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Address to the Congress on "Evangelization and Atheism", Secretariat for Non Believers

1980, October 10

On Friday, 10 October, the Holy Father received in audience participants in the International Congress on the subject: "Evangelization and Atheism", organized by the Secretariat for Non Believers and sponsored by the Superior Institute for the study of atheism of the Pontifical Urbanian University. John Paul II delivered the following address.

Your Eminence, Your Excellencies, Dear Brothers and Sisters,

1.Thank you for your words. As can easily be seen, atheism is unquestionably one of the major phenomena, and it must even be said, the spiritual tragedy of our times. (Cf. Apostolic constitution Gaudium et Spes, On the Church in the Modern World, n. 19)

Intoxicated by the whirl of his discoveries, assured of apparently unlimited scientific and technical progress, modern man finds himself inexorably confronted by his destiny: “What is the good of going to the moon –according to the expression of one of the most outstanding men of culture of our age– if it is in order to commit suicide?” (Andrè Malraux, Preface to L’enfant du rire, by Fr Bockel, Grasset)

What is life? What is love? What is death? Ever since there have been thinking men, these fundamental questions have continually inhabited their spirit. For millennia, the great religions have tried to bring their answers. Did not man himself appear, to the penetrating gaze of philosophers, as being, separately, homo faber, homo ludens, homo sapiens, homo religiosus? And is it not to that man that the Church of Jesus Christ intends to propose the good news of salvation, bringing hope for all, through the ebb and flow of generations and civilizations?

2. But lo, in a gigantic challenge, modern man, since the Renaissance, has risen against this message of salavation, and has begun to reject God in the very name of his dignity as a man. At first reserved for a small group of souls, the intelligentsia which considered itself an élite, atheism has become today a mass phenomenon which besieges the Churches. What is more, it penetrates them from the inside, as if believers themselves, including those who claim to follow Jesus Christ, found in themselves a secret intrigue that destroyed their faith in God, in the name of man’s autonomy and dignity. It is a question of a “true secularism”, according to Paul VI’s expression in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi: “a concept of the world according to which the latter is self-explanatory, without any need for recourse to God, who thus becomes superfluous and an encumbrance. This sort of secularism, in order to recognize the power of man, therefore ends up by doing without God and even by denying him.” (N. 55)

3. Such is the spiritual tragedy of our time. The Church cannot resign herself to it. She intends, on the contrary, to face up to it courageously. For the Council wished to be in the service of man, not abstract man, at grips with is questions and his hopes, his doubts and his very denials. It is to that man that the Church proposes Gospel. So he must know it, with that knowledge rooted in love, which opens to dialogue in clarity and trust between men separated by their convictions, but convergent in the same love of man.

“Lay and profane humanism”, Paul VI said at the closing of the Council, “has appeared in its terrible stature and, in a way, has challenged the Council. The religion of God who became man has met the religion –for it is one– of man who becomes God. What has happened? A clash, a struggle, an anathema? That could have happened, but it did not take place. The old story of the Samaritan has been the model of the spirituality of the Council.” (Paul VI, Allocution to the Second Vatican Council, 7 December 1965 AAS 68 [1966], p. 55)

I myself, at the tribune of the United Nations in New York, on 2 October 1979, expressed this wish: “The confrontation between the religious view of the world and the agnostic or even atheistic view, which is one of the ‘signs of the times’ of the present age, could preserve honest and respectful human dimensions without violating the essential rights of conscience of any man or woman living on earth.” (Address to the United Nations, 2 October 1979, n. 20)

Such is the conviction of our full humanism, which brings us to meet even those who do not share our faith in God, in the name of their faith in man–and that is the tragic misunderstanding to dispel. We want to say to all of them fervently: we too, as much and more so than you, if it is possible, have respect form man. So we want to help you to discover and share with us the joyful news of God’s love, this God who is source and the foundation of the greatness of man, himself a son of God, and who became our brother in Jesus Christ.

4. This tells on you, dear friends, how much I rejoice in these study days which bring you together in Rome, at the pontifical Urban University, under the auspices of the Superior Institute for the study of atheism, the sponsor of your International Congress on Evangelization and Atheism.

