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Murky Metaphysics

At the conclusion of his three sessions with Pope Francis, the editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, Father Antonio Spadaro, commented: “In truth ours has been a conversation more than an interview.” I suspect that Eugenio Scalfari, the founder of La Repubblica and the Cardinal-dean of Italian “laicità,” would say the same of his encounter with the irrepressible Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

Aside from the particular ecclesiastical issues that have so absorbed the Press, both secular and religious, I find intriguing the more personal exchanges that made the session a real conversation. Thus, at a certain point, the Jesuit professor turns the tables and addresses the professional journalist:

But now let me ask you a question: 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. Don't 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?

And Scalfari replies:

I am grateful for this question. The answer is this: I believe in Being, that is in the fabric from which forms, bodies arise.

The Pope-Professor does not let him off the hook that easily and presses the issue: “But can you define what you call Being?”

The Italian rationalist (remember his professed devotion to Descartes) leaps blithely into the murky metaphysical ocean:

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.

And the Pope, eying the smartest student in the class, responds drily:

All right. I did not want you to give me a summary of your philosophy and what you have told me is enough for me.

perhaps thinking to himself: it’s a beginning; now I know my dialogue is with a disciple of Lucretius.

In the conversation with Father Spadaro, Pope Francis uttered the self-identification that echoed throughout the world: “I am a sinner.” But perhaps more self-revealing than that piece of heart-felt piety was his admission: “I am a little astute, a little naive” -- “un po furbo, un po ingenuo.”

The very competent translators for America render “furbo” as “astute.” But it seems to me that in ordinary usage “furbo” denotes something more. Perhaps “slyly clever” – dare one say: “Jesuitical.” In any case there is more going on in the conversation than the misleading headline in La Repubblica (Pope to Scalfari: “I Will Change the Church”) begins to suggest. Perhaps, proselytizing aside, the Pope may want to challenge and change the self-professed atheist – at least “un po.”

About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.



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As I was reading Scalfari's response to the Pope's question as to what he means by "Being" I found myself thinking, "Here is someone profoundly shaped in his metaphysical views by Star Wars." I am sure he is a very intelligent person, but his answer is the murkiest bunch of hooey I've read since... well, the last time I made the mistake of asking a first-year undergraduate to engage in metaphysical speculation.

Give me Aristotle... or Kant... or even Whitehead anyday.


Scalfari is politically "furbo" (I always appreciate reading his Sunday commentary on the Italian political scene – talk about "murky!"); but philosophically "ingenuo."

Those who understand Italian may enjoy this video in which he recounts the context of his "dialogue" (he keeps using the word) with Francis:

Two revelations:

In the telephone conversation Scalfari told the Pope he had read the interview in Civiltà Cattolica. Francis asked him: "did it put you to sleep?"

Secondly, the Pope's telephone call was in response to a private letter from Scalfari saying that he would love to meet the Pope, never expecting it would be responded to so soon and that the meeting would be so substantive a dialogue and at such length (an hour and fifteen minutes).

Fritz - I agree!  

I think this comment is pertinent to this discussion - [when it comes to metaphysics, I'm never really sure what people are talking about]:

Francesco saying "Remember that the Church is feminine" ...  Reminds me of a wise old Holy Cross Brother at ND long ago who once announced to our class:  "Gentlemen, always be a spiritual Semite.  Always, remain metaphysically feminine."


When is metaphysics not murky? It's not as if no one has ever made objections to scholastic philosophy and its talk of form, essence, accidents, act, potential and on and on. 

I can't work up much fervor for a fabric of energy. Maybe it depends on who's wearing it.

Yes, Scalfari is a latter-day Lucretius.  The sum of the cosmos-reality-Being that he describes is the world of the materialists in Nagel's "Mind and Cosmos", i.e., atomism with a modern substrate of energy with the whole ending in pointless evolution,

Although the Pope states in the interview with Scalfari that he's not seeking to convert his interlocutor, I think the Pope is up to the challenge if opportunities arise, though time is of some essence if the Pope hopes to move Scalfari off his philosophical materialism and back to his Christian grounding...Scalfari is 89.  ;)

Depends on what you mean by challenge. It's clear that Francis is not interested in proselytizing. He has repeatedly denounced it. 


an example of "challenge:"

Do you feel touched by grace? asks Scalfari.


