September 16, 2013
Update 11/22/13: The Vatican has removed the interview with Scalfari from its website. As Sandro Magister reports from Chiesa, Scalfari admits to having invented quotes he attributed to the Pope:
Scalfari commented: “I am perfectly willing to think that some of the things that I wrote and attributed to him are not shared by the pope, but I also believe that he maintains that, said by a nonbeliever, they are important for him and for the activity he is carrying out.”
This should have been taken care of by responsible parties at the Vatican pronto to avoid all the hype and uproar caused by the fake quotes when the interview was first published.
Last week La Reppublica, an Italian leftist paper, published a letter from Pope Francis in answer to Dr. Eugenio Scalfari, one of their atheist commentators, who had been posing a series of questions to the Pope in the paper over the summer. The Pope decided to answer a few of Scalfari’s questions as “a sincere and rigorous dialogue with those who, like you, define themselves as ‘for many years being a non-believer who is interested and fascinated by the preaching of Jesus of Nazareth’.”
The not-so-great English translation at La Reppublica is here, but there is no apparent distortion of the Pope’s words in Italian. The translation issues are more about word meanings in Italian vs. English and clear usage of the language so I will be using their translation here.
Immediately upon publication international news media and the blogosphere lit up, focusing mainly on one point the Pope made and distorting it. Certain Christian non-Catholics who seemingly would choke and die rather than to really understand Catholic teaching and accept the Pope as the successor of Peter flew into action misrepresenting the Pope’s words, inventing words he never said, and attacking the Church. The distortions ranged from claims that the Pope says atheists don’t need faith to be saved to the Pope says man can save himself. The latter is the warmed over Pelagian heresy which the Church has denounced many times, the former a ridiculous assertion by people who won’t read what somebody is actually saying. In certain psychological circles this is considered a pathological function called “redefinition” occurring because somebody has an agenda that can be served only by twisting what others say and starting an argument out of nothing.
First of all, for any discussion to be fruitful, we have to take people where they are, listen carefully, and answer truthfully. The Pope prepares to answer Scalfari’s questions by writing first of his personal gift of meeting and following Jesus surrounded by a community of believers. “Now, thanks to this personal experience of faith experienced in Church, I feel comfortable in listening to your questions and together with you, will try to find a way to perhaps walk along a path together.” So we now have the context for what the Pope said and what he did not say, and his intentions for answering Scalfari in the first place. Also note that a newspaper article is no place to go into the depths of Catholic doctrine.
Now for the section that people flipped out over:
As for the three questions you asked me in the article of August 7th. It would seem to me that in the first two, what you are most interested in is understanding the Church’s attitude towards those who do not share faith in Jesus. First of all, you ask if the God of the Christians forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith. Given that - and this is fundamental - God’s mercy has no limits if he who asks for mercy does so in contrition and with a sincere heart, the issue for those who do not believe in God is in obeying their own conscience. In fact, listening and obeying it, means deciding about what is perceived to be good or to be evil. The goodness or the wickedness of our behavior depends on this decision.
First of all we see here that the question concerns the mercy of God, about which many great books have been written. The first clause of the highlighted sentence plainly refers to believers. Only a believer would go to God for mercy. A non-believer would not see a need to go to a Person he doesn’t believe exists. But why would a non-believer ask whether the Christian God forgives those not seeking faith? I’m not in dialogue with Scalfari and speculation would take us down a rabbit hole, so let’s see what Pope Francis does next.
In the second clause the Pope departs from the subject of God’s mercy and redirects the subject to something more fundamental to an atheist’s situation: non-believers must obey their consciences. He is saying that an atheist can know good from evil and can act accordingly. You don’t get a free pass to be a bad actor simply because you don’t believe in God. Why? Although the Pope is not saying it here, by referencing the obligation to obey one’s conscience, he is referencing the natural law written on the hearts of every human which those of us of the Judeo-Christian heritage recognize as the Ten Commandments. Every human being born has a conscience and written on the heart is the desire for God whether a person realizes it or not, or realizes that he innately seeks God. By calling non-believers to obey their consciences the Pope is putting them on the first step towards faith. He is preparing them to receive the Gospel. He is, in fact, calling them to holiness. This is genuine evangelization. But can you imagine a newspaper headline or blog post title that reads, “Pope Calls Atheists to Holiness”? Nope. The devil would have it otherwise. (I chose my post title so it would come up in the searches related to the erroneous headlines. Gotta use SEO to the advantage of truth.)
So where is the Pope saying atheists can be saved without faith? Nowhere. He doesn’t bring up atheists getting to heaven without faith. He doesn’t bring up heaven, which atheists don’t believe in. This is pure concoction by the news media and certain bloggers. And how somebody could infer from this sentence that the Pope says man can save himself is beyond me.
Being that this is the year of Faith, still, and we are supposed to not only be reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church but also the documents of Vatican II in the light of tradition, we can see that the points Pope Francis is making here are in accord with Lumen Gentium 16:
Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.
We Catholics must know our faith. We must be ready to engage sincere seekers with the truth of a loving God who cares about them as a person. The Pope gave us an excellent example here. I would think a thoughtful atheist would find a lot to ponder in the entire letter.
I wonder what Dr. Scalfari thinks of all the stupid headlines. He must either be sorely annoyed at the farce made of his sincerely asked questions or maybe he is dismissing it all with a philosophical shrug and getting down to the business of thinking through what the Pope wrote.
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