(part III of the current series I am doing will be published tomorrow morning – wanted to get caught up on this)
This post regards Pope Francis’ letter to a prominent Italian atheist. According to the National Catholic Reporter,
This is apparently the first time… that a pope has personally responded to questions put to him in two newspaper editorials. Eugenio Scalfari, one of the founders of La Repubblica, penned the essays in early July and again in early August, musing about questions he’d like to ask Pope Francis if he ever had the chance.
Here is a clip from how Vatican Radio reported on the Pope’s letter:
“In the letter published on Wednesday, the Pope laments the impasse that has grown up over the centuries with those who see Christianity as ‘dark and superstitious,’ in opposition to the ‘light of reason’. Quoting from the recent encyclical ‘Lumen Fidei’, the Pope stresses that, on the contrary, faith must never be intransigent or arrogant, but rather humble and able to grow in relationship with others.”
You can read an English translation of the four page letter here.
Regarding Jesus’ heart for all persons, he says:
Jesus’ offspring, as presented by the Christian faith, is not revealed to mark an insurmountable separation between Jesus and all others: but to tell us that, in Him, we are all called to be children of the one Father and brothers among ourselves. The singularity of Jesus is for communication, not for exclusion.**
Regarding the Jew’s faith in God, he says this:
… often in prayer I also questioned God, especially when my mind went to the memory of the terrible experience of the Shoa. What I can say to you, with the Apostle Paul, is that God’s fidelity to the close covenant with Israel never failed and that, through the terrible trials of these centuries, the Jews have kept their faith in God. And for this, we shall never be sufficiently grateful to them as Church, but also as humanity. They, then, precisely by persevering in the faith of the God of the Covenant, called all, also us Christians, to the fact that we are always waiting, as pilgrims, for the Lord’s return and, therefore, that we must always be open to Him and never take refuge in what we have already attained.
On forgiveness of atheists (or at least this atheist who he perceives to be of good will) who follow their consciences:
So I come to the three questions 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 attitude of the Church to those who don’t share faith in Jesus. First of all, you ask me if the God of Christians forgives one who doesn’t believe and doesn’t seek the faith. Premise that – and it’s the fundamental thing – the mercy of God has no limits if one turns to him with a sincere and contrite heart; the question for one who doesn’t believe in God lies in obeying one’s conscience. Sin, also for those who don’t have faith, exists when one goes against one’s conscience. To listen to and to obey it means, in fact, to decide in face of what is perceived as good or evil. And on this decision pivots the goodness or malice of our action.
A Roman Catholic blogger named Rebecca Hamilton comments on a sentence found in this above paragraph:
…the Pope adds something else after that and this has set the internet on its ear all day long.
“… the issue for those who do not believe in God is in following their own conscience,” he wrote.
This one sentence has set the bells ringing since it sounds for all the world like a direct admonishment to practice self-referencing moral relativism by the Pope himself.
After all, if all that’s necessary is to never violate your own personal code of conduct, then a universalist understanding of heaven and the Almighty become (excuse the pun) absolute. We go to heaven in just the way that the punsters and social experimenters have been telling us we do: By “self-actualization” and following a self-referencing, self-promoting, self-idolizing version of morality that is a-ok because it checks with our “own conscience.”
The question is, did Pope Francis really mean that?
She has a good answer to this question in her post Did Pope Francis Really Say That? Telegraph writer Tim Stanley does as well, though he adds that he is “get[ting] a bit frustrated about having to do this every other week. Here’s yet another of my “what the Pope really said” posts”*** (link to post added)
That said, I would also refer persons to this piece by the Lutheran writer Todd Wilken as well, written a few months ago, for balance’s sake. After all, this clip from the Vatican Radio report sounds much like the ones from the more secular media (for example, see here, here, and here):
Responding to the three questions posed by the Italian journalist and writer, the Pope says the key issue for non-believers is that of “obeying their consciences” when faced with choices of good or evil. God’s mercy, he stresses, “has no limits” for those who seek him with a sincere and contrite heart.
