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Atheists and the Catholic Church

Vatican II

"What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun" (Eccl 1:9). This famous observation of the Book of Ecclesiastes applies, to a certain extent, to the recent upsurge of Catholic interest in and—more importantly, serious engagement with—atheism. Popes announcing that "there should be a dialogue with those to whom...God is unknown", and that atheists are capable of "doing good" and "are able to be saved"? The Vatican sponsoring major dialogue events between Christians and unbelievers? High-profile Catholic and atheist writers and intellectuals coming together to explore (mutually!) "strange notions"? It all leads us to ask the same question as the author of Ecclesiastes: "Is there a thing of which it is said, 'See, this is new'? It has already been in the ages before us" (Eccl 1:10).

I am referring, of course, to the period in and around the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). For those who don't know, "Vatican II" is the twenty-first, and most recent, ecumenical Council recognized by the Catholic Church, assembling all the bishops of the "inhabited world" (the oikoumene or ecumene, hence "ecumenical"). The first such Council was held in Nicaea, modern-day Turkey, in 325, and is where the Nicene Creed originated. On average, then, ecumenical Councils come along just under once a century; and in modern times, they come along even less frequently (there have been just three—Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II—in the last 500 years). Which is to say, ecumenical Councils are big deals in the life of the Church. What they actually have to say about things (as opposed to what people assume they have to say) are—or should be—taken very seriously indeed by Catholics. And that is especially true, of course, for those presuming to comment on "what the Church teaches about X."

As it happens, Vatican II had quite a bit to say about atheism and atheists, most of it contained in two documents: Lumen Gentium, articles 14-16; and Gaudium et Spes, articles 19-21. The latter, which contains the Council's dedicated statement on atheism, is particularly important. Almost fifty years later, it arguably remains the longest and most detailed statement of the Magisterium (i.e., the teaching authority of the Church) on what it regards to be "among the most serious matters of our time" (art. 19). According to the future Pope Benedict XVI, Gaudium et Spes 19-21 "may be counted among the most important pronouncements of Vatican II" (Joseph Ratzinger, in Vorgrimler [ed.], Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol. V, 1969, p. 145).

This is the first post in what I intend to be a short(ish) series introducing and commenting on various aspects of the Council's engagement with atheism. Lumen Gentium 16 and Gaudium et Spes 19-21 will obviously get posts (perhaps several) to themselves. But they cannot, I think, be properly understood in a vacuum. Accordingly, my next post will instead focus on Pope Paul VI's debut encyclical on dialogue Ecclesiam Suam, promulgated in 1964 (and thus, in an important sense, "in the Council, but not of it"), and his creation of a "Secretariat for Non-believers" that same year. Both, as we will see, were very influential indeed on the Council's own pronouncements on atheism, as they also were on much of the Church's ongoing engagements with both atheism and, significantly, atheists in the decade or so after Vatican II (this too will be discussed as part of the series).

Inevitably, much of this series will consist of a Catholic talking about other Catholics talking about atheists, humanists, Marxists, and so on. But, of course, and I really hope that this has come across in some of my other posts, one of the main reasons I'm doing this, and the reason why I'm so pleased to be doing it at Strange Notions, is because I'm genuinely interested in what "the ones being talked about" actually think about what's being said. Obviously, I don't expect atheists to agree with everything, or necessarily very much, of what Vatican II has to say about them—since the Church is speaking out of worldview that atheists, ipso facto, don't share. But if atheists don't recognize at least something of themselves in what Christians have to say about them, then that probably suggests that Christians are missing the mark entirely—tilting at unbelieving windmills, so to speak. All which is, of course, a long way of saying: I look forward to our combox discussions.

On that note, it is probably a good idea to give the final words of this introduction over to a bona-fide atheist. The focus of this series is on Vatican II, and as such, I'll be saying almost nothing (except in passing) about the quite considerable Christian-atheist engagement in the decades leading up to it. Suffice it to say that much of the groundwork for the Church's constructive engagement with atheism (and vice versa!) in the 1960s onward was lain in the thirties, forties, and fifties, especially in countries like France and Italy. My favorite example of this—I quote it in my new book Faith and Unbelief: A Theology of Atheism—comes from 1948. The atheist philosopher Albert Camus was invited by a group of Parisian Dominicans to come to their Priory and give his honest views on Christianity. While the entire lecture is very much worth reading, I'd like to end by quoting just one passage, since I think it expresses something important about the kind of authentic dialogue this website exists to promote:

"I shall not try to change anything that I think or anything that you think (insofar as I can judge of it) in order to reach a reconciliation that would be agreeable to all. On the contrary, what I feel like telling you today is that the world needs real dialogue, that falsehood is just as much the opposite of dialogue as silence, and that the only possible dialogue is the kind between people who remain what they are and speak their minds."
("The Unbeliever and Christians", in Camus, Resistance, Rebellion and Death: Essays, [1948] 1964, p. 48)

(Image credit: Most Holy Family Monastery)

Stephen Bullivant

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Dr. Stephen Bullivant is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at St Mary's University, England. A former atheist, he studied philosophy and theology at Oxford University, and converted to Catholicism while completing his doctorate on Vatican II and the salvation of unbelievers. In 2010, he was the first non-American to receive the "LaCugna Award for New Scholars" from the Catholic Theological Society of America. Stephen writes and speaks extensively on the theology and sociology of atheism, and the new evangelization. He recent books include Faith and Unbelief (Canterbury Press, 2013; Paulist Press, 2014), and (co-edited with Michael Ruse) The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (Oxford University Press, 2013). His latest book is called The Trinity: How Not to Be a Heretic (Paulist Press, 2015).

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