Jesuit Leader’s Remarks on Atheism Spark Media Queries

The first council speech by the recently elected Jesuit general, Father Pedro Arrupe, S.J., was the main topic of discussion at the U.S. bishops’ press panel here as the press asked for explanations of his “warlike approach” to atheism.

During the council meeting, Father Arrupe had described modern atheism as extremely efficient, “making every use of every possible means at its disposal, be they scientific, technical, social, or economic. It follows a perfectly mapped out strategy. It holds almost complete sway in international organizations, in financial circles, in the field of mass communications: press, cinema, radio and television.”

The implication of atheist control over mass media brought puzzled questions from the press and what amounted to apologies from the panel. Msgr. George G. Higgins, director of the Social Action Department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, Washington, called it “most unfortunate and strange.” Father Francis J. McCool, S.J., of the Pontifical Biblical Institute of Rome, said it must be taken in context and certainly was not meant literally.

Another reporter questioned whether Father Arrupe’s call for all to rally around Pope Paul VI “in absolute obedience” in an organized campaign against atheism was not a denial of the collegiality doctrine of the council. Father McCool said the text must be understood in the light of a crisis within the Church, which Father Arrupe indicated by citing Catholicism’s drop from 18% to just over 16% of the world’s population since 1961.

“The only way the Church can face up to this,” Father McCool said, “is by a sacrifice of particularisms and divided effort. It would be wrong for collegiality to mean individual effort. All must join with the Pope for coordinated effort since he is the only man able to see the worldwide dimensions of this problem.”

Father John J. King, O.M.I., superior of the Oblates’ general house of studies in Rome, pointed out that “absolute obedience is not equivalent to absolute passivity. But in any event there is no alternative for a Catholic than an attitude of absolute obedience to the pope in matters of faith and morals. This attitude, however, is not in conflict with active Christianity.”

Commenting on the atheism discussion generally, several panel members noted that much criticism in the council hall hit at the negative approach of the text of the schema on the Church in the modem world. Some council Fathers asked that the Church not only condemn atheism outside the Church, but recognize “practical atheists” within the Church.

Melkite-rite Patriarch Maximos IV Saigh of Antioch said in the council that the “egotism and hypocritical lies of many Christians have provoked some of the atheism in the world.”

Msgr. Higgins said this recognition will lead the Church away from a negative condemnation of atheists outside the Church and a positive approach on a personal level to atheists themselves, without changing the Church’s intractable stand against atheism on a theoretical level.

“It has became obvious in council discussions that the schema on the Church in the modern world is in very deep trouble,” Father King said. He added he had the impression that council Fathers are taking an attitude of doing “the best possible job with the schema in the short time left.” But, he said, there does not seem to be much agreement on what form the document should take and how far it should go.

Msgr. Higgins said that if the council decides to make the schema a formal constitution like those on the Church and the liturgy, “then I don’t think it will make it — there isn’t enough time. But if they decide merely to make it a solemn allocution to the world without the status of a constitution [without the weight of the council’s formal teaching authority behind it], then it could be finished before the council ends.”

The schema, unique in council history in dealing with the non-theological problems of the modern world and addressed not only to Church members but to all men, first reached the floor last year when it was discussed at length. Since then it has been extensively revised and the new 130-page text is currently being examined section by section. Some council officials have predicted that debate will last at least two weeks. Others suggest there may be a month of floor debate before it is sent back to commission for revision and subsequent voting.

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