Atheist Admires Pope Francis. So what?

I ran across this piece by a on a blog maintained by the order.  I thought the piece was quite good, actually, and reflects my own views in many ways, and the comments the author makes both to Catholics and indirectly about atheists might be of interest to those here. 

*****

It’s not uncommon for my various social newsfeeds to look like an avalanche of news about Pope Francis; it’s an occupational hazard of (i) being a Jesuit and (ii) knowing a lot of Catholics. However, Stephan Marche’s (brief) article “It’s Time To Admit It: Pope Francis is Kind of Awesome,”  caught my eye for two important reasons.  The first is that the article was published in Esquire, a fine publication and one not particularly known for its coverage of Vatican news.  The second is that the author is a self-professed atheist.  And if there’s one thing that can get Catholics and secular types reading the same article, it’s using the A-word in close proximity to religious words.  It’s a form of alchemy in the age of online news: [atheism/atheist/secular] plus [Catholic Church/pope/religion]=search engine and social media gold.

For all the explosive possibilities of an atheist writing on a major religious figure (or vice-versa, for that matter), Marche advances a relatively modest set of points. He likes Francis.  Like so many others, believers and otherwise, he’s taken with the small gestures offered by the pope and hopeful that the small gestures are signs of still greater points of dialogue. Marche’s very personal assessment of Pope Francis and Catholicism more generally comes across as generous and thoughtful, but measured and balanced by some striking critiques.

It would be easy for a Catholic to read Marche’s article as a straightforward win for the home team.  (The headline doesn’t help much – it wouldn’t be hard for a Catholic to see it and the first paragraph and conclude that an equally applicable headline would be “Atheist Observes Pope, Sees The Light”).  And that would be a mistake.  While Marche is clearly impressed by Pope Francis, he shows no obvious signs of wavering in his non-belief, and he doesn’t hesitate to point out less-than-inspiring news items about other Church leaders.

This even treatment is what makes this article a must-read for believers, especially Catholics.  In an age of ‘evangelical atheism,’ true encounters between religious believers and “friendly atheists” (i.e., non-believers willing to take religious types seriously), believers should listen and listen well. Whether writers like Marche or those among our friends and family who fit the description, these non-believers are often the ones who can help us see our own, familiar religiosity through fresh eyes.  They can be stingingly honest about about how believers are confusing, off-putting, and even falling disastrously short of what we say we are.  On this point, Marche singles out what he perceives as the incongruity between papal calls for social justice and the ermine vestments favored by some popes.  At the same time, he lets believers know what they find appealing. In a striking remark, Marche observes:

These little gestures make a big difference. The Catholic Church may be the last major institution in the world that makes a coherent argument against total absorption in consumer capitalism.

Pope Francis has been a bit player in this article to this point, but perhaps it’s worth noting that one of Francis’s repeated calls has been for an “outward-looking” a Church that escapes from the rot of being self-referential.  The antidote to self-reference, of course, is other-reference.  Like most images in the mirror, impressions from non-believers can reveal both beauty and ugliness that we don’t particularly want to see, but when we’re blessed enough to get honest, searching reflections from sincere non-believers, we ignore them at our peril.

Views: 314

Tags: Catholic, Francis, Jesuit, Marche, Pope, Stephan, atheist, friendly

Comment by _Robert_ on August 13, 2013 at 10:49pm

If I was a true believer,  why should I care what an atheist thinks of my Pope or church? The Jesus character certainly was not wishy-washy on this and the bible has stern warnings for sheep that mingle with non believers.

2 John 1:9-11

Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.

2 Corinthians 6:14

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?

2 Thessalonians 3:6

Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.

 

However, not electing a Hitler youth Pope is a step in the right direction. Okay, the last guy was a dud. No sense self flagellating over it:

http://funzonecollector.blogspot.com/2010/04/philippine-easter-ritu...

Caught between the need for absolute "truths" that are not self evident and ever changing societal attitudes, I can see why the church goes bonkers when a new leader simply appears to be somewhat normal.

Comment by Diane on August 14, 2013 at 7:01am

I like the blog author's stance that what atheists have to say, or at  least ones like Marche, could be valuable for believers to read.  Marche's atheism was not attacked or dismissed. 