"No one can know that. Grace is not part of consciousness, it is the amount of light in our souls, not knowledge nor reason. Even you, without knowing it, could be touched by grace."


Without faith? A non-believer?


"Grace regards the soul."


I do not believe in the soul.


"You do not believe in it but you have one."


Your Holiness, you said that you have no intention of trying to convert me and I do not think you would succeed.


"We cannot know that, but I don't have any such intention."


Indeed, he has "denounced" proselytism – often quoting Benedict XVI to that effect.

A lucid account of the difference between "proselytism," which Francis and, apparenlty, Benedict have both eschewed, and "evangelization" (new or old) would be very useful.

I have never understood why proselytizing is supposed to be bad.  If you truly believe that your faith is a great gift, wouldn't it be selfish of you not to want ot share it?  Yes, some proselytizers can be bothersome when they demand our attention and we have indicated we're not interested, but so what?

I can understand Jews' objections to Christian proselytizing -- in the past if a Jew didn't convert he/she at best was ostracized into ghettos.   But there aren't ghettos anymore.


since I have great regard for the lucidness of your thought and prose, why not offer an initial reflection on the issue you broached?

I agree with M.B. that it would be useful to have an authoritive statement of the difference between prolelytism and evangelism, especially if we are going to shun one but do the other.

It seems to me that both of those men, once they were comfortable, started to feel out the other's position as a prelude to whatever you call it, even though both had earlier denied the thought. They remind me of the old guys in Little Havana (Scalfari is 89) bantering as they set up the checkers under a palm tree. "Nice, nice. But I'll win."

I also agree with Matthew Boudway.

And are we out to prove that the Pope bested the muddled Scalfari? More hosannas?

John Page, I scored it a draw from my side of the ring. No real punches thrown or intended. No blood. But that's just Round One. As I said earlier, there doesn't seem to be any punch in "fabric of energy," but Scalfari is a cagey veteran. He'll have more than he showed so far. Ditto Pope Francis. I love it.

"Furbo" is one of those Italian words I've had great difficulty in understanding.  Sometimes it's used with quite a pejorative intent, at others with at least partial admiration.  "Astute" and "sly" seem to get in sometimes.

Now if only someone could tell me how to use (and understand) the phrase "meno male," which also seems to be used in all sorts of situations and contexts.

I am still trying to take in the style of this new pope of ours. The theological content of those conversations will not go down in history, so what are they really about? His morning homilies are sometimes wonderful and sometimes less so.  Is the pope out to demystify the papcy, showing himself as a regular guy? Showing that he is not someone to whose every word we ought to be suspended as though they were directly divinely inspired words from an infallible oracle? He's cheapening his words by speaking so easily, at such length, with so much improvisation, but maybe it's all right that way.  His words are not timeless but for the present, in the current context. Maybe it's on purpose, to make it a real dialogue: this way, we won't take him quite so seriously. He is more free to say what goes through his mind at the moment, being imprecise on occasion, and we will be more free to contradict him, which I suspect he might enjoy. 

Proselytizing is what "they" do; evangelizing is what "we" do.

One can always count on Abe to get to the heart of the matter. Matthew, you're relieved of your assignment – and no doubt relieved to be relieved!



Maybe what Pope Francis means by "proselytizing" is the sort of accusatory preaching that some preachers and proselytizers do which sends everyone to Hell who doesn't join thier church.  There was also the sort of "religious" program that gave food to starving Chinese if they converted. The latter were called "rice Christians".  I don't know if there actually were any such programs or any rich Christians, but the phrase was used in the 30's when China was still open to Christian missionaries.  

Those sorts of things are truly awful.

If we find such metaphysics "murky", just consider what they might think of an otherwise astute person claiming to really believe that 2000 years ago a man was God, that he came back to life 3 days after death, and that his body had disappeared from the tomb. That is where dialogue ends: when I claim to litterally believe something that they find patently absurd. In their minds it puts me in the same category of those who think that the universe was created 5000 years ago and that God planted dinosaur bones in the ground to test us. I'd be careful before calling someone's beliefs naive...



