In letter to newspaper, Pope Francis broadens dialogue with non-believers

In letter to newspaper, Pope Francis broadens dialogue with non-believers

Pope Francis’ skills as a communicator were on display today in two very different forms, one that made headlines and one that moved people to tears.

The headline in the Rome newspaper La Repubblica, “Dialogue open with non-believers,” ran above a lengthy papal letter -- under the simple byline “Francesco” – addressed to the newspaper’s director, Eugenio Scalfari, an atheist who had posed several questions for the new pope earlier in the year.

In effect, Francis laid out a road map for dialogue with all those who do not find themselves in the Christian faith, a dialogue the pope said should be “open and without preconceptions.” After explaining how his own faith was rooted in a personal encounter with Christ, the pope argued that Christ was a figure of openness not exclusion, whose followers should be motivated by a spirit of service and not arrogance. For the believer, he said, dialogue is not secondary but an “indispensable” expression of faith.

Francis then responded directly to some of Scalfari’s questions, including whether God forgives those who do not believe and who do not seek faith. His answer focused on the primacy of the individual conscience.

“Given that – and this is the fundamental thing – the mercy of God has no limits if one turns to him with a sincere and contrite heart, the issue for the person who does not believe in God is in obeying one’s own conscience. There is sin, even for someone who has no faith, when one goes against the conscience. To listen and to obey it signifies, in fact, making a decision in front of what is perceived as good or as evil. And on this decision the goodness or the wickedness of our actions comes into play,” the pope said.

Francis then turned to the question of absolute versus relative truth, and said the terminology required some fine-tuning. “To begin with, I would not speak, not even for believers, of an ‘absolute’ truth, in the sense that absolute is that which is unbound, freed from every relationship.” For Christians, he said, the essential truth is God’s love for us in Jesus Christ – which is itself a relationship, a path that requires humility and openness.

“That doesn’t mean the truth is variable and subjective, on the contrary. But it means that truth is given to us always and only as a path and a life,” he said. In discussing things like truth, the pope said it was necessary to back away from terminology that closes off dialogue and places everything in opposition.

The pope closed his letter with a pledge to continue dialogue with non-Christians and non-believers, in a way that promotes a clearer understanding of the church’s mission.

“The church, believe me, despite all the slowness, the unfaithfulness, the errors and sins that it may have committed and may still commit in those who constitute it, has no other meaning and goal than that of living and witnessing Jesus.” The church, he said, quoting the Gospel of Luke, aims “to bring glad tidings to the poor, to proclaim liberty to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”

This was a remarkable papal bridge-building effort that, as Francis said in the letter, is inspired by “the Second Vatican Council, desired by John XXIII” and by the actions of succeeding popes. It’s already created a buzz in Italy, and is further evidence that this pope feels as comfortable expressing himself in the columns of a newspaper as in formal papal documents.

The pope’s non-headline encounter took place at the tail end of his weekly general audience, and in a sense was routine: he took about 25 minutes to bless and converse with sick people and their caretakers. I’ve watched other popes do this, too, but Francis seems to have a special feeling for the sick and an ability to make them feel special. Maybe it’s his unhurried pace, his willingness to lean in and listen to them for minutes at a time, his ability to carry out conversations with people who may be partially paralyzed, disabled or, in one case, strapped into a portable respirator. He accepted their gifts with a big smile and comments, and this was clearly a big moment for many of them.

He held one elderly woman’s hand for what seemed like an eternity, listening to her story with patience. Whatever she told him brought a smile to his face.

This, too, is communication Francis-style and it has a deep impact on those who witness it. It seemed like the perfect complement to the pope’s newspaper essay.

14 comments (Add your own)

1. Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh wrote:
Thankyou, John, your article is very hopeful that Pope Francis is open to dialogue and is supportive of the changes of Vatican II.

As much as I am grateful for the courage and firmness of Pope John XXIII in calling the Second Vatican Council, which brought so much new life to the church for a short time, I am sad to find out recently that Pope John XXIII reinforced the secrecy of the Vatican in cases of clergy sexual abuse, when he signed a document in 1962 called CRIMEN SOLICITATIONIS.