Comment by Dr. Bob on August 15, 2013 at 11:31am

I backed down the comment train a bit because this went off the rails, apparently because of a critique I offered.  I apologize for that; I'm not in favor of censorship, it just seemed that I was the cause of the train wreck through not being appropriately sensitive.  So in the spirit of the blog post above, I thought I'd try again.

If I was a true believer,  why should I care what an atheist thinks of my Pope or church?

I think the priest who wrote the piece does a good job of explaining that in the last paragraph.  Getting honest, searching reflections from sincere non-believers is important because it helps keep us from the rot that self-referential navel-gazing can cause.  We learn from each other.

@Robert, by quoting the bible in the way you do you are presenting a biblical literalist argument.  The vast majority of Christianity and all of Catholicism are not biblical literalists, so your argument makes no sense to us.  What the Jesuit priest wrote above would be closer to the way we view things.  The instinct within Catholicism would be to turn to the tale of the Samaritan woman at the well, who is surprised that Jesus should ask her for a drink of water when "Jews do not associate with Samaritans".  So we're happy to take a drink of water from atheists, if you can find it in yourselves to be kind enough to give it. 

For what it's worth, I think that even most of our fundamentalist Christians would find your argument unconvincing and shallow, because even fundamentalism isn't quite as biblically literalist as your argument is. 

Comment by Suzanne Olson-Hyde on August 16, 2013 at 6:58am
@Bob - Indeed, that we ignore them "at our own peril." 

The problem Bob, is that you are not listening. I don't have a problem with the Anglican Church, they marry, have contraception not protected by law, all hunky dory. You want to tell us what 'YOU' think'. I already know.

You support your catholicism no matter what, you don't think contraception should be used, you don't think Gay marriage is necessary, you don't think women should be included in the hierarchy. What else is there to know?

These rules are giving millions of people heartache. Good ole' catholicism.

Quite willing to have a discussion with an honest, truthful person who doesn't obfuscate , deflect, change the topic, and actually answered questions.

Your above statement - 'Indeed, that we ignore them "at our own peril."  - that is exactly what you are doing - every time you make 'statements' you dig the hole a little deeper -

Indeed, I see more moronic biblical quoting here -

Ah, now that is what I call respectful???

Here is more respect - even most of our fundamentalist Christians would find your argument unconvincing and shallow -

Question to Bob - Why did Ratszinger leave in such a hurry - do you think?

If the catholic church behaved in a civilized manner, clean out the vermin that pervades your church, insisted Evolution be taught in all catholic schools, and insisted Evolution be taught in all Secular schools - tell that to the lovely Pope Francis - and all will be well :)
Comment by Dr. Bob on August 16, 2013 at 8:48am

You support your catholicism no matter what ... [but]  Quite willing to have a discussion with an honest, truthful person

You do understand that I am Catholic, right?  That is honestly, truthfully me.   I don't support everything that people in my church do, I think I've made that clear.  If you want me to be honest and truthful, though, you can't ask me not to be Catholic.

If the catholic church behaved in a civilized manner, clean out the vermin that pervades your church, insisted Evolution be taught in all catholic schools,

I think it's healthy for us to listen to and have dialog with thoughtful people of all stripes.  I'm not sure it's useful to engage with people who don't even understand that evolution is in fact taught in all Catholic schools, that Catholic clerics were among the scientists who gave birth to the theory of evolution, and that institutionally we've never had a problem with it.

Here is more respect - even most of our fundamentalist Christians would find your argument unconvincing and shallow -

If you desire respect, then perhaps it would be better to make intelligent, rational arguments rather than arguments that are too simplistic even for a fundamentalist Christian.

Again, most of Christendom and all of Catholicism are not fundamentalists.  So we find random, out-of-context quotes from scripture to be, well, stupid.  Our fundamentalist Protestant brethren are more into that sort of thing, but they have a deeper memorized knowledge of Scripture and in their own way balance and interpret quotes from different books.   None of us would feel that @RobertPiano is making a good argument.  The fundamentalists might engage with it and offer alternate quotes.  All the rest of us would laugh and dismiss it as silly.

What's really odd to me is atheists (who claim to be rationalists) believing that sort of fundamentalist argument is something that deserves our respect.

Question to Bob - Why did Ratszinger leave in such a hurry - do you think?

