VATICAN CITY — Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has joined Pope Francis in writing a letter to a prominent Italian atheist in an attempt to engage nonbelievers in a dialogue about the faith.

The 11-page letter, extracts of which were published in Monday’s edition of the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica, is addressed to professor Piergiorgio Odifreddi, an Italian mathematician, popular science writer and a member of the Italian Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

The Pope Emeritus was responding to a book Odifreddi wrote in 2011 titled Dear Pope, I’m Writing to You. The book was a critique of certain arguments and lines of thought found in Benedict’s theological writings, beginning with his 1967 volume Introduction to Christianity, and including his book Jesus of Nazareth, which he wrote as pope. Benedict's letter, even though published after Francis', was written prior.

Earlier this month, Pope Francis surprised the world by responding to three questions put to him by the Italian atheist and founder of La Repubblica, Eugenio Scalfari, concerning Francis’ first encyclical, Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith).


Clerical Sex Abuse

Much of the mainstream media has picked out passages of Benedict XVI’s response relating to clerical sex abuse. Benedict writes that he “never tried to cover up these things,” and “the power of evil [that] penetrates to such a point in the interior world of the faith is, for us, a source of suffering.”

“On the one hand, we must accept that suffering, and on the other, at the same time, we must do everything possible so that such cases aren’t repeated,” he says. “It’s also not a motive for comfort to know that, according to sociological research, the percentage of priests guilty of these crimes is no higher than in other comparable professional categories.”

“In any event,” he continues, “one must not stubbornly present this deviance as if it were a nastiness specific to Catholicism.”

But many other areas of interest are also covered in the letter. The extracts show Benedict to be his usual gentlemanly, unfailingly polite and frank self, unafraid to speak his mind with respect to atheism and the arguments put forward by Odifreddi.

He begins by thanking the Italian author for the critiques of his writings, and he explains that such a dialogue is “in large part” what he was alluding to in his address to the Roman Curia in 2009 that ultimately led to the creation of the Courtyard of the Gentiles.

That initiative, a structure for permanent dialogue between believers and nonbelievers run by the Pontifical Council for Culture, has led to several encounters with atheists in European capitals since 2010. Ironically, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi told the Register shortly before its launch that the Vatican was only interested in engaging with a “noble atheism or agnosticism, not the polemical kind — so not those atheists such as [Piergiorgio] Odifreddi in Italy, [Michel] Onfray in France, [Christopher] Hitchens and [Richard] Dawkins.”


Benedict’s Four Points

But that hasn’t stopped Benedict XVI, who doesn’t hold back in revealing what he thinks of Odifreddi’s work. “My opinion about your book is, as a whole, rather mixed,” he says. “I profited from some parts, which I read with enjoyment, but in other parts I was astonished at a certain aggressiveness and thoughtless argumentation.”

He notes that, several times, Odifreddi refers to theology as science fiction, and he says that, in this respect, he is “surprised that you feel my book is worthy of discussion.” He responds by making the case for theology with four points.

First, Benedict asks: “Is it fair to say that ‘science’ in the strictest sense of the word is just math? I learned from you that, even here, the distinction should be made between arithmetic and geometry. In all specific scientific subjects, each has its own form, according to the particularity of its object. What is essential is that a verifiable method is applied, excluding arbitrariness and ensuring rationality in their different ways.”

Second, he says that Odifreddi should “at least recognize that, in history and in philosophical thought, theology has produced lasting results.”

Third, he explains that an important function of theology is “to keep religion tied to reason and reason to religion.” Both functions, he adds, “are of paramount importance for humanity.” He then refers to his famous dialogue with the atheist and sociologist Jurgen Habermas, in which he showed that there are “pathologies of religion and, no less dangerous, pathologies of reason.”

“They both need each other, and keeping them constantly connected is an important task of theology,” he adds.

Fourth, Benedict says that science fiction exists in the context of many sciences. He explains that he sees science fiction in a good sense when it shows vision and anticipates “true knowledge.” This is “only imagination,” he says, “with which we search to get closer to reality,” and he adds that a “science fiction [exists] in a big way just even within the theory of evolution.”


Dawkins Dismissed

Benedict then refers to the work of the prominent atheist Richard Dawkins. "The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins is a classic example of science fiction,” he says, and he recalls how the French Nobel Prize winner and molecular biologist Jacques Monod inserted sentences into his work that, in Benedict’s view, could only have been science fiction.

After addressing clerical sex abuse, he asks Odifreddi to remember the great figures the Church has produced, such as Sts. Benedict of Nursia, Francis of Assisi and Teresa of Avila. “It is also true today that the faith leads many people to selfless love, to the service of others, to sincerity and justice,” he says.

He then rebukes Odifreddi for his words about Jesus, saying, “They are not worthy of your scientific rank.” He invites him to become more competent in history and recommends some authors known for their historical accuracy. “That there has been too much exegesis written that has lacked seriousness is, unfortunately, an indisputable fact,” he says, but adds they have “no influence on the importance of serious historical research” that has led to a true knowledge of Jesus.

He then refers to areas of convergence in Odifreddi’s book with his own thinking. “Even if your interpretation of John 1:1 [In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God] is very far from what the Evangelist meant, there is a convergence that is important,” Benedict says. “However, if you want to replace God with ‘Nature,’ it begs the question: Who or what is this nature? Nowhere do you define it, and so it appears as an irrational divinity that explains nothing.”

He adds, “But I want to especially note that in your religion of mathematics three themes fundamental to human existence are not considered: freedom, love and evil.”

“I’m astonished that you just give a nod to freedom that has been and is the core value of modern times,” Benedict says. “Love in this book doesn’t appear, and there’s no information about evil.

“Whatever neurobiology says or doesn’t say about freedom, in the real drama of our history, it is a present reality and must be taken into account. But your religion of mathematics doesn’t recognize any knowledge of evil. A religion that ignores these fundamental questions is empty.”

The pope emeritus concludes: “Dear professor, my criticism of your book is in part harsh. Frankness, however, is part of dialogue: Only in this way can understanding grow. You were quite frank, and so you will accept that I should also be so. In any case, however, I very much appreciate that you, through your confrontation with my Introduction to Christianity, have sought to open a dialogue with the faith of the Catholic Church and that, notwithstanding all the contrasts in the central area, points of convergence are nevertheless not lacking.”


Odifreddi’s Response

Writing in Monday’s La Repubblica, Odifreddi said few people “can understand the surprise and excitement” you feel on receiving “an unexpected letter from a pope.” He said the letter was delivered on Sept. 3, and he waited to publish it to make sure he had Benedict XVI’s permission. The depth of his answer was “beyond reasonable hopes,” Odifreddi said, and he was particularly surprised that Benedict read his book from cover to cover and wanted to discuss it, as it had been billed as a “luciferian introduction to atheism.”

Odifreddi said the entire 11-page letter will be included in a new edition of his book. He said that he and Benedict may disagree on almost everything, but they have “united in at least one common goal: the search for the Truth, with a capital ‘T.’”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent

and a contributor to EWTN News Nightly.