Catholicism and The New Atheism
One of the less noted contributions of the Second Vatican Council is its brief treatment of atheism in its “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.” In that groundbreaking document, the council avoided the shrill condemnations of atheism that were so common in preconciliar texts. Instead, the council acknowledged the diverse motives for modern atheism, from the overreaching claims of the positive sciences to modern atheism’s legitimate rejection of “a faulty notion of God” (No. 19). The bishops invited Christians to go beyond condemnation and “seek out the secret motives that lead the atheistic mind to deny God” (No. 20). By way of contrast, the so-called “new atheists”—figures like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris—engage in an aggressive and decidedly nondialogical attack on religion. They insist that religion is fundamentally toxic to human society and must be directly challenged and eradicated where possible. Consider the second part of the title of Hitchens’s volume, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
Islamic and Christian fundamentalism receive the lion’s share of criticism, but Catholicism does not escape attack. Harris skewers Catholicism for its anti-Semitic history, the evils perpetrated by the Spanish Inquisition and the Catholic leadership’s scandalous protection of clerical child abusers. Hitchens joins Harris in mentioning the scandal of sexual abuse but also lampoons Catholicism for its supposed reliance on superstition and condemns its pursuit of power in order to control the lives of others. Almost all of these critics challenge Catholicism’s dogmatism and overbearing exercise of authority, which they see as directly opposed to the use of human reason and the primacy of conscience.
The committed Cath-olic (indeed, the committed practitioner of any great religious tradition) is bound to bristle at the aggressive tone and the tendency toward caricature and sweeping generalization that runs through these works. It is tempting simply to dismiss these attacks. Yet the Second Vatican Council’s mandate for respectful engagement with the critics of faith invites an alternative course of action. We must certainly defend the integrity and reasonableness of our deepest religious convictions, but an adequate Catholic response must go beyond traditional apologetics; we must also ask ourselves whether there is anything in our Catholic Christian culture that invites these attacks and might be avoided without abandoning what is essential to our faith. I focus on three elements in the Catholic faith that call for our attention: Catholic practices that suggest a naïve theism; the nature of Catholic truth claims; and the exercise of church authority.
As Michael Buckley, S.J., pointed out in his classic study of atheism (At the Origins of Modern Atheism), all forms of modern atheism are parasitic upon a particular form of theism. The proponents of the new atheism presuppose a naïve form of theism that perceives God, as Karl Rahner put it, as an individual being, albeit the Supreme Being, who is simply another “member of the larger household of reality” (Foundations of Christian Faith). Yet the god of this naïve theism more closely resembles a benevolent Zeus than the god of the Judeo-Christian tradition. One imagines a god standing on the sidelines of human history but occasionally intervening in the course of human events. Still, we should ask ourselves whether there are popular Catholic beliefs or practices that may, however unintentionally, support such naïve theism.
As one example, consider the procedures for the canonization of saints. Vatican regulations require that for beatification one verified miracle be attributable to the “servant of God”; for canonization two are required. In these rules, miracles are described as events attributed to the intercession of the servant of God and certified as inexplicable according to modern science. Without denying the possibility of such events, I wonder whether the emphasis on their scientifically inexplicable character risks giving the impression that God’s action in the world cannot be reconciled with a scientific account of the workings of our physical universe. Does this interventionist view of divine action invite accusations of superstition and caricatures of divine activity by those outside the community of faith? It is vital that our religious beliefs and practices affirm a fundamental compatibility between divine action and scientific accounts of our world.
It may be opportune to consider revised procedures that would focus less on the scientifically inexplicable and more on diverse testimony to the continuing influence and impact of the servant of God on those who remain on their earthly pilgrimage. Pope Benedict’s recent encyclical on hope makes effective use of the lives of select saints as moving embodiments of Christian hope. I suspect that it is this evangelical witness rather than the verification of miraculous interventions that the contemporary skeptic is more likely to find compelling.
Catholic Truth Claims
We have not been left on this earth to wander blindly in search of the divine. Catholics believe that God communicates the divine self to us in revelation. This revelation has been mediated in various forms throughout human history and has achieved its unsurpassable form in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Spirit-inspired testimony to this divine revelation is found in Holy Scripture and continues to unfold in the tradition of the church. Within that tradition, the revealed message of God’s offer of salvation has been given formal expression in dogma.
Unfortunately, the presentations of church teaching that one sometimes hears from catechists and clergy can succumb to what Juan Luis Segundo, S.J., has called a “digital” view of dogma (The Liberation of Dogma). This understanding divests dogma of its analogical, imaginative and transformative character and renders it strictly informational. One can easily get the impression that by learning church dogma one has somehow “mastered” God, much as a chemistry student masters the periodic table. Presentations based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the gift of infallibility can create the impression that Catholic dogma is static, as if the very language of dogmatic statements is immune to historical, philosophical or cultural influence.
