The Church, Atheism, and Dialogue: A Brief History

(This is Neil) In Catholic theology, dialogue would seem to be an inevitable term. The church must obey Christ’s words, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:16). But, as a learned theologian writes, “We are not telling the other person something that is entirely unknown to him; rather, we are opening up the hidden depth of something with which, in his own religion, he is already in touch.” For, as Nostra Aetate says, other religions “often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.” Thus, when the church preaches the Gospel, it does not display an exclusive possession, but witnesses to a truth that transcends it. As the learned theologian also writes,

I need to be willing to allow my narrow understanding of truth to be broken down. I shall learn my own truth better if I understand the other person and allow myself to be moved along the road to the God who is ever greater, certain that I never hold the whole truth about God in my own hands but am always a learner, on pilgrimage towards it, on a path that has no end.

Thus, Joseph Ratzinger tells us that proclamation of the Gospel must be a “dialogical process” – “the one who proclaims is not only the giver; he is also the receiver.” Stratford Caldecott  writes, “Here, unexpectedly, the supreme Catholic dogmatician seems to have joined hands with the medieval Sufi sage Bayazid, who gave us this beautiful affirmation: ‘Truth melts like snow in the hands of one who does not melt like snow in the hands of truth.’”

But this is abstract. Does dialogue really work? Isn’t it more often an example of what Ratzinger called “aimless conversation” – nothing more than a double monologue? I think that we can come up with many positive examples of interreligious and ecumenical dialogue. But, here, drawing on an article by Stephen Bullivant in the March 2009 New Blackfriars, I want to look at an even more unlikely example of dialogue – dialogue with atheism.

I suspect that most people would not be surprised by the negative mentions of atheism in church documents from the 19th and early 20th centuries. In his encyclical Inscrutabili Dei Consilio (1878), Pope Leo XIII suggested that atheism was like a “deadly kind of plague which infects in its inmost recesses.”  Pius XII spoke of atheism’s “most ignoble corruptions” (Haurietis Aquas [1956]) and “lethal tenets” (Meminisse Iuvat [1958]).

But a decade later, the Vatican’s descriptions of atheism radically changed. The documents of Vatican II claim that God does not “deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life” (Lumen Gentium), and that believers, 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,” bear some responsibility for atheism (Gaudium et Spes). Atheists and believers can, through “sincere and prudent dialogue,” work together “for the rightful betterment of this world in which all alike live.” When the Secretariat for Non-Believers was created, Cardinal Franz König noted that it was “for” and not “against” nonbelievers.

What had happened to the “deadly kind of plague”?

First, as Bullivant writes, “In the decades preceding Vatican II, for arguably the first time in history, Catholic priests and theologians began seriously to engage, socially and intellectually with real unbelievers.” During the 1930s, the French Communist Party extended a “main tendue” (outstretched hand) to Catholics, and organized dialogues began to take place. In 1937, Gaston Fessard, SJ, published La Main tendue. Le Dialogue catholique-communistique est-il possible?, answering the title question positively, based on the humanism of the young Marx. La Vie intellectuelle published a series of articles on Marxism in 1937-8 and Jean Daniélou, SJ, wrote two articles in Chronique sociale de France on the young Marx.

In 1944, Henri de Lubac, SJ, published The Drama of Atheist Humanism – a few years before Hans Küng wrote a dissertation at the Gregorian on Sartre, and Romano Guardini started a study of Nietzsche. De Lubac had already written his Catholicism, in which he emphasized a theological concept of human unity in response to free-thinker criticisms claiming that the church was individualist and concerned only with the afterlife. De Lubac conceded – as would Gaudium et Spes – that “if such a misunderstanding has arisen and entrenched itself, if such an accusation is current, is it not our own fault?”

Yves Congar likewise, in a 1935 article, faulted the church’s response to secularization – “she fell back upon her positions, put up barricades and assumed an attitude of defense” – for alienating possible believers. (Congar would later fault Christian disunity for atheism – see my post here.)

In short, Catholic theology had moved a distance away from the traditional view, expressed in Reginald Marie Garrigou-Lagrange’s God: His Existence and His Nature (1914) that “speculative atheism is an impossibility for any man who has the use of reason and is in good faith.” Atheism was not longer considered insincere or uninteresting – much less impossible – and its existence, however sorrowful, was, at least in part, judged the fault of believers and their poor witness.

Second, besides the unprecedented intellectual engagement with atheism, Bullivant tells us that priests were encountering unbelievers directly through the priest-worker experiment. The priest-worker movement began with the tract La France – Pays de Mission?, written by Henri Godin and Yvan Daniel, who suggested that priests abandon middle-class parishes to bring the Gospel directly to workers. The tract was not one of despair, for it pronounced “Christian that poor man who shares the bread he has begged with one poorer than himself.” Bullivant suggests that the de facto atheist might already here be seen as an “anonymous Christian.” (See this brief post at Intentional Disciples.) 

Other priests met workers while travelling to Germany to serve as unofficial chaplains for conscripts for forced labor during World War II. The Jesuit Henri Perrin spoke of being in “the workers’ world, about which we previously knew nothing and which we gradually discovered while we were there.” Perrin said about these workers, “Whether they wanted to or not, they lived in utter paganism.” But he warmed up to them and noticed, “From Raymond to Hermanus there was a whole crescendo of good will, and even a certain desire [for religious instruction], more obvious in some than in others, more easy to waken in some than in others.”

