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It does not take a professional mathematician to spot the error in this recent tweet by Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ (hint: it takes place between lines 6 and 7):

So rather than quibble with his math, I would like to spend a few words ruminating on Fr. Spadaro's general point. He quotes Pope Benedict XVI to the effect that “God is not just mathematical reason,” and Pope Francis to the effect that “God goes is greater than our human calculations.” Both statements are unobjectionable—but what's the point of them, exactly?

Fr. Spadaro's concerns are explained in a second tweet: “Theology is not #Mathematics. 2 + 2 in #Theology can make 5. Because it has to do with #God and real #life of #people.” This raises further questions, though: Who is saying that theology is like mathematics? And what does it mean that in theology 2 plus 2 can be equal to 5?

Fr. Spadaro’s constant concern seems to be to fend off “rigid thought,” of which mathematics is apparently the paradigm. We must deal instead with “the real concrete historical man, each man, not the abstract one,” because the work of pastors “is not just to apply norms as something like mathematics.” We could venture that for Fr. Spadaro, mathematics symbolizes what Hegel called “Verstand”: “reason that stands,” static reason, reason that does not move with history and experience. Famously, Hegel opposed Verstand to “Vernunft”: reason that flows, reason that moves, “reasonable reason.” Indeed, Fr. Spadaro repeatedly tweets about “processes,” about “subverting conventional perceptions to bring new ones to birth,” and “delight in creative disruptions that open new possibilities.”

The Italian Catholic philosopher Augusto Del Noce described modernity as the victory of the “metaphysics of the primacy of becoming” over the “metaphysics of the primacy of being,” which had been first developed by the Greeks and remained prevalent during the Middle Ages. “Primacy of being” implies that human reason can perceive an uncreated, eternal order of being (just like it can contemplate mathematical truths!). Humans find their freedom by participating in this order, which delivers them from the influence of worldly powers. Conversely, under a “primacy of becoming,” truth is always historical, and human beings reach for the divine by swimming with the flow of history, which is literally the self-revelation of the spirit. In this view, the transcendent reveals itself as historical transcendence.

Now, it is unfair to turn Fr. Spadaro into an Hegelian, and yet he really seems to be tweeting like a “man of becoming.” In so doing, he continues an important tradition in contemporary Catholic theology that dates back to the late 1950s and is associated with the name of Bernard Haring. In a recent blog post, Fr. Edmund Waldstein elucidated how Haring's “soft historicism” is relevant to the current debates around Amoris Laetitia. It seems to me that Fr. Spadaro is embracing the same tradition.

In the 1960s, Catholic forms of historicism were closely associated with the idea of a “de-hellenization” of Catholicism, in the sense of purging Christianity from the “static” and “rigid” metaphysics of being, which dated back to Plato and Aristotle. Later, the idea of de-hellenization was the subject of a profound critique by Joseph Ratzinger, who restated it as Pope Benedict XVI in his famous Regensburg address. I think it is not unfair to say that Fr. Spadaro's “2+2=5” claim is symbolic of an attempt to return to the de-hellenization program, and to use it as the key to interpret the pontificate of Pope Francis, by claiming that “soft historicism” is most suitable to the pastoral course Francis is proposing. Whether this claim is justified or not is, of course, an entirely different question.

Oh, and for those who haven’t figured it out, here is Spadaro’s mistake in line 7: When taking a square root, one must check that the two sides have the same sign. In this case, they do not. (It is like saying that, since both 2 and -2 are square roots of 4, therefore 4=4 implies -2=2.)

Carlo Lancellotti is professor of mathematics at the College of Staten Island.

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