THE FACT OF THE MATTER
As one who has long eschewed the pomp and pageantry of Catholicism, or any organised religion for that matter — I’m a great believer in going into my closet to pray — I concede, however, that it is hard not to like Pope Francis who, as I write, is home after a short spell in hospital. He’s 86.
Since he took up residence in Vatican City, we have been learning down the years about Jorge Mario Bergoglio. The first pope from Latin America, he decried the trappings of the office, foregoing a mansion for a small apartment, preferring to take the bus than use a chauffeur, and dedicated himself to pastoral work in the slums.
The affable Francis in the years of his papacy has wooed the public (and much of a fawning media) with his disarming humility and common touch — and his obvious flair for ad-libbing and humour. Francis has marked a break from the past, an ambition to focus on social relevance and justice. “How I would like a church which is poor and for the poor!” he has often said.
What I have found interesting is that Pope Francis obtained his first degree in chemistry, a later one in philosophy and another in theology, and that he once taught literature and psychology at universities. That broad education, academic bent, and humility are hardly a surprise because Bergoglio was the first Jesuit pope. The Jesuits, the largest order in the Catholic Church, are its intellectual elite and known for their independent thinking. They also vow to live lives of austerity and never to seek high office in the Catholic Church — let alone pope.
They have focused less on doctrine than do career clergy and more on issues of social and economic injustice. I have seen first-hand their Christ-like work, when under cover, in South America among the socially and politically disadvantaged, often putting their own lives at great risk.
Contrary to widespread belief, the modern Catholic Church is science-friendly: its support for Darwinian evolution contrasts sharply with the unscientific belief in Creationism of many evangelicals both here — cue, the North — and across the world, a concept that Pope Benedict XVI rightly criticised in 2007 as “absurd”.
I mention all this because, increasingly, science, particularly in the field of astrophysics, alludes to an Original Cause or God, if you like. Robert Lanza’s Biocentrics and Bernard Haisch’s The God Theory are not a million light years from Higgs boson and the God particle.
My Catholic upbringing did little to answer any of the Big Questions, and I could not rationalise a God who would condemn some of us to eternal damnation, nor rationalise a devil that existed outside of God for that defeats the very definition of what God is — the All That Is, encompassing all. The pontifications of the eminent evolutionist Richard Dawkins have always left me cold for he starts from the arrogant premise that there is no God and that the Big Bang of 13.8 billion years ago (science only last year added another 800 million years to that moment) and everything that has followed since is, effectively, just chance. Could just as easily not have happened.
Sorry, but I just don’t buy that. Even Darwin never ruled out a Divine Originator.
The laws of physics are so fine-tuned: that there is Life, that you and I exist at all — a nano-nano second either side of the Big Bang and the ‘conditions’ for such would not ‘be’ — is, in the true sense of the word, a miracle. Ergo, anything is possible. There is just as likely a God as there is not.
My small circle of friends is, in the main, atheistic. The familiar stark divide between people of religion and those without is, I feel, too crude. Many atheists have convictions and experiences just as profound as those that believers count as ‘religious’. Though they do not believe in a ‘personal God’, some, nevertheless, believe in a ‘force’ in the universe ‘greater than we are’. As did, and few consider this, Einstein who wrote: “To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty … this knowledge, this feeling, is at the centre of true religiousness. In this sense, and this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious.’’
My father once told me his grandfather’s words to his wife at his deathbed were: “Well, Mary, I’ll know the Great Mystery soon.’’
And, with that, he was gone …