Then, in 2001, Cardinal Ratzinger reinforced the secrecy even more, and as Pope Benedict XVI, he continued the secrecy, the denial of the truth of the betrayal of the innocence of children by clergy sexual abuse, and the protection of the predator priests, brothers, bishops, and cardinals.

Is it possible to turn this corrupt institution around, since even Pope Francis has protected a notorious predator priest, Fr Grassi, in South America and did not meet with the victim?

Sincerely, Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Wed, September 11, 2013 @ 10:18 AM

2. stepheen wrote:
Pope Francis is Great!!!I just pray with him that the Church will be more Charismatic world wide,Charismatic is not one of many groups within the church but a way of life,a way of encountering Christ as Lord and personal Savior.Jesus said we must be born again if we are to see the Kingdom of God:

Wed, September 11, 2013 @ 10:42 AM

3. Julia wrote:
Dr Rosemary: The document to which you refer is about protocol for church trials. All involved except for the victim is to keep confidentiality for the sake of the victim, not an accused. It has nothing to do with the secular court system and does not forbid turning over a suspect to the authorities.

Wed, September 11, 2013 @ 6:11 PM

4. Eugenia wrote:
One needs to remember personality and background. Pope Francis is an Italian who grew up in Latin America; ergo, he's a very hands-on physical touchy person. It's natural for him to talk and hold someone's hand for an extended period while doing it.

Wed, September 11, 2013 @ 7:20 PM

5. Crude wrote:
This is an absolutely excellent development - demonstrating that political and social liberalism is not only a non-necessary component to Vatican II, but is as a matter of fact utterly incompatible with it. I thank God for a pope who manages to reach out to non-believers without compromising the Church's teachings on abortion, contraception, gay marriage and other settled issues. Better yet, standing firm on these teachings will help rid the church of the very climate of insincere faith that led to the sexual abuse scandals in the first place.

I look forward to seeing more.

Wed, September 11, 2013 @ 7:40 PM

6. Hegesippus wrote:
Rosemary, there seems to be a recurring theme in your posts. Clearly the sexual abuse issue is foremost in your mind regarding the Catholic Church, leading you to post about it after articles with no relation to the issue.
It would be useful for you to study the wording and the context of the texts you mention. Also, by considering the norms of dealing with such issues in the early 1960s, where the Church sadly took advice from secular 'experts' in the field.
Before condemning the Catholic Church, please compare the track record of academia, child education and even policies in the political sphere. In that context, the Church has, at worst, been similar to other institutions and usually better than them.
However, every actual case of abuse (disregarding the fabricated ones - many legally proven) is a tragedy. The actions of individuals, or groups, in perpetrating or failing to deal properly with them in no way signifies the Church's acceptance of this behaviour.
It would be useful if your research into this area, Church and secular, provided you with an accurate understanding of the whole.

Thu, September 12, 2013 @ 9:53 AM

7. Publius wrote:
This is the Church of the medial. Meanwhile, the Gay lobby prospers (Monsignor Ricca), faithful orders like the Franciscans of the Immaculate are persecuted, previously vanquished heresies like Liberation Theology are rehabilitated, the centripetal forces of modernism in my parish and Archdiocese have new wind beneath their wings. Also, the current Bishop of Rome seems unable to utter a coherent sentence. In the letter to the news papers, Francis takes issue with the word "absolute" and contorts himself to find other words to substitute it so that "relationship" is primary. This is just confused. It's like when Francis has, now on at least three occasions and in his official address to CELAM, disparaged those attached to the Extra Ordinary form as Pelagians. This makes no sense given the primary meaning of the word Pelagian. It can only make sense by attributing to Francis an idiosyncratic understanding of the word. (It has also been suggested that Francis is actually refering not to the Pelagians whom Augustin vanquished but to a group in early modern Piedomonte that had separatist tendencies- this would make some sense but no one gets the reference).

Thu, September 12, 2013 @ 10:16 AM

8. MJS wrote:'s up to us to take this wonderful message and make sure it is understood correctly and within context of the Gospel...too many will try to bend and warp it to be something that it is not.

