Pope Francis met with media

I wrote yesterday that I was optimistic about Pope Francis, particularly when it comes to what seems to be a shift to the left on economic issues and aid for the poor. But I also expressed some hope that he’d continue the interfaith commitments he demonstrated as a cardinal.

I was unsure, though, whether this ecumenical spirit would extend across faith lines to nonbelievers as well. It so happens, though, that yesterday, during a meeting with leaders from various religious groups, Francis assuaged a bit of my concerns. The National Catholic Review Online reports:

Ending his remarks, Francis said he also “feel[s] close to all men and women who, although not claiming to belong to any religious tradition, still feel themselves to be in search of truth, goodness and beauty.”

They, the pope said, “are our precious allies in the effort to defend human dignity, in building a peaceful coexistence between peoples, and in carefully protecting creation.”

As someone who cares about finding and promoting truth, goodness, and beauty, I’ve got to say I find these comments fairly encouraging. And the (notably secular) goals Francis mentions are well worth promoting, even if we might have some disagreements here and there about what they might actually entail. These comments echo a lot of the importance of interfaith work and religious pluralism, and I think these things are important to affect genuine and meaningful social change. So I think some of my optimism has been somewhat validated.

Religion News Services expands on Francis’s comments a bit, though, and that does give me some apprehension:

Francis echoed his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, saying that the “attempt to eliminate God and the divine from the horizon of humanity” has often led to catastrophic violence.

So it seems that Francis doesn’t present a complete break from Benedict’s tendency to hold secularization as the culprit for many of the problems in the world. So we still might have some room to quibble, it might seem.

Ultimately, though, it’s tough to generalize broadly from so few quotes so early, and it’s true that talk is relatively cheap. So while I have some optimism—though obviously not without some reservations—I’m still waiting to see how his commitments and comments hold over time, and relate to future policy.

It also seems that I’m not the only atheist optimistic about the new papacy. Jake Wallis Simons writes for the Telegraph:

This is a man who pays his own hotel bills, travels by bus and jeep, wades out into the crowds unguarded, and makes his own telephone calls. (Yesterday, he telephoned the main number of a Jesuit residence in Rome. The receptionist, upon hearing the identity of the caller, responded “yeah, and I’m Napoleon”.) This might seem like no great shakes, but given the luxury normally showered upon his office, it takes guts.

In other words, whatever one may think of his views, the Pope has genuine humility. This is such an unusual quality these days that it is like a beacon, outshining our reservations about him. Indeed, the term “Jesuit”, formerly associated with tyrannical school regimes and sadism in the public imagination, has started to be rehabilitated.

False humility can be spotted a mile off, of course, and we are all used to doing that. But Pope Francis has proved that authentic humility can be just as immediately visible. This most straightforward of qualities has been absent from public life for so long that we have almost forgotten it were possible. If our politicians had a bit of this to offer, the world would be a very different place.

If nothing else, I can’t say I disagree.

h/t to commenter “JM” for the link.

Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

  • JM

    I would suggest that Pope Francis’ – and indeed, Benedict XVI’s – statements about secularism and atheism may be less problematic than they seem superficially. Let’s consider Pope Francis’ statements together: he indicates that people in search of “truth”, “beauty” and “goodness” are allies of Christians, while maintaining that the obliteration of God entirely results is enormous social problems.

    For the Christian, “truth” and “beauty” and “goodness” are indeed divine attributes. To the Christian perspective, anyone who affirms the pursuit of these qualities is engaging in some kind of “theism”; hence the critical characterization by Francis of Christian allies as “not claiming to belong to any religious tradition” rather than being outright atheist.

    Here’s John Paul II articulating this view in his encyclical Fides et Ratio:

    “The Apostle accentuates a truth which the Church has always treasured: in the far reaches of the human heart there is a seed of desire and nostalgia for God. The Liturgy of Good Friday recalls this powerfully when, in praying for those who do not believe, we say: “Almighty and eternal God, you created mankind so that all might long to find you and have peace when you are found”.(22) There is therefore a path which the human being may choose to take, a path which begins with reason’s capacity to rise beyond what is contingent and set out towards the infinite.

    In different ways and at different times, men and women have shown that they can articulate this intimate desire of theirs. Through literature, music, painting, sculpture, architecture and every other work of their creative intelligence they have declared the urgency of their quest. In a special way philosophy has made this search its own and, with its specific tools and scholarly methods, has articulated this universal human desire.” (Fides et Ratio, 24).

    To the Catholic mind, striving for “truth” through philosophy and “beauty” through art reflect a fundamental human orientation toward God and a recognition of His existence. Yet most American atheists, in general, affirm “truth” and “beauty” and “goodness”! What gives?

    This hearkens back to your discussion of correct definitions for atheism and agnosticism. I think that while you managed to draw intelligent distinctions between agnosticism and atheism given any particular definition of God, I’m not convinced that your notion of God was completely spelled out. Presumably, to the Catholic, “that which is up for rejection” in the atheist framework is different from what the atheist actually rejects.

    Hence Benedict XVI’s statements regarding total atheism:

    “As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a “reductive vision of the person and his destiny” (Caritas in Veritate, 29).”

    His major critique of secularism lies in its modern tendency to “relativize” all truth claims and the indifference to morals/truths that this attitude engenders. I’m not going to hunt for citations or quotes, but this is an astonishing thread of agreement between Benedict XVI and, of all people, Sam Harris (Caritas in Veritate, The End of Faith). That Benedict would demand “citizenship status” for the Christian religion in the Western public square is functionally equivalent to demanding that anyone who wishes to seek or know “truth” should have a spot at the table; he condemns both relativism and religious fundamentalism on this count.

    It cannot be argued that Nazism and Stalinist Communism represent anything less than a complete moral nihilism. NPS and most American atheists do hold moral principles – they value individual liberty, and they value human life, and they value art and music. I think, therefore, that the Popes are indicting a specific style of “atheism” that rejects more intrinsic aspects of the Catholic understanding of God than the average American atheist does.

    More generally, I think that an ill-defined concept of “God” is one of the most important hurdles to jump in ensuring terms aren’t abused when engaging in interfaith discussions. That’s a place where a whole lot of work needs doing.