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Pope Francis comes over as better informed than Italy’s leading intellectual

The Pope’s conversation with Eugenio Scalfari continues to intrigue

By on Friday, 4 October 2013

Pope Francis – photograph taken at Assis today (AP Photo/Stefano Rellandini, Pool)

Pope Francis – photograph taken at Assis today (AP Photo/Stefano Rellandini, Pool)

The following brief exchange in the Pope’s conversation with Eugenio Scalfari has generated some interest and indeed some perplexity. It is as follows: 

Your Holiness, is there is a single vision of the Good? And who decides what it is?

“Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good.”

Your Holiness, you wrote that in your letter to me. The conscience is autonomous, you said, and everyone must obey his conscience. I think that’s one of the most courageous steps taken by a Pope.

“And I repeat it here. Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”

I have checked the Italian version and as far as I can see this is an accurate translation. The difficulty that it raises is that it appears that the Pope is endorsing some sort of moral relativism, and telling Scalfari that there is no such thing as the Good, only multiple and presumably conflicting goods, and that each one must seek his or her own version of what they conceive as the good. Needless to say, this is not the case.

There is, and can only be, one Good. The Good and the True are One, for they cannot be riven by internal contradiction. However, as the Pope knows, we intuit wholes, but we perceive parts. In this world we perceive goods, and this leads us step by step to a vision of the Good. This vision grows through experiencing various individual goods, in so far as we perceive these goods as good in themselves but not complete. In other words, in encountering a good, we sense behind it or beyond it a greater good, even a transcendant Good, calling us ever forward to a deeper understanding of what is good and what is the Good.

This concept which the Pope draws on is what is called Trascendental Thomism and which is all the rage in Jesuit circles. Its chief exponent was the late Karl Rahner SJ. There are some rather better writers on the subject who are a bit more accessible than Rahner, and one who springs to mind is the Austrian Jesuit Emmerich Coreth. At this point one might like to remember the single most important fact about Pope Francis – he is a Jesuit through and through.

One disciple of Rahner, another Jesuit, Fr Josef Fuchs SJ, applied Rahner’s Transcendental Thomism to the world of moral theology. One of his insights was that it is in subjectivity that we encounter objectivity. This way of expressing things is not popular in the English-speaking world, but the Fuchsian insight essentially is that that subjectivity and objectivity are not to be seen as opposing poles. So a person may feel and conceive of something as good – and through this experience come to the vision of an objective good.

What the Pope is hoping to do in this conversation with Scalfari is to draw him on and out from his subjective and limited vision of goods towards an objective and transcendental vision of the Good. It is interesting to note, at this stage, the tenor of Scalfari’s words reproduced above. He seems to think that Catholics believe that the Good is monolithic and that what is Good is decided by someone (presumably the Pope himself.) All these presuppositions are very mistaken.

First: the good is not monolithic. Mother Teresa lived a good life, and so did Jane Austen, yet both ladies were very different. Don Bosco was good, so was St Francis – both they were both saints is different ways.

Second: we do not decide on what is the Good. It is something we discover. The Good is not the product of some human decision, however rational. It pre-exists us.

Thirdly, Scalfari seems to think the doctrine of the autonomy of conscience is something that Pope Francis has come up with, “one of the most courageous steps taken by a Pope.” The doctrine of the autonomy of conscience, and the supremacy of conscience is found very clearly in the Summa Theologiae of St Thomas Aquinas (see, for example, among other instances, ST I II, qu 19, art 6), and is clearly in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council as well (see Gaudium et Spes 16).

Though the Pope comes across in this conversation as avuncular and rather wordy, under the surface he is a lot better informed and sharper than Scalfari, Italy’s leading public intellectual.