On May 22, 2013, Religion News Service reported on the morning homily delivered on that day by Pope Francis I. There has, understandably, been absorbing media interest in the new pontiff, from the fact that he continues to live in a guesthouse rather than in the splendid apartment available to him, to his having eschewed the traditional red papal slippers in favor of ordinary black shoes. With this has gone great attention to every word he utters and an exaggeration of the novelty of these utterances. In the aforementioned homily Francis said that goodness is not a matter of faith but an ”identity card” given, not just to Catholics, but to all human beings who thereby may participate in the salvation brought by Christ. He explicitly mentioned atheists, implying that good atheists may also go to heaven.
I would like to make two points here: One, that it is a mistake to think that Francis was saying something very innovative here. And a more important point, about the relation of faith and morality.
The story about Francis’ friendly words about atheists was carried by various media, sometimes in contrast to the supposedly different views of his predecessor. This is a misunderstanding. The formula “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” (“there is no salvation outside the church”) was coined by Cyprian of Carthage in the third century CE and has been Catholic doctrine ever since. But it has had widely different interpretations. There has indeed been the idea that only baptized Catholics can go to heaven (including the particularly repulsive notion that infants who die unbaptized are denied entrance to heaven but must spend eternity in a disagreeable “limbo”—a notion, by the way, explicitly denied by Benedict XVI). Some atheist spokesmen and other commentators have warmly greeted the homily as a significant breakthrough. The fact is that a much more liberal view of the range of salvation has been mainstream Catholic teaching for a long time, maintaining that the path to heaven is open to good non-Catholics who are “united to the soul of the church”. One may recall that in 1953 Leonard Feeney, a Jesuit attached to Boston College, was excommunicated for refusing to recant his position that only Catholics can go to heaven (an ironical case, I would think, of “being hoisted by one’s own petard”—the excommunicator excommunicated).
But I would like to address a wider point here than misunderstandings of religion in the media and public opinion—namely, about the relation between faith and morality. Conservative Christians (Protestant and Eastern Orthodox as well as Catholic) typically argue that the morality at the core of Western civilization, specifically the values of human rights and liberties, is dependent on the Judeo-Christian tradition. Secularization is then assumed to dismantle that tradition, thus bringing about a pervasive relativism and eventually destroying the moral consensus required for the survival of every society.
I think that this argument suffers from what logicians call the genetic fallacy—that is, the view that the validity of any definition of reality depends on the history of the definition. To be sure, the Christian religion, grounded in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, was a very important source of Western civilization. There were other sources—Greek thought and political practice, Roman law, possibly aspects of Germanic traditions, and, crucially, the enormous effects of the rationality of Renaissance and Enlightenment. A distinctive moral discourse resulted from the confluence of all these historical developments. But it is not necessary to keep retracing this history in order to participate in the moral discourse. Once the discourse is formed and available, it can be accessed and embraced by people from different directions, including people from different religious and cultural backgrounds.
Let me give a mundane example that has nothing to do with religion or culture: Some years ago, while in London, I was told of a bookstore in Bloomsbury that specialized in English-language books from India. I wanted the English translation of a recent novel originally published in an Indian language. I had difficulty finding the bookstore, and wandered around looking for it. Suddenly I came on the impressive old building of the British Museum (the one before it moved to its new quarters); I had not been there before. I then discovered that the book store I was looking for was virtually around the corner. Not long afterward I was with someone who wanted to see the old British Museum, with its reading room where Karl Marx labored to write his hugely misleading and hugely influential Das Kapital. I now knew where it was. I could go there directly, without retracing my journey in search of the bookstore.
The argument about the dependence of Western civilization on the Judeo-Christian tradition suffers from another fallacy—an overly intellectual and juridical conception of morality. To be sure, moral judgments can be intellectually deduced from a body of religious thought, and summarized in coherent rules that can be taught and internalized: Do this, don’t do that—such are the divine commandments. But it seems to me that moral judgments are typically based on experiences rather than theoretical reflections. Put differently, every morality presupposes a particular way of seeing. Conscience (the internalization of a morality) addresses us not so much in the imperative as in the indicative: Look at this—and you will then know what to do or not to do. In the story in the Book of Genesis of the primeval murder, Cain’s killing of his brother Abel, God confronted Cain. He did not rebuke Cain for having broken this or that commandment. Instead he said: “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground”. In other words: Look at this! And after that he cursed Cain.
