Church for Agnostics?

Pope Benedict recently gave his yearly Christmas address (h/t whispers) to the officials of the Curia, who run the various offices in the Vatican.  It is often a speech in which he touches on the events in his schedule for the past year.  What struck me most this year was right at the end, when the Pope reflected on his trip to the Czech Republic, and floated some ideas for extending the Church’s ministry in a new way to agnostics and atheists.  Could people who do not feel part of Christianity, yet seek beauty and truth, have some real place in the Church?

The Pope said:

Finally, I would like once again to express my joy and gratitude for my Visit to the Czech Republic. Prior to this Journey I had always been told that it was a country with a majority of agnostics and atheists, in which Christians are now only a minority. All the more joyful was my surprise at seeing myself surrounded everywhere by great cordiality and friendliness, that the important liturgies were celebrated in a joyful atmosphere of faith; that in the setting of the University and the world of culture my words were attentively listened to; and that the state authorities treated me with great courtesy and did their utmost to contribute to the success of the visit. I could now be tempted to say something about the beauty of the country and the magnificent testimonies of Christian culture which only make this beauty perfect. But I consider most important the fact that we, as believers, must have at heart even those people who consider themselves agnostics or atheists.

The Pope was clearly impressed by the usual events of his visits: masses, lectures, conferences, the warm reception.  Yet what struck his heart was that he knew many of those who were receiving him warmly do not find God and Christ to be a presence in their lives, and some explicitly deny the existence of God.  What can the church do for these people?  Explicit evangelization can be counter-productive:

When we speak of a new evangelization these people are perhaps taken aback. They do not want to see themselves as an object of mission or to give up their freedom of thought and will. Yet the question of God remains present even for them, even if they cannot believe in the concrete nature of his concern for us.

One of the things the Pope points to is that often evangelization starts too far down the road – by preaching Christ, or taking for granted God’s care.  He points the Church’s outreach to a deeper place, which he calls “the question of God,” and elsewhere, “the quest for God.”

In Paris, I spoke of the quest for God as the fundamental reason why Western monasticism, and with it, Western culture, came into being. As the first step of evangelization we must seek to keep this quest alive; we must be concerned that human beings do not set aside the question of God, but rather see it as an essential question for their lives. We must make sure that they are open to this question and to the yearning concealed within it.

“The first step of evangelization” – this is crucial.  I do not think that people move from agnosticism to belief in some sort of regimented pattern, but I do think that many who might have been attracted to faith are pushed away by the sense that Christians themselves have forgotten the quest for God.  Jesus is the answer, yes – but have we forgotten the question?

The Pope continues:

Here I think naturally of the words which Jesus quoted from the Prophet Isaiah, namely that the Temple must be a house of prayer for all the nations (cf. Is 56: 7; Mk 11: 17). Jesus was thinking of the so-called “Court of the Gentiles” which he cleared of extraneous affairs so that it could be a free space for the Gentiles who wished to pray there to the one God, even if they could not take part in the mystery for whose service the inner part of the Temple was reserved. A place of prayer for all the peoples: by this he was thinking of people who know God, so to speak, only from afar; who are dissatisfied with their own gods, rites and myths; who desire the Pure and the Great, even if God remains for them the “unknown God” (cf. Acts 17: 23). They had to pray to the unknown God, yet in this way they were somehow in touch with the true God, albeit amid all kinds of obscurity.

What a powerful analogy to our time!  In a world in which consumption is all around (the moneychangers in the Temple), it is hard not to think that the witness of consumer Christians (myself first among them) is a basic distraction from the question – the question that pulls at our hearts.

I think that today too the Church should open a sort of “Court of the Gentiles” in which people might in some way latch on to God, without knowing him and before gaining access to his mystery, at whose service the inner life of the Church stands. Today, in addition to interreligious dialogue, there should be a dialogue with those to whom religion is something foreign, to whom God is unknown and who nevertheless do not want to be left merely Godless, but rather to draw near to him, albeit as the Unknown.

This is the most challenging proposal of all.  What does this “Court of the Gentiles” look like?  It seems as if the Pope is calling for some creative thinking in our parishes and our ministries that reaches out directly to those who are seeking, in the most raw and basic sense.  My mind is spinning with possibilities, especially as I think about many of our Jesuit parishes located in newly gentrified neighborhoods filled with gleaming towers of 30-something professionals who have no use for “religion” but are all about the “spiritual.”  What are we doing there?

Of course, some days more than others, I think that what we are doing here at WD is attempting to reach out into the world of people who are seeking in this way.  I think too that a huge part of my work as a high school religion teacher is to spark my students not only to a relationship with Christ and his Church, but also to keep pushing them toward those questions of the human heart that are only answered in God.

