Faith, non-believers, and conscience: Pope Francis’ “Letter to the Editor”

In an extraordinary personal letter published in Italy’s left-leaning daily La Repubblica, Pope Francis answers questions posed by the paper’s atheist founder, Eugenio Scalfari, about the demands of faith and the attitude of the Church toward non-believers.

Over the summer, Scalfari published an article in La Repubblica in which he asked Pope Francis several questions about faith, stemming from the Holy Father’s recently released encyclical, Lumen Fidei, and particularly concerned with the position of the un-believer with regard to religious faith. In his detailed response, published in La Repubblica today, the Holy Father first described his personal experience of faith, and then addressed Scalfari’s specific questions. Below are some excerpts from Pope Francis’ letter, which can be read in full (in a less-than-perfect English translation) at La Repubblica’s website.

On his own faith:

For me, faith began by meeting with Jesus.  A personal meeting that touched my heart and gave a direction and a new meaning to my existence.  At the same time, however, a meeting that was made possible by the community of faith in which I lived and thanks to which I found access to the intelligence of the Sacred Scriptures, to the new life that comes from Jesus like gushing water through the Sacraments, to fraternity with everyone and to the service to the poor, which is the real image of the Lord. Believe me, without the Church I would never have been able to meet Jesus, in spite of the knowledge that the immense gift of faith is kept in the fragile clay vases of our humanity. 

Now, thanks to this personal experience of faith experienced in Church, I feel comfortable in listening to your questions and together with you, will try to find a way to perhaps walk along a path together.

On the essence of Christian faith, and how the Incarnation sets Christianity apart from other religions:

Christian faith believes in this: that Jesus is the Son of God who came to give his life to open the way to love for everyone.  Therefore there is a reason, dear Dr. Scalari, when you see the incarnation of the Son of God as the pivot of Christian faith.  Tertullian wrote “caro cardo salutis”, the flesh (of Christ) is the pivot of salvation. Because the incarnation, that is the fact that the Son of God has come into our flesh and has shared joy and pain, victories and defeat of our existence, up to the cry of the cross, living each event with love and in the faith of AbbÀ, shows the incredible love that God has for every man, the priceless value that he acknowledges. For this reason, each of us is called to accept the view and the choice of love made by Jesus, become a part of his way of being, thinking and acting.  This is faith, with all the expressions that have been dutifully described in the Encyclical. 

…I would say that the originality [of Christianity] lies in the fact that faith allows us to participate, in Jesus, in the relationship that He has with God who is AbbÀ and, because of this, in the relationship that He has with all other men, including enemies, in the sign of love. In other words, the children of Jesus, as Christian faith presents us, are not revealed to mark an insuperable separation between Jesus and all the others:  but to tell us that, in Him, we are all called to be the children of the only Father and brothers with each other. The uniqueness of Jesus is for communication not for exclusion.

Of course a consequence of this is also  –  and this is not a minor thing  –  that distinction between the religious sphere which is confirmed by “Give to God what belongs to God and give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar”, distinctly confirmed  by Jesus and upon which, the history  of the Western world was built. In fact, the Church is called to sow the yeast and salt of the Gospel, and that is the love and mercy of God which reaches all men, indicating the other-worldly and definite destination of our destiny, while civil and political society has the difficult duty to express and embody a life that is evermore human in justice, in solidarity, in law and in peace. For those who experience the Christian faith, this does not mean escaping from the world or looking for any kind of supremacy, but being at the service of mankind, of all mankind and all men, starting from the outskirts of history and keeping the sense of hope alive pushing for goodness in spite of everything and always looking beyond.

On the non-believer, God’s mercy, and the personal conscience should play in the moral decisions of non-believers:

It would seem to me that in the first two [questions], what you are most interested in is understanding the Church’s attitude towards those who do not share faith in Jesus.  First of all, you ask if the God of the Christians forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith.  Given that  –  and this is fundamental  –  God’s mercy has no limits if he who asks for mercy does so in contrition and with a sincere heart, the issue for those who do not believe in God is in obeying their own conscience.  In fact, listening and obeying it, means deciding about what is perceived to be good or to be evil.  The goodness or the wickedness of our behavior depends on this decision. 

Second of all, you ask if the thought, according to which no absolute exists and therefore not even an absolute truth, but only a series of relative and subjective truths, is a mistake or a sin.  To start, I would not speak about, not even for those who believe, an “absolute” truth, in the sense that absolute is something untied, something lacking any relationship.  Now, the truth is a relationship!  This is so true that each of us sees the truth and expresses it, starting from oneself: from one’s history and culture, from the situation in which one lives, etc.  This does not mean that the truth is variable and subjective. It means that it is given to us only as a way and a life.  Was it not Jesus himself who said:  “I am the way, the truth, the life”?  In other words, the truth is one with love, it requires humbleness and the opening to be [sought], listened to and expressed.  Therefore we must understand the terms well and perhaps, in order to overcome the difficulties of an absolute contrast, reformulate the question.  I think that today this is absolutely necessary in order to have a serene and constructive dialogue which I hoped for from the beginning.

Read the full letter here.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Catherine Harmon 577 Articles
Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.