So now we have the Catholic blogosphere asking whether Pope Francis really said atheism is not a sin. I think this is going to get tedious very soon. As I mentioned in my last post it seems the pattern we are going to observe is something like this:
Step 1: Pope Francis makes some comment that can be interpreted in a liberal, almost heterodox manner.
Step 2: Liberals in the press and/ or left wing Catholics interpret comment in the most heterodox manner possibly, ( as this is what leftists do…) They subsequently argue that the statement heralds a sea change in the Catholic Church, and suggest, that very shortly the Church will rescind its teachings about sexual morality, take a more “nuanced” approach to abortion, and otherwise transform itself into a version of some desiccated Episcopal church whose members while functionally agnostic, continue to belong to it as a sort of social club.
Step 3: Embarrassed and panicked Catholic conservatives will then try to explain what Pope Francis “really” meant but curiously Pope Francis himself will not be doing this.
Something like this is playing out in the blogosphere with the Pope’s recent statements on atheism. The Pope has reportedly made two statements to the effect that atheists “can get to heaven”. Something like the typical conservative response to this is that written by Jimmy Akins catholic blogger/ evangelist at the National Catholic Register. His recent opinion piece can be read here .
This is a very sorry spectacle and can only happen in an environment where you simultaneously have zero understanding of Papal authority, the ordinary magisterium, and the historical teaching of the Catholic Church. This is an unbelievable mess. We will try to clean it up.
First there is no doubt that in and of itself atheism is a sin. This remains the “official” teaching of the Catholic Church. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it “Since it rejects or denies the existence of God, atheism is a sin against the virtue of religion.” This can be read here . This of course stands to reason. It is pretty much incontrovertibly the position in scripture as well. It should be obvious that atheism is a direct violation of the first of the two greatest commandments in scripture:, As depicted in Matthews gospel:
And one of them, a doctor of the Law, putting him to the test, asked him, “Master, which is the great commandment in the Law?” Jesus said to him, “‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind.’ This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like it, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”(Matthew 22:35-40)
Hard to love God if you reject his existence I would say.
Finally Blessed John Paul II condemns atheism and more specifically materialism as underlying philosophies that lead to a culture of death, and ultimately to a kind of nihilistic despair. He does all this in his encyclical Dominum et Vivaficantem which can be read here .
So it seems pretty clear that atheism in and of itself is condemned as sinful and evil . Not to put too fine a point on it, but it is obvious that this would be so. Something is “good” when it is directed toward its natural end. Now man’s highest faculty is his reason, and the “end” to which reason is directed is to contemplate and arrive at the truth, and the greatest truth we can arrive at and contemplate is God. Failure to do this is a misuse of reason, and thus sinful.
Now before we go further, we acknowledge that while atheism is a sin in and of itself, the imputability of this sin (meaning how morally culpable for any sin someone is) can vary. Some atheists are 100% fully culpable and they demonstrate a very explicit and conscious rejection of God for all kinds of reasons. This sort of willful rejection of God is well described by the atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel who is frequently quoted as saying
“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” (from his book “The Last Word” Oxford University Press 1997)
Of course there may be all kinds of things that mitigate the subjective guilt of an atheist ( for all we know even the guilt of someone like Nagel) For example someone who has been mistreated or abused by a religious believer might come to see religion as hypocrisy or someone subject to a terrible tragedy might be overwhelmed by grief and the problem of evil and pushed to a kind of atheistic stance. It is correct that we cannot judge the subjective state of the individual, but this is true for all mortal sins. There are situations that mitigate even things like murder (the killer may be mentally ill for example). This means only that we can never be certain that the person is subjectively guilty of mortal sin. This does not mean however we say the act is not sinful nor does it mean we do not condemn the action, and in some cases its perfectly acceptable to hold the person accountable in some fashion for the evil action. We can criticize what someone is doing if it is evil without being certain of the state of their soul. The Catholic Church does not have “anti saints”,that is people the Church says are certainly in hell, not even moral monsters such as Stalin or Pol Pot.
That said, we are still perfectly justified in condemning the actions of such individuals even while we can never know for certain that such a person did not repent at the last seconds of death, or some such thing. In fact such a last second change of heart is not very likely, and it is more likely that for subscribing to an atheistic philosophy and by carrying this philosophy to its logical conclusion, thus perpetrating genocide on their people, they are quite probably in hell. This is not to say every atheist is like Stalin or Pol Pot, although that is the place their philosophy leads.
