Salvatore Natoli is an Italian philosopher, academic, and author of some renown. Today, we’ve learned that he has some noteworthy opinions on the pope’s new encyclical.
First, some background: Natoli, born in 1942, is a product of Catholic higher education and a self-described nonbeliever (but perhaps I repeat myself). He graduated from the Catholic University of Milan and went on to teach logic there as well. He currently teaches theoretical philosophy at the University of Milano-Bicocca.
He is known as an advocate of neo-pagan ethics, which, according to his Wikipedia entry, means “taking up elements of Greek thought (in particular, the sense of the tragic ), manages to found an earthly happiness, in the awareness of the limits of man and of his necessarily being a finite entity, as opposed to the Christian tradition.”
A glance at his published works shows at least some emphasis on the problem of pain — with a particular inquisitiveness about how the Christian perception of pain has changed the world, and how belief that the possibility of a world (heaven) without pain changes our ability to deal with the inevitability of suffering.
“Christianity has altered the pagan soul,” Natoli writes in his 1995 book, the New Pagans. “The moment the dream of a world without pain has appeared, one no longer adapts to this pain even if one believes that a world without pain will never exist. Consciousness has been visited by a dream that no longer cancels itself, and even if it believes it unlikely, it nevertheless wants it to exist.”
This excerpt appears to illuminate Natoli’s analysis of the pope’s new encyclical.
Today at L’Espresso, Vaticanista Sandro Magister introduces Natoli’s thoughts on Fratelli Tutti (FT) to the English-speaking world:
A few days after its publication, the encyclical “Fratelli tutti” has already been shelved, given the absence in it of the slightest hint of innovation in comparison with the previous and well-known addresses of Pope Francis on the same issues.
But what if precisely this rambling Franciscan homily on “fraternity” were to give birth to a “different Christianity,” in which “Jesus were nothing but a man?”
This is the very serious “dilemma” in which the philosopher Salvatore Natoli sees the Church plunged today, with the pontificate of Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
Natoli writes and argues this in a book by a variety of commentators on “Fratelli tutti,” edited by the bishop and theologian Bruno Forte, released today in Rome and Italy.
As an aside, I find it quite interesting that this group of scholars already have a book out on an encyclical that is itself book-length and which has only been public for 9 days. One assumes they were given advanced copies to review, and that therefore their opinions were solicited by the Vatican. I didn’t know this was something the Vatican did, but if there’s another explanation I’d be curious to hear it.
Moving to Natloi’s analysis, as presented by Magister, he notes that for a very long time, “the conflict over the existence of God clearly demonstrated that God was the central question of that culture, both for the deniers and for those who upheld him. It was the dominant theme, one could not be silent about it.”
“But at a certain point,” Natoli continues…
God vanished, he no longer constituted a problem because he was no longer seen as necessary. Today, reasoning about the existence of God is a problem that nobody has, not even Christians. What characterizes Christianity more and more is the dimension of “caritas,” and less and less that of Transcendence. “Fratelli tutti,” it appears to me, demonstrates this at every turn. And this is a great dilemma within Christianity, which Pope Francis presents “in actu exercito.” Transcendence is not denied, but is increasingly ignored. There is no need for explicit denial if the matter becomes irrelevant.
Obviously, the claim that “nobody” these days is bothering to reason about the existence of God, even Christians, is an exaggeration. But I do wonder how much of one it is. The idea that He is “no longer seen as necessary” is certainly a reality we must contend with among a great number of people – quite likely the majority, at least in the post-Christian West.
I recall a theology professor of mine saying that we tend to encounter God in one of two conditions: poverty, or plentitude. Because in plentitude our needs are seemingly met with sufficiency, we are, unless we cultivate a spirit of gratitude, more likely to forget Him there. And it certainly seems to be the case that science and progress, at least when wielded by modern men in the first world, leave little room for faith.
Whatever the statistics on belief are, Natoli believes that there is a “singular shift” that has taken place in contemporary Christianity:
Christianity is increasingly and simply turning into “Christus caritas.” Isn’t this the Christ of “Fratelli tutti”? A Christ who not by chance – see paragraphs. 1-2 and 286 – has the face of Francis of Assisi, the Christian saint who speaks most to believers of other religions and to nonbelievers.
This shift from transcendence to immanence within the Church is something that has been noteworthy for some time. So, too, is the note of religious indifferentism — something the real St. Francis would not tolerate — that has crept in through the past several papacies, and seems to have settled in comfortably during this one.
As I noted upon the release of the “Care for Creation” Pope Video in February of 2016,
Hot on the heels of last month’s paean to religious indifferentism, we get another blast of immanentism from the Vatican, which has apparently rebranded itself as a non-denominational ecology and social-justice driven NGO.
Yes. The Church teaches stewardship of creation. You’ll get no dispute from me. But it also teaches that the things of this world are passing, and that our eyes should be on heaven. I’d like to know when we’re going to get a papal video about how to accomplish that.
