Last week Pope Francis wrote a 2,700-word letter to Eugenio Scalfari, the founder-editor of La Repubblica, Italy’s largest-circulation general-interest newspaper. Amazingly, Scalfari decided to publish it. It took up the whole front page…and the following four pages, under the simple heading ‘Francesco’. (Can you imagine the UK’s most popular newspaper giving its first five pages to a text from a religious leader?) You can read the whole letter in English here.
The letter was in response to earlier published comments and questions by Scalfari arising from his reading of Pope Francis’ first encyclical, Lumen Fidei (‘The Light of Faith’). Though quite philosophical at points, the encyclical itself makes for interesting reading, since at one point it touches on why something that should bring light has become seen in the wider world as a source of darkness, both in the sense of leading to secrecy and suspicion but also in the intellectual sense of being seen as a contrast to honest intellectual enquiry. Although originally drafted by Francis’ predecessor Benedict, it has more than a touch of Francis about it in its final form.
The letter in La Repubblica picks up on some of these issues, but caught the headlines on the grounds that Francis was suggesting that atheists ‘don’t have to believe in God in order to go to heaven.’ (On whether believers are planning to ‘go to heaven’, see Tom Wright’s New Heavens, New Earth.) I don’t think he is saying any such thing, but the letter is striking for other notable features.
The first is the consistent tone of genuine interest and respect Francis shows for Scalfari’s questions. He begins by thanking the editor for the care and attention he has given to the reading of the encyclical, and ends with a hope for continuing partnership in discussion:
Please accept this as a tentative and temporary reply, but sincere and hopeful, together with the invitation that I made to walk a part of the path together.
Here is the evangelist/apologetic task presented as a journey of mutual listening and respect. Francis is clear that this is not mere politeness, but is a deliberate strategy for engagement; the encyclical itself was written
to spark 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 second feature is related to this—what I would describe as ‘epistemic humility.’ The confidence that comes from Christian faith is not a kind of foundational certainty which precludes either further enquiry or discussion with those of a different view, but rather the opposite. Faith compels us to engage with others and sustain dialogue. Francis comments that ‘this dialogue is not a secondary accessory in the existence of those who believe, but is rather an intimate and indispensabile expression,’ and then quotes from the encyclical:
It seems clear that faith is not unyielding, but increases in the coexistence which respects the other. The believer is not arrogant; on the contrary, the truth makes him humble, in the knowledge that rather than making us rigid, it embraces us and possesses us. Rather than make us rigid, the security of faith makes it possible to speak with everyone.
In this I find strong echoes with Paul, both in his constant desire to speak of what he has discovered (Romans 15.20) and in that intriguing aside in Gal 4.9 ‘now that you know God—or rather are known by him’ (see also 1 Cor 8.3 and 1 Cor 13.12). Faith is less about what or who we know and more about Someone who has come to know us.
Thirdly in his letter Francis returns again and again to the person of Jesus, and does so with reference both to his own experience of personal encounter with Jesus and the connection between this and the Jesus of gospels who is also the Jesus of history. No separation here between the ‘Jesus of history’ and the ‘Christ of faith’.
For me, faith began by meeting with Jesus. A personal meeting that touched my heart and gave a direction and a new meaning to my existence…[Debate on the points you raise] means paying attention to the meaning of what Jesus said and did and after all, of what Jesus has been and is for us. The Letters of Paul and the Gospel according to John, to which particular reference is made in the Encyclical, are in fact created on the solid foundation of the Messianic Ministry of Jesus of Nazareth which culminated in the pentecost of death and resurrection.
Fourthly I find it fascinating that, challenged to say what is superior in Christian faith to other religious systems, Francis declines to take up this opportunity. Instead, he talks of the ‘distinctiveness’ of Christian belief:
I would say that the originality lies in the fact that faith allows us to participate, in Jesus, in the relationship that He has with God who is Abbà and, because of this, in the relationship that He has with all other men, including enemies, in the sign of love.
Fifthly, Francis offers both a realistic and a hopeful account of the community of faith—of the reality of the church, which he describes in terms of those who follow Jesus rather than in terms of hierarchy and authority. The community is necessary to faith, since it is through others that we actually learn about and experience the rality of Jesus for ourselves. But, yes, this community is frail and sinful and not without fault. This seems to me to be a refreshing alternative to some evangelistic strategies which often say ‘Let’s talk about Jesus—but don’t think about the church. That is just a distraction.’
Believe me, in spite of its slowness, the infidelity, the mistakes and the sins that may have and may still be committed by those who compose the Church, it has no other sense and aim if not to live and witness Jesus.
There are some other really interesting aspects of the letter, including a positive signal to return to the reforming agenda of the Second Vatican Council (mentioned more than once) and a positive mention of the Jewish roots of Christian faith, to the point that Christian eschatological hope might be identified with Jewish messianic expectation. On the headline question of the atheist’s conscience, I am not sure that Francis is saying anything more or less than Paul in Romans 2.14–15. (For a fuller discussion of this, see Morgan Guyton’s blogpost.)
An explanation and commendation of Christian faith which is based on listening and sincere engagement, which respects both the other person and their views, which sees faith as a mandate for humility, focuses on both the personal experience of encounter with Jesus as well as his acts and teaching in the gospels, which offers a fresh and distinctive perspective, and owns both the highs and lows of the reality of Christian people—that looks like a strategy worth following to me.