With great interest, I examined the programme you sent me. And I noted with pleasure the presence of eminent professors and scholars, whom I am happy to welcome here. Actually, it almost makes one feel dizzy to discover the vastness of the field considered, and the lines of research you have laid out on it: the phenomenological, historical, philosophical and theological aspects of contemporary atheism.

The phenomenon, in fact, is invading us on all sides, from the East to the West, from socialist to capitalist countries, from the world of culture to that of work. None of the ages of life escapes it, from young adolescence, a prey to doubt, to sceptical old age, passing through the suspicions and rejections of adulthood. And there is no continent that has been spared.

That was what led my predecessor Paul VI, of venerated memory, to erect within the Roman Curia, alongside the Secretariats for the Unity of Christians and for non-Christians, another organism dedicated by vocation to the study of atheism and to dialogue with non-believers. (Apostolic constitution Regimini Ecclesiae Universae, of 15 August 1967, in reference to the teaching of Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, nos 19-21 and 92)

It must in fact be clear to the eyes of all that the Church wishes to be in dialogue with all, including those who have become alienated from her and reject her, both in their affirmed and resolute convictions, and in their decided and sometimes militant behaviour. Both, moreover, are closely intermingles. Motivations bring forth action. And action, in its turn, moulds thought.

5. So it is with gratitude that I welcome your reflections, to integrate them in the pastoral action of the Church in the direction of those who, for different reasons and in many ways, it is true, more or less follow the diversiform atheism of our time. What is there apparently in common, in fact, between countries in which theoretical atheism, it could be said, is in power, and others, on the contrary, whose professed ideological neutrality covers up a real practical atheism? Without any doubt, the conviction that man is, alone, the totality of man. (Cf. my homily of 1 June 1980 at Issy-lcs-Moulineaux)

Certainly, the psalmist has already repented: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’.” (Psalm XIV) And atheism does not date from today. But it was reserved, as it were, for our time to carry out a systematic theorization of it, wrongly claimed to be scientific, and to put it into practice on the scale of human groups and even of important countries.

6. And yet (how could we fail to recognize it with admiration) man resists before these repeated attacks and this crossfire of atheism in its pragmatic, neopositivistic, psycho-analytical, existentialist, Marxist, structuralist, and Nietzschean forms.

The penetration of customs and the breaking down of doctrines do not prevent, but rather sometimes even bring forth, at the very heart of regimes that are officially atheistic, as within the so-called consumer societies, and undeniable religious awakening. In this situation of conflict, it is a real challenge that the Church must face, and a gigantic task that she must carry out, for which she needs the collaboration of all her children: to bring about the re-acculturation of faith in the various cultural spheres of our time, and re-incarnate the values of Christian humanism.

Is this not a pressing request of the men of our time who, sometimes desperately and groping their way, seek the meaning of meaning, the ultimate meaning? In spite of their differences of origin and orientation, modern ideologies meet at the crossroads of man’s self-sufficiency, without any of them succeeding in quenching the thirst for the absolute, which tortures him. For “man infinitely transcends man”, as Pascal noted in his Pensèes. That is why, from his overflowing certainties, as from the trough of his questions, there always springs up again the search for this Infinite, whose image he cannot erase within him, even when he flees it: “You were within me. And I, I was outside myself”, St. Augustine already confessed. (St. Augustine, Confessions, X, 27.)

7. In his encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, Paul VI questioned himself about this phenomenon, and saw in it the way of a dialogue of salvation: “The reasons of atheism, imbued with anxiety, coloured with passion and utopia, but often generous too, inspired by dream of justice and progress, straining towards divinized finalities of social order: as many substitutes of the Absolute and the Necessary… We also see atheists sometimes motivated by noble sentiments, disgusted with the mediocrity and selfishness of so many modern social environments, and skilful in borrowing from our Gospel the forms and language of solidarity and human compassion: shall we not be able one day to lead back to their true sources, which are Christian, these expressions of moral values?” (Paul VI, Encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, Polyglot Printing Press, Vat, 6 August 1964, pp. 66-67)

