Yay! Benedict writes again! (9 things to know and share)

What did former Pope Benedict say when he took an Italian atheist to the woodshed?
What did former Pope Benedict say when he took an Italian atheist to the woodshed? (photo: Register Files)

Pope Emeritus Benedict has kept a low profile since his retirement, but he has released a new and extremely interesting letter.

In it, he takes an Italian atheist scholar to task.

Here are 9 things to know and share . . .


1) Why did he write the letter?

Former Pope Benedict wrote his letter in response to Piergorgio Odifreddi, an Italian mathematician who is also an atheist—and sharply critical of the Faith.

Some time ago, Odifreddi published a book called A Word to You, Dear Pope (Italian, Caro papa ti scrivo), which was a reply to Benedict’s own Introduction to Christianity—one of his first major works.

Apparently, Benedict read Odifreddi’s work and was moved to reply with an 11-page (!) letter.


2) Where can we read the letter?

Unfortunately, it’s not presently available in full or in English.

The Italian newspaper La Repubblica published excerpts in Italian, but not the full thing.

La Stampa then translated from the excerpts.

Odifreddi says he plans to publish the whole letter in an updated edition of his book as, “a one-off in the history of the Church: a dialogue between a theologian Pope and an atheist mathematician.”

We’ll have to see when that appears and if it’s translated into English.


3) Does Benedict say anything interesting in the letter?

You bet! In fact, in one passage he really takes Odifreddi to the woodshed!

While polite, his criticism of Odifreddi is scorching!

As we’ll see, he gets far more blunt than we’re used to hearing him.


4) Does Benedict say nice things to Odifreddi also?

Yes, which is all the more noteworthy considering how hostile Odifreddi’s intention was in his own book. According to La Stampa:

Odifreddi intended “Caro papa ti scrivo” as a “satanic introduction to atheism”. The mathematician, who has appeared on numerous television talk shows sais he was surprised to receive a reply from Benedict XVI, in which he “expressed gratitude for my faithful treatment of his book. This is all one could have hoped for and more in a world where we are used to expecting the bare minimum.”

In the Pope Emeritus’ 11-page-long letter he says he “found some parts [of Odifreddi’s book] enjoyable and useful. But I was shocked by how aggressive and thoughtless some of the arguments are”.

Yeow! “Aggressive and thoughtless.” Harsh!


5) What were some of these aggressive and thoughtless arguments?

La Stampa notes:

First of all, Ratzinger rebutted Odifreddi’s claim that theology is science fiction.  

“Science fiction is present in many sciences,” Benedict XVI said, giving some examples: “The great Jacques Monod used certain phrases in his work which he must have added, purely as science fiction. [Jacques Monod said:] “Tetrapod vertebrates [four-footed animals] exist… because a primitive fish “chose” to explore the earth but were only able to move around by hopping around clumsily, thus modifying their behavior. It was this selective [evolutionary] pressure that apparently gave tetrapods such robust limbs. The running speeds of certain descendants of this bold explorer, this Magellan of evolution, can exceed 70 km per hour.”

6) What else did Benedict take exception to?

One issue was Odifreddi’s remarks on child sexual abuse:

Benedict XVI reacted strongly to Odifreddi’s comments regarding child sex abuse in the Church.

“I have never tried to cover these things up.

The fact that evil is able to penetrate so deeply into the interior world of faith, is a cause of great suffering to us.

On the one hand we must bear this suffering but on the other we need to do all that we can to prevent such incidents from occurring again.

It of no comfort to hear from sociologists that the percentage of priests guilty of such crimes is no higher than the figures registered in other similar professions.

But this deviant behaviour should not be ostensibly presented as a filthy crime that only exists in the Catholic Church.

Most importantly, although it is right to expose evil in the Church, one must not turn a blind eye to “the shining ray of goodness and purity that the Christian faith has brought light to the world over the centuries … It is as true today as it was yesterday that faith inspires unselfish love, service to others, sincerity and justice.”

