The Catholic Church’s Enduring Answer to the Practical Atheism of Our Age

by Robert Cardinal Sarah
Published In June 14, 2024

I. Introductory Remarks 

I am grateful to meet with you, distinguished guests of the  Napa Institute. Mr Busch: thank you for the invitation and the  Catholic Information Center for your co-sponsorship. My address  – “The Catholic Church’s Enduring Answer to the Practical  Atheism of our Age” – reflects well your mission: to prepare  leaders to bring truth, faith, and value into the modern world  through liturgy, formation, and community.  

First, however, I would like to say something about the  Catholic Church here in the United States. I have had the privilege  of traveling to your country many times and I have found it a place  of great importance for the universal Church. The United States  is part of what is commonly called “the West”. The West, while  not the birthplace of Christianity, is the home of much of what  was once called Christendom, and much of what has become  modern society, the roots of which are firmly European. 

The cultural, economic, political, and, to a lesser extent,  religious identity of America track in broad strokes to that of  Europe. While America is the fruit of European faith and  enlightenment, nonetheless it is unique in many significant ways. 

With respect to the Catholicism of the United States, it is well  known that Catholics were for a long time a recognizable  minority. Catholics went to different churches and schools; they  fasted on Fridays; they celebrated the holy days differently; they  often lived in ethnic neighborhoods. In short, Catholics were  different. Nonetheless, they were also proudly American. Their  faith inspired a patriotism. In World War II, Catholics fought and  died for freedom alongside their Protestant and Jewish brothers  and sisters. It was the faith of Catholics that inspired such  sacrifice. They were a religious minority, firm in the faith, even if  treated as second class citizens at times, or worse. 

Since the 1960’s Catholics have increasingly lost their unique  identity. They are no longer a recognizable minority because they  have fully assimilated into American culture. Catholics here are  often American first, Catholic second. 

The consequences are obvious. Many Catholics hold the same  beliefs as the general population. You have a self-identified  Catholic President who is an example of what Cardinal Gregory  recently described as a “Cafeteria Catholic”. Many of your  Catholic public officials are in the same category. Many of your  Catholic hospitals and universities are Catholic in name only. The  minority status of so many things Catholic here in the United  States, which provided an important witness to the fullness of our  Catholic faith, has been traded for cultural assimilation. 

I have visited the United States enough to know that, while the  uniqueness of the Catholic community has been lost at a macro  level, there is much to celebrate about specific aspects of the Catholic community here. The Catholic Church of the United  States is very different from the Church in Europe. The faith in  Europe is dying, and in some places it is dead. The interaction  between severely secular governments and the Church have not  served the faith well there.

Some of that exists in the United States but there is also a  dynamism of faith here that does not exist in other places in the  West. I have seen it firsthand. As President of the Pontifical  Council Cor Unum, I witnessed personally how Americans are  amongst the most generous people in the world. Thank you. Your  seminaries have largely been reformed, lay apostolates are  breathing new life into the faith, in parishes there are pockets of  life, and my sense is that your episcopal leadership is generally  committed to the Gospel, faith in Jesus Christ, and a preservation  of our Sacred Tradition. No doubt there are divisions and internal  conflict, but there is not a wholesale rejection of the Catholic faith  as we see in many parts of Europe and South America. My  observation is that there are models of faith here in the United  States that could perhaps be a lesson for other western countries. 

With that being said, your culture more broadly speaking has  become hostile to the faith. There is a practical atheism that has  taken over your country and is threatening the common good. This is what I would like to reflect on with you today: the practical  atheism that is infecting the West and slipping noticeably into the  Church herself.

II. Practical Atheism 

As I noted in a recent address to the Bishops of Cameroon: 

“many Western prelates are paralyzed by the idea of opposing  the world. They dream of being loved by the world. They have  lost the concern of being a sign of contradiction. Perhaps too  much material wealth leads to compromise with world affairs.  Poverty is a guarantee of freedom for God. I believe that the  Church of our time is experiencing the temptation of atheism.  Not intellectual atheism. But this subtle and dangerous state of  mind: fluid and practical atheism. The latter is a dangerous  disease even if its first symptoms seem mild.” 

By practical atheism, I mean a loss of the sense of the Gospel  and the centrality of Jesus Christ. Scripture becomes a tool for a secular purpose rather than the call to conversion. I do not think this is widespread among your bishops and priests here in the  United States, thanks be to God, but it is becoming more common  among other regions of the West. Too many do not take the faith  seriously and treat it as a hindrance to dialogue.

St. Paul warned us of this: “For the time will come when people  will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires  and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop  listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths” (2 Tim 4:3-4). 

And yet we know that the faith, and Scripture and the sacraments  in particular, give us life. That’s why St. Paul also charged us to,  “proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or  inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all  patience and teaching” (2 Tim 4:2). 

