The Heart of Bergoglio

The Italian newspaper La Repubblica released a new interview with Pope Francis yesterday, probably timed to coincide with his meeting over three days this week with the eight cardinals (“G-8”) he selected to advise him on reforming the Curia and the governance of the Church. As in the past, he uses phrases that make you worry – as well as think. And unfortunately, it’s looking more and more like he will continue to do that as long as he’s pope. But what emerged most notably in this interview was his wisdom of heart, sapientia cordis, which, it seems, can reach even the most settled skeptic.

Let’s get two of those troubling phrases out of the way. The first might be just a quibble. In conversation with Eugenio Scalfari, a noted Italian journalist who is also a well-known non-believer (but addressed several questions to the pope in a column), Francis denies at the start that he’s trying to convert him, because “Proselytism is solemn nonsense.” This is a perilous way to express a real truth.

Most ordinary people won’t be able to distinguish between what Francis is talking about – an overbearing proselytism – and a proper effort to convert. The Prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus, the Apostles, and innumerable great spiritual figures throughout history all seem to have undertaken the latter – “repent and believe the Good News.” Most people will see this as the pope saying it’s fine to believe whatever they like.

In fact, he says that, more or less: “Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight the evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”

This, of course, is not true. Nazis, racists, abortionists, eugenicists, promoters of euthanasia, jihadists and terrorists of all kinds, and various other unfortunate human types all believe they’re right. They’re wrong. And no one in his right mind, let alone the pope, wants them to follow their own conception of good and evil. It won’t make the world a better place.

Such statements are ill formulated. Pope Francis meant to say by the first – and illustrates the point beautifully in the interview – that, at least in certain situations, it does no good to start out by arguing with people. There’s a need to establish a human contact, to understand one another, for a certain human trust to emerge, especially with people who think they already know all they need to about Christianity.

And the second assertion was meant, to put it more precisely, as saying that people need to be encouraged to look more deeply and to act more fully on what they believe to be the Truth. Presumably, Francis is thinking of persons of ordinary good will, as well as hoping that those with faulty, but not irremediable views will come to greater sense of the right and true.

In the flow of the moment, he didn’t get either exactly right – as has often now been the case when he’s thinking on his feet, which he admits he’s not comfortable doing. Yet what he did may be even more important.

Most of what he says about the Church, poverty, mission, women, etc., has been said before and will no doubt occupy most of the commentary to come. But it gets interesting when he turns to Scalfari himself, once a believer, and asks:

you, a secular non-believer in God, what do you believe in? You are a writer and a man of thought. You believe in something, you must have a dominant value. Dont answer me with words like honesty, seeking, the vision of the common good, all important principles and values but that is not what I am asking. I am asking what you think is the essence of the world, indeed the universe. You must ask yourself, of course, like everyone else, who we are, where we come from, where we are going. Even children ask themselves these questions. And you?

That seems an eruption of the real fire at the heart of Jorge Bergoglio, compared to which the verbal slips dissolve like a morning mist. And he got to the heart of Scalfari, who had said earlier when he read Descartes’ “I think therefore I am,” his faith slowly evaporated. 

Now, Francis, who knows a bit of philosophy, replied that Descartes never denied “faith in a transcendent God.” Which is true. He also told Scalfari that he has a soul – whether he believes that or not. And that his soul is touched by grace, even as an unbeliever. So much for not proselytizing or seeking to convert.

But even more remarkably, after the questions in the long passage quoted above, the pope gets Scalfari to say what he believes in: Being. And what is this Being? Scalfari delivers himself of this rodomontade:

Being is a fabric of energy. Chaotic but indestructible energy and eternal chaos. Forms emerge from that energy when it reaches the point of exploding. The forms have their own laws, their magnetic fields, their chemical elements, which combine randomly, evolve, and are eventually extinguished but their energy is not destroyed. Man is probably the only animal endowed with thought, at least in our planet and solar system. I said that he is driven by instincts and desires but I would add that he also contains within himself a resonance, an echo, a vocation of chaos.
So there it is, out in the open. There’s one expression of the knotted modern explanation of man and the universe. Compared to that, Baroque theological disputes look warm, cheerful, and inviting.

Read the whole interview. The human interactions are splendid and the final result sheer delight. I’m willing to bet Eugenio Scalfari never thought that in his declining years he’d be drawn into an interchange like this, which will stay with him forever now – and with us.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.