It’s interesting to see, here, Benedict making points that he apparently didn’t feel free to make when he was pope.

He never pointed out, for example, the fact that the paedophilia is apparently as common outside the priesthood as in it. He also never spoke about his own actions, saying, “I have never tried to cover these things up.”

Instead, when he was pope, he avoided anything that could have looked like defensiveness and that would have risked turning the story into something about him or that could look like blaming others (that is, an “Other people are just as bad”) statement.

He stopped at acknowledging sin in the Church and the need to cleanse it and provide compassion for the victims.

I can’t help thinking this change in what he’s willing to say is due to the fact that he’s no longer pope and can speak more freely.

7) What the sharpest Benedict got in the letter?

The sharpest passage comes in a discussion of Odifreddi’s remarks on what we can know about Jesus.

This is really stunning:

“The remarks you make about Jesus are not worthy of your scientific standing.

Presenting Jesus as if we knew nothing about Him and as though nothing certain could be said about his status as a historical figure, I can only advise you and strongly so, to be a little bit more thorough in your historical research.

I especially recommend you to read the four volume work co-written by Martin Hengel (an exegete of the Faculty of Protestant theology at Tübingen university) and Maria Schwemer.

It is an excellent example of historical precision and extensive historical information.

In comparison to this, your comments about Jesus appear rash and should not be repeated.”

Wow! I’ve never seen Benedict be that harsh.

No doubt the liberty with which he feels he can express himself here also relates to his retirement. For a pope to have made such comments would have undermined the positive face for Christianity that he was trying to project.

Incidentally, a quick check suggests that the four-volume work by Hengel and Schwemer has not been translated into English. (Rats!)


8) What did Benedict say about the antichrist?

Apparently Odifreddi referred to a speech that then-Cardinal Ratzinger gave in 1988 in which he touched upon Russian author Vladimir Soloviev’s work A Short History of the Antichrist.

In the talk, Cardinal Ratzinger stated:

In Vladimir Soloviev's History of the Antichrist, the eschatological enemy of the Redeemer recommended himself to believers, among other things, by the fact that he had earned his doctorate in theology at Tübingen and had written an exegetical work which was recognized as pioneering in the field. The Antichrist, a famous exegete! With this paradox Soloviev sought to shed light on the ambivalence inherent in biblical exegetical methodology for almost a hundred years now.

Odifreddi apparently accused Benedict of saying that all critical study of the Bible is an instrument of antichrist, but this was not his intent, as he made clear in his new letter:

Although Ratzinger admitted that the critical interpretation was lacking in parts, he firmly rejected Odifreddi’s accusation that he (Ratzinger) had apparently presented the historical and critical exegesis as an instrument of the antichrist.

“By talking about Jesus’ temptations I was merely referring to Soloviev’s theory, according to which historical and critical interpretation can also be used by the antichrist – this is an indisputable fact.”

That certainly would seem to be the case from the Gospels, where the devil tries to tempt Jesus by quoting various passages of Scripture to him. As the saying goes: The devil can quote Scripture to his own purposes.

And it’s certainly true that some modern exegetes have twisted Scripture in anti-Christian directions.


9) What else does Benedict say?

According to La Stampa, he poses some questions for Odifreddi to ponder:

Ratzinger ends his letter by asking some questions rather than answering them.

“If you want to replace God with “Nature”, the question remains as to who or what this nature is. At no point do you provide a definition of it. This makes it seem like some irrational divinity  which does not explain anything.”

“I would like to point out, however, that in your religion of mathematics, there are three elements of human existence which you do not discuss: freedom, love and evil. I am amazed to see that you have completely left freedom out, when it is a core value of our modern age.”

There is no mention of love or evil in Odifreddi’s book either.

“No matter what neurobiology may or may not say about freedom, it plays a determining role in the real drama of human history and must be taken into consideration. But your mathematical religion offers no information about evil. Any religion that ignores these fundamental questions is empty.”

Let’s hope we get the full text of the letter soon, and that we get more glimpses into Benedict’s ongoing thought and literary efforts!


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