There is, of course, no pure atheism. One must put his or her  trust in something. So, the question is not whether you believe in  God or not, but what do you believe in; what is your lower-case  “g” – god? For many in the secular culture, it is sex and all its  libertarian derivatives. For others, it is a positivist understanding  of nature, where objective data is the only factor by which  decisions should be made. And yet for others, it is wealth or power  or social status or social activism.

All of these are corrupt and false idols by which we elevate  something other than the one, true God, in all His majesty, love  and mercy—just as the Israelites worshipped the Golden Calf.  This is nothing new. Creation, in its many forms, has always  competed with the Creator for our loyalty. What is of particular  interest is how this sort of practical atheism has seeped into the  Church. I would like to review what our three most recent popes  have said about this as a reminder that the Church is the prophetic  voice for our times and we must remain vigilant to voices from  within that wish to alter her voice to something palatable to secular culture. 

III. Saint Pope John Paul II 

The great Pope Saint John Paul II understood the dangers of  atheism as well as anyone. He lived through the horrors of a  political system disconnected from God and all its consequences.  While many of the horrors of atheistic communism and fascism  happened within our lifetime, or at least within my lifetime, we  seem to have forgotten its brutal lessons. Millions, perhaps  hundreds of millions, of lives were sacrificed for ideological  purposes driven by a loss of the sacred. We all know that family, 

human life, the dignity of the human person created in the image  of God, and after His likeness, are the most sacred of all living  creatures. Nonetheless, murder, torture, rape, families torn apart,  and so many other horrific sins against the dignity of the person  were committed in the name of lies that separate man from God. 

Saint John Paul understood all of this and leveraged the  weapons of faith against the atheism that emanated from communism and the East. On one level, he won that war but, at  another level, the war continues at a global and national level— and even within each one of us. As Solzhenitsyn described it, “the  line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor  between classes, nor between political parties either—but right  through every human heart—and through all human hearts.” This  is the battle each one of us faces and even the Church experiences  it in an eschatological way. The battle is not “out there” but here,  starting within each one of us. 

This localization of the distancing from God is something each  of us must examine on a regular basis. In what or whom do we 

find meaning? As I have said elsewhere: it must be God, otherwise we are left with nothing.  

“God or nothing,” is the title of one of my books. This is true for  each one of us but also for the Church herself. 

In a 1999 General Audience, Pope John Paul spoke about a  practical atheism that can be applied to some in the Church today:  

“Starting with Sacred Scripture, we immediately note that there  is no mention of ‘theoretical’ atheism, while there is a concern  to reject ‘practical’ atheism…. Rather than atheism, the Bible  speaks of wickedness and idolatry. Whoever prefers a series of  human products, falsely considered divine, living and active, to  the true God is wicked and idolatrous.” 

We see this in the Church when sociology or “lived experience”  becomes the guiding principle that shape moral judgment. It is not  an outright rejection of God, but it pushes God to the side. How  often do we hear from theologians, priests, religious, and even  some bishops or bishop conferences that we need to adjust our  moral theology for considerations that are solely human?  

There is an attempt to ignore, if not reject, the traditional approach  to moral theology, as defined so well by Veritatis Splendor and  the Catechism of the Catholic Church. If we do, everything  becomes conditional and subjective. Welcoming everyone means  ignoring Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium. 

None of the proponents of this paradigm shift within the  Church reject God outright but they treat Revelation as secondary,  or at least on equal footing with experience and modern science.  This is how practical atheism works. It does not deny God but  functions as if God is not central. 

We see this approach not only in moral theology but also in  liturgy. Sacred traditions that have served the Church well for  hundreds of years are now portrayed as dangerous. So much focus  on the horizontal pushes out the vertical, as if God is an  experience rather than an ontological reality.

There is an implied understanding by the proponents of  practical atheism that faith somehow limits the person. They take  St. Irenaeus’ axiom – “the glory of God is man fully alive” – to  mean the highest end of man is to be fully himself. This is true if  we understand man as a creature made for God, but the practical  atheists see God and his moral order as a limiting factor. Our  happiness, according to this way of thinking, is found in being  who we want to be, rather than conforming ourselves to God and  his order. 

It is all very “now” oriented. What has meaning is that which  speaks to the contemporary moment, divorced from our  individual and corporate history. This is why the traditions of our  faith can be so easily dismissed. According to the practical  atheists, tradition is binding, not freeing. 

And yet it is through our traditions that we more fully know  ourselves. We are not isolated beings unconnected to our past. Our  past is what shapes who we are today. 

