The Pope Emeritus and the Questioning Atheist

A recently released letter by Benedict XVI confronts and challenges several faulty premises of militant atheism

“Distinguished Professor, my critique of your book [Dear Pope, I’m Writing to You (2011)], is, in part, tough. However, frankness is a part of dialogue. Only thus can knowledge grow. You have been very frank and so you will accept that I am, too. In any case, however, I consider it very positive that you, in confronting my Introduction to Christianity, have sought such an open dialogue with the faith of the Catholic Church and that, despite its contrasts, at the centre of it all, convergences are not completely lacking.

— Benedict XVI, “Letter to an Atheist” (National Catholic Register, November 26, 2013)


In September, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica published a letter of Pope Benedict to Professor Piergiorgio Odifreddi. The whole of this letter was finally published in English in the National Catholic Register on November 27. In 2011, Odifreddi had published a book in the form of an open letter to the Pope about his understanding of the Pope’s position on various basic issues. Obviously, it took some time for Benedict to get around to reading and responding to this critique of his work and thought. Evidently, after his retirement, Benedict found time to read and respond to Odifreddi’s comments.

The whole issue follows the format that we have become used to, even with Pope Francis. The atheist professor analyzes religion, particularly Catholicism, from the viewpoint of modern philosophy or science. He finds it wanting on fundamental points. The three-page response by the Pope Emeritus is divided into six parts; pages of Odifreddi’s or Benedict’s books are cited in the text. Both authors are aware that this discussion between them is now public. The books are published. All that is lacking is a response of Pope Ratzinger himself. Evidently, he thought the book of sufficient gravity to merit attention, though the Pope says that he is not up to a more thorough analysis than he provides in his letter.

One cannot help, initially, to remark on the presence and use of the principle of contradiction, the basic intellectual tool or principle, in the argumentation. Benedict thanks Odifreddi for the “faithful manner in which you dealt with my text, earnestly seeing to do it justice.” However, he begins by remarking, “I marvel that you interpret my choices to go beyond the perception of the senses in order to perceive reality in its grandeur as an ‘explicit denial of the principle of reality’ or as ‘mystical psychosis.’” The reason Benedict “marvels” at this basic position (that what is beyond the senses is, in Odifreddi’s words, a denial of the principle of reality) is that Odifreddi himself has said the same thing. The professor had stated that the methods of natural sciences “transcend the limitations of the human senses.” Benedict was saying the same thing, that is, reality is more than what is given or known by our senses, though our senses are in reality, in what is.

Odifreddi had remarked that “mathematics has a deep affinity with religion.” He added that “true religiosity today is to be found more in science than in philosophy.” This view, Benedict quickly points out, “is certainly open to discussion.” Not so fast, in other words. Odifreddi had presented his view as “true religiosity”; he then goes on to state that this “true religiosity” has to renounce an “anthropomorphism,” a God understood as a person. Rationality would be higher. Odifreddi concluded, “drastically,” as Benedict describes it, that “math and science are the only true religion. The rest is superstition.” This is clearly a rationalist position and an implicit denial of the basic Christian understanding of Logos, of reason. It does not come to grips with rationalism’s own need to be grounded in real being.

How does Benedict deal with this view? He understands how Odifreddi can think that the Logos, as a person that grounds being, can be seen as man-centered. For Christians, Odifreddi’s primacy of abstract reason over personal being is a reduction, not an expansion of being. It goes from being to reason, not from reason to being. Benedict cites Pseudo-Dionysius who tells us that philosophers see the Biblical God as revulsion. They think it inadequate, probably because they have Greek gods in mind, and not the Trinitarian understanding of God as Persons.


Next, Odifreddi wrote that theology is mere “science fiction.” To this response the Pope Emeritus responds amusingly: “Why then did you bother with my book if you thought it was fiction?” True to his Germanic mind, the Pope clarifies this issue for Odifreddi with four points. 1) While we can say mathematics is a true science, still even within mathematics we must distinguish “mathematics and geometry.”Scientific method in any field requires a) verifiable method, b) exclusion of arbitrariness and c) the observance of the levels of being and reason. In this sense, the Pope says, theology “has produced lasting results.” It cannot be simply passed off as fiction.

2) A basic function of theology is to “keep religion tied to reason and reason to religion.” This point is an echo of the “Regensburg Lecture,” on the fact that Christianity first dealt with reason before other religions. This understanding grounds its capacity to deal with all rational beings. By themselves, both reason and religion can go wrong. They need each other’s critical presence. Science fiction exists also in science. Many scientific theories about the beginning and end of the world are nothing less than myths. Benedict cites several solemn positions of scientists that are simply fiction.

