The Pope’s Chat With An Atheist

The recent "La Repubblica" interview with Francis touches on many topics, not always with clarity or precision

“St. Paul is the one who laid down the cornerstone of our religion and our creed. You cannot be a conscious Christian without St. Paul. He translated the teachings of Christ into a doctrinal structure that, even with the addition of a vast number of thinkers, theologians and pastors has resisted (change?) and still exists after two thousand years. Then there are Augustine, Benedict, and Thomas, and Ignatius. Naturally Francis. Do I need to explain why?”

— Pope Francis, Interview with Eugenio Scalfari, La Repubblica, Rome, October 1, 2013.


Pope Francis seems to be churning out interviews, phone calls, letters, audiences, homilies, and encyclicals—along with official business—faster than most of us can keep track of. Hardly had the dust settled from discussions on his interview with La Civilta Cattolica than a second interview appeared in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. This second interview was with the founder of the newspaper, Eugenio Scalfari, a well-known philosopher and figure in Rome, one who tells us that he is not a believer, though he was once baptized, made his first communion, and even went on an Ignatian long retreat under the Jesuits.

By now, we have seen, read, or listened to the new Pope enough to have gained some perspective on what he is saying. Everyone acknowledges that he has a knack for drawing attention to himself. His criticism of Vatican “clericalism” falls into the “man bites dog” category of newspaper headlines. His style of life and ways of getting around are by now well known—the bus, the inexpensive automobile, the bare room, the dislike of ceremony. We see him constantly reaching out to people; he wants to touch them, talk to them. He seems impatient with the limits of the human condition. We know his economics on poverty, his politics of no war is good, and his unwillingness to judge. He wants everyone to be a missionary and worries that the children in Buenos Aires do not know how to make the Sign of the Cross.

This second interview is a chatty one. It resulted from the Pope responding to a letter from Scalfari. In fact, Francis just called up Scalfari’s office and made an appointment for the journalist to visit him in his quarters in the Casa Santa Marta. While the two were not old friends, their conversation was relaxed and frank. In words that have reverberated around the world, the Pope told Scalfari that the two most “serious” problems in the world are youth unemployment and loneliness of the old. Scalfari tells the Pope that these are really “political, and economic problems for states, governments, political parties, and trade unions.” The social doctrine of the Church has long stressed that it has no competence in these matters. The Pope admits this but says that we must be concerned with such problems. He adds that there are other problems but such are the “most urgent” ones. But exactly what the Pope’s economic and political theory would be to solve the problems of youth unemployment and old age is never really addressed.

The conversation begins with a jocular exchange about who is “converting” whom. Scalfari suggests he is not convertible. The first thing, in Francis’s view, is to get to know one another before any talk of “conversion” might come up. We cannot approve of forced conversions. So they talk of the Good. In words that sound like Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Pope says: “Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must chose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.” Nothing is mentioned here about contradictory notions of good and evil or those that conceive their good as my evil. We are thus left with a certain vagueness about the implications of this understanding. After all, Hobbes gave pretty much the same description of human nature but thought the absolute state was the only cure.

When asked what this “good” means and whether the Church is doing anything about it, the Pope replies that we are to love our neighbor.

The Son of God became incarnate in the souls of men to instill the feeling of brotherhood. All are brothers and all children of God, Abba, as He called the Father. I will show you the way, he said. Follow me and you will find the Father and you will be his children and he will take delight in you. Agape, the love of each one of us for the other, from the closest to the furthest, is in fact the only way that Jesus has given us to find the way of salvation and of the Beatitudes.

Whether it is quite accurate to say that “the Son of God became incarnate in the souls of men,” as the English translation has it, can be wondered about. Christ was one divine person, true God and true Man, body and soul. We are adopted sons of God. We are to become other Christs, but we do not become divine persons. Actually, the English translation of the Pope’s Italian text should read: “The Son of God was incarnate in order to instill in the souls of men a feeling of brotherhood.” This is much more accurate, though we are not only to have a “feeling” of brotherhood, but are to actually love our brothers. Our persons, souls and bodies, are led through the Incarnation, life, and Cross of Christ to Resurrection and eternal life.