A couple of initial thoughts on evangelization vs proselytism:

* To evangelize is, in its essence, to proclaim - in this case, to proclaim the Good News of the kingdom of God.   The goal of the proclamation is that the Good News be heard, so that it may transform those who hear it.  Note that it is what is proclaimed - the Good News - that bears the power to transform lives.  This helps us understand why it is that people who are not particularly gifted orators nor particularly attractive people nonetheless can be extremely effective evangelizers.  It is not the messenger; it is the message.

* Those who already are disciples also continually need to be evangelized - we need to have the Good News proclaimed to us, too.  For example, a parent needs to help her children understand the Good News, even though the children may be initiated into the community of disciples already.

* To proselytize, in my view, is to recruit - to recruit *away* from something *to* something else.  Proselytizers seek to get someone to join "our group" or "our side", which presupposes another side who is not in the club.  Thus, those who proselyize frequently are those who are particularly persuasive.  Young, attractive, articulate people often are chosen to proselytize, whether it is in the world of organized religion, or politics, or corporate sales and promotion.


"That is where dialogue ends: when I claim to litterally believe something that they find patently absurd."

Why does dialogue end there? Why not go on to ask a reason for their belief? a possible clarification of what initiatlly seems murky, even naive to me? Does dialogue demand agreement?

Because they shake their head and give up.

Then were they "in dialogue" to begin with? or trading jabs? like on comboxes.

Well, I distinctly remember a conversation with a colleague about kids. Kids (and even students, as you might know) always have the wrong kind of religious faith: too much or too little, too indifferent or too involved, too disconnected or too credulous, too attached to rules or too detached from rules... There's always something for parents to worry about, so we can have a dialogue about our worries about our children, comforting one another for our respective worries. Then suddenly my colleague turned to me, as if he had a revelation, and asked with real concern: "You don't actually believe that the man named Jesus literally resurrected from the dead after 3 days, and that the tomb was literally empty, do you? It's all symbolic language, it's a fine symbol. But you don't really believe that it happened literally like that, do you?" I hesitated, then I answered that yes, I did. He, who had known me for many years and knew me well, was so surprised! He shook his head, mumbled something about how he could never understand   the people who denied the existence of dinosaurs, that it was just impossible to have any kind of rational discussion with them, and we left it at that.

But that moment struck me. We thought we were close, but we were really so far apart. What a distance we are from those who cannot even conceive of our faith! The chasm seems impossible to cross. At least not with mere talk. Maybe with actions, life, prayer, grace... but not with talk, at least, I don't see it.


Dialogue starts when both sides agree on something. Two people agree that Caravaggio is a heck of a good painter. Or they agree that the county desperately needs an ordinance that criminalizes cheating employees out of their pay. They talk about Caravaggio and other painters they really like. Or they lobby a county commissioner together. Then one turns to the other and says, "What do you really see in his religious art?" Or, "Why are you doing this?" So they talk about their views. Which lead (usually sometime) to their childhoods. Which leads back to how they view the state of the Union. Which leads, maybe, to why they care. Which leads, finally, maybe, to a God who dies and comes back to life. Which leads to, "Do you really? Why?"

By the way, I don't think that is prosteltyzing. I remember a Unitarian looking at a summary sheet on Catholic social teaching and saying, "Hey, my Unitarian friends would love this. May I have a copy?" That is not where the conversation started. (It started with a wage theft ordinance.) If we start with, "In the beginning, God...," yes, we'll get: "You mean that guy with the gray beard giving the finger to Adam? Ho ho ho."

Claire, I'm sorry. Your story came up while I was writing my story, so I didn't see it. But I don't see that your colleague has said his final word. You do believe the dinosaurs walked this world, don't you? If he respects your views on other things, he has to deal with the fact that someone he usually agrees with doesn:t believe in dinosaurs, You can disabuse him of that notion and go on from there.

But I'm interested in suggestions about how to bridge the chasm. Pope Francis and Scalfari's conversation is not enlightening for me in that respect.

Yes, of course I believe that dinosaurs walked this world. (Although maybe "belief" is not the right word since there is no leap of faith). But for many people the Christian faith is as incomprehensible as beliefs that dinosaurs never existed, only dinosaur bones created by a whimsical God.

