Wednesday, September 25, 2013

"Dear Odifreddi ... " Pope Benedict's letter in English

On Sept. 24, the Italian newspaper "La Repubblica" carried excerpts from a letter written by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to an Italian mathematician, Piergiorgia Odifreddi. This NCR(egister) story has the details and the meat of the excerpts. John Allen's piece provides some backstory as well.

As a ludicrous exercise in staying up late, I decided to translate the Repubblica article. So here is the English translation of what La Repubblica published.

[Disclaimer: I am not a native speaker of Italian, nor, for that matter, have I formally studied it. I do speak it fairly decently. The translation is fairly literal, and the word order, often, not intuitively English.]

Ratzinger: “Dear Odifreddi: Let me tell you who Jesus was.” 

(La Repubblica. September 24, 2013) 

Respected Professor Odifreddi, (…) I would like to thank you for engaging with my book in such detail, and so also, with my faith; this is precisely what I had intended to do, for the large part, in my discourse to the Roman Curia in the Christmas of 2009. I must also thank you for the fair treatment you have given my text, seeking sincerely to do it justice. 

My judgment concerning your book, on the whole is, however, in itself rather mixed. I have read some parts of it with enjoyment and profit. In other parts, instead, I marveled at a certain aggressiveness and recklessness of argumentation. (…) 

Many times it [your text] pointed out to me that theology would be science fiction. In this respect, I marveled that you still considered my book worth of such a detailed discussion. Please permit to propose with respect to such questions, four points. 

  1. It is correct to affirm that only mathematics is “science” in the narrowest sense of the word; and meanwhile I have learned from you that even here one must distinguish again between arithmetic and geometry. In all specific subjects, in any case, the scientific character [la scientificità] has its own form according to the uniqueness of its object. What is essential is that one applies a verifiable method, excludes arbitrariness, and ensures rationality in each of their different modalities. 
  2. One should at least acknowledge that in the area of history, as well as that of philosophy, theology has produced lasting results. 
  3. An important function of theology is that of keeping religion linked to reason, and reason, to religion. Both these functions are of essential importance to humanity. In my dialogue with Habermas, I have shown that there exist pathologies of religion and – not less dangerous – pathologies of reason. Each has a need of the other, and to keep them continually connected is one of the tasks of theology. 
  4. Science fiction exists, on the other hand, in the ambit of many sciences. That which you explain about theories concerning the beginning and the end of the world in Heisenberg, Schrödinger, etc., I would designate as science fiction in the good sense of that phrase: they are visions and anticipations, in order to reach a true knowledge, but they are also, precisely, only imaginations with which we seek to come close to reality. There indeed exists, science fiction in a grand style, for instance, within the theory of evolution. The “selfish gene” of Richard Dawkins is a classic example of science fiction. The great Jacques Monod wrote some sentences that he himself has certainly inserted in his work only as science fiction. I quote, “The emergence of tetrapod vertebrates ... draws its origin from the fact that a primitive fish ‘chose’ to go and explore the land, on which, however, it was unable to move except by jumping clumsily and thus creating, as a result of a modification of behavior, the selective pressure due to which the sturdy limbs of tetrapods would develop. Some of the descendants of this bold explorer, this Magellan of evolution, can run at a speed of 70 miles per hour ... " (“Chance and Necessity.” Italian edition. Milan 2001. p. 117.)

In all the subjects we have discussed so far, one is dealing with a serious dialogue, for which I – as I have already said repeatedly – am grateful. Things are different in the chapter about the priesthood and Catholic morality, and even more different in the chapters about Jesus. With respect to what you say about the moral abuse (sic) of minors by priests, I  – as you know – take note only with deep concern. I have never tried to conceal these things. That the power of evil penetrates to such an extent in the interior world of faith is for us a suffering which, on one hand, we have to endure, and on the other, we must, at the same time, do everything possible so that cases of this type are not repeated. Nor is it at all any source of comfort to know that, according to the research of sociologists, the percentage of priests guilty of these crimes is not higher than those present in other similar professional categories. In any case, one must not ostentatiously (sic) present this deviation as if it were a filth specific to Catholicism. 

