From Pio to Bultmann and back

C. Bernard Ruffin, in his book Padre Pio: The True Story, wrote:

Padre Pio was almost an exact contemporary of Rudolph Bultmann (1884-1976)… Bultmann wrote in Kerygma and Myth:It is impossible to use electric light … and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of demons and spirits.” Yet Padre Pio, Bultmann’s contemporary, convinced many a learned man that angels appeared to translate letters he received in foreign languages, that he cast out devils, and that he was, on many occasions, knocked bodily to the floor by irate demons.

It was reading that which sent me to Bultmann in the first place. The contrast between the despairing and barren Christianity of Bultmann, and the richness that was Pio’s Christian spiritual life and his gift in the lives of those who came in contact with him—that contrast could not be greater. One cannot subscribe to both views of Christianity.

To take the evidence of Padre Pio’s life and work at face value is to destroy the foundations of the great edifice of academic theology that has been built up over the past century. It’s that simple. So, have the “dark Satanic mills” of modern seminaries, theological colleges and university departments of religious studies fallen into disarray? Not a bit of it. So how do they cope?

I seem to recall Richard Dawkins’ scoffing at the Vatican process for evaluating a cause for canonisation by requiring evidence of successive miracles. What he was scoffing about, if I recall correctly, was the very idea of gathering evidence of miracles. Dawkins’ approach is outlined in his discussion of Fatima in Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder.

It is the 70,000 witnesses that impress. Could 70,000 people simultaneously be victims of the same hallucination? Could 70,000 people collude in the same lie? Or if there never were 70,000 witnesses, could the reporter of the event get away with inventing so many?

Let’s apply Hume’s criterion. On the other hand, we are asked to believe in a mass hallucination, a trick of the light, or a mass lie involving 70,000 people. This is admittedly improbable. But it is less improbable than the alternative: that the sun really did move. … If the sun moved in truth… an even greater miracle would have to have been perpetrated: an illusion of non-movement had to be staged for all the millions of witnesses not in Fatima. And… if the sun had really moved at the speed reported, the solar system would have broken up. We have no alternative but to follow Hume… and conclude… that the miracle of Fatima never happened. Moreover, it is not at all clear that the onus is on us to explain how those 70,000 witnesses were misled.

Dawkins and the new tribe of scoffers, including the late Christopher Hitchins (may God have mercy on his soul) perform a valuable service. They take it upon themselves to provide intellectual respectability to the primary means by which both the secular and the theological establishment cope with the likes of Pio: denial. Dawkins et al write prolifically in denialist vein, and analyse selected instances of miraculous events in the manner of the quote above. It is of no consequence that such “analyses” display fatal logical flaws; it is enough that they are written by an authoritative atheist with a commanding debating presence and manner which will see them through the necessarily trivialised TV encounters that are the most important means of conveying the message. For every such figure, there are a million “village atheists” (Richard John Neuhaus’ lovely term) who hang on their every word, and who will triumphantly misquote them in their next encounter at the pub or the party.

Obviously, sophisticated theologians can’t simply pretend that Pio never existed, and hope that all trace of him disappears. But infidels need never despair, for help will always arrive. It is in the nature of all human knowing, faith, doubt and uncertainty that there is always a way out of believing.  In the case of Pio, for instance, Sergio Luzzatto has come to the rescue, with a book called Padre Pio. Miracoli e politica nell’Italia del Novecento (Miracles and politics in a secular age).  It is an exposé of Pio as a charlatan, proto-Fascist, and so on. This book can now be used to deflect the challenge that the phenomenon of Pio represents to modern theological infidelity. One does not have to read the book—reading a good review will do—to provide enough ammunition for those dinner table, or bar table, or pulpit arguments; to feed doubt in those who have not themselves studied Pio’s life in detail. Just Google “luzzatto pio” and you’ll see what I mean. Encouragingly, it’s a measure of the threat that Pio presents to the “secular age,” that this book had to be written.

The driving rationale for this book, as for Dawkins and co., is that the life and works of Pio cannot have been actual, by definition; that the events of Fatima could not have actually occurred, by definition. The programme is laid out in Dawkins quote. No matter how improbable the alternative explanations, one of them must be correct, because the simple contradicting hypothesis is impossible. This should come as no surprise, because such a priori hypothesis filtering is, in fact, engrained in the process of human knowing, including the carefully elaborated structures of scientific enquiry and knowing. Nonetheless, it is precisely the filters of our presuppositions that are in question here.

Fatima and Pio and the great crowd of Christian witnesses reaffirm the Judaic and Christian truth that God, the maker and master of His creature universe, loves and reveals His presence to His creatures, Man. This revelation is not isolated in the distant past, to events that we can only possibly approach through a Faith insulated by an ignorance of the present and the intervening years. Come and see, that the triune God still approaches His creatures, still sends his messengers, still tells us in truth, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do.


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