Earlier this week, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI emerged from the silence of his retirement to dialogue with an atheist mathematician, Pierogiorgi Odifreddi. While Odifreddi is an atheist, he did make a serious attempt to engage with Benedict XVI’s theological writings, despite his belief that theology is not a science, but at best science fiction.
I have not been able to find an English translation of the excerpts from the letter which were published in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. I thought it would be a good exercise for me to try to translate it. I’m not a fluent speaker of Italian by any means. I am a fluent speaker of Spanish and, given enough time in Portugual, fairly confident, though by no means perfect, in Portuguese. I also have a background in French, as well as in the Mother Tongue from which all these wonderful Romance languages ultimately sprang, namely Latin.
So, here goes. You can read the Italian original by clicking here. Any comments about my bad Italian or ways in which I could have translated it better are welcome. After all, I don’t speak the language fluently. I’m relying on my background with other Romance languages to try and arrive at a good enough translation of what was published in La Repubblica.
Illustrious Professor Odofreddi,
I would like to thank you trying to deal with every last detail of my book and also with my faith, just as I also meant to do in my address to the Roman Curia in December 2009. I have to thank you for the loyal way in which you treated my text, seeking earnestly to do it justice.
My opinion about your book, on the whole, is rather mixed. Some parts, I read with enjoyment and profit. In other parts, however, I marvelled at a certain agressiveness and recklessness in the argumentation. (…)
Several times, it was pointed out to me that theology would be science fiction. In this respect, I’m surprised that you, however, feel my book to be worthy of discussion in that detail. Let me suggest four points on this question:
1. It is correct to say that “science” in the strictest sense of the word is only mathematics, while I learned from you that even here, distinction should be made between arithmetic and geometry. In all the specific scientific subjects, each has its own proper form, according to the particularity of its object. It is essential that you apply a verifiable method, one which excludes arbitrary and ensures rationality respective of their different modalities.
2. One should at least recognise that, in philosophy and history, theology has produced lasting results.
3. An important task of theology is to keep religion linked with reason and reason to religion. Both functions are of essential importance to humanity. In my dialogue with Habermas, I have shown that there are pathologies of religion and – no less dangerous – pathologies of reason. They both need each other, and to keep them constantly connected is an important task of theology.
4. Science fiction, moreover, exists in the context of many sciences. What you show in the theories of Heisenberg and Schrödinger, etc., these are designated science fiction in the best sense: they are visions and anticipations to arrive at a true knowledge, but are, in fact, only imaginations by which we get closer to reality. There is, moreover, science fiction in a grand style within the theory of evolution. The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins, is a classic example of science fiction. The great Jacques Monod has written the sentences that he has inserted in his work certainly just as science fiction. I quote: “The emergence of tetrapod vertebrates…draws its origin from the fact that a primitive fish decided to walk and explore the land, on which, he was unable move except by jumping clumsily and thus creating, as a modification of behaviour, the selective pressure due to which it would have developed the sturdy limbs of tetrapods. Among the descendants of this bold explorer, this Magellan of evolution, some of which can run at speeds at 70 miles an hour (cited in the Italian Edition of Il caso di necessità, Milan, 2001).”
In the issues discussed so far it is a serious dialogue, for which I - as I have said repeatedly – I am grateful. The situation is different on the chapters on the priesthood and Catholic morality, and by still another on the chapters on Jesus. As for what you say regarding the moral abuse of minors by priests, I can – as you know – just take note with deep concern. I have never tried to hide these things. That the power of evil to penetrate to such an extent the inner world of faith is for us, a suffering which, on the one hand, we have to endure, while, on the other, we must do everything possible to ensure that such cases are not repeated. Nor is it reassuring to know that, according the research of sociologists, the percentage of priests guilty of these crimes is not higher than that found in other professions. In any case, you should not present this deviation ostentatiously as if it were a specific filth of Catholicism.
If it is not permitted to remain silent about evil in the Church, we must not, however, remain silent about the great shining path of goodness and purity that the Christian faith has traced through the centuries. You have to remember the great and pure figures which the faith has produced – Benedict and his sister Scholastica, Francis and Clare of Assisi, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, also the great saints of charity such as Vincent de Paul and Camillus de Lellis to Mother Teresa and the great and noble figures of Turin of the 1800s. It is also true today that faith leads many people to selfless love, in service to others in sincerity and justice. (…)
What you say about Jesus is not within your range of science. If your question arises as to whether Jesus is, after all, someone we don’t know anything about as a historical figure and about whom nothing is ascertainable, then I can only invite you to become more competent from a historical point of view. I reccommend especially for this the four volumes that exegete Martin Hengel (exegete on the Protestant Theological Faculty of the University of Tübingen) published together with Mary Schwemer. It is an excellent example of historical accuracy and provides very ample historical information. In the face of this, what you have said about Jesus is reckless talking that should not be repeated. There is in exegesis that which has written too many things with a lack of seriousness, and this is, unfortuanately, an indisputable fact. The American Jesus Seminar you have cited on page 105 and following only confirms again what Albert Schweitzer had noticed about the Leben-jesus-Forschung (Research Into the Life of Jesus) and that which is called “the Historical Jesus” mostly reflects the ideas of the authors. These forms of botched historical work, however, have no influence on the importance of serious historical research, which has lead us to true and secure knowledge about the announcement and the figure of Jesus.
(…) I have also forcefully rejected with force your claim (p. 126) that I have presented the historical-critical exegesis as a tool of the anti-Christ. Treating the story of Jesus’ temptations, I have only taken Soloviev’s thesis, according to which historical-critical exegesis can also be used by the anti-Christ – which is an indisputable fact. At the same time, however, always – and in particular in the preface to the first volume of my book on Jesus of Nazareth – I explained clearly that the historical-critical exegesis is necessary for a faith that does not propose myths with historical images, but calls for a genuine historicity and therefore must present his claims in a scientific manner. Therefore, it is not even correct that you tell me I would only be interested in the meta-history. Quite the contrary, all my efforts have the ojbective to show that the Jesus described in the Gospels is also the historical Jesus, that it is how the history really happened.
By the 19th chapter, you look back on the positive aspects of your dialogue with my thought. Even if your interpetation of John 1:1 is far from what the Evangelist intended to say, there is, however, a convergence that it is important. If you, however, would substitute God with “Nature”, the question remains, who or what is Nature? In no place do you define it and it appears as a deity and is irrational which explains nothing. But i want, especially to note further that in your religion of mathematics, three basic themes of human existence are not considered: freedom, love, and evil. I’m surprised that you with just a single nod state that liberty was and is the core value of modern times. Love, in your book, is not compared with evil and there is also no information about it. Whatever things neurobiology says or does not say about freedom in the real drama of our history as it is at present is actually crucial and must be taken into account. But your mathematical religion does not know any information about evil. A religion which ignores these fundamental questions is empty.
Illustrious Professor, my criticism of your book in part is tough. But dialogue is a part of frankness; it is only then that one can increase in knowledge. You were very frank and I accept that as it is. In any case, however, I value the fact the you, throughout your engagement with my Introduction to Christianity , you sought a dialogue to learn about the faith of the Catholic Church, notwithstanding all the contrasts within the central part, not altogether missing all the convergences.