Vatican II and the Rise of Atheism| National Catholic Register

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COMMENTARY: The Council described the growing phenomenon as ‘among the most serious problems of this age,’ though one wonders what progress has been made in understanding, let alone addressing, contemporary atheism.

Vatican II and the Rise of Atheism| National Catholic Register
The Council Fathers seated during the Second Vatican Council
The Council Fathers seated during the Second Vatican Council (photo: Lothar Wolleh / Wikimedia Commons)

Stephen BullivantCommentariesOctober 13, 2022

Editor’s Note: This article is part of the Register’s symposium on Vatican II at 60.

In the view of Joseph Ratzinger, Gaudium et Spes’ three paragraphs on atheism “may be counted among the most important pronouncements of Vatican II.” Considering that the topic was absent from the preparatory schemata, and that as late as the summer of 1964 the most any draft had to say about it was a passing remark on “errors which spring from materialism, especially from dialectical materialism or communism,” that is no small feat. So what changed?

Most notable was Pope Paul VI’s maiden encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam, issued in 1964 just weeks before the Council’s third session. This aimed to show how and why the Church and the world — as he rather sweetly puts it — “should meet together, and get to know and love one another” (Ecclesiam Suam, 3). “Dialogue” is the great watchword here, and much attention is given to the value of improving relationships with both non-Catholic Christian communities and the other world religions. Crucially, atheists, agnostics, and the religiously indifferent — a growing trend which, especially among the working classes, Paul VI had tried to stem in his previous post as archbishop of Milan — were not ignored either. 

Alongside much in line with denunciations issued by Pius XI and Pius XII (“They parade their godlessness”; “foolish and fatal belief”; “doomed to utter destruction”), Paul also juxtaposes a John XXIII-esque note of openness and appreciation towards atheists: “We see these men serving a demanding and often a noble cause, fired with enthusiasm and idealism, dreaming of justice and progress. … They are sometimes men of great breadth of mind, impatient with the mediocrity and self-seeking which infects so much of modern society.” He ends by expressing hope for “the eventual possibility of a dialogue between these men and the Church.”

This was precisely the spur that a good number of the Fathers needed to force onto the Council’s agenda what they would ultimately describe as being “among the most serious problems of this age, and … deserving of closer examination” (GS, 19). Thus, during the third session’s interventions, among many other criticisms of the schema, or draft, the absence of any mention of atheism was time and again singled out. On the very first day of debate over the text, Cardinal Silva Henríquez of Santiago, Chile, urged that “the Church must try to comprehend atheism, to examine the truths which nourish this error, and to be able to correspond its life and doctrine to these aspirations.” A new version of the schema — the so-called “Ariccia text” — was circulated the following summer and met with much greater approval in the September 1965 debates. But yet again, the Fathers proved sticklers when it came to the statement on atheism. 

Generally speaking, there were two main “camps,” both of which could draw partial encouragement from Ecclesiam Suam. The desire for an explicit rebuke of communism came from a vocal minority, including many whose own flocks — as Paul Yu Pin, the exiled archbishop of Nanking in China, put it on behalf of 70 mostly Asian bishops — “groan under the yoke … and endure unspeakable sufferings.” The Polish bishops likewise lobbied hard for a condemnation of atheism, with Bishop Kazimierz Józef Kowalski of Chełmno describing it as the “enemy of reason, science, the human person, and Revelation.”  

Against this were those bishops urging a more wide-ranging, bridge-building statement, one ideally promoting dialogue and cooperation, and recognizing some forms of contemporary atheism as being at least partly caused by Christians’ own moral, social and intellectual failings. These views were championed strongly by bishops from countries in Western Europe where creeping secularization was on the rise and tentative engagements between Catholics and Marxist, humanist and existentialist intellectuals had already begun. 

The final text of Gaudium et Spes approved by the Council, although finely balanced, certainly leans more to the latter approach: Communism is not mentioned by name, let alone condemned, which arguably says a good deal about the geographical balance of power at the Council. In the end, the task was entrusted to a team led by Vienna’s Cardinal Franz König, whom Pope Paul had appointed earlier that year as head of a new dialogue-oriented Vatican “Secretariat for Nonbelievers,” including bishops from the communist-controlled countries of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia. The drafting itself was, as usual, largely left to the Council’s theological advisers, or periti:two Italian Salesian philosophers, Vincenzo Miano and Giulio Girardi, and two French Jesuit theologians, Jean Daniélou and Henri de Lubac. 

Those familiar with the latter’s writings on the subject, beginning with his seminal first book, Catholicism, in 1937, will detect a good deal of de Lubac in the promulgated paragraphs. Significantly, the whole question of modern unbelief is set within the frame of theological anthropology: “From the very circumstance of his origin man is already invited to converse with God,” and thus “he cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and devotes himself to His Creator” (GS, 19). As such, the brute fact that “many of our contemporaries have never recognized this intimate and vital link with God, or have explicitly rejected it” becomes a matter of urgent theological and pastoral concern.

What Vatican II understands by “atheism” is deliberately broad. Explicitly included among several “phenomena which are quite distinct from one another” are various species of agnosticism and religious indifference, alongside more straightforward disavowals of the existence of God. These are further subdivided by putative causes, including scientism, “the violent protest against the evil in this world,” promethean humanism, or simply the fact that “modern civilization itself often complicates the approach to God.” 

There follows an important, if implicit, conciliar “call back” to Lumen Gentium, 16, which specifically taught on the possibility of salvation to “those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life.” Without mentioning salvation directly, Gaudium et Spes nonetheless helps unpack what such inculpability might (i.e., “atheism is not a spontaneous development but stems from a variety of causes,” not least the poor witness of Christians themselves) or might not (i.e., “those who willfully shut out God from their hearts and try to dodge religious questions”) look like in practice.

Although it avoids condemning — or mentioning — communism by name, the text states plainly that “the Church has already repudiated and cannot cease repudiating … those poisonous doctrines and actions which contradict reason and the common experience of humanity, and dethrone man from his native excellence” (GS, 21). Read in context, the reader should have no doubt to what the Fathers are referring. Rather than dwell on this, however, the paragraphs conclude by returning to the anthropological vision with which they began. This serves to make the general thrust of the statement less about atheism(s), and much more about atheist people, and thus about proper objects for the Church’s pastoral concern. Quoting Augustine, it concludes with a prayer: “Apart from this message nothing will avail to fill up the heart of man: ‘Thou hast made us for Thyself,’ O Lord, ‘and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee’” (GS, 21). 

Looking back on all this six decades later, one wonders what progress the Church has really made on understanding, let alone engaging with, let alone reducing what it was already calling “among the most serious problems of this age.” A worthwhile project for the second 60 years of the Council’s reception and legacy, perhaps?

Stephen Bullivant teaches at St. Mary’s University, U.K., and the University of Notre Dame, Australia. His Vatican II: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press), co-authored with Shaun Blanchard, is due out in early 2023.

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