A Conjecture on The Pope and The Atheist
In 1965, then Jesuit Scholastic Jorge Maria Bergoglio, S.J. was teaching high school at Colegio de la Inmaculada in Argentina. No doubt he was aware of and took interest in the planned 31st General Congregation of the Society of Jesus. Immediately before that convocation, Pope Paul VI gave a very specific directive to the Society of Jesus. Allow me reproduce some of his words:
We gladly take this opportunity to lay serious stress, however briefly, on a matter of grave importance: We mean the fearful danger of atheism threatening human society. Needless to say it does not always show itself in the same manner but advances and spreads under many forms. Of these, the anti-God movement is clearly to be reckoned the most pernicious: not content with a thoroughgoing denial of God’s existence, this violent movement against God attacks theism, aiming at the extirpation of the sense of religion and all that is good and holy. There is also philosophical atheism that denies God’s existence or maintains that God is unknowable, hedonistic atheism, atheism that rejects all religious worship or honor, reckoning it superstitious, profitless and irksome to reverence and serve the Creator of us all or to obey His law. Their adherents live without Christ, having no hope of the promise, and without God in this world. This is the atheism spreading today, openly or covertly, frequently masquerading as cultural, scientific or social progress.
It is the special characteristic of the Society of Jesus to be champion of the Church and holy religion in adversity. To it We give the charge of making a stout, united stand against atheism, under the leadership, and with the help of St. Michael, prince of the heavenly host. His very name is the thunder-peal or token of victory.
We bid the companions of Ignatius to muster all their courage and fight this good fight, making all the necessary plans for a well-organized and successful campaign. It will be their task to do research, to gather information of all kinds, to publish material, to hold discussions among themselves, to prepare specialists in the field, to pray, to be shining examples of justice and holiness, skilled and well-versed in an eloquence of word and example made bright by heavenly grace, illustrating the words of St. Paul: “My message and my preachings had none of the persuasive force of ‘wise’ argumentation, but the convincing power of the Spirit.”
You will carry it out with greater readiness and enthusiasm if you keep in mind that this work in which you are now engaged and to which you will apply yourselves in the future with renewed vigor is not something arbitrarily taken up by you, but a task solemnly entrusted to you by the Church and by the Supreme Pontiff.
It is beyond the scope of this article to evaluate whether or not the Jesuits were successful in this charge. But, one wonders with what force these words penetrated the young Bergoglio. Some have made much of the intellectual formation of Bergoglio vis-à-vis his immediate two predecessors. They lament that he had not the training of the pre-Vatican II Church. Well, that is not entirely true as he entered the religious life in the late 1950’s and was therefore a product largely of the old Jesuit training; but more than that, he cannot be blamed for something that is simply an accident of birth. To be sure, the world he grew up in was different than that of Wojtyla and Ratzinger. That said, what was his reaction to the specific charge of Paul VI to the Jesuits?
To understand him, we would do well to remember the old scholastic saw “quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur” (“whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver”). How did Bergoglio in his formative years as a Jesuit see the problem of atheism? I suspect that his recent interviews give us a clue. While he has been pilloried in some quarters and effusively praised in others, I rather suspect that he may be harkening back–perhaps implicitly–to the words of Paul VI and the solemn charge entrusted to him and his fellow Jesuits in 1965. Yes, I realize this is conjecture, but there is a certain fearlessness and willingness to engage an “atheism spreading today, openly or covertly, frequently masquerading as cultural, scientific or social progress.” Likewise, there is a reverence for Paul VI who was no doubt important to his formative years in religion.
Papa Bergoglio isn’t as precise as Papa Ratzinger, lamentably. And, in his interviews, some turns of phrase are disagreeable and yes, downright confusing on their face. But, consider the audience and consider the forum: a free-wheeling conversation with an atheist for the purpose of engaging him and the audience of an irreligious paper. Yet, these same atheists and non-believers are souls in need of salvation. While the pope says he isn’t proselytizing, he is attempting to win hearts and minds for Christ (i.e., show these people the truth of the Church’s claims built upon reason). When the pope says his intention is not to convert his interlocutor, he is correct. Only God converts. Only God can move the soul.
Folks should understand His Holiness’s words in light of things he has said before and his many affirmations that he is a son of the Church. He has railed against relativism; he has railed against the Evil One; he has encouraged confession; and as Paul VI suggested, he invokes St. Michael and has dedicated the protection of the Holy See to his intercession. He has not used “wise argumentation” but rather the tools and “convincing power of the Spirit.”
Again, the pope is attempting to enter into a dialogue-much like the ancient philosophers would have done. The interviews in question are not theological or philosophical treatises, nor do they command our assent as an exercise of the ordinary Magisterium. Rather, it is simply a conversation wherein the pope is trying to engage a non-believer with some aspect of the true, good, and beautiful. With one of these transcendentals engaged, this is a means to God. A foot in the door. After all, grace builds on nature.
While the pope’s style is difficult for those of us of a more Thomistic bent, perhaps this is an instance that calls for deeper faith. This is Christ’s Vicar. He has the grace of his office. He is giving us an example. Instead of throwing him under the bus (as many are sadly doing), perhaps this is the time to cleave to Christ with an even firmer faith, understanding that God in His Providence allowed this pope to gloriously reign in our time. For some, this may mean imitating the faith of Abraham when asked to sacrifice his only son.
In the end, Pope Francis (like Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI) is an observer of modernity and the problems–intellectual and otherwise–of modern man. His way of combatting atheism is engaging atheists. Much like Christ’s way of combatting sin was (and is) engaging sinners.
This article, A Conjecture on The Pope and The Atheist is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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About John M. DeJak
John M. DeJak is an attorney and Latin teacher and works in academic administration. He writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.