I am going to depart from my usual blog format today and (God willing) tomorrow in order to wade into the latest controversy over Pope Francis and his supposedly ‘shocking’ and ‘unprecedented’ statements about salvation, atheists, and conscience. His statements, I will say from the outset, are neither shocking nor unprecedented to those of us who actually know what the Catholic Church teaches about these matters. His words are actually… well, ‘Catholic’ and, ummm, ‘basic catechesis.’ It would appear that basic Catholic catechesis is a rare commodity in our world, rare even among Catholics, and so of course the Pope’s latest writings are scandalous and groundbreaking and either deliriously liberating or a sign of the impending apocalypse, depending on one’s theological stance.
OK – so I realize some of my readers are wondering what recent words I am referring to. The Pope has indeed done something unprecedented and a wee bit shocking. He wrote a letter to the editor of La Reppublica, one of the Italian daily newspapers. A reporter named Scalfari who is a non-believer had written an article about the encyclical Lumen Fidei in which he pondered various questions about faith, non-belief, truth, and what the Church says to atheists about their stance before God.
La Reppublica was, of course, thrilled to get a four-page response to this article from the Pope, and printed it on their front page. The reporter himself seems to have been very touched by the length and comprehensive reply the Pope made to him, and publicly said that he is the ‘lost sheep’ who the shepherd took such trouble to find. Meanwhile, the British media, notoriously religiously illiterate and viciously anti-Catholic, took one or two sentences of this lengthy response out of context and blared headlines that the pope is teaching that you don’t need God to get to heaven and conscience suffices and faith is irrelevant and Francis is completely different from mean old Benedict and all the usual silly shallow blather we have come to expect from our beloved British media.
And then the more conservative Catholic commentators all got in an uproar about horrible old Pope Francis and how he’s sowing confusion everywhere and why can’t he be clearer and the world is ending and we want our Benedict back!!!! Because of course the British media is the best source possible for information on Catholic teachings, and it is absurd to expect people to read the Pope’s actual words.
So, let me be foolish enough to stick my two cents in. Rather than print the whole letter, which is rather lengthy, and the whole of which can be found here, I want to spend today and tomorrow going through the basic points of it to put the ‘controversial’ (snort) bits in context.
A word about context. Sometimes people act as if the very need to put the Pope’s words into context implies some defect in Pope Francis’ writing style or clarity. This is silly. Context is always necessary. You cannot understand anything—a recipe for scrambled eggs, directions to the mall, an article about corgi dogs or Syria—without having some minimal context to place it in. For example, the statement ‘Jesus is the one savior of the whole world,’ which is our Catholic faith, without context either implies that all non-Christians are going to hell or that everyone goes to heaven willy nilly by the power of Christ. It is only when it is put into the context of our whole Catholic faith, our understanding of God, Jesus, and the human person, that it is rightly understood and heresy avoided. And yet the statement itself is true. Context is always needed, and one of the great challenges of the new evangelization is that the basic context in which we express our Catholic faith is often lacking. We are giving egg scrambling instructions to someone who has never seen an egg, a frying pan, a whisk or a stove.
So on to the letter, at least the first bit. The Pope is entering here into a dialogue with a sympathetic non-believer. Really, he is leading by example, showing us how we are to do this necessary task of encounter and dialogue. We must not confine our religious conversation to our little circle who agree with us about everything. We have to go out, as messy and difficult as that conversation may be.
The Pope begins by acknowledging that Christian faith has come to be seen as ‘the darkness of superstition that is opposed to the light of reason.’ And because of this, there is no easy way to communicate with non-believers. Meanwhile, this dialogue with non-believers is not some extra add-on to faith, but is a ‘profound and indispensable expression’ of it. The truth of faith we believe we possess makes us ‘humble, knowing that, more than our possessing it, it is truth that embraces and possesses us.’
He then goes on to talk about the heart of the matter: that ‘faith is born from the encounter with Jesus. A personal encounter, which has touched my heart and given direction and new meaning to my existence.’ And this encounter occurs withing ‘the community of faith in which I have lived and thanks to which I found access to… Sacred Scripture, to new life that, as gushing water, flows from Jesus through the Sacraments, to fraternity with everyone and at the service of the poor, true image of the Lord. Believe me, without the Church I would not have been able to encounter Christ, also in the awareness that the immense gift that faith is is kept in the fragile earthen vessels of our humanity.’
That’s enough for today. It would appear that the Pope is, indeed Catholic. And that his primary concern is to proclaim Jesus Christ to the world, and to lovingly engage the questions and concerns of non-believers in the service of that proclamation. How shocking. How controversial. How terrible. How… apostolic, charitable, evangelical, and really pretty much just like Pope Benedict and John Paul II this Pope Francis of ours is. Tomorrow, on to the shocking controversy!