VATICAN CITY – Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI has emerged from his self-imposed silence inside the Vatican walls to publish a lengthy letter to one of Italy's most well-known atheists. In it, he denies having covered up for sexually abusive priests and discusses everything from evolution to the figure of Jesus Christ.
Excerpts of the letter were published Tuesday by La Repubblica, the same newspaper which just two weeks ago published a similar letter from Pope Francis to its own atheist publisher.
The letters indicate that the two men in white — who live across the Vatican gardens from one another — are pursuing an active campaign to engage non-believers. It's a melding of papacies past and present that has no precedent and signals that the popes — while very different in style, personality and priorities — are of the same mind on many issues and might even be collaborating on them.
Benedict wrote the letter to Piergiorgio Odifreddi, an Italian atheist and mathematician who in 2011 wrote a book "Dear Pope, I'm Writing to You." The book was Odifreddi's reaction to Benedict's classic "Introduction to Christianity," perhaps his best-known work.
In his book, Odifreddi posed a series of polemical arguments about the Catholic faith, including the church's sex abuse scandal. The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger headed the Vatican office responsible for abuse cases, and was pope when scandal erupted in 2010, with thousands of people coming forward in Europe, Latin America and beyond saying they had been molested by priests while the Vatican turned a blind eye.
In his letter, Benedict denies personal responsibility, saying: "I never tried to cover these things up."
"That the power of evil penetrated so far into the interior world of the faith is a suffering that we must bear, but at the same time we must do everything to prevent it from repeating," he wrote, according to Repubblica.
While Vatican officials have long insisted that Benedict did more than anyone in the church to confront the problem of abusive clergy, Benedict's letter marked the first time he himself had publicly denied personal responsibility for the scandal.
Benedict became the first pope in 600 years to resign when he retired Feb. 28, setting the stage for the election of Francis two weeks later. Benedict said at the time that he would spend his final years "hidden from the world," living in a converted monastery tucked behind St. Peter's Basilica, reading and praying.
Benedict's decision to cloister himself was in part due to his own shy, bookish nature, but also to make clear that he was no longer pope and that his successor was in charge.
Fear of schism in the church had prevented popes for centuries from stepping down, and Benedict's resignation immediately raised some not-insignificant questions: How would the Catholic Church deal with the novel situation of having one reigning and one retired pope living side-by-side, each of them called "pope," each of them wearing papal white and even sharing the same aide in Monsignor Georg Gaenswein?
Benedict has been seen only a handful of times since his retirement, and only once with Francis at an official Vatican ceremony in July. A prolific writer, he has published nothing since retiring — except for the encyclical "The Light of Faith" which was signed by Francis but was actually written almost entirely by Benedict.
All of which made Repubblica's publication of his letter all the more remarkable, since it came out of the blue and just two weeks after a letter on almost the exact same subject was penned by Francis on the same pages.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said it was pure coincidence that the two men had written two well-known Italian atheists on the same subject in as many weeks. Francis' letter used a language that is much closer to Benedict's style — but Lombardi denied the two had collaborated on it.
"They are autonomous and distinct initiatives," Lombardi told The Associated Press.
In Benedict's letter, he takes Odifreddi to task for what he said was the "aggressiveness" of his book, and responds to many of the arguments raised with piqued criticism himself.
"What you say about the figure of Jesus isn't worthy of your scientific standing," wrote Benedict, who authored a highly praised, three-volume work on the Jesus Christ during his pontificate.
He similarly criticizes Odifreddi's "religion of mathematics" as "empty" since it doesn't even consider three fundamental themes for humanity: freedom, love and evil.
On evolution, he wrote: "If you want to substitute God with Nature, the question remains: What does this Nature consist of? Nowhere do you define it and it appears rather like an irrational divinity that doesn't explain anything."
Odifreddi, for his part, wrote in an accompanying piece Tuesday that he was stunned to have received the letter, though he said he wrote the book precisely in hopes Benedict might read it. He said he sought, and obtained, Benedict's permission to publish the letter.
He said he planned to re-issue his book with Benedict's letter included: "an unprecedented dialogue between a theologian pope and an atheist mathematician, divided in most everything but drawn together by at least one objective: the search for Truth."