Antonio Spadaro, S.J.: “Bertrand Russell is the Pope!”

CNS-POPE-PLANE (Paul Haring CNS)

Of course, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J. did not say what appears in the title of this piece, but he may as well have. Back in January, Fr. Spadaro, a close confidant of Pope Francis and the so-called “mouthpiece” of the pope, tweeted: “Theology is not #Mathematics. 2+2 in #Theology can make 5. Because it has to do with #God and real #life of #people….” If this is indeed true, then nobody can deny that Bertrand Russell is the pope.

The story goes: During a lecture, Bertrand Russell said that if he was given a false proposition, he could prove the truth of any falsehood, because an illogical proposition implies any proposition. He was promptly interrupted by a student who said: “2+2=5. Now prove that you are the pope.” Russell remained silent, and thought for a few moments. He then replied: “If 2+2=5, then 4=5. Subtract 3 from both, and you get 1=2. The pope and I are 2 persons, and 2=1, therefore the pope and I are 1.” Of course, Russell was not the pope, but his conclusion was a logical consequence of a provably false premise and a pre-established violation of reason. This story itself varies, and apparently cannot be confirmed. But what does it matter, if 2+2 can equal 5?

What is interesting about Fr. Spadaro’s tweet, however, is that he does NOT begin with a false premise, as did Russell. Fr. Spadaro wrote: “Theology is not #Mathematics,” which is a true statement indeed. But he immediately follows that premise with a completely invalid and false example, using mathematics itself to prove his very point. If theology is NOT mathematics, then logically he cannot defend that very statement using a mathematical statement “in #Theology” (even if it violates mathematical principles in an effort to prove his point). After much criticism of his tweet, Fr. Spadaro then took another inexplicable and illogical leap and offered a mathematical proof that 4=5 to prove his point. He makes at least two basic errors. First, he offers the argument that 4 can equal 5 “in mathematics,” when his original point was that 4 (2+2) can make 5 “in #Theology.” He is now trying to prove that reason can violate reason, not that reason may violate faith. And second, his mathematical proof is inaccurate (a brief explanation: the square root of 4 is both -2 and 2, but this does not mean that -2 is equal to 2).

But Fr. Spadaro does make a valid point in his original tweet, even if unintended. I imagine that many teachers have attempted to explain the Trinity to students and have come across the expected response of an inquisitive and skeptical student: “If the Father is One, and the Son is One, and the Holy Spirit is One, and they are each God, and there is only One God, then 1+1+1= both 1 and 3, and this does not make any sense—it violates reason.” And of course, it does not make any sense, mathematically. But the “problem” is not mathematical in nature. As Fr. Spadaro wrote, theology is not mathematics! The student has begun with a false premise. Faith and reason are compatible, says the Church, but they are not the same, and yet they cannot contradict one another. Faith can never be contrary to reason even though reason itself plays a very necessary role in theology. This has been explained often throughout the Church’s history, more recently and notably in John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio and Benedict XVI’s famous Regensburg lecture. Perhaps these ideas are what Fr. Spadaro was reaching for in some way, albeit he was apparently voicing his disgust with rigidity in the Church and his preference for an appropriate, pastoral response to difficult, concrete, real-life situations.

If indeed a mathematical problem is to represent “reason,” then even in theology, contradictory to Fr. Spadaro’s tweet, 2+2 must always equal 4. But Fr. Spadaro’s tweet is not entirely inaccurate, because theology is indeed not always mathematics, or reason. For example, no mathematical statement can appropriately represent faith, the problem of the Trinity or the dual nature of Christ. Using the latter example, if X is Christ’s human nature, and Y is Christ’s Divine nature, then X is not Y but Christ is both completely X and completely Y. This appears to contradict reason. But we can stretch Fr. Spadaro’s tweet further, and challenge our intellect to bring mathematics onto the wing of faith “in #Theology.” Let us say that faith can be represented by the equation: “2+X=Y.” Find the value of the variables. This is an unsolvable mathematical equation because we do not know the value of X or Y. But the problem is also infinitely solvable, because we can place an infinite number of values into X and Y to make the statement true. While it is both unsolvable and infinitely solvable, it does not violate reason. Although X and Y are “mysteries,” the statement is always true! In theology, we can infinitely grow in the knowledge of God and yet can never attain an exhaustive knowledge of God. God is both a solvable and an unsolvable mystery!

Fr. Spadaro’s tweet may also be viewed within the overall context of the debate on Amoris Laetitia. His tweet is emblematic of the growing confusion over AL and the response to its release which highlights the very problem of the proposition that 2+2 can make 5. There are those in the Church who believe that AL does NOT allow Communion for the divorced and remarried, while at the same time there are those who emphatically assert that AL indeed DOES allow Communion for the divorced and remarried. For anyone who can accept that 2+2 can equal 5, they can equally accept that these two absolutely contradictory conclusions can at the same time both be true. For those of us who accept the precepts of reason, this is of course impossible, which is why Pope Francis will at some point provide clarity on this issue (hopefully). Equally troubling is the argument in AL that those in an objective state of sin may receive Communion (if indeed that is what it teaches) while at the same time the Church has proclaimed that only those in a state of grace may receive Communion. Can both be true? If 2+2 can equal 5, then why not?

This all leads to a reasonable question: How involved was Fr. Spadaro in the writing of AL? Did he write sections himself? The document, or at least the response to the document, seems to suffer from some of the same problems as Fr. Spadaro’s proposition that 2+2 can make 5. It is well known now that Archbishop Victor Fernandez was the ghostwriter for AL and that sections of the controversial Chapter Eight were lifted straight from Fernandez’ own work, without citation. One may rightly then question whether or not these sections can be accepted as authoritative teachings of the pope if they are merely the words of the ghostwriter written years ago and inserted into AL. We then get buried in the tedious and lingering question concerning legitimate, authoritative teachings within papal documents themselves, and whether or not specific sections need be considered part of authentic, magisterial teaching if they were actually written by someone other than the pope, even if he signed the document. If we must accept the entire document as authoritative, no matter who actually wrote each section, then not only can we say that Bertrand Russell is the pope, but we can also say that Victor Fernandez is the pope. And if 2+2 can make 5, then Fr. Spadaro is the pope, and you are the pope, and I am the pope. Prove me wrong!

(Photo credit: Paul Haring / CNS)

Joel R. Gallagher

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Joel R. Gallagher is a doctoral candidate in systematic theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.

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