The Pope uses the phrase, the “leprosy of the papacy.” To what does this phrase refer? The Curia? The Pope explains that he is not talking about the Curia. “The Curia is what in an army is called the quartermaster’s office; it manages the services that serve the Holy See. But it has one defect. It is Vatican-centric.” It looks to itself and not outwards. Yet, the Church functions. “I would not been able to have complete faith in God and in the Son if I had not been trained in the Church and if I had not had the good fortune of being in Argentina, in a community without which I would not have become aware myself and my faith.”

Scalfari asks about the Pope’s experience with communism. Francis tells of a woman he knew who was communist, but he was not attracted to it, especially after he learned of the social doctrine of the Church. The lady was later tortured and killed by the dictators in Argentina. He is asked about liberation theology. He responds simply by saying that many who held it were “believers and with a high concept of humanity.” Of course, almost all modern ideologues have this high concept. The real question is: where does it lead them?


Scalfari then talks of his own intellectual background. He won a catechetical prize and made the First Friday devotions. But later on, in high school, he read Descartes. The famous phrase, “I think therefore I am,” seemed to convert him. The “I” seemed to free him. The Pope tells Scalfari that Descartes did not deny the faith. The Pope judges that Scafari is a “non-believer but not anti-clerical.” The Pope adds that he himself is anti-clerical. What the Pope seems to mean by “clerical” is someone who is only interested in the interests of clerics. Thus, he says that St. Paul was not “clerical” because he spoke to “Gentiles, the pagans, and the believers in other religions.” Yet, it was this same St. Paul who “translated the teachings of Christ into a doctrinal structure.” Evidently, to teach doctrine is not clerical.

The conversation turns to the name and figure of St. Francis. The Pope says that Augustine and Francis are the two figures “closest to his soul.” He naturally also likes Ignatius of Loyola, who was a “reformer and a mystic.” He adds: “A religion without mystics is a philosophy.” Then, Scalfari asks whether the Pope is a mystic. The Pope doubts that he is. He defines a mystic in this way: “The mystic manages to strip himself of action, of facts, objectives and even the pastoral mission and rises until he reaches communion with Beatitude. Brief moments but which fill an entire life.”

When asked, the Pope admitted that such moments rarely happened to him, though when he was elected, he recalls, he asked for a moment to think. The image of Caravaggio’s painting of the call of St. Matthew came to him. There Christ pointed to the Tax Collector as if to say “Yes, you!” The Pope took this to mean that he should accept the burden of office.

But why is St. Francis great? “He is a man who wants to do everything, wants to build, he founded an order and its rules; he is an iterant and a missionary, a poet, and a prophet; he is mystical. He found evil in himself and rooted it out. He loves nature, animals, the blade of grass on the lawn and the birds flying in the sky. But above all he loved people, children, old people, women. He is a most shining example of agape.” If we watch him, this description of St. Francis seems to be the model of Pope’s Francis’ own actions. Scalfari wonders why the Pope’s predecessor never chose the name Francis. Scalfari adds that he thinks after Francis, no one else will choose to be Pope Francis II. The Pope simply says: “We do not know that.” It is a little bit like asking Benedict XV whether he thought there would be a Benedict XVI.

Francis then speaks of his affection for Augustine, especially the Confessions. The Pope thinks that Augustine saw the Church very differently from Paul. Augustine thought himself to be powerless before the face of God. His soul was “less than it needed to be.” He understood the need of grace in his life. “Someone who is not touched by grace may be a person without blemish and without fear, as they say, but he will never be a person who has found grace. This is Augustine’s insight.” What perhaps needs to be added is that, with grace, we see things even in reason that we would not otherwise see without it.

Scalfari asks if Francis feels that he is touched by grace. “No one can know that,” the Pope responds. “Grace is not a part of consciousness. It is the amount of light in our souls, not knowledge, not reason.” The Pope then turns to Scalfari to add: “Even you, without knowing it, could be touched by grace.” The Holy Spirit acts where He wills. We have to believe that grace is, in some sense, offered to everyone if each of us is to attain the supernatural end for which we are created in the first place. The Pope adds that Scalfari also has a soul.

