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Vatican II on Atheism: The Sources of Atheism


NOTE: This is the third post in Stephen Bullivant's series on atheists and the Catholic Church, particularly what the Second Vatican Council taught about atheism. Be sure to read Part 1 and Part 2. Also, his new book on this topic, Faith and Unbelief (Paulist Press), debuts this week. Check it out!

In the last episode of my irregular 'Vatican II on atheism' series, we saw how a number of determined bishops - not least the Bishop of Rome - ensured that the Council took unbelief seriously. We now turn to the main fruit of this attention: articles 19 to 21 of Gaudium et Spes.

Let me be quite plain. If you really want to know what the Catholic Church has to say about atheism, then your first port of call should be Gaudium et Spes (GS) 19-21. Not Strange Notions. Not Brandon Vogt, Trent Horn, or Kevin Aldrich. Not even some off-the-cuff remarks of Pope Francis. Don't get me wrong: these would all be excellent second ports of call. But undoubtedly the place to start is GS 19-21 (as all the kids are calling it) itself. Though less than 1,500 words long, it is a detailed and nuanced statement, and is both theologically and historically significant. And more to the point, it carries the full magisterial weight of a general Council behind it. And if that doesn't entice you into wanting to read it, then what could?

Go on...here it is (just scroll down a bit). This is the Vatican’s own English translation, though there are several other—and arguably better—versions out there. However, since it’s this one that’s freely available online, it’s this one I’ll be using for my commentary. It’s worth remembering, though, that the only authoritative version is the Latin original—and so every so often we’ll be dipping into that too. As you'll know if you've already read it, GS 19-21 covers a lot of ground in a small amount of space. So in this post, we're only going to look at article 19. Articles 20 and 21 can wait till next time.

Before we begin, it's worth noting something about the document as a whole. Following the normal Church convention, Gaudium et Spes is just the text's nickname, taken from its opening words, which are Latin for 'joy and hope'. (As in: "The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ...") The text's proper title is normally given as the somewhat less zingy "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World," but this is slightly misleading. Strictly speaking, the title refers to "The Church in the World of This Time (huius temporis)'. It is worth bearing in mind that the Council Fathers are commenting directly on the world of the mid-1960s—they are not necessarily in the business, in this text, of making 'for-the-ages' pronouncements. Which is not to say there isn't a huge amount of timeless, enduring value in the document, both at the level of general principles, and right down in the details. But still, since the text is so up front about the fact it is speaking to a particular historical context, we should bear this in mind.

What Does Article 19 Say?

Here's how the nineteenth article begins:

"The root reason for human dignity lies in man's call to communion with God. From the very circumstance of his origin man is already invited to converse with God. For man would not exist were he not created by God’s love and constantly preserved by it; and he cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges [God's] love and devotes himself to his Creator."

These opening sentences situate the Council's comments on atheism in a very precise, theological framework. All human beings are, whether they know it or like it, in a relationship with their Creator. That is what humans are for. They are not, in Bertrand Russell's phrase, "a cosmic accident" (though they might, depending on one's views about divine Providence and contingency, be a kind of "cosmic accidentally-on-purpose"). Later on, in article 21, the text will sum up this theme with the famous quotation from St. Augustine's Confessions: "Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee."

So the Council begins its statement about atheists with a series of claims that an atheist, ipso facto, cannot possibly accept. To my mind, that's a fairly bold opening gambit. No softly, softly approach—"ease 'em in, then hit 'em with the God stuff"—here. Instead, the Church begins by laying its cards face up on the table: this is where we're coming from, this is what Christians believe about all people (not just atheists), and everything else we have to say about the subject has to be understood in this light. (Incidentally, this is the same approach that John Paul II takes to sexual ethics in his Theology of Body—what the Church has to say about sex cannot be divorced from who it believes humans are in the first place.) Furthermore, by situating its discussion of atheism within the context of "Christian anthropology" (as this branch of theology—considering who humans are, and what they are called to be—is known), the Council emphasizes that, whatever else the Church might have to say about atheists, it is talking about people who, first and foremost, have been made in "the image of God" (Genesis 1:27), and whom God invites to spend eternity with him. That's quite a compliment. Not, admittedly, one that those to whom it is addressed can readily accept, but a compliment nonetheless.

The article continues:

"Still, many of our contemporaries have never recognized this intimate and vital link with God, or have explicitly rejected it. Thus atheism must be accounted among the most serious problems of this age, and is deserving of closer examination."

Given the grand vision sketched above, the growth and prevalence of unbelief is obviously problematic for the Catholic Church. Technically though, the official Latin text (unlike this, and many other English translations) doesn't actually call atheism a "most serious problem." A more faithful translation of the Latin would be the less antagonistic-sounding: "atheism may be numbered among the most important issues of this time (atheismus inter gravissimas huius temporis res adnumerandus)." Either way, the Council is clear that it deserves a more thorough investigation.

