At the beginning of Crossing the Threshold of Hope, an Italian journalist named Vittorio Messori explains that some time back he submitted a list of questions to the Pope in anticipation of a planned television interview. The interview never materialized, but the Pope, according to Messori, found the questions “interesting” and scribbled out answers. The result is this strange hodgepodge, in which each short chapter begins with one of Messori’s queries.
Reviewers have remarked upon the book’s supposed difficulty. In fact it’s very basic stuff, thoroughly understandable by any educated reader; though now and then the Pope drops the name of a philosopher or theologian with whom the reader may not be familiar, this does not impede comprehension of his essential points. Far from being difficult, the book is surprisingly thin, unsystematic, incomplete, even (at times) incoherent and contradictory. Frequently, and often inexplicably, the Pope puts words, phrases, and entire sentences in italics.
Illustrative of this book’s messy presentation is a passage about fear and love. Fear of God, writes the Pope, is the origin of wisdom. He says this “filial fear” differs from “servile fear” but doesn’t explain the difference. He then maintains that “the authentic and full expression of this fear is Christ Himself. Christ wants us to have fear of all that is an offense against God.” So fear is good. Or is it? For the Pope then says that “Man is set free through love . . . [which] drives out all fear.” But then the Pope equates love and fear: “filial fear,” he declares, “is first of all love.” Nevertheless he has taken as a sort of personal motto the injunction “Be not afraid!”, which is written on the back of the book’s dust jacket. Presumably all this makes sense to the Pope, but he has not made sense of it here.
This book reads like an interview with a politician. The Pope dodges questions, finesses answers. When asked if he has ever doubted God’s existence, and again when asked to describe how he prays, he doesn’t reply directly, and instead provides generalized discussions of doubt and prayer. Both he and his interviewer avoid controversial issues. The chapter entitled “Women” is barely a page long—and even at that length it feels padded, awkward, uncomfortable, as if the Pope is flailing about for something to say about the subject. In fact he has little to offer here except empty phrases about the need for “true respect for woman” and devotion to the Virgin Mary. The Pope doesn’t mention women priests, and Messori, for his part, takes pains to avoid this delicate issue; when Messori refers to the rift between the Roman and Anglican churches, he speaks ambiguously of “certain decisions” by the Anglicans that caused it, but doesn’t say that the “decisions” in question were actually a single decision to sanction female ordination.
Descartes comes up frequently, for the Pope sees Cartesian rationality as the foundation of twentieth-century secularism and thus the great enemy of Christianity and the root cause of many Catholics’ departure from the Church. He doesn’t acknowledge that many Catholics have left the Church not because they’ve been seduced by secularism but because the Vatican’s inflexible stand on many issues has made them feel obliged to choose between remaining in the Church and being true to their consciences and the testimony of their senses. Under the present Pope, the Church has been particularly abominable in its treatment of gay Catholics who seek wholeness and of theologians whose honest searches for truth have led them to positions that don’t conform rigorously enough to the Church’s required laundry list of superstitions, sentimentalities, and prejudices. Neither Messori nor the Pope brings up these matters.
True, the Pope quotes (or at least mentions) philosophers and theologians in profusion, as if to imply that he respects free and vigorous philosophical and theological inquiry, but his answer to questions, qualms, and reservations is routinely to insist on the letter of Catholic dogma. “This is what we believe”: case closed. The whole tone of the book, indeed, is anti-thought. Paths of reflection that lead away from absolute orthodoxy must be closed off, and wayward thinkers brought strictly back to the True Path — or, if they resist, must be ejected. When asked questions that imply doubt about this or that doctrine, the Pope responds like a severe professor rather than a loving pastor. Why, Messori inquires, doesn’t God reveal himself more clearly? Wouldn’t it be simpler if He made his existence more obvious? “The questions you ask,” replies the Pope, “do not refer to Saint Thomas or to Augustine. … It seems to me that they stem from another source . . . the history of which begins with Descartes.” When Messori asks, “Do heaven, purgatory, and hell still exist?” the Pope retorts: “Please open the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, to chapter 7, which discusses the eschatological character of the pilgrim Church on earth, as well as the union of the earthly Church with the Church in heaven.” Whew! This book is presumably intended, in large part, for confused laity — but if a confused layman walked into a church and started asking questions, would the Pope really want a priest to respond in this way to his cries of the soul?
For many Christians, faith and reason go hand in hand: in Anglican theology, for instance, reason is a pillar of belief. Not for this Pope. For him, belief is a matter of radical irrationality, of pure will; every Catholic must affirm that angels are real, that the children in Fatima really saw the Virgin. The Pope even posits that the assassination attempt on him took place on the anniversary of the first apparition at Fatima because Christ was trying to tell us something. I find this notion monstrous.
The most disturbing thing about this book, however, is that the Pope says little about love. When he does refer to it, he seems to feel a pressing need to turn it into something else — fear, suffering, punishment. For many Christians, the heart of Christianity is the gospels, and the heart of the gospels is love. For this Pope, by contrast, the heart of the gospels is pain, persecution, agony. “If the agony on the Cross had not happened,” he writes, “the truth that God is Love would have been unfounded.” Yes, the sacrifice on the Cross is crucial to Christianity. But why does the Pope say nothing here about Jesus’ life, his ministry, his living example of unjudging love? If this book is any indication, all that matters to the Pope about Jesus, ultimately, is his Crucifixion agony. To be sure, the supreme gospel message to love God and your neighbor isn’t entirely absent from this book, but it seems alarmingly far from the center of the Pope’s thought.
HUDSON REVIEW, Autumn 1994