Salvation history is the supreme example of this. Our faith  always echoes back to our origins, from Adam and Eve, through  the kingdoms of the Old Testament, to Christ as the fulfillment of  the old law, to the advent of the Church and the development of  all that was given to us from Christ. This is who we are as a  Christian people. It is all radically connected. We are a people  who live within the context of who God created us to be, which  has been received more deeply over the centuries but is always  connected to the revelation of Christ, who is the same yesterday  and today. To pursue fulfillment by lowering our sights to our  experience, emotions, or desires is to reject who we are as God’s  creatures, endowed with sublime dignity and created ultimately  for Him. 

IV. Pope Benedict XVI 

This brings us to Pope Benedict XVI. He, too, understood  firsthand the dangers of atheism, explicit or implicit. His work as  theologian, prefect, and pope had a particular emphasis on the life  of faith in Europe, which he sought to renew. He understood the  West was under attack from an atheism within the traditionally  Christian cultures of Europe.

He was even more explicit than John Paul about his concerns  regarding the loss of faith within the Church. As pope he said: 

“A particularly dangerous phenomenon for faith has arisen in  our times: indeed, a form of atheism exists which we define,  precisely, as ‘practical’, in which the truths of faith or religious  rites are not denied but are merely deemed irrelevant to daily  life, detached from life, pointless. So it is that people often  believe in God in a superficial manner, and live ‘as though God  did not exist’ (etsi Deus non daretur). In the end, however, this  way of life proves even more destructive because it leads to  indifference to faith and to the question of God” (General  Audience, November 14, 2012). 

In a 1958 lecture, years before Vatican II, which suggests our  current situation has roots much deeper than the cultural  revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s, he said:

“This so-called Christian Europe for almost four hundred years  has become the birthplace of a new paganism, which is  growing steadily in the heart of the Church and threatens to  undermine her from within.” 

The Church, he continued,  “is no longer, as she once was, a Church composed of pagans  who have become Christians, but a Church of pagans who still  call themselves Christians, but actually have become pagans.  Paganism resides today in the Church herself” (The New  Pagans in the Church, 1958) 

This is a harsh critique of the Church, and yet this was said  back in 1958, so the criticism that there exists a practical atheism  in the Church is not new to this moment. It is, nonetheless, more  apparent now than it was when Joseph Ratzinger made these observations and it comes in the loss of devout Christian living,  or an obvious Christian culture, and in the form of public dissent,  sometimes even from high-ranking officials or prominent  institutions.

How many Catholics attend weekly Mass? How many are  involved in the local church? How many live as if Christ exists,  or as if Christ is found in his or her neighbor, or with the firm  belief that the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ? How many  priests celebrate the Holy Eucharist as if they are truly alter  Christus, and, even more so, as if they are ipse Christus – Christ  Himself? How many believe in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ  in the Holy Eucharist? The answer is too few. We live as if we do  not need redemption through the blood of Christ. That is the  practical reality for too many in the Church. The crisis is not so  much the secular world and its evils, but the lack of faith within  the Church. 

The synodal process, particularly in a few European countries, is an example where dissident views are promoted within the  context of the institutional Church. Cardinal Zen has expounded  on this effectively already in his letter to the Synod participants  last year, but I would like to add some additional thoughts. 

We are told that the Synod on Synodality is to bring the whole  Church into dialogue. Perhaps this can be a path through which the Holy Spirit speaks to the Church. That would be a blessing.  There is concern, however, that this is not a path through which  the sensus fidelium is exercised.  

There are voices at the Synod that are not speaking from within  the sensus fidei. Just because someone identifies as Catholic does  not mean they are part of the sensus fidelium. To be Catholic is  more than a cultural identification; it is a profession of faith. It  has a particular content of faith. To move outside that content,  both in belief and practice, is to move outside the faith. And it is  a grave danger to consider all voices legitimate. This would lead  to a cacophony of voices that amount to noise, which seems to be  growing louder these days. As Cardinal Ratzinger said: 

“A faith we can decide for ourselves is no faith at all. And no  minority has any reason to allow a majority to prescribe what  it should believe. Either the faith and its practice come to us  from the Lord by way of the Church and her sacramental  services, or there is no such thing” (Truth and Tolerance [San  Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004], Part 2, Section 1).

This approach to the faith leads to confusion and instability.  Again, from Ratzinger: 

“Everything that men make can also be undone again by others … Everything that one majority decides upon can be revoked  by another majority. A church based on human resolutions  becomes merely a human church … Opinion replaces faith”  (Called to Communion [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991],  p139). 

This attitude toward a false freedom and conformism seems to  be growing within the Church. For example, some prominent  Prelates have expressed openness to the prospect of women’s  ordination, suggesting doctrine can change. This is the sort of  thing that Catholics should believe is impossible and yet we have  a senior ranking official espousing an ecclesiology that rejects the  stability of doctrine. The implication, of course, is that we are free  to define the faith as we see fit. This is not Catholic, and it is a  source of great confusion that is harming the Church and the  faithful. Thankfully, Pope Francis has been clear that this is not  possible, but confusion grows around these questions when the global synodal process encourages such considerations. The  example of Germany is well known but important to remember. 