What ideas do you have, dear WD readers?  What is the Pope pushing us toward?  What is the modern “Court of the Gentiles”?

34 Responses to Church for Agnostics?

  1. Pete Lake says:

    What is the Pope pushing towards? He is urging us, like Christ did, to go into the world and preach the good news to all, including athiests and agnostics for the salvation of their souls, because we are ALL co-heirs to the redemption of Christ. I recently became a father for the first time, with an 8-week-old baby at home, and I just learned that although newborn babies get tired and sleepy and crave sleep, they are not born knowing how to “go to sleep.” It’s incredible that this most basic and natural instinct that we are all born with still must be taught and learned, even though we are instrinsically wired to want to go to sleep. So it may be with God. Athiests and agnostics, like the sleepy and tired baby that wants to go to sleep, may want to find God, but not know how. The intrinsic instinct to want to know, love and serve God needs spiritual direction to learn how to find God, like the baby needs parental direction to learn how to fall asleep. This is the quest for God. St. Ignatius understood this monumental task very well when he realized that any worldly glory he could attain as a soldier would be worth nothing in comparision to what he could achieve in the salvation of souls. St. Ignatius understood this so well that he was inspired by the Holy Spirit and came up with the best tools I can think of to go into the world for the salvation of souls, namely, The Spiritual Exercises. How else can the quest for God truly begin than with an examination of conscience? How else can the quest for God continue than with the understanding we are created to praise, reverence, and serve God, and by this means to save our soul. Then we are prepared to meet Christ, to get to know Him, to know that Christ died for us. Then we can move closer Christ by asking what we can do for Christ. As you can see, nothing original here on my part, but this is the formula that I know worked for me and has worked for others.

    • Michae! Magree, SJ says:

      Dear Pete,
      Thanks so much for your reply. I share your love for the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, and especially the Examen and the First Principle and Foundation from which you quote: “human beings are created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord…” It is such a powerful teaching, so simply expressed.
      I agree that the Exercises are a tremendous tool for sharing the good news of God’s love, but I wonder whether the Pope is not pushing us further back, to the whole question of “why God?” Why do we need God at all? So many people I meet seem blocked from even entering into something like the Exercises, because they have no sense that God (if He exists at all) cares a whit. So perhaps there are other experiences we can touch – perhaps the beauty (and challenge! as you note) of a new-born child, or the deep emotion provoked by great music.
      Thanks again for your thoughtful comment!

  2. I am amazed by what the Pope has said. But, I also have a few warnings to posit drawing from the reality of my own experiences. (Quick bio: I was raised Catholic and then left the church when I was asked to get confirmed. Then I returned to get confirmed my freshman year of college. While in college I lived with five atheists, had brief stays at Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries, attended retreats with the Jesuits, and lived my senior year with a parish priest. Now I am in Medina, Saudi Arabia, the heart of Islam, studying the Islamic faith.)

    This idea of a “Court of the Gentiles” is a very relevant one, and an idea that I have been mulling over myself, without knowing what to call it. And I have some ideas for what that would look like, logistically. But…

    I think at the core of all great religions are very simple truths inclining people towards moral behavior. The tools of religion are used to protect people from immorality that is a major threat to human fulfillment. As the immorality itself is made visible and is punished by God, I think that any step away that the church takes from proclaiming itself as a legislative institution and takes toward proclaiming itself as a pedagogical institution is a good step.

    Are we praising a religion and worshiping a consensus, or are we standing barefooted in awe of the mystery of God and His creation, and worshiping Him and His Wisdom, Beauty, and Providence?

    These simple questions that religious men and women have been so afraid to confront directly will not escape the rigor of modern thought and scholarship amidst such a broadly educated population. The main thing that has to be realized is that we don’t have to be afraid of losing our religion. If you were to lose your religion and gain an awe of God and a sincere commitment within yourself to obedience to the true God that no one can shake your Faith in and that science supports, isn’t that a good trade?

    The Pope’s remarks are a breath of fresh air to every optimist in the world. To think that we can enter an age of reason without the fear of losing Faith is a beautiful prospect indeed, and truly a sign of the kingdom here on earth.

    My personal view is that evil is a very real identity, underlying the reality we perceive, and that reality, just like God, is constituted in everything, including the lives of the Prophets, their teachings, and of course the people who pass on those teachings. What I mean to say is that there is no straight and narrow path besides that which is inscribed within our own souls and discoverable only through subtle thoughts and a dedication to the truth. And it’s made an even harder road to stay on when so much of the world wants us to accept one of two conflicting viewpoints instead of our own conscience.