Atheism proclaims the necessary disappearance of all religion, but it is itself a religious phenomenon. Let us not, however, make of it a believer who does not know it. And let us not reduce what is a profound tragedy to a superficial misunderstanding. Before all the continually renascent gods of progress, becoming, history, let us succeed in again finding the radicalism of the first Christians with regard to the idolaters of ancient paganism, and say again with St. Justin: “Certainly, we confess, we are the atheists of these would-be gods.” (St. Justin, Première Apologie, VI, n. 1)

8. So let us be, in spirit and in truth, witnesses to the living God, bearers of his Father’s tenderness in the hollowness of a universe closed in upon itself and fluctuating between Luciferian pride and disillusioned despair. How could we fail in particular to be sensitive to the tragedy of atheistic humanism, whose antitheism, and more precisely whose anti-Christianity, eventually crushes the human person that it has wished to liberate from the heavy burden of a God who is considered an oppressor? “It is not true that man cannot organize it, when all is said and done, only against man. Exclusive humanism is an inhuman humanism.” (Fr. Henri de Lubac, Le drame de l’humanisme athèe, Spes, 1944, p. 12. Quoted by Paul VI, Encyclical Populorum Progressio, Easter 1967, n. 42)

Four decades later, everyone can fill these ominous lines of Father de Lubac with the tragic weight of the history of our times.

What an invitation to return to the heart of our faith: “The Redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, is the centre of the universe and of history.” (First sentence of the encyclical Redemptor Hominis) The collapse of deism, the profane concept of nature, the secularization of society, the growth of ideologies, the emergence of human sciences, the structural ruptures, the return to agnosticism, and the rise of technical neopositivism, are these not as many-challenges for the Christian to find again in an aging world all the power of the newness of the Gospel, always new, the inexhaustible source of renewal: Omnem novitatem attulit, semetipsum affernens? And St. Thomas Aquinas, eleven centuries afterwards, prolonged St. Irenaeus’ words: Christus initiavit nobis viam novam. (Prima Secundae, q. 106, art. 4, ad primum)

It is up to the Christian to bear witness to it. Certainly, he bears this treasure in clay vessels. But he is nevertheless called to put the light on the stand, so that it may illuminate all those in the house. This is the very role of the Church, about which the Council reminded us that she is the bearer of him who alone is Lumen Gentium. This witness must be at once a witness of thought and a witness of life. Since you are men of study, I will stress, in conclusion, the first necessity, since the second one, in fact, concerns us all.

To learn to think well was a resolution that was willingly professed yesterday. It is always a prime necessity in order to act. The apostle is not dispensed from it. How many baptized persons have become strangers to a faith which, perhaps, had never really lived in them well! In order to develop, the germ of faith needs to be nourished by the word of God, the sacraments, the whole teaching of the Church, and that in an atmosphere of prayer. And, to reach minds while winning hearts, faith must present itself for what it is, and not under false pretenses. The dialogue of salvation is a dialogue of thruth in charity.

Today, for example, mentalities are deeply imbued with scientific methods. Now a catechesis insufficiently informed about the problems of the exact sciences, as of human sciences in their diversity, may accumulate obstacles in an understanding, instead of opening up a way to the affirmation of God. And it is you, philosophers and theologians, that I am addressing, look for way that will help the scientifically-minded to recognize the validity of your philosophical and religious reflection. For what is at stake is the credibility, even the validity of this reflection, for many minds influenced, even without their knowledge, by the scientific mentality conveyed by the media. And I already rejoice that the next plenary assembly of the Secretariat for non-believers next March-April will study this subject: Science and Unbelief.

I must conclude. Confronted more than ever with the tragedy of atheism, the Church intends today to renew her effort of thought and testimony, in proclamation of the Gospel. Whereas a swarm of questions creeps into the mind a man, a prey to modernity, the mystery remains beyond the problems. And as the Second Vatican Council taught us, “it is only in the  mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear.” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 22, I) May his Spirit of light inspire your intellectual work, and may his Spirit of power animate your witness of life! I accompany this wish and this prayer with my Apostolic Blessing.

Source of the English text: Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition, 1980 November 17, pp. 5-6.