Surely Pope Francis knows this. Maybe he is going to change the teaching? Maybe Stalin and Pol Pot where “just following their conscience” ( however deformed their conscience was). I rather doubt Pope Francis has this in mind. Even if he did, the thing is Pope Francis cannot change Church teaching in this fashion. He can not say that clear established teachings are now null and void. He can not say “You know as Pope I say Christ was not God, or that Man has no soul, or that theft, adultery, murder or blasphemy are now ok.” In terms of the moral issues, the sinfulness of such things are based on the natural law, and thus their sinfulness is clear from what we can know through reason. Moreover the Church has spoken on these issues already, multiple times and through multiple sources through many centuries. Popes have no power to delete the prior two thousand years. Interestingly none have ever tried. Some theologians have speculated where a Pope to do this, by definition they would be apostates or heretics, and thus non Catholics. A non Catholic can not be Pope and the Pope than would have in essence resigned the Papacy. That speculative situation is a problem for another day however. Pope Francis has not come close to this, and I suspect he will not.
The church has a corpus of teachings ( the deposit of Faith) These teachings can only be passed on and developed in their implications. They consist of scripture, previous Church teaching, including statements of ecumenical councils and formal papal teachings. A pope making an offhand remark does not reverse all this.
In an informal setting, in which the Pope is speaking off the cuff or is writing something to a general audience in a general informal manner not intended to bind the faithful, say like the recent remarks he has been making in response to reporters questions, the Pope is not speaking infallibly nor even exerting the authority of the ordinary magisterium ( as he might do in say a document addressed to the Church or even the world but in a more formal thought out manner, ( say an encyclical or some such statement of official teaching ). In the less formal impromptu setting the Pope may say something that is wise or foolish, smart or stupid. He may be fatigued, less than thoughtful, irritated or subject to any of the human foibles that allow us to err. Therefore it is not necessary to jump through hoops to ascertain what the Pope meant or really said. Frankly this kind of clarification is the job of the Pope, it always looks a little desperate for lay Catholics to clarify what the Pope really “meant”. My immediate reaction to this, is to ask” Well can the Pope not read the reporting on his statements?”. If they need clarification he can clarify them. Frankly given the implications of some of the things he has said I would not be surprised to see him do this at some point. On the other hand I would temper my enthusiasm if I was over at the National Catholic Reporter and the other organs of left wing Catholicism. I will bet you a thousand dollars that there will not be proclamation that gay marriage is OK, or that Vatican II is wrong and abortion is no longer an unspeakable crime. Any takers on that bet?
I think it makes a lot more sense to say the Pope in various informal venues can simply shoot from the hip, and he can make statements that in their zeal to be inclusive are simply not completely correct or they are so ambiguous that they can lead to error. I think frankly he has been doing just this. Past popes simply could not do this since each and every utterance was not instantly communicated. Now with the explosion in media capability, the Pope is under much scrutiny and the implications of his statements will become more important.
I think it is unlikely that Pope Francis is entirely naive to this, so I cannot throw in with the crowd that simply thinks he is just misunderstood. I do think it is quite possible ( maybe even likely) that in an effort to gain more sympathy with a world that is largely rejecting the Church and thus encourage the world to give her a hearing he is making these kinds of statements. It is all part of initiating dialog. I do not think this was the playbook of the historical Church but it seems to be the concept since Vatican II. I would say someone needs to rethink this approach since it has not been associated with much success. My own advice would be to recalibrate this strategy a bit. Alas the Pope has not called me yet to ask my thoughts.
If He does I will surely tell him, Of course atheism is a sin, and it is very likely following your conscience would not work for an atheist because their conscience is likely erroneous. I would note that there were a fair number of atheistic communists who imprisoned and killed dissidents and could have been said to have been following their conscience. Pope Francis’s immediate and still living predecessor had a little book about this. It can be purchased from Ignatius press here . It might make a nice gift for the next person who thinks that “following your conscience” is the ultimate good.
So atheism is sinful, it might be that individual atheists are not responsible for their ideology which is in itself evil. Just like a specific form of atheism, Marxism is in itself an evil ideology, but individual Marxists might not be subjectively guilty for “believing” in it, on the flip side some Marxists are indeed likely guilty, and did really bad things as a consequence of their belief, again see Stalin, and Pol Pot above. We can argue Marxism is an evil ideology that should be opposed, and that those who support it are doing evil, without sorting out the guilt before God of individual Marxists. This is true of atheism as well.
Let us pray for all God’s mercy on ourselves and on all unrepentant sinners, including those who reject God via atheism .
Lord have Mercy