Pope Francis and the 18th century French philosopher Voltaire form an unlikely pair. The pope encourages the Roman Catholic Church to show toleration by embracing outcasts.
In contrast, Voltaire chided the Vatican for torturing protesters who didn’t endorse “right doctrine.” He urged Denis Diderot, another Enlightenment skeptic of the Church, to “fall upon the (Vatican’s) knaves, destroy their empty declarations, their miserable sophistries, their historical lies, their contradictions and absurdities beyond number.”
Voltaire and Diderot excoriated the Roman Catholic Church for persecuting minorities who contradicted ecclesiastical edicts. Pope Francis admits the Catholic Church’s weaknesses. Still, he strives to fulfill Christ’s mandate of raising the downtrodden.
Amid significant differences in belief, Pope Francis has reclaimed a virtue of Voltaire. Both have practiced tolerance toward misfits who espouse minority convictions. Tolerance functions as a piston in the engine of justice that drives the pope and Voltaire. The Apostle Paul advocated tolerance, urging humble Christians to practice “forbearance with love” (Ephesians 4:2).
On Easter Day Mass, celebrated under a canopy on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis described how Christians act who are gripped by resurrection joy and hope.
Before over 150,000 pilgrims and citizens in Rome, the pope articulated a message listeners expect from him. He didn’t dwell on life after death or offer proofs for why Jesus’ tomb was empty. Nor did he dwell on a sunny interior life of faith Christ’s resurrection causes in some believers.
Instead, Pope Francis focused on challenges harassing life. His Easter remarks inspired listeners to look around them and fill human needs. The pope reminded pilgrims that the “good news,” which is what “gospel” means, radiates Easter’s joy and hope. These virtues flow through Christians and atheists alike. How? By “leaving ourselves behind and encountering others, being close to those crushed by life’s troubles, sharing with the needy, standing at the side of the sick, elderly and the outcast.”
The pope walks Jesus’ talk. On the first Holy Thursday of his papacy last year, Francis washed a Muslim girl’s feet. He shares meals with the homeless. He enters crowds and lifts disabled children to bless them. He embraced a severely disfigured man from whom most shied.
‘Bishop Of Rome’
Since his papacy began, Francis has practiced humble tolerance. Speaking from the balcony of St. Peter’s, he asked the crowd to address him simply as “the bishop of Rome,” the lowest title bestowed on prior popes. His predecessors acquired lofty stature with designations as Vicar of Jesus Christ or Supreme Pontiff.
Not Francis. He’s listed in the Vatican’s official directory as merely “Francis — Bishop of Rome.”
Like this pope, Voltaire spread tolerance by what he wrote and how he acted. He thundered against wickedness practiced by Church officials against dissenters. At its worst, religion can be merciless and diabolical.
In March 1762, the son of a French Protestant, Jean Calas, committed suicide. Roman Catholics regarded this act a slap in God’s face. The Church’s punishment of a suicidal victim was to drag the corpse through streets before hanging it, thereby publicly humiliating families.
However, father Jean, to save his family from such pain, reported to the church that his son had died of natural causes. Church officials then concocted a theory that Jean Calas had murdered his son to keep him from converting to Catholicism.
Pulitzer prize-winning biographer Robert K. Massie, in “Catherine, the Great: Portrait of a Woman,” describes the hideous punishment church officials exerted on Calas to get him to corroborate their contrived theory. Such grisly torture leading to death is unspeakable.
“He was placed on a rack,” reports Massie, “and his arms and legs were pulled from their sockets; in agony, he admitted that his son’s death was suicide. This was not the confession the authorities wanted; they demanded he confess to murder. Fifteen pints of water were poured down his throat; he still protested innocence. Another 15 pints were forced into him; he was convinced that he was drowning, but still cried that he was innocent. He was stretch on a cross in the public square before the Toulouse cathedral. The public executioner took a heavy iron bar and crushed each of his four limbs in two places; the old man still proclaimed his innocence. He was strangled and died.”
Voltaire protested by writing condemnations of this inhumane water-boarding mutilation. Eventually, he rehabilitated Jean Calas’ reputation, exonerating him of any crime.
Voltaire, an atheist, broadened tolerance. Tainted religion shrinks it.
Voltaire and Pope Francis walk hand-in-hand with Jesus. Though separated by centuries, these men join in a quest to allow for diversity of beliefs, which enriches a just society.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.