Continuing on:

"The word atheism is applied to phenomena which are quite distinct from one another. For while God is expressly denied by some, others believe that man can assert absolutely nothing about Him. Still others use such a method to scrutinize the question of God as to make it seem devoid of meaning. Many, unduly transgressing the limits of the positive sciences, contend that everything can be explained by this kind of scientific reasoning alone, or by contrast, they altogether disallow that there is any absolute truth. Some laud man so extravagantly that their faith in God lapses into a kind of anemia, though they seem more inclined to affirm man than to deny God.
Again some form for themselves such a fallacious idea of God that when they repudiate this figment they are by no means rejecting the God of the Gospel. Some never get to the point of raising questions about God, since they seem to experience no religious stirrings nor do they see why they should trouble themselves about religion. Moreover, atheism results not rarely from a violent protest against the evil in this world, or from the absolute character with which certain human values are unduly invested, and which thereby already accords them the stature of God. Modern civilization itself often complicates the approach to God not for any essential reason but because it is so heavily engrossed in earthly affairs."

True to its word, there follows a long paragraph delineating the many different forms that contemporary unbelief can take. We needn't get bogged down in the details of this. Note, though, that GS favours a broad definition of atheism: including varieties of definite disbelief ("God is expressly denied by some"), plus forms of agnosticism, logical positivism, promethean humanism, indifference, and several more besides. Roughly speaking, in this GS foreshadows several recent scholarly works such as The Cambridge Companion to Atheism and The Oxford Handbook of Atheism which also argue for an inclusive definition. Note too, in the final sentence, a recognition of socio-cultural factors on the prevalence and plausibility of unbelief (i.e., it's not just about philosophical arguments). The first half of that sentence, at least, basically sums up classic secularization theory: "Modern civilization itself often complicates the approach to God."

Believers Responsible for Atheism?

Gaudium et Spes continues:

"Undeniably, those who willfully shut out God from their hearts and try to dodge religious questions are not following the dictates of their consciences, and hence are not free of blame; yet believers themselves frequently bear some responsibility for this situation. For, taken as a whole, atheism is not a spontaneous development but stems from a variety of causes, including a critical reaction against religious beliefs, and in some places against the Christian religion in particular. Hence believers can have more than a little to do with the birth of atheism. To the extent that they neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion."

We come now to perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Catholic teaching on atheism. The Church here recognizes that, at least to some extent, unbelief arises "through [our] fault, through [our] fault, through [our] most grievous fault." As we saw in part two of this series, this was an idea that several of the Council fathers insisted upon. Three decades earlier, Henri de Lubac—one of the theological experts entrusted with drafting GS 19-21—had made a similar point in his hugely influential Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man. (Incidentally, there’s a whole chapter on this theme in my own, somewhat less influential Faith and Unbelief.)

GS is here echoing a point made by many nonbelievers (and former believers), one confirmed in sociological investigations of deconversion (see, e.g., Phil Zuckerman’s excellent Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion): Christians are not always God’s best advert. And this arises from their being both bad teachers and bad witnesses. This is a point to which the Council, and we, shall return in GS 21.

Notice what the text is not saying. It is not claiming that "bad Christians" are the only cause of, or justification for, unbelief. That would undercut everything else GS 19 has to say about the various types of atheism, and the explicit claim above that it "stems from a variety of causes." (It would also be extremely arrogant and exhibit a clear failure to take atheism seriously as a social, cultural, and intellectual phenomenon.) Significantly, it is also not implying any blanket "absolution" of unbelievers: "Undeniably, those who willfully shut out God from their hearts and try to dodge religious questions are...not free of blame (culpae expertes non sunt)." (Though even here, the very same sentence confesses that "believers themselves frequently bear some responsibility for this situation.") Faith and unbelief, GS 19 reminds us, remain matters of (eternal) life and death. This will be important for us to remember in later installments, when we look at the Council’s other key statement on atheism, especially the affirmation that "those who have not arrived at an express recognition of God" are nevertheless "able to be saved" in Lumen Gentium 14-16.

One Impressed Atheist

Finally, we'll keep with our tradition of ending these episodes with a quotation from an actual atheist. Today's words come from Jacques Berlinerblau’s 2012 book How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom:

"Whereas a student of church history might expect [GS 19-21] to anathematize the atheist, no such condemnations are forthcoming. Rather, what follows is a sober, fair and introspective analysis of the significance of nonbelief for Catholic thought...Not exactly a teary embrace of nonbelief. Nonetheless, the willingness to look at the problem, calmly and without rancor, is impressive." (pp. 100-1)

(Image credit: Spectator)

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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