I think the man is old, and tired, and possibly ill, and increasingly overwhelmed by the job and the Curia's dysfunction.  He saw John Paul II's decline and how it hurt the functioning of the Church, and decided he wouldn't let that happen.  He gave an interview in German about 4 years ago in which he spoke about how it can be the duty of a pope to resign if he could no longer do the job well, and shortly thereafter he visited the tomb of the last pope to have resigned.   I think this had been on his mind for a while.   No conspiracy theories from random anti-Catholic blogs required.

I think there is a need to clean out and reform the Curia, and indeed I think Francis was elected in part to do just that.  At the same time, I wouldn't call fellow humans "vermin". 

Now perhaps we can let some others comment on the article?

Comment by Suzanne Olson-Hyde on August 16, 2013 at 9:46am
@Bob - You do understand that I am Catholic, right?  That is honestly, truthfully me. 

Bob, never doubted it - I do understand catholicism - been there, done that.

I also know that speaking to different catholics, they also drop into and out of the bible - pick and choose what suits them - all very convenient.

If you desire respect, then perhaps it would be better to make intelligent, rational arguments rather than arguments that are too simplistic even for a fundamentalist Christian.

Bob, you were the one to speak of respect - I do not 'desire' respect from you. You come onto an atheist site - call people moronic with straw arguments - and then expect to have rational discussions?

most of Christendom and all of Catholicism are not fundamentalists -

Once again, I agree - most catholics in educated countries ignore the ban on contraception, most catholics ignore the church's attitude toward Gay marriage, most catholics want priests to marry and become a fully functional human being - instead of the screwed up messes that have been produced.

So, you think the three things that well bring the catholic church down, you would like to see changed -

Contraception
Gay Marriage
Be rid of celibacy -

If you don't agree with getting rid of these three destructive things - you are a fundamentalist catholic.

So, we find random, out-of-context quotes from scripture to be, well, stupid.

Well, how about that - so do I - I find the bible appalling - so there you go - we agree about something. I find the bible takes me to dark places, that I do not want to go. It makes me sad that anybody reads this rubbish, this quagmire.

Why did Ratszinger leave in such a hurry - do you think?

I think the man is old, and tired, and possibly ill, and increasingly overwhelmed by the job and the Curia's dysfunction.

There you go - something else we sort of agree on - but not quite - Ratszinger saw the rates and numbers of priests actually being charged, and growing, with pedophilia, and then the vatican bank being investigated, there is a lot more people yet to be charged with money laundering - Gays in the Vatican - and Yes, he would not be able to handle all of these 'happenings' .

First pope to ever resign - now that is a first, hey :)

At the same time, I wouldn't call fellow humans "vermin". 

Now, Bob, that is where we are really different - I do.

Catholic Predators, for whatever reason, celibacy, or just plain warped, these cretins hid behind their robes,their crosses, knowing full well, what they were doing, and in many cases, did it for decades.

Do you really understand there are many repercussions in the aftermath of this rampant pedophilia - good priests are no longer trusted, nobody would leave their child alone with a priest anymore - how sad is that??? Priests are not going into the priesthood anymore - numbers are dropping dramatically - all the result of pedophilia and celibacy.

These predators sacrificed the most innocent, the most vulnerable, the most trusting in the catholic community - children.

Calling them vermin is being very charitable:)

Now perhaps we can let some others comment on the article?

Oh, I didn't realize I was stopping my fellow Atheists from making comment - how exactly did I do that? I just didn't realize I had that sort of power. Wow :)
Comment by Strega on August 16, 2013 at 8:05pm

Now perhaps we can let some others comment on the article?

I think you might be getting confused between forums and classrooms, Dr.Bob.  We do not have to post one at a time in a forum, like one might in a classroom question and answer session.  Suzanne can post as often as she likes and it will not interfere with, or interrupt anyone else's decision to post. Or indeed their decision not to post.

Comment by archaeopteryx on August 16, 2013 at 9:07pm

"It would be easy for a Catholic to read Marche’s article as a straightforward win for the home team." - I'd say that depends a great deal on what team you call home.

Comment by Suzanne Olson-Hyde on August 16, 2013 at 9:07pm
@Bob - You do understand that I am Catholic, right?  That is honestly, truthfully me. 

Bob, never doubted it , especially when you kept quoting you were a catholic. Bit hard to miss, that one. - I do understand catholicism - been there, done that.