Cardinal Ratzinger identified this crisis of faith, this practical  atheism, as the fruit of bad ecclesiology. He said this: 

“the Church of Christ is not a party, not an association, not a  club. Her deep and permanent structure is not democratic but  sacramental, consequently hierarchical. For the hierarchy  based on the apostolic succession is the indispensable condition  to arrive at the strength, the reality of the sacrament. Her  authority is not based on the majority of votes; it is based on  the authority of Christ himself, which he willed to pass on to  men who were to be his representatives until his definitive  return” (The Ratzinger Report, p49). 

This is the heart of the matter. The faith, the Church, is based  on Christ. Without Christ we, we have nothing. Too many in the  Church find the heart of the faith in her affiliates. Yes, in a certain  sense we make up the mystical body of Christ but only to the  degree that we live in Christ and our faith is centered in Christ.

V. Francis 

Pope Francis has continued the call against atheism. He does it  differently than John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but he is clear that  life without God is a path to destruction. Back in 2015 he said: 

“In a society increasingly marked by secularism and threatened  by atheism, we run the risk of living as if God did not exist.  People are often tempted to take the place of God, to consider  themselves the criterion of all things, to control them, to use  everything according to their own will. It is so important to  remember, however, that our life is a gift from God, and that  we must depend on him, confide in him, and turn towards him  always” (Meeting with delegation of Conference of European  Rabbis). 

The Holy Father understands there are pockets within the  Church that do not live from the heart of Jesus. He exhorts bishops  and priests to live lives that are consistent with the Gospel. He has  said repeatedly that the eclipse of God leads to the destruction of  man. Let us take his call to remember God seriously, especially  for those of us in the Church.

VI. Concluding Remarks 

Where do we go from here? Let me speak to the question as a  bishop. Bishops need to raise their voices and become clear  teachers of the faith, witnessing by both word and holiness of life.  The unity of faith comes through the office of bishop, which must  be reaffirmed today. There is too much confusion circling the  Church, and it is up to us bishops to provide clarity so the lay  faithful can themselves be witnesses to the truth. 

As Pope John Paul II said: 

“The bishop is called in a particular way to be a prophet,  witness and servant of hope … relying on the Word of God and  holding firmly to hope, which like a sure and steadfast anchor  reaches to the heavens (cf. Heb 6:18-20), the bishop stands in  the midst of the Church as a vigilant sentinel, a courageous  prophet, a credible witness and a faithful servant of Christ”  (Pastores Gregis, #3).

This requires a willingness to be a sign of contradiction (see Lk 2:34) to the contemporary world and, yes, to parts of the  contemporary church. 

This responsibility will be fulfilled through right teaching and  holiness—holiness that is rooted in a personal and intimate  relationship with Christ. Pope Francis has said, “There is no  witness without a coherent lifestyle! Today there is no great need  for masters, but for courageous witnesses, who are convinced and  convincing; witnesses who are not ashamed of the Name of Christ  and of His Cross” (Homily to new metropolitan archbishops, June  29, 2015). 

Let me finish by circling back to where I began. The United  States is unlike Europe. The faith here is still young and maturing.  This young vitality is a gift to the Church. Just as we saw the  African Church, which is also young, provide a heroic witness to  the faith in the wake of that misguided document, Fiducia  Supplicans, and save the Church from grave error, the Church  here in the United States can also be a witness to the rest of the  world.

The cultural atheism that has taken over the West does not have  to take over the Church here. You have good episcopal leadership,  good young priests, communities with young, vibrant Catholic  families. You must foster the growth of all of this for the sake of  your families, but also for the sake of the global Church. The  Napa Institute and the Catholic Information Center are integral  and vital to this mission. You are to be commended for what you  are doing. 

America is big and powerful politically, economically, and  culturally. With this comes great responsibility. Imagine what  could happen if America were to become home to even more vibrant Catholic communities! The faith of Europe is dying or  dead. The Church needs to draw life from places like Africa and  America where the faith is not dead. 

Perhaps it is surprising to some that the United States can be a  place of spiritual renewal, but I believe it to be so. If Catholics in  this country can be a sign of contradiction to your culture, the  Holy Spirit will do great things through you.

Again, thank you, Mr. Busch and the Napa Institute, and the  Catholic Information Center for this opportunity to speak with  you today in the Capitol of your country and on the campus of the  Catholic University of America. May the faith of your people  grow so Christ’s light might shine more brightly. Thank you.

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