    Now, I see many challenges in this: mainly a moral loosening and liberating that is mistaken for the true freedom that comes from obedience to God. The human being is a sensitive animal, and the soft inner moral tissue is even more sensitive. I see a major spiritual surgery taking place in the next decades, a cutting out of a lot of cancer and evil, but we have to be careful not to remove any essential organs from the wisdom that so many saints and prophets have fought to understand.

    • Michae! Magree, SJ says:


      Thanks for your post. I have to say that I think the syncretism that reduces all religions to a morality/mystery sandwich does not agree with my conscience. I think that it blurs real differences between the major religions. Especially for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, it is hard to separate their greatness from their uniqueness. Either Muhammad is the great, final prophet, or he is not. Jesus is either the unique manifestation of God, or he is not. It seems to me hard to separate these questions from the truth of these faiths.

      I think if we are talking about the Pope’s proposal, he’s not interested in blurring, but in opening up a genuine conversation, and, where possible, a shared experience of beauty and truth. I think this is a revolutionary proposal, but I think we disagree on just where it leads. Thanks again-
      in Christ-

      • Hi Michael,

        What I mean is that where these religions differ is always on a point that is open to contention and is, to be frank, passed on by indoctrination. For example, these great religions do not differ with regards to the moral truth of pre-marital sex being a sin, but as for whether or not Muhammad is the last and greatest prophet or Jesus was the manifestation of God, well we’ll just have to wait and see about all that, won’t we? So I don’t think these are good starting points when it comes to trying to open peoples’ hearts and minds to the mystery of God. I think to be truthful we have to accept the fact that the message of all the great prophets and religious teachers is too often obscured by religious dogma. Wasn’t that Jesus’ main point? And this is where we lose the 30-something professionals interested in the spiritual.

        My question is then, why can’t our Faith as a church be based on the same type of Faith in that when one throws an apple in the air, it is going to come back down? Then resting assured in that reality, continue until we realize that that same rigor that makes the apple always fall is in fact so sensitive to have power within our minds and hearts, and is not a simple law like gravity, but an actual higher consciousness that we can relate to through prayer? I guess my main theme and question is, what comes first? What is more important? Does a Faith in the Eucharist supersede Faith in God? I think not. I think that is what the Pope was getting at in talking about the atheists. He was pointing out that although they lacked religious training, God was just as actively working through some of them. I think it’s dangerous if we ever consider ourselves as the saved able to save others instead of accepting that we’re just as lost as anyone, searching. I think we need to concert on this, and that is where dialogue should start. Because if we don’t, we harden our hearts and fail to hear what the other great religions have to say, despite their dogma.

        It just seems to me that these obvious religious contentions always have more of a social-political motivation than actual pedagogical motivation. And I think this is exactly what Jesus hated.

  3. Shane says:

    I think you might also include in today’s “Court of the Gentiles” any of those people raised Catholic who now use prefixes like “lapsed,” “recovering,” “former,” “cultural,” etc to describe their Catholicism, but are still experiencing the presence of “the question of God” in their lives.

    Growing up Catholic (mass every sunday, altar boy, etc) but not spiritually convinced of the literal truth of the catechism, I found my education with the Jesuits (in my high school days) to be very restorative to my faith and affirming as a Catholic. I still look to the Jesuits (reading this blog is just one example of how I do that) for relief from the profound feeling of alienation I sometimes get when I compare my understanding of my faith and my relationship with God to that of other Catholics.

    • Amber says:

      Great post, what a fantastic idea Pope Benedict proposes.
      Shane, would you mind sharing a litle more on the alienation you feel comparing your faith/relationship with God to that of other Catholics? I ask only in order to grow as a help as opposed to hindrance to the fellow Catholics I meet in my parish and daily life…

      • Michae! Magree, SJ says:

        Amber and Shane – thanks for your comments.

        Shane, I agree that the people who consider themselves under the prefixes you mention should also be part of the conversation. I think that often the basis of the conversation has to be a sharing on the “question of God,” because so many former Catholics have bad experiences of sacraments. But the conversation with people who still consider themselves Catholic in any sense is going to be different from sharing with explicit agnostics or atheists.

        I’m glad to hear you’re getting something from this blog and still profiting from your experience in Jesuit schools!

  4. Qualis Rex says:

    The sad fact is, all once needs to do is walk through Prague to see the role and impact the the church had on the Czech republic throughout its history. Unfortunately, 2 generations of fierce oppression/repression under Communism (arguably the worst in the Soviet bloc, asrecounted in the book “the Flight of Sister Cecilia”) followed by a consumeristic culture has left an extreme void in the populace. However, if the People’s Republic of China is any indicator, the pendulum will indeed swing back in the direction of faith and belief in God, since consumerism is a very poor substitute. There are currently more Catholics (underground and above) in China than there are Communist party members.

