The Pope Emeritus and the Questioning Atheist | Fr. James V. Schall, SJ | CWR
A recently released letter by Benedict XVI confronts and challenges several faulty premises of militant atheism
“Distinguished Professor, my critique of your book [Dear Pope, I’m Writing to You (2011)], is, in part, tough. However, frankness is a part of dialogue. Only thus can knowledge grow. You have been very frank and so you will accept that I am, too. In any case, however, I consider it very positive that you, in confronting my Introduction to Christianity, have sought such an open dialogue with the faith of the Catholic Church and that, despite its contrasts, at the centre of it all, convergences are not completely lacking.
— Benedict XVI, “Letter to an Atheist” (National Catholic Register, November 26, 2013)
In September, the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, published a letter of Pope Benedict to Professor Piergiorgio Odifreddi. The whole of this letter was finally published in English in the National Catholic Register on November 27. In 2011, Odifreddi had published a book in the form of an open letter to the Pope about his understanding of the Pope’s position on various basic issues. Obviously, it took some time for Benedict to get around to reading and responding to this critique of his work and thought. Evidently, after his retirement, Benedict found time to read and respond to Odifreddi’s comments.
The whole issue follows the format that we have become used to, even with Pope Francis. The atheist professor analyzes religion, particularly Catholicism, from the viewpoint of modern philosophy or science. He finds it wanting on fundamental points. The three-page response by the Pope Emeritus is divided into six parts; pages of Odifreddi’s or Benedict’s books are cited in the text. Both authors are aware that this discussion between them is now public. The books are published. All that is lacking is a response of Pope Ratzinger himself. Evidently, he thought the book of sufficient gravity to merit attention, though the Pope says that he is not up to a more thorough analysis than he provides in his letter.
One cannot help, initially, to remark on the presence and use of the principle of contradiction, the basic intellectual tool or principle, in the argumentation. Benedict thanks Odifreddi for the “faithful manner in which you dealt with my text, earnestly seeing to do it justice.” However, he begins by remarking, “I marvel that you interpret my choices to go beyond the perception of the senses in order to perceive reality in its grandeur as an ‘explicit denial of the principle of reality’ or as ‘mystical psychosis.’” The reason Benedict “marvels” at this basic position (that what is beyond the senses is, in Odifreddi’s words, a denial of the principle of reality) is that Odifreddi himself has said the same thing. The professor had stated that the methods of natural sciences “transcend the limitations of the human senses.” Benedict was saying the same thing, that is, reality is more than what is given or known by our senses, though our senses are in reality, in what is.
Odifreddi had remarked that “mathematics has a deep affinity with religion.” He added that “true religiosity today is to be found more in science than in philosophy.” This view, Benedict quickly points out, “is certainly open to discussion.” Not so fast, in other words. Odifreddi had presented his view as “true religiosity”; he then goes on to state that this “true religiosity” has to renounce an “anthropomorphism,” a God understood as a person. Rationality would be higher. Odifreddi concluded, “drastically,” as Benedict describes it, that “math and science are the only true religion. The rest is superstition.” This is clearly a rationalist position and an implicit denial of the basic Christian understanding of Logos, of reason. It does not come to grips with rationalism’s own need to be grounded in real being.
How does Benedict deal with this view?