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An open dialogue

· Benedict XVI's Letter to Mathematician Piergiorgio Odifreddi ·

An interlocutor’s respect is measured by his ability to listen. The more attentive he is to the words addressed to him, the more authentic the dialogue. This attitude becomes constructive only to the extent that it is truly mutual.

Some time ago, Piergiorgio Odifreddi sent Benedict XVI his book Caro Papa, ti scrivo [Dear Holy Father, I am writing to you] (Milan, Mondadori, 2011). The Pope emeritus responded with a long letter, which the 24 September edition of a daily newspaper of Rome La Republica has published in part (a little less than half). The entire text will be published in the new edition of Odifreddi's book.

At the beginning of the letter, Joseph Ratzinger apologizes for the time that has elapsed between his receiving the book and his reply, which was dated 30 August 2013 and was sent to the scientist's home in Turin. Certainly, the reason for the delay was not attributable to the 698 km distance between the monastery in the Vatican, where Benedict now resides and the mathematician's home, which is located in the residential area of Turin, but to the attention that Benedict XVI wished to dedicate to the book amid his many commitments.

Joseph Ratzinger is accurate and precise. In this lengthy letter, which reveals his natural kindness and a hand informally outstretched to his interlocutor, Benedict XVI goes right to the point of the pages perused, from aspects that both the atheist scholar and the theologian Pope share, to the minor (and less minor) errors present in the text. Treating — with the expertise for which he is known even by his opponents — the common ground and discrepancies. The latter are summarized according to a threefold division: those that are acceptable, from the point of view of comparison between positions which are, and will remain, different; others that are unacceptable because of their injurious nature (even those adroitly formulated as questions); and lastly others are not at all convincing. However, the whole of the reply is framed in a perspective of an authentic search for dialogue, with respect and esteem for the interlocutor. It begins with Sacred Scripture and passes to Judaism and Christianity, through history, up to the Church's experience of suffering in the present day. It neither overlooks those aspects which are most beautiful and fruitful nor those which are terrible and scandalous.

Piergiorgio Odifreddi contests the fact — dismissing it as a distinction long outdated by the appearance in 1968 of artificial intelligence — that objective reason always requires a subject; in other words, a mind that is conscious of itself. With great precision, Benedict XVI refutes this, by explaining how, in fact, it is precisely (and also) artificial intelligence which proves the claim, since it is a form of intelligence that is entrusted to equipment and given to them by conscious subjects; in other words, that it is ultimately attributable to the human intelligence of the those who created the said equipment.

This is only one of the points that is analyzed in the long, rich, impassioned and clear cut reply from a man who wants — and for his entire life has always wanted — a true dialogue between the faith of Christians and scientific faith. It is a search for dialogue that was evidently welcomed by the Italian mathematician. Moreover, on reading the entire text of the Pope emeritus, it becomes abundantly clear that his is a genuine interest in dialogue even with that part of the scientific world and faith that, on a closer look, ultimately interrupts the quest for comparison and ends up becoming dogmatic, as if it no longer wished to question but only to teach its interlocutor.

However, the many examples which may be cited from those presented by Benedict XVI all inevitably revolve around Joseph Ratzinger’s crucial point which cannot be omitted in the dialogue between so-called scientific faith and the faith of Christians. It is the aspect of the transition from the logoi to the Logos , a step that the Christian faith made together with Greek philosophy. It is a step that may not be taken, but it should be considered and evaluated nonetheless — in a scientific way, one might say — so that both parties in the dialogue really continue an honest search.

The letter also mentions the burning question of evolution and the hotly debated question of anthropomorphism. On this issue Benedict XVI recalls the permanent validity of the Fourth Lateran Council statement of 1215 that one can only think and speak of God analogically.

He cites Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopogite, his own works, and then not only Francis, Clare, Teresa of Avila and Mother Teresa, but also Augustine, Martin Buber, Jacques Monod, as well as the inspiration of the music of Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. Obviously, he also cites Piergiorgio Odifreddi.

Ratzinger has chosen to respond to an Italian university professor because, in all sincerity, he has sought open dialogue with the faith of the Church, a dialogue that stands between contrast and convergence.

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