Pope Benedict XVI’s letter – a poor translation: part one

I have enjoyed knowing, in the last few days, that Pope Benedict is still mentally as active and interested as ever.  I have also enjoyed the reactions of the press where some are speculating that Benedict and Francis are engaging in a “joined up” dialogue with atheism, following Papa Francesco’s letter to Mr Scalfari and now this missive of Papa Benedetto.  Unlikely, I suppose, but who knows?  Since no English translation seems as yet to have emerged, I have been trying to make my own; I haven’t finished it quite yet, but I have completed the first part which contains a lot of interesting stuff.  (But bear in mind what is available from La Repubblica’s website is just an amuse bouche compared to the “eleven dense pages” the atheist professor Odifreddi reports having received from the Pope-emeritus.)  I have attempted to make it sound a “bit like Benedict” and not at all like google; and, as usual, to use words in English which are at least like those of the original language even if they are not what one might call “dynamically equivalent”!

Retired Pope Benedict XVI greets Pope Francis at Vatican

I would like to thank you for your detailed attempt to confront my book, and my faith.  Just this is mostly what I meant [to encourage] in my address to the Roman Curia at Christmas 2009.  I have to thank you for the way your book was loyal to my text, earnestly seeking to do it justice.  Still, my view of your book as a whole is rather mixed.  I read some parts with delight and profit.  On the other hand I was astonished at a certain aggressiveness and recklessness of argument…

Several times, you note that that to science, theology would be only science-fiction.  In that case, I’m surprised that you feel my book worthy of such detailed discussion!  Permit me to propose on this matter four points:

1. It is correct to affirm that “science”, in the strict sense, is only mathematics.  Meanwhile, from you I learned that even here a distinction is needed between arithmetic and geometry.  All the material sciences have their own proper form, according to their specific object.  It is essential to apply a verifiable method, excluding the arbitrary and guaranteeing the rational in their respective diverse modes.

2.  Science should at least recognise that, in the path of history and philosophy, theology has produced enduring results.

3.  An important function of theology is that of maintaining religion’s bond to reason, and reason’s to religion.  That they function together is of essential importance for humanity.  In my dialogue with Habermas[1], I have demonstrated that there exist pathologies of religion and – no less perilous – pathologies of reason.  They are both in need of the other, and continually pulling them into relationship is a main task of theology.

4.  Science-fiction exists, after all, in the context of many sciences.  What is expressed in the theories about the beginning or end of the world in Heisenberg, Schrödinger, etc. could be designated as science-fiction in a good sense: visions and anticipations reaching for true knowledge, but only, indeed, imaginings with which we try to approach reality.  Then there is science-fiction on a grand scale within, say, the theory of evolution.  The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins is a classic example of science-fiction.  The famous Jaques Monod wrote a few sentences into his work surely as mere science-fiction.  I cite: “The appearance of tetrapod vertebrates…originates from the fact that a primitive fish ‘chose’ to go up and explore the dry land, on which, however, it was incapable of moving except by clumsy jumping, thereby creating in the wake of this modification of behaviour, the selective pressure thanks to which the sturdy limbs of tetrapods have developed.  Among the descendants of this audacious explorer, this Magellan of evolution, some can run a speed in excess of 70 miles per hour…”[2]

With regard to the issues discussed so far, this is serious dialogue for which – as I have mentioned again and again – I am grateful.  The matter is otherwise in the chapter on the priest and about Catholic morality; and still more in the chapters in Jesus.  As for what you say of the moral of the abuse of minors by priests, I can – as you know – just accept it with profound dismay.  I have in no way ever tried to conceal these things.  That the power of evil penetrates to such a point into the interior world of faith is for us a suffering that, on the one part, must be endured, while, on the other, at the same time, everything possible must be done so that such cases are not repeated.  Nor is it even a motive of comfort to know that according to the research of sociologists, the percentage of priests guilty of these crimes is no higher than that present in other, similar professions.  In any case, you ought not to present with ostentation this deviancy as if it were a specific filth or stain of Catholicism.

If it is not legitimate to remain taciturn about evil in the Church, we must neither be silenced about the great wake of the light of goodness and purity which the Christian faith has traced throughout the ages.  It is necessary to recall the great figures that faith has produced: from Benedict of Nursia and his sister Scholastica, to Francis and Clare of Assisi, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross; the great saints of charity such as Vincent de Paul and Camillo de Lellis, Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the great and noble figures of nineteenth century Turin.  It is true, in addition, that even today faith incites many people to disinterested love, in service of others, in sincerity, and in justice.


[1] Jurgen Habermas, the German philosopher.  The Dialogue initially took place at the Catholic Academy of Bavaria in 2004, and was published as The Dialectics of Secularization, by Ignatius Press in 2007.

[2] Quoted according to the Italian edition of The Chance and Necessity, Milan, 2001, p. 117 ff.  Monod was a great French biologist and unbeliever.

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