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The Problem of Unbelief and Atheism

Catechesis by Pope John Paul II on God the Father
General Audience, Wednesday, 12 June 1985 - in Italian & Spanish  

"1. To believe, in the Christian sense, means "to accept the invitation to a conversation with God," by abandoning oneself to one's Creator. Such a conscious faith predisposes us also to that "dialogue of salvation" which the Church must carry on with all people in the world today [1] , even with non-believers, "Many of our contemporaries...have never recognized this intimate and vital link with God" (GS 19), constituted by faith. Therefore, in the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, the Council also took a stand on the subject of unbelief and atheism. It tells us how mature and aware our faith should be, a faith to which we are frequently called upon to bear witness before non-believers and atheists. Precisely during this present era our faith should be "so well trained that it can see difficulties clearly and master them" (GS 21). This is the essential condition for the dialogue of salvation.

2. The conciliar Constitution makes a brief but searching analysis of atheism. In the first place, it observes that this term "is applied to phenomena which are quite distinct from one another. For while God is expressly denied by some [atheism], others believe that man can assert absolutely nothing about him [agnosticism]. Still others use such a method to scrutinize the question of God as to make it seem devoid of meaning [positivism, scientism]. Many, unduly transgressing the limits of the positive sciences, contend that everything can be explained by this kind of scientific reasoning alone, or by contrast, they altogether disallow that there is any absolute truth. Some laud man so extravagantly that their faith in God lapses into a kind of anemia, though they seem more inclined to affirm man than to deny God. Again some form for themselves such a fallacious idea of God that when they repudiate this figment they are by no means rejecting the God of the Gospel. Some never get to the point of raising questions about God, since they seem to experience no religious stirrings nor do they see why they should trouble themselves about religion. Moreover, atheism results not rarely from a violent protest against the evil in this world, or from the absolute character with which certain human values are unduly invested, and which thereby already accords them the stature of God. Modern civilization itself often complicates the approach to God not for any essential reason but because it is so heavily engrossed in earthly affairs" (GS 19).

3. This Conciliar text indicates, as one can see, the variety and the multiplicity of what is contained under the term "atheism."

Undoubtedly, atheism is often a pragmatic attitude resulting from carelessness or from a lack of interest in religious matters. In many cases, however, this attitude finds its roots in the whole mentality of the world, especially of scientific thought. If it is accepted that the source of cognitive certainty is exclusively the experience of the senses, then all access to reality which transcends the senses is excluded. Such a cognitive attitude is found at the basis of that particular notion which in our time has taken the name of "the theology of the death of God."

So then the motives of atheism and still more frequently of agnosticism today are also of a theoretical-cognitive nature, not merely pragmatic.

4. The second group of reasons emphasized by the Council is connected with that exaggerated exaltation of man which induces many to forget such an obvious truth that man is a contingent being and limited in existence. The reality of life and of history makes us observe ever anew that if reasons exist to recognize the great dignity and the primacy of man in the visible world, there is still no foundation for regarding him as absolute and rejecting God.

We read in Gaudium et Spes that modern atheism "stretches the desires for human independence to such a point that it poses difficulties against any kind of dependence on God. Those who profess atheism of this sort maintain that it gives man freedom to be an end unto himself, the sole artisan and creator of his own history. They claim that this freedom cannot be reconciled with the affirmation of a Lord who is author and purpose of all things, or at least that this freedom makes such an affirmation altogether superfluous. Favoring this doctrine can be the sense of power which modern technical progress generates in man" (GS 20).

Today, systematic atheism "anticipates the liberation of man especially through his economic and social emancipation." It combats religion in a programmatic way by stating that religion is an obstacle to such emancipation "by arousing man's hope for a deceptive future life, thereby diverting him from the constructing of the earthly city." When those who hold such views gain control of the state, the Council goes on to say, "they vigorously fight against religion, and promote atheism by using, especially in the education of youth, those means of pressure which public power has at its disposal" (GS 20).

This last problem demands that there be set out clearly and firmly the principle of religious freedom emphasized by the Council in the relevant Declaration Dignitatis Humanae.

5. If we wish to enunciate the fundamental attitude of the Church in regard to atheism, it is clear that she rejects it with "complete firmness" (GS 21), because it contrasts with the very essence of the Christian faith which includes the conviction that the existence of God can be reached by reason. However, "While rejecting atheism, root and branch, the Church sincerely professes that all men, believers and unbelievers alike, ought to work for the rightful betterment of this world in which all alike live; such an ideal cannot be realized, however, apart from sincere and prudent dialogue" (GS 21).

It is necessary to add that the Church is particularly sensitive to the attitude of those who cannot reconcile the existence of God with the multiple experience of evil and of suffering.

At the same time the Church is aware that what she proclaims - the Gospel and the Christian faith - is in harmony with the most secret desires of the human heart when it champions the dignity of the human vocation, restoring hope to those who have already despaired of anything higher than their present lot" (GS 21).