For Catholics, dogmatic statements symbolically mediate revelation without exhausting our encounter with God. Although dogmas play a valid role by affirming the truth of our most central convictions, they are not the only, nor even necessarily the primary way in which we encounter divine revelation. The narrative power of Scripture, the symbolic efficacy of the liturgy, the moving testimony of the lives of saints and ordinary believers—all of these can mediate God’s word to us. Moreover, the charism of infallibility, which Catholics hold is active when the church believes and teaches that which is central to the divine offer, does not exempt church teaching from reasoned inquiry and critique. Catholic teaching on infallibility proceeds from our confidence that the Spirit of God so abides in the church that our most central convictions about God are utterly reliable and will not lead us away from God’s saving offer. Insofar as they remain human statements, subject to the limits of language and history, dogmatic pronouncements, although not erroneous, are always subject to reformulation. No human statement, however much its formulation may be assisted by the Spirit and protected from essential error, can capture the holy mystery of God. Religious authority figures should resist presenting dogma as if it brought all theological reflection to a close.
The church’s teachers should also continue to acknowledge, clearly and without apology, that not all official church teaching has the status of dogma. In many instances the teaching office of the church proposes as formal church teaching or binding church discipline its best insight, here and now, regarding the application of the faith to often complex issues, even as it acknowledges the possibility of error.
Pope Benedict has noted that in today’s world the possibility of revealed truth is itself under attack. If that is the case, then the church has a particularly pressing obligation to offer a credible account of divine revelation. For this account to be credible, it should include the following three points: the acknowledgment that church dogma does not exhaust the holy mystery of God; the recognition that church dogma, although not erroneous, is not exempt from the linguistic and philosophical limits to which all human statements are subject; and the unambiguous admission that not all church teaching is taught with the same degree of authority and that noninfallible teaching remains open to substantive revision. These steps might go a long way toward thwarting the tendency of the church’s critics to lump Roman Catholicism together with the various religious fundamentalisms that succumb to simplistic and seemingly irrational conceptions of divine truth.
The Catholic Church is a human institution that has always embraced the need for authoritative church structures. Yet often it is not church authority itself, but the particular manner in which church authority is exercised that opens the Catholic Church to such harsh attacks from contemporary critics. Many who observe the Catholic Church from the “outside” see an institution prone to heavy-handed and arbitrary wielding of authority. They see ecclesiastical pronouncements on complex ethical issues and wonder how church officials can pronounce on them with such certitude. Some outside the church see an unwillingness on the part of church leadership to consider the wisdom of ordinary believers or to entertain the insights of contemporary scholarship when these insights might challenge official church positions. They also see too many church leaders obsessed with the trappings of rank and privilege, titles and prerogatives, leaders more at home in the court of a 19th-century monarch than in a modern institution. There are, of course, many Catholic leaders whose style of leadership is far removed from these stereotypes, but they are often better known to those inside the church than to those outside.
If truth be told, the deepest wisdom of our great tradition presents a vision of church authority often at odds with church practice. Scripture teaches that authentic church authority is always to be exercised as a service, not as an instrument for control (Mt 20:25-8). Voices within our tradition like St. Paulinus of Nola or Cardinal Newman have insisted that church leaders consult the faithful, not because it was politically correct to do so but because of an ancient conviction that the Spirit of God might speak through the whole people of God. We can appeal to great figures of the past like St. Augustine and Pope Gregory the Great or to the more recent teaching of Vatican II and find reminders that the exercise of church authority must be subject to humility. This humility presupposes that we belong to a pilgrim church that is being led by the Spirit but that has not yet arrived at its final destination and is therefore always in need of reform and renewal.
Can we afford to overlook the popularity of Pope John XXIII throughout the world, a popularity based largely on his humble and self-effacing style of leadership, the exercise of which was for that very reason all the more effective? Later, Pope John Paul II would exemplify authentic Christian authority in his resolute determination, often against the wishes of his closest advisers, to admit the mistakes and grievous sins perpetrated by Catholics past and present. In his encyclical Ut Unum Sint (Nos. 95-96), Pope John Paul II even invited other Christian leaders to explore with him new ways of exercising his papal ministry as a ministry of unity and not division. Is it a coincidence that these two figures were the most widely admired popes of the 20th century by those outside the Catholic Church? Theirs was an exercise of authority that seemed credible even to those who did not share the faith of the church.
Many of us become frustrated when we read atheists’ attacks on religion, because we do not recognize ourselves and our religious communities in their scathing portraits. Yet we must resist channeling our frustration into equally vicious counterattacks. Instead, let us search our own faith traditions and purge them of all that obscures what is most precious to us. For we remain convinced that our deepest religious convictions do not “poison everything” but affirm all that is good and gently invite all into communion with that Holy Mystery “in whom we live and move and have our being.”