Matthew Boudway:  The WCC has made this distinction between evangelism and prostelyzism:


Proselytism is "the corruption of witness". On the surface, proselytism may appear as genuine and enthusiastic missionary activity; and some people involved in it are genuinely committed Christians who believe that they are doing mission in Christ's way. It is the aim, spirit and methodology of this activity which make it proselytism.


Some of the characteristics which clearly distinguish proselytism from authentic Christian witness are:

  • Unfair criticism or caricaturing of the doctrines, beliefs and practices of another church without attempting to understand or enter into dialogue on those issues. Some who venerate icons are accused of worshipping idols; others are ridiculed for alleged idolatry towards Mary and the saints or denounced for praying for the dead.
  • Presenting one's church or confession as "the true church" and its teachings as "the right faith" and the only way to salvation, rejecting baptism in other churches as invalid and persuading people to be rebaptized.
  • Portraying one's own church as having high moral and spiritual status over against the perceived weaknesses and problems of other churches.
    d) Taking advantage of and using unfaithfully the problems which may arise in another church for winning new members for one's own church.
  • Offering humanitarian aid or educational opportunities as an inducement to join another church.
  • Using political, economic, cultural and ethnic pressure or historical arguments to win others to one's own church.
  • Taking advantage of lack of education or Christian instruction which makes people vulnerable to changing their church allegiance.
  • Using physical violence or moral and psychological pressure to induce people to change their church affiliation. This includes the use of media techniques profiling a particular church in a way that excludes, disparages or stigmatizes its adherents, harassment through repeated house calls, material and spiritual threats, and insistence on the "superior" way to salvation offered by a particular church.
  • Exploiting people's loneliness, illness, distress or even disillusionment with their own church in order to "convert" them.





thank you for the reference and excerpt. Here, from the same document, the evangelical imperative:

Christian mission is primarily and ultimately God's mission - the missio Dei. It is centred in the loving and eternal purpose of the triune God for humankind and all of creation, revealed in Jesus Christ. Central to God's mission is the life-giving presence of the Holy Spirit, who continues the mission of Christ through the church and remains the source of its missionary dynamism. The WCC Canberra assembly (1991) described a vision of mission in unity: "A reconciled humanity and renewed creation (cf. Eph. 1:9-10) is the goal of the mission of the church. The vision of God uniting all things in Christ is the driving force of its life and sharing."3

As the body of Christ, constituted, sustained and energized by the life-giving presence of the Holy Spirit, the church is missionary by nature. It proclaims that in Jesus Christ the incarnate Word, who died and rose from the dead, salvation is offered to all as God's gift of love, mercy and liberation.

Participating in God's mission is an imperative for all Christians and all churches, not only for particular individuals or specialized groups. It is an inner compulsion, rooted in the profound demands of Christ's love, to invite others to share in the fullness of life Jesus came to bring (cf. John 10:10).

Mission in Christ's way is holistic, for the whole person and the totality of life are inseparable in God's plan of salvation accomplished in Jesus Christ. It is local - "the primary responsibility for mission, where there is a local church, is with that church in its own place". 4 It is also universal, that is, to all peoples, beyond all frontiers of race, caste, gender, culture, nation to "the ends of the earth" in every sense (cf. Acts 1:8; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47).

How do these recent discussions between Francis and a liberal/non-religious person differ significantly from those of Martini and Eco?  I am, of course, choosing to ignore the significant fact Francis is the Pope.

Being is a fabric of energy.

Fine, and the energy came from...Whom, exactly?

It seems to me that the basic issue here is absurdity.  Is it truly absurd to believe there is a God/man who rose from the dead and won Heaven for sinners?  Or is it absurd to believe that there is only one sort of basic reality (matter) which makes up the universe, and its actions are determined only by its own inner physicals laws?  

It's sad but true that the intellectual leaders of the West since the Enlightenment have mainly been scientists or brainy people of scientific bent.  They, for historical intellectual reasons, generally came to believe that not only is materialism true, but also that the idea that there might be an all powerful Spirit  who coul raise people from the dead is not only false but utterly ludicrous, a product of ancient and medieval superstition,  and anyone who still believes in a spiritual dimension must be basically stupid or enslaved by outworn religious belief.  It's my rationality against your rationality, and the tribes are ready for war.

