expressed. Therefore, it is necessary to understand each other’s terminology better, and, maybe, to avoid the constraints of an opposition that is … absolute, deepen the framing of the question. I believe that this is absolutely necessary today, so that a serene and constructive dialogue can take place.”
Another fantastic answer! Anyone who has tried to pigeonhole Francis as a populist, as opposed to the thinker that Benedict XVI undoubtedly is, can proceed to eat their own words …

The third, and final of Scalfari’s questions asks whether “the disappearance of humans from Earth would also mean a disappearance of thought that is capable of thinking God.” Here, Francis’ answer, which I won’t translate in full, revolves around arguing that, in his experience and those of many others, God is not an idea, but a “reality with a capital ‘R’.” Instead of going into more detail here, I’d instead like to translate Francis’ closing thoughts, before which he expresses his hope that his reflections would be “received as a tentative and provisional response, but one that is sincere and faithful to the invitation of walking along a stretch of road together.”:
“The Church, believe me, in spite of all the slowness, the unfaithfulness, the mistakes and sins that it may have committed and may yet commit in those who compose it, has no other meaning and end than that of living and giving testimony to Jesus: Him who has been sent by the Father “to bring glad tidings to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19).”
I have to say I am delighted by these words of Pope Francis - both the emphasis on conscience that I have held dear for a long time and the insights about truth as relationship and love - and I would be keen to hear from my atheist, agnostic, humanist (and even Christian :) friends what they made of them.

UPDATE (12 Sept. 2013): This morning Vatican Radio broadcast a short interview with Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi on the topic of Pope Francis' letter discussed above (which is now available in an official English translation here). Ravasi, who leads the Pontifical Council for Culture and in its context the "Courtyard of the Gentiles" initiative, whose aim is dialogue with non-believers, naturally welcomed Francis' letter with great positivity, including it among the initiatives foundational documents. He then also proceeds to elaborate on the, to my mind key, point Francis made about the truth being a relationship:
"Already Plato affirmed [that the truth is a relationship] when he said that the chariot of the soul runs along the plane of truth, which means that the truth is not a cold reality like a precious stone that you can put in your pocket. Instead, it is an immense plane, a horizon - or, to use another image by a writer from the last century5 - we can say that the truth is a sea that one enters and navigates. So, in this light, I believe that the concept of truth not as absolute, but personal, interpersonal, will be very fruitful for dialogue, without losing the dimension of objectivity, of identity in itself, typical of the truth."



1 Picking what term to use to refer to those who do not believe in God is tricky and I am going with the term Francis is using himself, not necessarily because I believe it is the most appropriate one, but because my aim here is to share his message with you today. I am mindful though of Prof. Cox’s point about the undesirability of negative labels, but since the positive alternatives (e.g., humanist) may not be self-applied by all whom the Pope intends to address here, I am sticking with his terminology. If you belong to his target audience (and to some extent everyone does - including me, a Catholic) and have a suggestion for what term to use, please, let me know.
2 Since I haven’t found an English translation of this article yet, the following quotes are my own crude translations, for which I apologize in advance.
3 I’d like to return to this great synthesis of Christianity in a future post and, if you understand Italian, I’d wholeheartedly recommend reading the full letter to you straight-away.
4 John 14:6.
5 Ravasi refers to this quote in an earlier talk, where he attributes it to Musil's The Man Without Qualities, although I couldn't find it there.