    I agree with the Pope (may God bless him and grant him 100 years!) in that atheists and agnostics should not be singled out for evangelism, any more than anyone experiencing difficulties with their faith and not in communion with the church. I WILL say that I believe the best antidote for our current situation is a return to orthodoxy, tradition and legitimacy–starting with the liturgy. Moral relavitism and indifferentialism have become rampant within the Catholic church since the early 70’s. You can trace this squarely back to stripping the church of its role as sole arbitor of faith and morals and its physical and visible vestiges of faith.

    Were I a lesser man in faith (and many days I really feel I am) I would have become an atheist/agnostic the first time I saw a mass where liturgical dancers “performed” the homily, or a Halloween mass where everyone (including the EM’s and priest) are dressed in their favorite holiday costume. It really is not a far jump from ridiculousness to disbelief.

  5. Lina Reagor says:

    Excellent posting. I appreciate you posting that. I ask you accept my apology for my less good English Skills, I am from Portugal and English is somehat new to me.

  6. It’s refreshing to see the Pontiff return to the big
    questions of life, like who are we: collectively, and
    where are we headed, singularly (the Church-ed only?!)
    or collectively (the ignored, the excluded, the
    many strangers at the side of the road of life?!),
    but to me still not that different at core than
    the mysticism resident in Ignatian Spirituality,
    both in the Exercises and in the Constitutions,
    like the forgotten motif tradition of “The Perfect
    Fool” (for Christ!) that emulates Christ in the
    Praetorium, practised by the few, and not the many!

    Now current research by a Jungian Specialist,
    identifying 9 growth Archetypes towards the ultimate,
    ends with human behavioral profiling as ideal
    when “The Fool!” To this research, I countered that
    it exists! It is already both addressed and
    redressed in Theology. Only now psychology has
    caught up! But then, few in the pews know of this.
    And less in Subway Theology which incorporates all:
    all influenced by the Spirit, whether they know it
    or not, whether they acknowledge it or fight it,
    whether they find liberation in Revelation or
    in the moment of death like the thief on the cross:
    all mystery and all metaphysics which mere reason
    only toys with!

    So, yes bring on new expressions, new vocabulary,
    new concepts, but apply the Tradition that remains
    at core sound, fundamental but not Fundamentalist
    and always there for the taking, even once an
    atheist says “yes” I chose faith! Over ego!
    As Kierkegaard’s genius tells us: it is choice,
    and not magic!

    And Carl Jung’s absolutely profound words engage:
    “Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit!” (Bidden
    or not bidden, God comes, God enters our live!)

    That saying was placed over the main entrance-way
    to Jung’s residence. And is inscribed on his

    Peace beckons us all: may we follow, and may we
    in following, experience Its embrace!!!

  7. Twice Thinking says:

    I don’t know if you are aware of it but the Communist Party in China is only 5.5% of China’s population or 70 million…lest readers think Catholicism has grown immensely there. Wiki gives 13 million for the total of both Catholic groups which is still far below the small number of party members. One must realize that if Chinese young people become Catholic under the one child policy of their country, if they use NFP as Rome requires in serious situations, then if NFP fails after their first child, they face fines in some areas but forced abortion in other areas of mainland China and probably jail if they repeat this. I have never seen a Catholic essay anywhere deal with this.

  8. Qualis Rex says:

    Twice – yes, I am very aware. And I don’t know if you are aware, but anyone with a pulse can create or modify pages on wikipedia, so it’s not the best accademic source for information. In sum, people who only quote facts from it aren’t taken very seriously.

    I will state my sources for my comments; a 2006 article in National Geographic on Christianity in China and a 2008 article in the Maryknoll magazine. Catholicism has expanded enormously in several provinces, specifically with ethnic minorities (i.e. Tibetans). But because of the “unofficial” nature of the church, there are no real numbers and only estimates (which are quite higher than 13 million as per the sources I mention. The rise of Christianity in China is a modern day phenomenon and there was also an entire episode of a PBS series on China devoted to it. And once again, the number suggest there are over 111 million Christians (Protestant/Independent churches are by far the majority) in China, which would make it the 3rd largest Christian church in the world by population.

    As per your NFP jab, the church has been very clear on this subject.

  9. A church for agnostics? Why not?

    In San francisco it looks like the local jesuits have one for paganism….. Here is the article….