If it is not licit to keep silent about evil in the Church, one should not also, however, keep silent about the great wake of goodness and purity that the Christian faith has carried [tracciato, tracked] down the centuries. One needs only remember the great and pure figures the faith has produced – from Benedict of Nursia and his sister, Scholastica, to Francis and Clare, to Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, and the great saints of charity such as Vincent de Paul and Camillus de Lellis, all the way to Mother Theresa of Calcutta, and the great and noble figures of 19th century Turin. And it is true even today that the faith pushes many persons to love disinterestedly, to the service for others, to sincerity and to justice. (…) 

What you say about Jesus is not worthy of your rank as a scientist. If you pose the question whether, in the end, we know nothing of Jesus as a historical figure, that there is nothing ascertainable, then I can only invite you to become a little more competent from a historical point of view. I recommend to you for this, above all, the four volumes that Martin Hengel (exegete of the Protestant Theological Faculty of Tübingen) has published with Maria Schwemer: it is an excellent example historic precision and of the widest historical information. In light of this, what you say about Jesus is reckless speech which must not be repeated. That in exegesis there have also been written many things with a lack of seriousness is, of course, incontestable. The American seminary you cite on p. 105 (and ff.) concerning Jesus, only confirms once again what Albert Schweizer had noted with respect to the Leben-Jesu-Forschung (The Quest for the Life of Jesus), and that is that the so-called “Historical Jesus” is no more than a mirror of the ideas of the authors. Such forms of botched historical works, however, do not compromise the importance of serious historical research, which has led us to true and reliable knowledge about the proclamation and figure of Jesus. 

(…) I have also to forcefully reject your claim (p. 126), that I have presented historical-critical exegesis as a tool of the Antichrist. In treating the story of Jesus’ temptations, I have only taken Soloviev’s thesis, according to which the historical-critical method can also be used by the Antichrist – a fact which is indisputable. At the same time, however - and particularly in the preface to the first volume of my book on Jesus of Nazareth - I explained clearly that 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 the historical reality of its claims in a scientific manner. For this reason, it is not even correct that you tell me I would be interested only in metahistory: on the contrary, all my efforts aim to show that the Jesus described in the Gospels is also the real historical Jesus; that they deal with a story [storia] that actually took place. (…) 

With the 19th chapter of your book, we turn back to the positive aspects of your dialogue with my thinking. (…) Even if your interpretation of John 1:1 is very far from what the evangelist intended to say, there exists, still, a convergence that is important. If you, however, want to replace God with “Nature,” the question remains as to who or what this nature is. Nowhere do you define it, and thus it appears as an irrational deity who explains nothing. I would like, however, to note further that in your religion of mathematics, three fundamental themes of human existence are not considered: freedom, love and evil. I marvel that you, with one nod, liquidate freedom, which has been, and remains, the core value of the modern epoch. Love does not appear in your book, and there is no information concerning evil. Whatever neurobiology might say or not say concerning freedom, in the real drama of our history [storia], it is present as a determining reality and must be taken into consideration. However, your religion of mathematics has no information concerning evil. A religion that omits these fundamental questions, remains empty. 

Most respected Professor, my critique of your book is, in parts, harsh. But frankness is a part of dialogue; only thus can knowledge grow. You have been very frank, and therefore you will accept that I will also be. In any case, however, I value very much the fact that you, through your engagement with my “Introduction to Christianity,” have sought such an open dialogue with the faith of the Catholic Church and, notwithstanding all the disagreements in the main part, convergences have also not been missing.  

With cordial greetings and every good wish for your work ... 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

"Padre, me accuso de ... "

That's how so many of the Spanish confessions I hear begin. At some point, this must have been the formula that many learned. "Father, I accuse myself of ... "

I like it. A lot. It is self abnegating. It is humble. It gets right to the point. No beating around the bush. No dawdling. Father, I accuse myself. I am a sinner.

In that interview which is making all kinds of waves today in the media (How long can people live with this ache, "Oh finally, the Church is going to become what I want her to be!"), that is how Pope Francis answers the very first question. "Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?"

"I am a sinner."

He means it. He is an utterly sincere and honest man.

He even gives examples. When talking about his leadership style, he accuses himself of being too authoritarian, too controlling. A remarkable disclosure in an interview that will be followed by millions. No politician would dare speak with such candor (unless it be, perhaps, after a scandalous exposé).

"Father, I accuse myself."

What do you accuse yourself of? Where do you know you need healing? Forgiveness? Make yourself little. He must increase but I must decrease. The very first step of healing, of return, is to acknowledge one's real condition. We are all sinners. We all need mercy. (If there were no sin, there would be no need for mercy!) God is waiting with open arms.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Vatican Radio Interviews

In May I got an email from the head of the English language broadcast for the South Asia section of Vatican Radio, requesting an interview as part of their "Year of Faith" series. I happened to be in Rome in June, soon after Ordination and went over the VR offices off V. Concelazione. The interview was split into three parts, and appeared on successive weeks in August, and are archived on the VR website.




