[This letter is in response to Pope Francesco, who recently wrote to Eugenio Scalfari, editor-in-chief of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, about opening a dialogue with non believers. The Pope’s letter was prompted by two editorials published by Scalfari in La Repubblica. This is my response to Francesco.]
I honestly don’t know what to make of the “response” you wrote to Eugenio a few days ago. I mean, he asked tough questions about the relationship between the Church and the increasing number of non-believers, and your response was largely made up of pious platitudes about Jesus. Frankly, most of what you wrote seemed to be entirely besides the point.
Your first somewhat substantive comment concerns what you call “a paradox of modernity,” referring to the puzzling (to you) idea that has gotten hold of Western secular society, that the Church has “somehow” been cast as the enemy of reason and the defender of superstition. Well, from the burning of heretics (Giordano Bruno?) to the persecution of scientists (Galileo?), from the Inquisition to the opposition to the Enlightenment, it seems to me that — pace a recent trend in historical revisionism — those accusations are right on the mark. Yes, yes, history is more complicated than that, and of course the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution happened within the context of a highly religious Europe. But it seems obvious to me that they happened as a reaction to that religious context, not because they were somehow fostered and encouraged by it.
You continue by defending your predecessor’s encyclical, Lumen Fidei (the Light of Faith). (Let’s set aside the irony that said predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, use to head the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose forerunner was, ahem, the Inquisition.) In that volume, Ratzinger wrote:
It is clear that faith is not uncompromising, but grows in the ability to live with and respect the other. The believer is not arrogant; on the contrary, truth makes him humble, because he knows that we do not possess it, but rather it embraces us.You’ve got to be kidding me, or perhaps you are writing from a parallel universe where things somehow went quite differently. Tell your little story of “living with and respect the other” to the countless your Church has slaughtered worldwide over the centuries. And as for lack of arrogance, let’s start at the very top: you seriously don’t think it arrogant for a single man (you, or Ratzinger, or whoever) to pretend to tell the rest of the world what God wants or doesn’t want? Wow.
The middle section of your letter to Scalfari is then filled with questionable platitudes about Jesus (you do know that there isn’t much evidence about what he actually did or said, right?), things like “the flesh of Christ is the pivot of salvation,” whatever that means (yes, yes, I did go to Catholic brainwashing, I mean catechism, so I have an idea of what it’s supposed to mean, but still...), and the like.
Toward the end of the letter you finally get to the real meat, beginning with the relationship between the Church and secular politics:
[from the above] follows — and it is no little thing — that separation between the religious sphere and the political sphere that is clearly captured by the phrase ‘to God what is of God, to Caesar what is of Caesar,’ firmly uttered by Jesus, and on the basis of which — with much struggle — the West has built its history.You can say that again: with much struggle. A struggle derived by the fact that your Church has meddled in politics throughout the last two millennia, with no apparent intention to stop. Forget that during the Middle Ages your predecessors on the Throne of Peter actually waged war using real armies (and sometimes even rode into battle themselves!). How do you square your neat separation of the spheres of religion and politics with the continuous struggle you guys have engaged in — both in Italy and at the United Nations — aiming to oppose secular legislation about things you don’t like, from abortion to divorce to gay marriage? Of course, you do have the right to oppose those things on religious grounds, and to talk to your faithful about it — in Church, not on the floor of the UN or by putting direct pressure on Italian politicians to do your bidding.
And we finally get to the major issue at hand, the relationship between the Church and non-believers, with whom you claim to seek common ground so that we can “walk part of the way together.” I don’t doubt your sincere intentions, but I surely question your logic.
You say that “the issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their own conscience. ... It is on this basis that hinges the goodness or evil of our actions.” Okay, I could straightforwardly read this as saying that it doesn’t matter if one believes or not, God will simply judge each individual according to his actions. And yet, somehow I really don’t think that’s what you meant. If you did, it would negate many centuries of Christian doctrine, according to which Man can only be “saved” (whatever that means) by unquestionably accepting Jesus Christ. Take that out, or make it optional, and your entire house of cards crumbles.
Scalfari also asked you whether believing that there are no absolute truths is a mistake or a sin. Not sure why he goes all relativist on you, but let’s play that game too. You respond that “truth, according to Christian faith, is the love of God for us, which manifests itself in Jesus.” Uh? Dear Francesco, forgive me, but this seems to me a simple category mistake: “love” has nothing to do with “truth” (except in the special case when one is asking whether a particular love is true or not). Love is an emotion, truth is a question of epistemic warrant. Even if you meant that metaphorically, I fail to see what the point of the metaphor is. Indeed, you continue: “truth, in the end, is one and the same with love. ... we need to make our terminology clear.” We do indeed! And in that spirit — again — no, love is not at all the same as truth, and in fact the two are completely independent concepts describing very different aspects of the human experience.
Lastly, you address Scalfari’s (rhetorical, I hope) question about whether the extinction of the human race would mean the extinction of the capacity to think of God. I would obviously reply in the affirmative and you equally obviously don’t; but what irks me is that you begin by saying that “the greatness of Man lies in his ability to think about God.” Really? And here I thought that the greatness of Man (and Woman, you always forget that part of humanity) lies in the ability to make this a better world, to produce art that gives the mind new insights into what it means to be human, and to figure out — all on their own — how the world actually works (it’s called science).
Naturally you tell Scalfari that, according to the Christian faith, Man will not cease to exist, ever. Yeah, that’s the nice fantasy that you guys have been able to sell to countless human beings scared of facing their own annihilation, longing to see again their dead relatives, and hoping for a better place than this valley of struggle and tears that for most of them characterizes their entire existence. But make no mistake about it: it is a fantasy, an un-truth, and your Church ought to be ashamed of peddling it.
Your last lines to Scalfari include this sentence: “[in conclusion] take my words as a tentative and provisional answer, one that is sincere and hopeful, to the invitation I perceived from you to walk some of the way together.” Again, I don’t doubt your sincerity and hopefulness, but what, exactly, in your entire letter would prompt a non-believer to walk your same path? All you have given us non-believers is a reaffirmation of entirely unsubstantiated fantasies about God and his Son (can you explain again to me in what sense Catholicism is a mono-theistic religion?), followed by a confusion between the concept of love and truth, the whole peppered by a significant amount of historical revisionism and downright denial of the ugliest facets of your Church (and you will notice that I haven’t even brought up the pedophilia stuff!). Nice try, Francesco, but you’ve got a long, long way to go before we can engage in actual dialogue and try to seriously address the many problems of this world together.