Pope Francis’s interview with atheist journalist Eugenio Scalfari may not have grabbed secular headlines in the US the way that this interview with Jesuit publications did, but it has caused some stir in Catholics circles. I can certainly understand a certain amount of this. We’ve had two very intellectual popes who have lead the church for the last thirty years, taking it from a time in which even orthodox Catholics felt unsure and adrift into a new dynamism and evangelism. In addition to being towering intellects, John Paul II and Benedict XVI (Benedict even more so) were popes hailing from central/northern Europe. Encountering a Latin pope for the first time in my life (Francis is, after all, not just from Argentina but also the son of Italian immigrants, so he’s at the confluence of two southern European cultures) and one who is not a theologian, I’m realizing how much the emotive and more casual aspects of southern Europe and South America (primarily colonized by southern Europe) are not mine. Culturally and intellectually, John Paul II and Benedict XVI are simply much more my style.
That said, I don’t necessarily follow how it is that certain statements become points of controversy. One of these is from this “second interview” and it comes after Francis asks Scalfari what he believes in. Scalfari responds, “I believe in Being, that is in the tissue from which forms, bodies arise.” And Francis says:
And 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?
(Scalfari says they are, and in the next interchange Francis pushes him to explain, if he believe in “Being” but doesn’t believe in God, what does he mean.)
Now, apparently this has caused some unease in Catholic circles because of the phrase “not in a Catholic God, there is no Catholic God”. Does this suggest some kind of indifferentism in which the Catholic understanding of God is no better than any other? A generic God without qualities that everyone has some insight into?
Actually, I think people are wrong to see this particular statement as problematic. There is, obviously, only one God. Or as Francis said, “[T]here is God and I believe in Jesus Christ, his incarnation.” We, as Catholics, recognize that the Church provides us with the most complete and accurate understanding of God’s teachings available to us as human beings here on earth, and also with the body and blood of Christ through the Eucharist. But God Himself is not sectarian. He is not “the Catholic God” or “the Christian God” as if there were other gods or other ways of understanding God. He is simply God, and the Church is the way to understanding of and union with him.
We use the phrase “the Christian God” at times, as a shorthand to refer to the Christian understanding of God, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m sure that I’ve used the phrase plenty of times. But I think there’s also a value, as Francis does here, in underlining that God is not some cordoned off thing relevant only to Christians or Catholics. There is the objective existence of God, and all our doctrines are simply an attempt to describe that existence. But God is primary and the Church is a response to Him, not vice versa.
This is not, clearly, something that orthodox Christians need to be reminded of. (Though perhaps flaky Christians of the sort likely to think of all religions as being true could use the reminder.) But it is, arguably, a point worth making with a non-Christian who is claiming that he believes in “Being”. Our doctrines don’t consist of believing in some restricted Being relevant only to us Christians. Rather, the teachings of the Church describe that Being, God, and His encounter with us through the Incarnation. The Church’s teachings represent the completion, the end point, of any sense that God is out there somewhere. As Paul said, the unknown god is no longer unknown. We know him.