Text of Jesuit Leader’s Speech on Atheism

This is a translation of the speech on atheism made in the ecumenical council by Father Pedro Arrupe, S.J., general of the Society of Jesus, on Sept 27.

The schema on the Church in the modern world has the praiseworthy object of putting forward solutions for the problems of our times. Nevertheless it seems to me that in spite of the best efforts of those who have drafted the text, the solutions proposed — and especially the remarks about atheism in No. 19 — remain too much on the purely intellectual level. This is a mistake we have made all too commonly in the past: “The Church has the truth and the basic principles from which she can deduce valid arguments.” But does she succeed in presenting these to the world in a truly effective way? That is the real question.

The contrast between what the Church possesses and what she succeeds in imparting to men has become very obvious in this modern world, which ignores God when it does not try to destroy the very notion of the Divinity. This mentality and the cultural environment that nourishes it are atheistic, at least in practice. It is like the City of Man of St. Augustine. And it not only carries on the struggle against the City of God from outside the walls, but even crosses the ramparts and enters the very territory of the City of God, insidiously influencing the minds of believers (including even Religious and priests) with its hidden poison and producing its natural fruits in the Church: naturalism, distrust, rebellion.

This new godless society operates in an extremely efficient manner, at least in its higher levels of leadership. It makes 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.

Face to face with this society stands the Church with her immense treasures of grace and truth. But we have to admit that she has not yet discovered an effective way of sharing these treasures with the men of our times. Statistics point unmistakably to this: In 1961 Catholics formed 18 percent of the world’s population; today they form 16 percent, an appreciably smaller proportion.

After 2,000 years we make up only a very small fraction of the population of the world, and how much of that tiny proportion can be said to be really Catholic? Undoubtedly there is an enormous amount of good in this pusillus grex (tiny flock), men of great eminence and enterprises of great worth. But taking the world as a whole, our influence is not what it should be. Our efforts are for the most part frittered away, due to want of planning and coordination.

These considerations should not lead us to pessimism. For in the world we shall be under constant pressure; the mystery of iniquity opposes itself to the progress of the Church. The growth of the Church cannot be judged by means of human criteria. Nor should we forget that, while others use certain methods which are efficacious in the world but incompatible with the Gospel, we have to preach Christ and Him crucified.

Although we keep this clearly before our eyes, we still have a grave obligation of examining our pastoral methods, especially as regards the serious problem of atheism. We naturally tend to offer an intellectual solution for this problem in terms of refuting, proving, teaching, defending. This certainly is valuable and essential, but altogether inadequate. We should communicate to others not only truth, but also life. We must create rather than defend, move rather than expound; we must put truth into practice rather than contemplate it. Here are a few words of John XXIII which have a direct bearing on this subject:

“But it is indispensable, today more than ever, that this doctrine be known, assimilated, and translated into social reality in the form and manner that the different situations allow and demand; a most difficult task but a most noble one, to the carrying out of which we most warmly invite not only our brothers and sons scattered throughout the world but also all men of good will.”

These words are taken from the encyclical letter Mater et Magistra [AAS 53 (1961) 453].

The transition from doctrine to practice is certainly difficult because of the constant and quick changes in a concrete situation. Often, therefore, we unconsciously evade this difficulty and seek refuge in abstract truth which is, to be sure, entirely permanent and stable, but less efficacious in the practical order.

Atheism is not exclusively or primarily a philosophical problem. Hence, apart from refuting it on the intellectual level, it is urgently necessary to establish a particular type of relationship of the individual toward God, of the family toward God, and of society toward God. These relationships must be free from any influence of atheism, be it the type which is militant and aggressive, or that which is merely practical, though it be structured and vital.

Man and society find God more readily through social action, which involves personal decisions, than through mere contemplation which perceives and reflects on the truth.

Hence, it is within the framework of a society without God that we must form the community of God, the Christian community.

The fundamental remedy for dealing with the evils which sprang from atheism and naturalism today lies in the formation of a Christian society, not as a separate entity — a “ghetto,” as they say — but as a reality in the midst of men, a society possessed and animated by a Christian community spirit. If modern man can, as it were, breathe in an atmosphere of this kind, it will be easier for him to become a Christian or at least a man of some religious convictions. Without such an atmosphere, a few men may be drawn to the faith, but they will easily be lost in a context that is not Christian or even religious.

If we are to create an atmosphere such as this, we will have to specify in some detail what its fundamental features are and how it may be achieved. Without any doubt, social structures will need to be reformed. We will have to enter into these structures of human society if we are to change them, and enrich social, economic, and political life with the values of the Christian faith.

“It is not enough,” wrote John XXIII, “that the sons of the Church should enjoy the light of divine faith and be moved by the desire to do good. Beyond that, it is necessary that they should make themselves part of the institutions of civil society, and have an impact on them from within” [Encyclical, Pacem in Terris, AAS 55 (1963), 269].

This is a matter of great urgency. There can be no question of further delay. Now is the time for something to be done. What must we do? Humbly, venerable Fathers, I would like to put before you a specific proposal:

  1. Let the best specialists and men truly experienced in this field draw up a concrete, scientific, and accurate assessment of the situation in the world today; let us not be simply led on by the urgencies of the moment, thus wasting much energy in patching up our plans as we go along.
  1. Let the basic lines of worldwide, coordinated action be drawn up, sufficiently supple to be adapted to the particular circumstances of particular places; and then let this be presented to the Supreme Pontiff.
  1. The Supreme Pontiff himself, in accord with his office and his responsibility toward the whole Church, will assign various fields of labor to everyone, in order that the entire People of God, under the leadership of the pastors whom the Holy Spirit has established to rule the Church of God, may give itself vigorously to this task. Then, animated and united by a spirit of obedience and a charity as wide as the world, let all of us without exception go to work in organized fashion. This demands many sacrifices since it implies the overcoming of all selfishness both individual and collective, and calls for a kind of collective mystical death: the sacrifice of all particularism whether it be in terms of a diocese, of one’s own religious institute, of one’s own social status. All of this must die that Christ may triumph in the world, just as the grain of wheat must die to bring forth fruit.
  1. Let us invite all men who believe in God to this common labor that God be the Lord of human society. This collaboration in matters which are common to all men who believe in God, will it not effectively pave the way for further and deeper union, above all among those who glory in the name of Christian?

My conclusion is as follows: The bridge by which we go from truth to life is this:

  1. Scientific investigation and reflection, illumined by faith and thereby given the force of prayer;
  1. Absolute obedience to the Supreme Pontiff;
  1. All-embracing fraternal charity, which makes of us all brothers laboring united in Christ.

We can do all these things, and we must.

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