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.”

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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Michael Dubruiel (1958-2009)

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