"She further teaches that a hope related to the end of time does not diminish the importance of intervening duties but rather undergirds the acquittal of them with fresh incentives. By contrast, when a divine instruction and the hope of life eternal are wanting, man's dignity is most grievously lacerated, as current events often attest; riddles of life and death, of guilt and of grief go unsolved with the frequent result that men succumb to despair" (GS 21).

On the other hand, while rejecting atheism, the Church "strives to detect in the atheistic mind the hidden causes for the denial of God; conscious of how weighty are the questions which atheism raises, and motivated by love for all men, she believes these questions ought to be examined seriously and more profoundly" (GS 21). In particular, she is concerned to make progress "led by the Holy Spirit who renews and purifies her ceaselessly" (GS 21), in order to remove from her life whatever might unjustly hurt those who do not believe.

6. With such an approach the Church once again comes to our aid to answer the question: "What is the faith? What does it mean to believe?" precisely against the background of unbelief and of atheism which at times assumes the form of a programmed struggle against religion, and especially against Christianity. Precisely because of such hostility, the faith should become particularly aware, penetrating and mature, characterized by a deep sense of responsibility and of love in regard to all men. The awareness of the difficulties, of the objections and of the persecutions should awaken a still further readiness to bear witness "to the hope that is in us" (1 Pet 3:15).

[1]   cf. Paul VI Encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, AAS 56 (1964), p. 654"

After the Catechesis, Pope John Paul II greeted the pilgrims in various languages

Ai pellegrini di espressione francese

Je suis heureux de saluer tous les pèlerins de langue française. Je leur souhaite de trouver auprès des tombeaux des Apôtres une ardeur renouvelée pour témoigner du Christ. En particulier, j’adresse mes vœux bien cordiaux aux prêtres de Nantes qui célèbrent ici, avec leurs familles, le XLe anniversaire de leur ordination. Et je salue les jeunes d’Erstein: ils aiment la musique, je m’en réjouis avec eux. Je les encourage dans leur formation de chrétiens qui ont fait leur profession de foi ou la préparent. A tous, je donne de tout coeur ma Bénédiction.

Ai fedeli di lingua inglese

I wish to welcome the English-speaking people present at this audience. In particular, my greeting goes to the groups of priests. I pray that you will be strong in the faith and courageous in proclaiming the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. May your time in Rome intensify your desire to serve God’s people with ever greater love and compassion.

* * *

And upon all the pilgrims and visitors from Sweden, Korea, the Philippines, New Zealand and the United States I invoke God’s blessing of joy and peace.

Ai numerosi pellegrini tedeschi

Mit diesen kurzen Überlegungen grüße ich herzlich alle Pilger und Besucher aus den Ländern deutscher Sprache. Einen besonderen Willkommensgruß richte ich an die Mitglieder der Katholischen Arbeitnehmer-Bewegung aus Kärnten, die Gruppe von Blinden aus der Erzdiözese Freiburg sowie die Soldaten mit Familienangehörigen des Korpskommandos II. aus der Dekanatspfarre in Wals, Erzdiözese Salzburg, die sich auf einer Pilgerreise ins Heilige Land befinden. Euch und allen deutschsprachigen Audienzteilnehmern erbitte ich die Gnade eines lebendigen Glauben, Offenheit und Hilfsbereitschaft für eure Mitmenschen. Von Herzen erteile ich euch allen meinen besonderen Apostolischen Segen.

Ai fedeli di lingua spagnola

Vaya mi más cordial saludo a todos los peregrinos de lengua española presentes en esta Audiencia. En particular, a los Hermanos de las Escuelas Cristianas del Centro Español Lasalliano y al grupo de Hijas de la Caridad, de la provincia de Madrid. Os aliento a continuar en vuestras actividades educativas y de caridad como testimonio de vuestra generosa entrega a Cristo y a la Iglesia.

* * *

Saludo igualmente a los peregrinos procedentes de Benidorm, Villajoyosa, San Bartolomé de Villaro, Mataró y Arrecife de Lanzarote en las Islas Canarias; así como a los diversos grupos mexicanos, en especial a los peregrinos de Hermosillo y Milpa Alta.

* * *

Finalmente, mi saludo va también a las personas llegadas de Colombia, Argentina y Venezuela. A todos los peregrinos provenientes de los diversos Países de América Latina y de España imparto con afecto la Bendición Apostólica.