Priests involved in the working class also inevitable met Communist Party activists and the encounter would change their preconceived notions. Many of the priest-workers were Dominicans, or, like Perrin, Jesuits, and kept their book-writing friends informed of their experiences. Although the priest-worker experiment was stopped, collaborations between Catholics and leftist union continued elsewhere, for instance, in Franco’s Spain.

What had happened? Bullivant says that there is a clear link between the figures involved in the new intellectual and pastoral engagement with atheism and the figures involved in the drafting of the Second Vatican Council’s texts on atheism. Congar played a role in Lumen Gentium 16; de Lubac and Daniélou were among the experts that drafted Gaudium et Spes 19-21. Among the first consultors appointed to the Secretariat for Non-Believers were Congar, de Lubac, and Jacques Loew, one of the first worker priests.

So what is the result of dialogue? We have these conciliar texts … As Congar writes, “The Church learns through contact with facts. … Truth remains unaltered; but it is grasped in a new and undoubtedly more adequate way when men and the world are known as they are, in an extent, age and goodness other than what had been believed of them previously.”

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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12 Responses to The Church, Atheism, and Dialogue: A Brief History

  1. Interestingly enough, I think dialogue has helped transform atheists and their reception of Christianity. Obviously, they remain non-Christian (for now), but many of them, like Zizek, find Christianity as an important influence on their thoughts and look to it with respect. And it’s true, this kind of dialogue has been known to create converts — it’s almost as the atheist is attracted to the Christian arguments, and their life is a testing of the Christian, only to open up near the end because Christians were able to be open to them.

  2. Fran says:

    This is a fascinating post – really well done Neil.

    I am reminded of my own experiences in another blog life that I lead; some of the best “conversations” were with an atheist. He and I would go back and forth and with much respect and debate.

    This is opposed to many wonderful, but less open in some way, Christians of other denominations.

    These back and forth conversations held in comment boxes caused me to plumb the depths of and learn to better discuss and live my faith.

    It is entirely doubtful that it changed the atheist’s heart, but he did come to see things in a light that was less condemning.

    Thanks for this.

  3. Jim McK says:

    Two notes that I think are important:

    1> Dialogue is the subject of Paul VI’s first encyclical, issued during Vatican II. There should be no questions about whether it is important in light of his description of it.Whether dialogue “accomplishes” anything or not, it is always needed.

    2> Not all atheisms are the same, and the possibility of dialogue differs among the different types.
    Gaudium et Spes 19 says it this way: “The word atheism is applied to phenomena which are quite distinct from one another.” A long list of the types and motivations follows.

  4. Neil says:

    Dear All,

    Thanks for writing and sharing your experiences. (I’m afraid that I don’t know Zizek very well.)

    To respond to Jim McK’s characteristically insightful points, in reverse order:

    1. He is correct to state that Gaudium et Spes distinguishes between types of atheism. I probably should have made that clear in my original post. (I don’t see the Paris Dominicans inviting Christopher Hitchens to address them like they did Camus.)

    2. He is also correct to note that Paul VI’s encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam, speaks of an obligation to dialogue. Part of the motivation, however, for this post is the general suspicion in the Catholic blogosphere towards “dialogue.” I think that many voices in the blogosphere suspect that dialogue – in reality – is nearly always tainted by the dangers warned about by Paul VI: “vague compromises” and “immoderate desire to make peace and sink differences at all costs.” I wanted to show, in this post and others, that dialogue – in reality – has “worked.”

    But, I agree, the reason for dialogue is not pragmatism.

    Thanks again.


  5. Neil

    Zizek is interesting; there is a new book which is, in part, a debate between him and Milbank, and in it, Zizek is explaining why he thinks he is a better Christian than Milbank, despite being an atheist. It’s funny in its way, but some good, serious discussions too. But how often do you hear of an atheist wanting to use the term Christian to describe themselves? Of course, he means it in a Hegelian way, but it’s a step forward.

  6. Todd says:

    Neil, thanks for hitching the quality way up when I was gone. What’s the source of the Ratzinger quote, btw?

  7. Jim McK says:


    just to clarify my poorly written comment, I pointed to Ecclesiam Suam because it explains dialogue so well, not simply because it was authoritative on the subject. But the authority of it is important as well; I consider it Paul VI’s most important teaching on morality, and a major influence on V2. I wish the folk who got so excited about Obama at Notre Dame would take it to heart.

    Weren’t the Jacobins of the French Revolution named for St Jacques, the priory of the Paris Dominicans? I guess it should not be too surprising to find newer Paris Dominicans on the liberal side of things.

  8. Neil says:

    Dear Todd and Jim McK,

    First, the Ratzinger quote comes from Many Religions – One Covenant (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1998). (I should also note that I’m happy to contribute more frequently when Todd is gone, if I’m able.)

    Second, I agree with Jim McK about the importance of Ecclesiam Suam. My post was meant to show skeptics – many of whom are Catholic bloggers – that dialogue is realistic.

    I don’t think that the Paris Dominicans should invite Hitchens; my point was to agree with Jim McK that we must distinguish between different sorts of atheism.



  9. Fran says:

    “Second, I agree with Jim McK about the importance of Ecclesiam Suam. My post was meant to show skeptics – many of whom are Catholic bloggers – that dialogue is realistic.”
    Amen brother!

  10. samrocha says:

    Amen to dialogue!

  11. stillhere4u says:

    Atheism may well be spurred on by the refusal of religions to engage in self-criticism. I’ve just read on how foreign self-criticism is to religion, and, moreover, how religion misunderstands itself. You might be interested in it.

  12. Excellent webpage on Henri De Lubac.

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