Thu, September 12, 2013 @ 10:49 AM

9. Deacon John M. Bresnahan wrote:
The media is covering this pope a lot different than it did with the last 2 popes. Popes usually cover a lot of bases in their various writings and speeches. Then the media decides which very few words to put in the headlines.(And they all almost always pick the same words to feature.) Nothing this pope has said is anywhere as sensational as the media has made it out to be if one reads beyond the headlines and media condensations and editing.

Thu, September 12, 2013 @ 11:58 AM

10. Publius wrote:
Good try, Reverend Deacon, blaming the media. Francis knows exactly what he is doing. He is stirring things up. He means to. Like the comment in response to the gay lobby and his query, "Who am I to judge?" Read the entire transcript. It means just what it seems to meant. the female reporter from Brazil was dogged. After about four questions she asked, in reference to sexual morality, what do you believe or words to that effect. Francis said "I am a son of the church." That is a weasel word. It means, I am not going to contradict the clear teaching of the church. However, it taken with his other actions means that this Pope is not going to reaffirm or make attractive the teachings of the Church on sexual morality. This is completely consistent with his record as Archbishop of Buenos Aries. He said something like: if we talk against masturbation, they will laugh. The Press loves this Pope. Benedict was the Pope who went after the gay lobby and abusing priests. Day one, Benedict sacked Fr. Maciel, the Founder of the Legionnaires, one of the most evil men imaginable, who had multiple lives going on at the same time as he was lionized by John Paul II and Cardinal Sodano (these lives included bigamy, pedophilia, incest, and drugs!). Yet Benedict was heavily criticize by the Media. Monsignor Ricca was caught in an elevator with a "rent boy," scandalized everyone by moving his lover into the nuncio. These words and actions are having a devastating effect around the USA. Look how Archbishop Myers is digging his heels in despite the clear persistence of a group of Chancery connected homosexual priests that disregard their vows and facilitate those who pursue teenage males as sex partners.

Thu, September 12, 2013 @ 1:44 PM

11. Liam Ronan wrote:
Can you please tell me where I might find the full text of the letter so that I might know exactly what Pope Francis wrote?

Thu, September 12, 2013 @ 4:13 PM

12. Julia wrote:
Deacon: Kind of like all the UK papers and now NBC saying that it's not long before there will be married priests - just because the in-coming secretary of state says the subject is not forbidden. DOH Of course you can talk about it; that doesn't mean it's going to happen or isn't going to happen.

Thu, September 12, 2013 @ 9:02 PM

13. Jerry Filteau wrote:
John, as one of your predecessors in the Catholic News Service Rome Bureau, I saw much of the same extra attentitiveness to the sick by Pope John Paul II. But with JP2 I regularly noted a certain "calculatedness" (I can't think of another term to describe it adequately) in his post-audience round of visits to the "ammalati" (the sick people who had gained special audience seats).

When JP2 made his rounds with the ammalati after his Wednesday audiences, whenever he came upon someone only slightly sick or diaabled, his eyes were already turned toward the next person in the group and his comments to the less sick person were quite abrupt and unengaging. To me it was as if he recognized and played out the theater of his engagement with the ammalati.

I'm wondering if you see in your experiences of the engagement of Pope Francis with the sick something more authentic and less staged. Even long before JP2's theology and discipline disillusioned me, I had serious questions whether his post-weekly-audience interaction with the sick was really authentic or a charade. I think JP2 really cared about the sick, but he seemed to have little time for anyone except those in extreme circumstances.

I have no idea how B16 handled the weekly visits to the ammalati after his Wednesday general audiences, but I'm sure you do.

What we're seeking from our new pope is authenticity, and you're in a great position to compare his actions at Wednesday general audiences with those of his predecessors.

Thanks. Jerry

Sat, September 14, 2013 @ 11:38 PM

14. AC wrote:
@Liam Ronan:

You can find the original letter, translated to English, on La Repubblica's website at this link:

Sun, September 15, 2013 @ 5:56 AM

Add a New Comment


Comment Guidelines: No HTML is allowed. Off-topic or inappropriate comments will be edited or deleted. Thanks.