In a sermon given last year at the first Mass of a newly-ordained priest, Bishop Athanasius Schneider preached about the meaning of the priesthood – what it is, and what it isn’t:
“The priesthood is concerned not with temporal things, but with eternal things. It is the same with the Church. The Church is not concerned with climate change, or ecology. That is the job of the government! The Church is concerned with eternal things!”
And yet, here we are. We have a pope who takes great pains to avoid ever speaking about eternal things, but constantly beats the drum about what is temporal and transient.
This theme, which alert Catholics have been picking up on since the earliest days of this pontificate, has reached the eyes of even an unbelieving philosopher like Natoli, who clearly sees it through a different lens:
Is this move – I ask Christians – reversible or irreversible? What if Francis – I dare to conjecture – were the last pope of the Roman Catholic tradition, and a different Christianity were being born? A Christianity that has justice and mercy at its center, and less and less the resurrection of the flesh. Fellowship in suffering is not the same thing as ultimate deliverance from evil. The Christian promise was: “there will be no more pain or death, there will be no more evil”; while now Christianity seems to assume that suffering will always accompany men and that being Christian means supporting one another. I emphasize this aspect of the encyclical because to me it seems entirely in keeping with the nobler aims of secular modernity, albeit in terms of altruism and solidarity and without any reference to a definitive redemption, otherwise known as “salvation.” [emphasis added]
Francis certainly marks the end of an epoch within the Church. The Roman Catholic tradition has been waning for decades now, but this pontificate seems intent to close it out with gusto. As for the shift in emphasis, I have often wondered: Francis is proficient at talking about poverty, war, weapons, the environment, solidarity, immigration, unemployment, and so on, but when is he going to get around to talking about the salvation of souls?
I had a conversation with a Facebook friend some years back, I wish I could remember who, and she told me about meeting a nun in the 1970s who was very active in feeding the poor and working on various aspects of social justice. And when she was asked what provision was being made to help these poor souls make it to heaven, she looked blankly at the woman and said, “Oh, we don’t believe in that anymore. That’s why we do our best to make heaven right here.”
I’m paraphrasing from memory, so some of the nuance is perhaps lost, but the point is not an unfamiliar one. This is the driving purpose of the immanentist: to busy themselves with the improvement of temporal circumstances because they see no point in striving for eternal felicity.
And I suspect I am not alone in seeing, within this notion of “being Christian means supporting one another,” the dismissal by Francis (repeated at least four times during his pontificate) that the Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes was actually just about sharing:
Jesus reasons with God’s logic, which is that of sharing. How many times we turn away so as not to see our brothers in need! And this looking away is a polite way to say, with white gloves, ‘Sort it out for yourselves’. And this is not Jesus’ way: this is selfishness. Had he sent away the crowds, many people would have been left with nothing to eat. Instead those few loaves and fish, shared and blessed by God, were enough for everyone. And pay heed! It isn’t magic, it’s a ‘sign’: a sign that calls for faith in God, provident Father, who does not let us go without ‘our daily bread’, if we know how to share it as brothers. (Angelus, August 3, 2014)
In light of this, Natoli asks an obvious (but necessary) question: How much do Christians “still believe in a blessed eternity, in an eternal present where there will be nothing more to wait for, but the past will be completely redeemed?”
What if Christ were by no means God incarnate but instead the incarnation represented the beginning of the death of God? What if Jesus were nothing but a man who nonetheless showed men that only in their mutual self-giving do they have the possibility of becoming “gods,” albeit in the manner of Spinoza: “homo homini Deus”? No longer, therefore, “you come down from the stars,” but rather “supporting one another” in order to dwell happily on the earth.
The promise of a definitive liberation from pain and death may be only a myth, but in any case it is not in the power of those whom the Greeks called “mortals.” Mutual aid, on the contrary, is in men’s power and Christianity, recognized and adopted in the form of the good Samaritan, can truly make us fully human.
Francis’s take on the Good Samaritan is that
there are only two kinds of people: those who care for someone who is hurting and those who pass by; those who bend down to help and those who look the other way and hurry off. Here, all our distinctions, labels and masks fall away: it is the moment of truth. Will we bend down to touch and heal the wounds of others? Will we bend down and help another to get up? This is today’s challenge, and we should not be afraid to face it. In moments of crisis, decisions become urgent. It could be said that, here and now, anyone who is neither a robber nor a passer-by is either injured himself or bearing an injured person on his shoulders.
What this means, in practical terms, can be euphemistically tortured to meet just about any ideological agenda. For Francis, it seems to be about rejecting things like “violent nationalism, xenophobia and contempt, and even the mistreatment of those who are different.” It is clearly part of his campaign for “neighbors without borders” (as though unfettered immigration were one of the new beatitudes) and likely extends to his deeply problematic religious indifferentism and his flat-out erroneous position on the death penalty.
For a man like Natoli, though, there is a comfort in all of this, since this life is all (in his view) that we have:
[A]s a nonbeliever, I am in perfect agreement, word for word, with what the encyclical says in the second chapter, commenting on the parable of the good Samaritan. This is what we need to be doing! From this point of view, Jesus expresses something men are able to do. But rising from the dead is something only God can do, supposing there is one.
I can’t help but wonder if Francis supposes there is one. Far too often, it appears he does not.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.