What about the decline in Church membership? The Pope replies that “being a minority is a strength.” How does the Pope look at Vatican II? “Vatican II decided to look to the future with a modern spirit and to be open to modern culture. The Council Fathers knew that being open to modern culture meant religious ecumenism and dialogue with non-believers. But afterwards very little was done in that direction. I have the humility and ambition to want to do something.” Evidently, this summary is what the Pope thinks of the reigns of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, both of whom were aware that modern culture was not neutral so that conforming to it, in its philosophical premises, often meant rejecting the faith.

The Pope is very strong on the Second Great Commandment. But he thinks there is too much selfishness, though he does not mention the problem of Original Sin in everyone. The Pope says that he is “Bishop of Rome and the Pope of the Catholic world,” but he is not Francis of Assisi. How does he address politics? “Political institutions are secular by definition and operate in independent spheres…. I believe that Catholics involved in politics carry the values of their religion within them but have the mature awareness and expertise to implement them. The Church will never go beyond its task of expressing and disseminating its values, at least as long as I am here.” One might wonder how the Pope reconciles this statement with the active and noble part he himself took in protecting people from the Argentine dictators.


The Pope then decides to put Scalfari on the spot. He wants to know what what the atheist interviewer actually believes. He does not want any vague answer like common good or honesty. As a self-confessed “secular non-believer,” what does he hold? Everyone must ask who he is, where we come from, and where are we going. Scalfari explains: “I believe in Being, that is in the tissues from which forms, bodies arise.” In contrast, Francis expresses what he believes: “I believe in God, not in a Catholic God, there is no Catholic God, there is God and I believe in Jesus Christ, his incarnation. Jesus is my teacher and my pastor, but God the Father, Abba, is the light and the Creator. This is my Being. Do you think we are very far apart?” One has to assume that not all explanations of God are equally valid. The Pope does not state the specific relation of Jesus Christ to the Father, only that He is his the Pope’s teacher and pastor. It is because Christ is the Word of the Father that he can be our teacher and pastor.

Scalfari next gives a rather odd explanation of what he means by Being. It is nothing like that of St. Thomas. “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.” Scalfari adds that man is alone in this solar system at least. Man has thought but “also contains within himself a resonance, an echo, a vocation of chaos.” One is tempted to call this gibberish, but the Pope simply repeats what he in turn thinks of God as light. In other words, if there is chaos, it has an order. Scalfari really does not explain where reason or order comes from. If it deals only with “chaos” just why an act can be called “reasonable” or “rational” is not clear. Scalfari thinks that the Pope’s explanation of light in our souls is “more an image of imminence than of transcendence.” Basically, the Pope responds that the light has to come from somewhere. Nothing can come from nothing.

The Pope judges that the discussion with Scalfari has been useful. They have found points of agreement; they agree that there is not enough love and men of good will must deal with these things. The Pope thinks an “unrestricted liberalism” only enables the strong to become stronger and the weak weaker. Francis has utopian streaks in him also: “We need great freedom, no discrimination, no demagoguery and a lot of love.” The Pope’s friend, St. Augustine, spent a lot of time telling us that these are noble aspirations—but not to expect them in this life. The Pope shows his political hand: “We need rules of conduct and also, if necessary, direct intervention from the state to correct the more intolerable inequalities.” He does not touch on the more modern and common problem when of the state itself causing these problems.

Finally, they discuss the books and movies that the Pope mentioned in the Civilta Cattolica interview that he liked. Francis said that he went to these films because his parents took him. Scalfari recommends two new films to him—Viva la Liberta and a movie on Fellini. Finally, Scalfari tells the Pope about his having made the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, but under duress to escape prison. The conversation ends. The Pope accompanies Scalfari to the door and expresses hope that they can continue their conversation; they still have to talk about women and Pascal. The Pope sends his blessing to Scafari’s family and asks their prayers for him.

Scafari’s final words are these: “This is Pope Francis. If the Church becomes like him and becomes what he wants, it will be an epochal change.” One might say that if the world is really the chaotic “Being” that Scalfari thinks that it is, the Church and everything else is all chaos anyhow. “The Light shineth in the darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not” (Jn 12:5)—we can leave it at that.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).