Gaudium et Spes 19

Gaudium et Spes 19 begins with a basic religious tenet, then begins to address the phenomenon of atheism as well as some related notions.

The root reason for human dignity lies in (the) call to communion with God. From the very circumstance of (their) origin (humankind) is already invited to converse with God. For (people) would not exist were (they) not created by God’s love and constantly preserved by it; and (they) cannot live fully according to truth unless (they) freely acknowledge that love and devote (themselves) to (their) Creator.

This would be the psalmist’s thinking:

When you take away their breath, they perish and return to the dust from which they came. When you send forth your breath, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth. (Ps 104:29b-30)

And the council bishops are careful to speak of two sets of folks: those who have never been exposed to God, and those who have rejected God:

Still, many of our contemporaries have never recognized this intimate and vital link with God, or have explicitly rejected it. Thus atheism must be accounted among the most serious problems of this age, and is deserving of closer examination.

One might thnik a more accommodating view would be to see the phenomenon of atheism as an opportunity, rather than as a problem. But the council counts it as a “serious problem.”

The word atheism is applied to phenomena which are quite distinct from one another. For while God is expressly denied by some, others believe that man can assert absolutely nothing about Him. Still others use such a method to scrutinize the question of God as to make it seem devoid of meaning. Many, unduly transgressing the limits of the positive sciences, contend that everything can be explained by this kind of scientific reasoning alone …

The flip side of this would be those who insist that God can indeed be deduced by natural observation …

… or by contrast, they altogether disallow that there is any absolute truth.

Yes, we have a recognition of relativism.

Some laud (humankind) so extravagantly that their faith in God lapses into a kind of anemia, though they seem more inclined to affirm (people) than to deny God.

And they mean a humanism? Just for the record, I think we need to take the liturgy scuffles over “we” songs with a grain of salt when it comes to this principle. A critic would be hard-pressed to get any singing parish, much less any composer to admit the liturgy is heading to a self-congratulatory state. That’s an unverified criticism coming from many people who have their own ax to grind when it comes to the issues of art, leaderhsip, liturgy, and personal taste.

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.

Yes, the notion of raising questions: that’s a difficult one for some non-atheistic folk. GS 19 notes that some people bring laudable values to their personal approach, but falter when such values are elevated to the level of God. Recent human experiments in marxism, capitalism, and other non-Christian philosophies.

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.

Undeniably, those who willfully shut out God from their hearts and try to dodge religious questions are not following the dictates of their consciences, and hence are not free of blame; yet believers themselves frequently bear some responsibility for this situation.

In a document addressed primarily to Christians, if not Catholics, it’s appropriate for us to examine the ways in which we fail at evangelization, or worse, we succeed in a sort of anti-evangelization. Chasing people away, that is. Or as one of my commenters so brilliantly put it, SCGS*.

For, taken as a whole, atheism is not a spontaneous development but stems from a variety of causes, including a critical reaction against religious beliefs, and in some places against the Christian religion in particular. Hence believers can have more than a little to do with the birth of atheism.

“More than a little” is a generous statement.

To the extent that they neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion.

This is very much in the “spirit,” if you will, of Vatican II. An acknowledgement that we have a “serious problem” in the world. A corollary acknowledgement that Christians bear partial responsibility for it. And a challenge to renew the Church so as to address our culpability.

When I read sections of Gaudium et Spes or other council documents, I find a deep sense of sin — something which I’m not altogether sure has vanished from the Church. I think certain Catholics have certain blind spots in this regard. The challenge of Vatican II was clearly not a condemnation from the bishops, but a challenge to believers to work more faithfully in the realm of religion and the spiritual.

* Small Church Getting Smaller

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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