Evangelii Nuntiandi 55: Unbelief in the Modern World

Do you think the Church views unbelief as a problem new to this generation? Long before the cult of celebrity hit atheism, it was recognized as a challenge to the modern proclamation of the Gospel.

55. Also significant is the preoccupation of the last Synod in regard to two spheres which are very different from one another but which at the same time are very close by reason of the challenge which they make to evangelization, each in its own way.

The first sphere is the one which can be called the increase of unbelief in the modern world. The Synod endeavored to describe this modern world: how many currents of thought, values and countervalues, latent aspirations or seeds of destruction, old convictions which disappear and new convictions which arise are covered by this generic name!

From the spiritual point of view, the modern world seems to he forever immersed in what a modern author has termed “the drama of atheistic humanism.”[Cf. Henri de Lubac, Le drame de l'humanisme athee, ed. Spes, Paris, 1945]

If Father de Lubac is right–and I lack the original reference to confirm–he might be suggesting that unbelief is always a human intellectual or spiritual flaw. In any event, I think the proper course of action is to emphasize belief in Christ, rather than present the Church as mainly being about the tearing down of alternate systems. What we preach is confrontational enough, I would think. And if Christ is preached effectively, the fruits of such a proclamation will be evidence enough of a stance against atheism.

On the one hand one is forced to note in the very heart of this contemporary world the phenomenon which is becoming almost its most striking characteristic: secularism. We are not speaking of secularization, which is the effort, in itself just and legitimate and in no way incompatible with faith or religion, to discover in creation, in each thing or each happening in the universe, the laws which regulate them with a certain autonomy, but with the inner conviction that the Creator has placed these laws there. The last Council has in this sense affirmed the legitimate autonomy of culture and particularly of the sciences.[Cf. Gaudium et Spes 59] Here we are thinking of a true secularism: a concept of the world according to which the latter is self-explanatory, without any need for recourse to God, who thus becomes superfluous and an encumbrance. This sort of secularism, in order to recognize the power of man, therefore ends up by doing without God and even by denying Him.

I don’t think the contemporary world has changed much. On the other hand, it might be that the strains of secularism and atheism, if always with us, have been freed from a veneer of Christianity. And that may be better for the fruitfulness of the Gospel in the long run. If Christianity is compulsory, or even strongly advised, then can we be sure that religion is not being used as a cloak of deceit by those whose real aims are contrary to the Gospel?

New forms of atheism seem to flow from it: a man centered atheism, no longer abstract and metaphysical but pragmatic, systematic and militant. Hand in hand with this atheistic secularism, we are daily faced, under the most diverse forms, with a consumer society, the pursuit of pleasure set up as the supreme value, a desire for power and domination, and discrimination of every kind: the inhuman tendencies of this “humanism.”

In this same modern world, on the other hand, and this is a paradox, one cannot deny the existence of real steppingstones to Christianity, and of evangelical values at least in the form of a sense of emptiness or nostalgia. It would not be an exaggeration to say that there exists a powerful and tragic appeal to be evangelized.

I certainly agree with Pope Paul VI on this point. The past forty years have found some people perhaps less welcome in the Church to seek a cure for this interior emptiness. That might be a theme worth exploring, but not for me today. Any thoughts, from y’all out there?

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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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