Thursday, September 05, 2013

Teacher's Day

In India, September 5 is commemorated as "Teacher's Day," in memory of Dr. Sarveppalli Radhakrishnan, the second President of the Republic, a philosopher and educator.

The teachers and administrators of Campion School, Bombay, 1993. 
When we lived in Ahmedabad, in the state of Gujarat in western India, the local custom was for the senior school children to serve as teachers and administrators on this day. In 7th grade at St. Xavier's Loyola Hall (then at the edge of town, surrounded by trees and open fields), as part of the senior class of primary school (In India, school goes till 10th grade, and the divisions are different), somehow, I was elected Principal for Teacher's Day. It was quite a surprise. I was a shy, nerdy, introverted guy and had no idea I could be so popular. (The coolest job, however, was for the boy elected to be the bell ringer. Normally the task of a lowly peon, this was a coveted role for 12 year olds.)

I really don't remember if we had "real school" that day. It was probably a half day. There were classes. But students played the teachers. The teachers themselves were honored and feted. As Principal, I got make announcements over the PA. I think I even got to say some prayers. (This wasn't new. I used to sing in the choir which gathered in the Principal's office every morning for the prayers which went out over the PA. The only song I remember went, simply, "God is so good. God is so good. God is so good to me and to you.") I think I then made the rounds of the classes to make sure all was in order. And I recall there was a bit of a snafu when the bell ringer rang the bell at the wrong time and much chaos ensued. The highlight, however, was sitting in Fr. Charlie's big, swiveling chair. Unlike the previous Principal, a tall, stern man who was known for boxing ears for misbehavior, Fr. Charlie was kind, cool and hugely popular. I adored him.

We lived in Ahmedabad for three years. My happiest memories from school, however, involved the afternoons after school let out. My best friend Sam (my only friend, really) and I would wander through the back yard pretending we were commandoes in World War II. We were both avid readers of Commando comics.

The following year, we moved to Bombay, and I was enrolled in Campion School, a prestigious, South Bombay prep school run by the Jesuits. Campion was a huge culture shock, coming into the elite world of South Bombay from hicksville Gujarat. The teachers were a cast of characters themselves. Mr Bhal, who taught Hindi, was a terror in class, but a softy with a huge heart. There was Mr. Irani, who taught physics. Mrs. Shenoy, plump and pleasant, who taught geography. Mr. Gomes, our strict chemistry teacher, and Mr. Colaco, much more laid back. (He also brought me back early, on a local train, from an NCC camp, after I fell sick.)  And later on, the hugely popular Mrs. Ramadorai, who taught History. Mr. Kenneth Dyer -- the first layman to be named Principal, who also taught Accounting. You knew you had the right answer on his tests, because they were all round numbers. He insisted that I take a typing class, a skill for which I am ever grateful. There was Fr. Richard Lanesmith, an Australian Jesuit, a herpetologist by training (look it up!), who taught "Moral Science" (what non-Catholics got while the Catholics were in Religion class), and whose office was always a cool hangout because of the snakes he kept there. Mr. Hodiwalla, the PT teacher, who took pity on my flabby self, and let me get away with the simplest of exercises during the PT exams.

However, in a league of his own, was Mr. Joe Sheth. Shakespeare came alive in his classes: Julius Ceasar in 8th grade; The Merchant of Venice, in 9th.  His voice still rings in my head at Shylock's "Hath not a Jew eyes?" or Portia's "The quality of mercy is not strain'd." Byron, Shelly, Milton and Tennyson dripped from our tongues. (I could possibly still recite "Ozymandias" from memory!) We loved Sheth wildly, deeply. Perhaps two years after our class graduated from 10th grade ("O" levels in the British usage), we received word that Mr. Sheth had died of a sudden heart attack. It was such a shock. The day of his funeral is a etched into my memory. A bunch of us who were at St. Xavier's Junior College in Dhobitalao, took the train up to Andheri. A vast crowd packed into Holy Family Parish, Chakala, for the funeral Mass. I was in a row right at the back, and pretended to mumble the responses. The coffin was surrounded by the distraught family, and we surged out behind it after the Mass, to the graveyard outside, as the sun set, and darkness fell.

This June, some of the Campion Class of 1988 got together with a bunch of teachers from the school for dinner in Mumbai, before heading to Goa for a big reunion. I was in India at the time, but, unfortunately, was unable to participate. 
Today is a day to reflect on the invaluable role that so many teachers have played in our lives. Their selfless devotion to their art, for little material reward. Their quirks. Their flaws. Their humanity. Their love for us. All these teachers -- and many who came after -- have shaped me and formed me into the man I am today. Several have gone on to their eternal reward. For all, I am utterly grateful.