There are, of course, a lot of reasons to be appreciative of contemporary science.  But today's scientists generally are ignorant of the philosophical underpinnings of science itself.  in other words, they do not understand *why* their explanation of the world is only one alternative explanation among others.  They naively do not realize that they have built their beautiful intellectual edifices on sand.

 HOwever, all is not lost.  For some time now a few courageous philosophers of science have challenged the simple-minded presupposiitons of contemporary materialist scientists.  That is, for the first time in hundreds of years, philosophers of science and even some scientists themselves have starting to ask philosophical questions about the justifications of science, and their conclusions are very upsetting to the materialist scientists.    (Again, see the Nagel controversy that has been raging since last year.)  

If you're interested in the philsophical issues that are being raised about contemporary scientce,  Edward Feser has another good comment on his blog today about one of Nagel's more rational critics, Philip Kitcher.

Yes, the intellectual times are 'achanging -- a bit, anyhow.  At least some of the opponents are starting to talk to each other civilly.

I should add that Scalfari's description of his own world-view is a fine example of the contemporary philosophy of contemporary.  What encourages me about the interview is Scalfari's almost childlike excitement at meeting the Pope (it shows at least an emotional opening to the Church).  That Francis wanted to meet with him is also very enouraging for anyone who cares about the honorable skeptics.  

I should also add that Benedict too was interested in dialogue with the agnostics and skeptics. Too bad he didnt' believe in dialogue within the Church.

John Haught's "Darwin's Nagging Doubt" in the current issue of Commonweal is timely with respect to the conversation between the Pope and Eugenio Scalfari, especailly Scalfari's explanation about his atheist beliefs. While recognizing that Thomas Nagel has essentailly no interest in theological explanations for the universe, Haught nevertheless applauds Nagel for his criticism of philosophical materialism as providing a fully rational explanation of the presence of consciousness in the cosmos. According to Haught,   

"Materialists, both ancient and modern, believe that lifeless and mindless 'matter' is the ultimate origin and final destiny of all that exists. Nagel claims that when materialist belief is alloyed with evolutionary biology, as is usually the case today, it only clouds our understanding of life. 'Evolutionary naturalism,' as Nagel labels the materialist slant on the story of life, is not science but a spurious nonscientific interpretation of science. Instead of illuminating evolution, materialism only dulls our understanding of it. It reduces living things to lifeless elements and in effect denies that when life and mind emerged in cosmic history anything truly new or revelatory was happening.

This muddling becomes especially evident, Nagel argues, in materialism’s failure to explain satisfactorily how 'mind'—evolution’s most exquisite outcome so far—came into being from an utterly mindless universe. Moreover, if, as materialists believe, minds are reducible to physical stuff that has been blindly shuffled and reshuffled by a long and mindless evolutionary process, why—as Darwin wondered—should we assume these same minds can lead us to a correct understanding of anything?"

Bill Collier,

thanks for the helpful association with Haught's discussion of Nagel.

I found it a bit amusing when Scalfari referenced Descartes' "cogito" as playing a role in his evolution away from his childhood faith. The Pope then reminded him that Descartes posited the existence of a transcendent God. Signor Scalfari then remarked about other readings that influenced him, without specifying further. But, interestingly, at the end of their time together, Scalfari suggests they might continue another time and speak of Pascal, whom he calls "quella grande anima."

To me the great irony of contemporary atheistic materialism is that their greatest  intellectual heroes -- Galileo and Newton were both believers.  Galileo remained a Catholic even though the Pope put him under house arrest during his last years.  And Newton, who believed in God, explicitly rejected a totally mechanistic world.  The other of their greatest heroes, Einstein, didn't believe in a personal God but did believe that some sort of intelligence put order in the world.

To get the attention of a world leader such as the Pope is a heady experience which may or may not signal a true openness for dialogue.  Pope Francis evangelizes always, using words when he must. Scalfari may be of an age when salvation/what's next  issues are suddenly paramount.   Even scientific materialists can find themselves lost in their own inability to provide all encompassing , explanatory principles.  For Francis, I suspect, it was a truly pastoral moment.








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