I also know that speaking to different catholics, they also drop into and out of the bible - pick and choose what suits them - all very convenient.

If you desire respect, then perhaps it would be better to make intelligent, rational arguments rather than arguments that are too simplistic even for a fundamentalist Christian.

Bob, you were the one to speak of respect - I do not 'desire' respect from you, but I am learning all the time how a catholic thinks - that is a good thing, right? You come onto an Atheist site - call people moronic with straw arguments - and then expect to have rational discussions?

most of Christendom and all of Catholicism are not fundamentalists -

Once again, I agree - most catholics in educated countries ignore the ban on contraception, most catholics ignore the church's attitude toward Gay marriage, most catholics want priests to marry and become a fully functional human being - instead of the screwed up messes that have been produced.

So, you think the four things that could well bring the catholic church down, you would like to see changed - but couldn't be bothered to sign a petition, to help your fellow catholics?

Contraception
Gay Marriage
Be rid of celibacy
Women in the hierarchy

If you don't agree with getting rid of these four destructive things, for whatever reason - you are a fundamentalist catholic.

BUT- if the vatican came on board with these changes, so would you?

So, we find random, out-of-context quotes from scripture to be, well, stupid.

Well, how about that - so do I - I find the bible appalling - so there you go - we agree about something. I find the bible takes me to dark places, that I do not want to go. It makes me sad that anybody reads this rubbish, this quagmire.

Why did Ratszinger leave in such a hurry - do you think?

I think the man is old, and tired, and possibly ill, and increasingly overwhelmed by the job and the Curia's dysfunction.

There you go - something else we sort of agree on - but not quite - Ratszinger saw the rates and numbers of priests being actually charged, and growing, with pedophilia, and then the vatican bank is being investigated - Gays in the Vatican - and Yes, he would not be able to handle all of these 'happenings' .

First pope to ever resign - now that is a first, hey :)

At the same time, I wouldn't call fellow humans "vermin". 

Now, Bob, that is where we are really different - I do.

Catholic Predators, for whatever reason, celibacy, or just plain warped, these cretins hid behind their robes,their crosses, knowing full well, what they were doing, and in many cases, did it for decades.

Do you really understand there are many repercussions in the aftermath of this rampant pedophilia - good priests are no longer trusted, nobody would leave their child alone with a priest anymore - how sad is that??? Priests are not going into the priesthood anymore - numbers are dropping dramatically - all the result of pedophilia and celibacy.

These predators, these vermin, sacrificed the most innocent, the most vulnerable, the most trusting in the catholic community - children.

Calling them vermin is being very charitable:)


Now perhaps we can let some others comment on the article?

Oh, Bob, you disappoint me - don't you want me to learn even more, how catholics think and act?
Comment by Dr. Bob on August 16, 2013 at 9:22pm

@Suzanne, I would hope that perhaps we could respond to the article, rather than offer your general aimless rant about Catholicism.   Since you took the time, however...

they also drop into and out of the bible - pick and choose what suits them - all very convenient.

I think I'm going to need to get a stamp that says "Catholics and the large majority of Christians are not fundamentalists".  Yep, we put the Bible together, and we picked and chose what was included, and we continue to choose how we interpret it.  That's because we are not fundamentalists.  That's because we don't believe in sola scriptura.  

First pope to ever resign - now that is a first, hey :)

No, Benedict was about the 3rd or 4th pope to resign. 

Catholic Predators, for whatever reason, celibacy, or just plain warped,

All predators are bad, not just Catholic ones.  All predators hide behind their positions.  All predators lead us not to trust other people, all predators and indeed all criminals and in fact all sinfulness leads to a breakdown of society and damage to other people.

It's not enough just to teach against one type of sin.  Greed leads to mistreatment of workers, reckless banking practices that destroy families.    Adult lust leads to rape, lack of faithfulness in marriage, divorce, transmission of disease, emotional harm.  Pride leads to politicians who can't compromise or put party ahead of nation.  Gluttony leads to health problems, greatly increased health care costs, uninsured families, the death of children for lack of affordable health care. 

Whether Catholic or Protestant, Muslim or Atheist, sinfulness results in harm.  Harm to the elderly, harm to adults, and especially harm to children who will have to live in the world they inherit from us.   

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