In its online edition for 24 September, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica published excerpts from a recent letter of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to Pier-giorgio Odifreddi, a professor of mathematics at the University of Turin, prolific author and outspoken atheist.
Benedict's letter was a belated response to Odifreddi's 2011 book Caro Papa, ti scrivo ( Dear Pope, I am writing you).
That book is a commentary, written in the form of an open letter, on Joseph Ratzinger's book Introduction to Christianity, an elucidation of the Apostle's Creed published in 1968 when Fr Ratzinger was still a professor of dogmatic theology at the University of Tubingen in Germany.
Fr Ratzinger's book was recommended to Odifreddi by a friend in 2008. According to remarks he made on his blog, after reading Introduction to Christianity Odifreddi found Fr Ratzinger's faith and doctrine "sufficiently solid and formidable to be quite capable of sustaining frontal attacks". He felt at the time that a dialogue "might prove to be a stimulating undertaking" even if carried out only "at a distance".
Odifreddi said that while he received Benedict's letter on 3 September, he did not want to make it public until he received permission to do so.
In the letter Benedict thanks him "for having carefully attempted to engage my book and thus my faith". He adds that although he read some parts of the professor's book "with joy and profit" he is "perplexed in other parts by a certain aggressiveness and recklessness in argumentation".
The excerpts published by La Repubblica first touch on Odifreddi's claim that theology is a species of "science fiction" rather than a science. In response Benedict notes that there is a "scientificity" proper to every discipline that is determined by the particularity of the object studied. "What is essential is that a verifiable method is applied, arbitrariness is excluded and rationality is guaranteed in the respective different modalities."
He then encourages his correspondent to "recognise that in the field of history and that of philosophical thought theology has produced lasting results", explaining that it is the task of theology to keep "religion connected to reason and reason to religion".
Benedict urges Odifreddi to take account of the science fiction that is also present in natural science. "What you expound of theories about the beginning and end world in Heisenbeg, Schroedinger, et al, I would call science fiction in a good sense: they are visions and anticipations aimed at reaching a real knowledge but they are, indeed, only imaginative ways that we use to try to get closer to reality."
Turning to the historical study of Jesus, Benedict criticises Odifreddi's assertion that nothing can be known of Jesus as an historical figure. "I invite you," he writes, "to become a little more competent in historical matters," suggesting that, as a start, he read a four-volume work by Martin Hengel and Anna Maria Schwemer that is "an excellent example of historical precision and ample historical information".
Commenting on the mathematician's personal creed, Benedict notes its apparent failure to offer a clear concept of nature - which for Odifreddi takes the place of God - and to deal adequately with questions about love, freedom and evil.
Perhaps the most dramatic excerpts from Benedict's response to Odifreddi's are his comments on the sexual abuse of minors by clergy: "I have never tried to cover these things up. That the power of evil should penetrate so deeply into the inner world of the faith is for us a painful fact ( una sofferenza) that, on the one hand, we must endure, while, on the other hand, we must at the same time do all we can to see that these kinds of things do not happen again.
"It is no comfort to know that, according to sociological research, the percentage of priests guilty of these crimes is no higher than that in other similar professions." But he rejects an analysis of the crisis that presents it as "a stain unique to Catholicism".
He also rejects a one-sided emphasis on the Church's shortcomings. "If it is not right to be silent about evil in the Church, neither must one be silent about the bright trail of goodness and purity that the Christian faith has traced through the centuries" as evidenced by the "great and pure figures that faith has produced": Benedict and Scholastica of Norcia, Francis and Clare of Assisi, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, and the "great saints of charity": Vincent de Paul, Camillus de Lillis and Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
Towards the end of the letter, Benedict admits that his critique "is harsh in part". But this is to be expected in dialogue. "Frankness is a part of dialogue; this is the only way that knowledge can grow. You have been very frank with me and so you will permit me to be frank too."
He concludes praising Odifreddi's initiative. "I greatly appreciate the fact that you, through your engagement with my Introduction to Christianity, sought such an open dialogue with the faith of the Catholic Church and that, despite all the differences in what is central, convergences are not lacking."
In his comments on the letter on his blog, Odifreddi reports his efforts to secure a response from the Pope. "Shortly after Ratzinger stepped down, through a common friend I asked Archbishop Georg Gonswein if it would be possible to give another copy of my book to the Pope Emeritus in the hope that he might see it and perhaps glance through it."
Odifreddi, however, was surprised by the letter, which ran to 11 pages. "But that he might reply to me, and in fact comment on my book in-depth, this was beyond reasonable hopes."
He depicts the "Pope theologian" and himself, the "atheist mathematician", as "divided in almost everything save for one objective: the search for the Truth with a capital 'T'."
With acknowledgement to Zenit.