Ai numerosi fedeli giunti dalla Polonia

Serdecznie pozdrawiam wszystkich pielgrzymów z Polski, w szczególności z parafii św. Floriana z Krakowa; z parafii Myślenice w archidiecezji krakowskiej; z parafii świętych Jana i Pawła w Katowicach Dębiu; pielgrzymkę katedralną z Tarnowa; pielgrzymkę z parafii Matki Bożej Królowej Świata z Radomia (księża Filipini); z parafii Matki Bożej Częstochowskiej w Bydgoszczy; z parafii Świętego Ducha w Koszalinie; z parafii św. Andrzeja Boboli w Gdyni; z parafii Matki Bożej Bolesnej oraz Najświętszego Serca Pana Jezusa z Nowego Sącza; pozdrawiam Siostry Rodziny Maryi; pielgrzymów przynależących do służby zdrowia z Wrocławia; członków Towarzystwa Przyjaźni Polsko-Włoskiej z Wrocławia oraz uczestników różnych grup turystycznych . . . Pozdrawiam wszystkich w Ojczyźnie, bez względu na ich światopogląd, równocześnie życząc Kościołowi w Polsce, ażeby w duchu Soboru Watykańskiego II prowadził pracę ewangelizacyjną w świecie współczesnym i pogłębiał wiarę wierzących, ukazywał drogi wiary dla wszystkich i bronił wolności religijnej każdego. Pragnę również, ażebyśmy w naszej modlitwie wspólnej polecali te sprawy, o których się najwięcej dzisiaj mówi i pisze, a więc sprawę prawodawstwa w odniesieniu do uniwersytetów i szkolnictwa wyższego, jako też sprawy związane z procesami w Gdańsku i w diecezji kieleckiej. Będziemy się modlić o te sprawy, ponieważ stanowią one cząstkę naszego wspólnego życia.

Ai pellegrini italiani

Un cordiale saluto desidero rivolgere a tutti i pellegrini provenienti dall’Italia, singoli o in gruppi, e in particolare ai partecipanti al XXIII Corso di perfezionamento, promosso dall’Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale, e che raccoglie giovani dell’Africa, dell’America Latina, dell’Asia e dell’Europa, insieme con i loro docenti e i familiari.

A voi tutti l’augurio che tale cooperazione tecnica contribuisca a diffondere sempre più lo spirito di solidarietà, di comprensione e di amicizia fra tutti gli uomini, in modo che raggiunga quell’ideale di giustizia e di pace, proclamato dal messaggio di Gesù Cristo.

Con la mia benedizione apostolica.

Ai giovani

Rivolgo ora un saluto a tutti i giovani qui presenti.

In questa settimana la Chiesa celebra la festa del Sacro Cuore di Gesù. Tale solennità ci richiama alla mente, nella fede, l’amore infinito e misericordioso di Dio, e ci riconduce al centro dell’Incarnazione: il Verbo di Dio si è fatto carne per offrire all’uomo un segno sublime della sua carità. Quale luce, per voi giovani, scaturisce dalla conoscenza dell’amore infinito di Dio e di Cristo! Le cose acquistano un nuovo senso, una ragione d’essere, una sapienza d’altro genere e così, nella vita quotidiana prevalgono non l’aspetto pratico dei valori, non l’esigenza della tecnica, non la supremazia dell’efficienza e della riuscita, ma il dono della verità e dello spirito: il dono dell’amore!

La festa del Sacro Cuore di Gesù annuncia questo primato dell’amore, perché Dio è amore che raggiunge ogni uomo con un atto supremo di amicizia e di misericordia. Sappiate sempre comprendere la grandezza di questo messaggio e fatevene annunciatori convinti ed efficaci.

Su tutti la mia benedizione.

Agli ammalati

La medesima solennità del Sacro Cuore di Gesù mi ispira un pensiero per voi, cari ammalati qui presenti.

Noi riassumiamo in un’unica celebrazione il mistero dell’amore di Cristo, che durante l’anno liturgico abbiamo riconosciuto presente in tutti i singoli eventi della vita del Signore. In ogni festa del Signore voi avvertite la vicinanza di Gesù, la sua presenza nella preghiera, nei sacrifici, negli interrogativi profondi del vostro cuore allorché la sofferenza si fa più acuta.

Questa festa vi dica ancor più chiaramente che Gesù vi ama e vi chiede di amarlo, di ricorrere sempre al suo Cuore per trovare risposta e conforto.

La mia benedizione su di voi, con l’augurio che l’amore infinito di Cristo vi sostenga e vi conforti.

Agli sposi novelli

Cari sposi novelli.

L’amore, che è il fondamento della vita coniugale, la sua più profonda ragion d’essere, è un dono di Dio. Un dono inserito nel cuore di ogni persona umana dal Creatore, e riportato alla sua originaria santità e grandezza dall’amore di Cristo. È Gesù che nel sacramento del matrimonio ha condotto il vostro affetto a divenire segno vivo di sacramentale presenza in voi dell’amore eterno e infinito del Cuore di Gesù. Ispiratevi a questo modello per vivere intensamente il mistero della vostra vocazione.

Sulle vostre nuove famiglie, con il più vivo e fervido augurio, la mia benedizione apostolica.


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