Commenting on this part of the letter, Tim Stanely notes, “we [Roman Catholics]… believe that “conscience” is not a relativist thing that varies from individual to individual”.**** Fair enough, as we know what Romans 1 and 2 say. That said, we here also confront the reality that talking about hard truths – like seared consciences and exclusive Christian claims – in this day and age, and probably any age for that matter, is never easy but is nevertheless demanded of us as Christians. And if the book of Acts is any indication, this does not just mean occasionally, but often, and clearly.
Seeking God and seeking to do good are not necessarily related for many, especially in the world today – for them, this means doing the deeds they think are good with nary a thought of God. And we should know that these good deeds do not get them any closer to God, as if they are climbing to Him on a ladder. And even if they are doing good accompanied with thoughts of God, this still does not help them ascend any ladders to God, for when fallen man seeks God, he is not even seeking Christ per se, but his own distorted and diseased-ridden view of God. *****
But is seeking one’s own idea of god preferable to seeking no god? Well yes, this would be what Paul implies in Acts 17. The question is “Why is it preferable”?
More on this this week as I will talk about the issue of free will, related to “choosing God” and “choosing good”, and how we in the church should think critically about what it means for our proclamation.
In the meantime, it seems appropriate to quote a Kenyan hymn: “Listen, listen, God is calling, through the Word inviting, offering forgiveness, comfort, and joy.” I suggest the Gospel of John.
*” The 76-year-old is reported to begin phone calls to ordinary people who have written to him with the words: “Hi, it’s Pope Francis here.”” (from here)
**Francis on two kingdoms: “Of course from this also follows – and it isn’t something small – the distinction between the religious sphere and the political sphere which is sanctioned in “giving to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” affirmed clearly by Jesus and on which, laboriously, the history of the West was built. In fact, the Church is called to sow the leaven and the salt of the Gospel, and this is the love and mercy of God that reaches all men, pointing out the celestial and definitive goal of our destiny, whereas civil and political society has the arduous task of articulating and embodying in justice and solidarity, in law and in peace, an ever more human life. For one who lives the Christian faith, this does not mean fleeing the world or seeking hegemony, but service to man, to the whole of man and to all men, beginning from the fringes of history and keeping awake the sense of hope that drives one to do good despite everything and always looking to the beyond.”
***More from him: “I’m getting tired of the media’s constant reinterpretation of the Pope’s words, usually with the spin that he’s “liberalising” the Church. They used to do something similar to Benedict, although in his case they said that he was turning back the clock and was one encyclical away from burning a witch. But maybe the problem isn’t helped by Francis’s constant, hyper-energetic desire to speak to anyone and everyone about everything. For his own good, and the good of all his Church, the Pope needs to let his pen rest for a few days.”
****Also from Vatican Radio: “truth of God’s love, the Pope insists, is not subjective, but it is only experienced and expressed as a journey, a living relationship with each one of us, in our different social and cultural contexts.” While this makes some sense, in the context of the wider issue being discussed here among the non-Christian public, I think this has some real potential to cause confusion.
*****Note this interesting line also from the Vatican Radio report: “Reflecting on the originality of the Christian faith in relations to other religions, the Pope stresses the role of Jesus who renders us all sons and daughters of God, therefore also brothers and sisters to each other. Our arduous task, he says, is that of communicating God’s love to all, not in a superior way, but rather through service to all people especially those on the margins of our societies.” I do like this and agree with the sentiment, although I also note that in the book of Acts, for example, social concerns seemed to come after the primary focus, proclamation. Service and this proclamation should not be set against one another, and in today’s day and age, they often are. While humility and service are important, the Christian dare not forget that first and foremost, we have humility before God and serve Him. Which means we say things that might indeed come off as sounding or acting “superior” – simply by virtue of us wanting to be one beggar showing another where the bread is.
Ladder of ascent: commons.wikimedia.org