Gaudium et Spes 21 is a bit lengthy, but bear with it. It capsulizes a wise approach in dealing with atheism and some of the problems often thrown in the face of the Church.
In her loyal devotion to God and (humankind), the Church has already repudiated (cf. Pius XI, encyclical letter Divini Redemptoris, March 19, 1937: AAS 29 (1937), pp. 65-106; Pius XII, encyclical letter Ad Apostolorum Principis, June 29, 1958: AAS 50 (1958) pp. 601-614; John XXIII, encyclical letter Mater et Magistra May 15, 1961: AAS 53 (1961), pp. 451-453; Paul VI, encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, Aug. 6, 1964: AAS 56 (1964), pp. 651-653) and cannot cease repudiating, sorrowfully but as firmly as possible, those poisonous doctrines and actions which contradict reason and the common experience of humanity, and dethrone (humankind) from (their) native excellence.
Okay. First, we Christians hold that faith is ennobling. The overall thrust and result of Christianity is a heightened sense of “excellence” as the council bishops taught it. The sense that faith exists to denigrate (or drug) the masses must be vehemently disproved.
Still, she 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 (people), she believes these questions ought to be examined seriously and more profoundly.
Typical Vatican II optimism: know the questions raised by one’s philosophical adversary. Answer the questions on the terms given in the public debate. Those who seek the title “apologist” might do well to consider this tack.
The Church holds that the recognition of God is in no way hostile to (human) dignity, since this dignity is rooted and perfected in God. For (a person) was made an intelligent and free member of society by God Who created him (or her), but even more important, he (or she) is called as a son (or daughter) to commune with God and share in His happiness.
Human happiness, not human suffering is God’s will.
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.
Christians possess a duty in the earthly life. Most of all, the duty is to work as an agent of charity and justice, lest believers be betrayed by a false passivity and non-believers be scandalized by unconcern:
By contrast, when a divine instruction and the hope of life eternal are wanting, (human) 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 (people) succumb to despair.
Go to God with questions say the bishops:
Meanwhile every (person) remains to him (or her-)self an unsolved puzzle, however obscurely he (or she) may perceive it. For on certain occasions no one can entirely escape the kind of self-questioning mentioned earlier, especially when life’s major events take place. To this questioning only God fully and most certainly provides an answer as He summons (people) to higher knowledge and humbler probing.
Atheism is treated as an illness, and the remedy is twofold:
The remedy which must be applied to atheism, however, is to be sought in a proper presentation of …
(1) the Church’s teaching
(2) as well as in the integral life of the Church and her members.
The understanding is that apologism is two-fold: not just imparing information, but living the faith.
For it is the function of the Church, led by the Holy Spirit Who renews and purifies her ceaselessly,(cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Chapter I, n. 8: AAS 57 (1965), p. 12) to make God the Father and His Incarnate Son present and in a sense visible.
Not just real presence, but a visibly evident one as well. Consider this advice:
This result is achieved chiefly by the witness of a living and mature faith, namely, one trained to see difficulties clearly and to master them. Many martyrs have given luminous witness to this faith and continue to do so. This faith needs to prove its fruitfulness by penetrating the believer’s entire life, including its worldly dimensions, and by activating (the believer) toward justice and love, especially regarding the needy. What does the most reveal God’s presence, however, is the … charity of the faithful who are united in spirit as they work together for the faith of the Gospel (cf. Phil. 1:27) and who prove themselves a sign of unity.
Social gospel Catholics should be cheered by this assessment, which is a true one, I believe.
While rejecting atheism, root and branch, the Church sincerely professes that all (people), 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.
Shared goals imply the dialogue needed to get things done. Also, freedom is to be a given, as we read in the earlier document Dignitatis Humanae:
Hence the Church protests against the distinction which some state authorities make between believers and unbelievers, with prejudice to the fundamental rights of the human person. The Church calls for the active liberty of believers to build up in this world God’s temple too. She courteously invites atheists to examine the Gospel of Christ with an open mind.
The concern shared with all people is for human dignity. The Church of Gaudium et Spes possesses a quiet confidence about faith, belief, and purpose. I can see how this message would be heartening to Third World or other oppressed persons. It’s a matter of right perspective, but I agree that Christian faith must be evident to non-believers, especially in the way faith is practiced publicly and how believers interact with the needy.
Above all the Church knows that her message is in harmony with the most secret desires of the human heart when she champions the dignity of the human vocation, restoring hope to those who have already despaired of anything higher than their present lot. Far from diminishing (humankind), her message brings to (their) development light, life and freedom. Apart from this message nothing will avail to fill up the heart of (the person): “Thou hast made us for Thyself,” O Lord, “and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.”(St. Augustine, Confessions I, 1: PL 32, 661)