3) Evidently, Odifreddi had used the child abuse issue as a club against religion. Benedict is as dismayed as anyone on these issues. He points out that statistically the incidence of priests who abuse is according to the average of all professions. Furthermore, the Church is a church of sinners. It is designed precisely to deal with sin. That is what it is for. To expect that no one will sin is both blind and lacks perception. But if we are going to talk of the evils found in the Church, we must also talk of the good found in it. Both belong in the same world. We must also talk of the beauty that has resulted from religion. “If you were to take away everything that has resulted from these, it would cause far-reaching social collapse.”

4) Benedict then takes the gloves off, as it were. “What you (Odifreddi) say about the person of Jesus is not worthy of your scientific standing.” This blunt statement comes from the author of the three volume Jesus of Nazareth, a book that covers the existing scholarship and issues about the reality and nature of Jesus of Nazareth. Basically, Benedict tells Odifreddi to go and study the issues before making totally uninformed statements. He even tells Odifreddi what to read—four volumes by the Protestant Scripture scholar, Martin Hengel, who teaches at Tübingen. The Pope Emeritus adds: “What you say about Jesus is rash talk that should not be repeated.” We presume Professor Odifreddi got the point.


Benedict acknowledges that much silliness has been written by Scriptural exegetes over the last couple of centuries. Many authors search for the Jesus their theories want rather than investigating the Jesus who actually existed. Other scholarship, however, has indeed brought us “true and certain knowledge about the proclamation of the Gospel and the figure of Jesus.” To Odifreddi’s supposition that Jesus was a “charlatan who seduced innocent people,” Benedict said that “respect for what others hold as a sacred reality should restrain you from such insults.”

Evidently, Odifreddi said that Ratzinger portrayed the “historical-critical method as the work of the Antichrist.” Actually, Ratzinger had merely said that, according to the famous Russian philosopher, Soloviev, the Antichrist could use this method. This is just a fact. Benedict explains that in the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth he had said this method is necessary for a “faith that does not propose myths.” Christianity is historical; it is open to careful historical investigation. Myths are not claims to reality in the same way. Ratzinger is not just concerned with “meta-history.” Rather, Ratzinger’s own scholarship is “aimed at showing that the Jesus described in the Gospels is also the real historical Jesus, that it is history that actually occurs.” Jesus is not a myth. He did live at a certain time and place. The evidence indicates that “He is who He said He was.” No solid evidence attests to anything else. If new evidence comes up, it will be examined in the same careful way, as historical fact, with evidence.

As a good Augustinian scholar, Benedict also tells Odifreddi that he really does not understand Augustine’s two famous statements. “Credo ut ingelligam” and “Intelligo ut credam.” These two statements belong together. The Pope Emeritus tells the Professor to read an essay of Eugene TeSell in the Augustinus-Lexikon to get it straight. We believe in order also that we might understand. We understand in order that we might believe. When we understand all that we can, we see the need for belief in what still remains mysterious to us. Revelation is what provides this intelligibility. Finally, Benedict tells the Professor that he really needs to be more careful—more scholarly!—when it comes to historical statements, as Odifreddi had confused the story of the Nile turning to blood with the Eucharist.

Evidently, Odifreddi had thought that Ratzinger was using the Nicene Creed in his book, but in fact he was using the older Apostles’ Creed. Odifreddi had also cited the passage from John 1:1 in a strange way. He has proposed exchanging the word “God” in the Creed for “Nature”. This change forces us to ask just who or what is this “nature”? It is not defined and appears as a sort of “irrational divinity.” But this account “explains nothing.”

Benedict then concludes by noting that in Odifreddi’s religion of mathematics three terms necessary for human living make no appearance. They are “freedom, love, and evil.” The Pope Emeritus chides the Professor gently since “freedom” is the core idea of the “modern age,” but we have no place for it in mathematics. Odifreddi’s mathematical religion “ignores” love and gives no information about evil. To this lack, Benedict simply says: “A religion that neglects these fundamental questions is empty.” It is perfectly all right to write a book to criticize a pope. But one must have his facts right, his logic clear, and his scope broad. Professor Odifreddi, the atheist, was pretty well set right mostly on his own terms.

There may be a case for atheism, but this professor did not make it. There is a case for Christianity; Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI quite clearly made it.

About James V. Schall, S.J. 153 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press). Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.