I will illustrate this point by three examples—one each from literature, from the history of World War II, and from a very recent event.
In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is joined in his travels by Jim, a black man who turns out to be an escaped slave fleeing from a particularly cruel situation. Huck is a white son of the Old South. The rules, which he still believes in, tell him that he ought to return Jim to his owner. But, as they spend time with each other, Huck finds that he cannot do this. The story is a piece of fiction, so we cannot do research to find out what led Huck to this conclusion. We can only speculate. There is no mention of Huck having spoken with an abolitionist or having read an anti-slavery publication. What apparently happened is that he suddenly perceived Jim as a human being who should not be somebody’s property. It is relevant to point out that something like this perception changed attitudes (at least in the North) before the Civil War—not theoretical arguments or fiery sermons (though there were many of those), but the mediocre novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The novel told a story of cruelty and had a simple message: Look at this! This must not be!
The second illustration is a real story from World War II. Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat who happened to be a consul in Kaunas, then the capital of Lithuania. In 1940 the consulate was besieged by Jewish refugees from Poland trying to escape the advancing German armies. Directly disobeying orders from his government, Sugihara issued thousands of visas allowing Jewish families to travel to Japan via the Soviet Union. Because of this action Sugihara’s career in the Japanese foreign service was ended and he faced great difficulties upon his return home. Hillel Levine wrote a book about this episode (In Search of Sugihara, 1996). Levine estimated that Sugihara succeded in saving about 10,000 Jews (including families with children) from the Holocaust. Levine especially wanted to find out what could possibly have motivated Sugihara to act as he did, with great cost to himself. No obvious motives could be found – no dissident political or religious beliefs, no known previous contacts with Jews or Judaism. When asked about his motives in an interview with a journalist after the war, all that Sugihara could say was that these people were desperate and that he felt pity when he confronted them face to face. In other words, he saw them as human beings in great distress—and this perception led him to his rescue mission. It seems that we still don’t know what led to this perception in Sugihara’s biography.
I come to the third illustration with some reluctance, because I still find it horrifying to think about it. A couple of months ago I came across a photograph in a periodical. I found it intolerable to look at and after a few moments threw away the periodical, and oddly (or perhaps not so oddly) I cannot now recall which periodical it was. The photo accompanied a story of two young men who were hanged in Iran for having been in a homosexual relationship (a capital offence in the Islamic Republic). In the picture one of the young men was being led to the gallows by the hangman. The latter had an arm around the victim, who rested his head on the hangman’s shoulder. This must have been immediately before the execution. At first glance it looked as if the young man was seeking comfort from the hangman who was about to kill him. I only looked at this scene for a few moments, but some questions rapidly went through my mind: Was the young man really looking for comfort from the hangman? Did the hangman say anything? A promise that he would be quick about it? Or (revoltingly) telling the victim that he should repent and accept his just punishment? But the moral judgment in my mind was absolutely clear: This scene depicts an act of unspeakable inhumanity, and the authorities that staged it are profoundly evil. One should add that the evil disclosed here is all the more obscene because done in the name of a faith whose sacred book begins every chapter with the sentence “In the name of God, the compassionate, who acts compassionately”. Look at what is being done here!
Back to religion and the moral core of Western civilization: Whatever the history, a distinctive way of seeing has now been established. It is a way of perceiving what every human being essentially is: someone of infinite worth. The fundamental perception is formulated in a lapidary sentence in the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany: “The dignity of man is inviolate” (“Die Wuerde des Menschen ist unantastbar”). It is very unlikely that this sentence would be in the constitution of the restored German democracy had it not been formulated in the wake of the massive assaults on human dignity by the Nazis. Of course there are many, many questions to be addressed as this sentence is applied to practical life. But my point here is that, once the perception occurs, it implies universality. It is impossible to say, for instance, that slavery or torture are morally unacceptable in Europe or America, but are quite okay in other parts of the world. People of faith will place the core perception in a cosmic framework that ultimately validates it. The perception itself (vide Francis’ homily) is accessible to both Christians and atheists, as well as to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or the many people who are unsure where they stand in the face of the many religious traditions that are on offer in our pluralistic world.