    Confessionals Out, Pagan Art Gallery In

    Oh boy. I don’t even know where to start with this one. This story is just a microcosm of so much that’s wrong with so many of our “Catholic” universities. The Jesuit run University of San Francisco has removed a number of confessionals and replaced them with a “pagan” art gallery.

    Yup. You read that right. And they say they’re doing it as a “testament to St. Ignatius of Loyola.” You know the St. Ignatius whose Exercises state:

    In consequence, having made a better Confession and being better disposed, one finds himself in condition and prepared to receive the Blessed Sacrament: the reception of which is an aid not only not to fall into sin, but also to preserve the increase of grace.
    Yeah. Good ol’ Iggy didn’t talk much about the benefit of gawking at pagan art before receiving the Blessed Sacrament. But maybe it was implied.

    You know it’s one thing to rip out the confessional. It’s another to blame St. Ignatius for it.

    The great California Catholic Daily writes:
    On November 3, 2008, the online newsletter of the Jesuit California province announced the opening of an art gallery in the eastern alcove of St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco.

    Said the newsletter, “St. Ignatius Church, a Jesuit parish in San Francisco, celebrated the opening of its new Manresa Gallery on September 18. Formed by four interior alcoves, which previously housed confessional boxes, the gallery is a permanent testament to St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Composition of Place… In keeping with Ignatius’ understanding that his Constitutions or governing rules for Jesuits would include old principles and new ones, the gallery’s philosophy is to include both traditional religious works and contemporary art in a series of changing exhibitions. Commissioned pieces will enhance the dialogue that take places on a larger scale within the ritual space of the church. Manresa Gallery is open on Sundays from 2 to 5 p.m. and by appointment.” The article was written by James R. Blaettler, S.J., Associate Pastor of St. Ignatius.

    A few weeks ago, I decided to go to St. Ignatius to take a look for myself. While the museum was closed, I was able to look through the windows to get a glimpse of what’s inside. It was a surprising experience to find an art gallery inside a Catholic Church. It became even stranger when the art displayed was not Christian, but pagan.
    Firstly, who calls them “confessional boxes?” Maybe they wanted to make them sound unpleasant like some sort of tool used in the Inquisition?

    The exhibition is called “The Arts of Java and Bali: Objects of Belief, Ritual and Performance.” So now instead of a confessional you’ve got a “hermaphroditic wooden figurine, with female breasts and a male erection. Another is a hairy demonic figure with a women’s face protruding from its mouth. Another is a brightly colored, scaled, demonic figure.”

    Confused? Don’t worry. Fr. James R. Blaettler, S.J., Associate Pastor of St. Ignatius is here to explain it all. Ready?

    Fr. Blaettler said, the motivation was to “enhance the dialogue that take places on a larger scale within the ritual space of the church.
    I don’t even know what that means. I honestly don’t.

    Now to be completely fair the church still retains one confessional. But I’d bet it doesn’t see a lot of use. Why would it when the school is sending the message to the students that hermaphroditic wooden figurines are more important than a confessional?

    • Michae! Magree, SJ says:


      I appreciate your interest, but I don’t really see the point of the article to which you link. Did you mean to denigrate any attempts to discuss the God question by means of art? I agree that from the info provided by the article, putting a statue of a Asian hermaphroditic fertility god in a Catholic Church doesn’t sound like a great idea. Yet that doesn’t mean that the entirety of that specific project is necessarily bad. What is more, it seems that generally one of the most important ways that believers and non-believers can be in dialogue is through art. I hope you would agree.
      Best, in Christ,

      • Beth says:

        I too wonder why you posted this article. Ugly or profane art is probably not the best means of evangelization. Beauty, on the other hand, in art or music or nature might be the perfect place to evangelize. Maybe this “Court of the Gentiles” could include, a guided tour of an art museum, a symphony concert, hiking in the mountains. Beauty is universal and could be the means of a dialogue about God, who is beauty. Of course, in order to have this dialogue, we, as Catholics, have to be aware ourselves of who God is, what is our relationship to him, is he present in every aspect of our lives (not just at the symphony) and why is this important? If we are able to answer these questions for ourselves then we can engage atheists and agnostics in dialogue.

      • Giovanni says:

        Every time I think that I have hit the bottom of the barrel with the modern Jesuits, I am yet amazed at how deep that bottom must truly be.

        Relativism in its highest form. The spirit of Vatican II shows its fruits yet again.

        May St. Ignatius pray for your soul young priest. I know I will.

      • Michae! Magree, SJ says:

        Dear Giovanni,

        I am genuinely confused by your post. You seem to call me a relativist, but you provide no evidence or quotes. In fact, if you read my comment above in reply to Brandon, I insist that genuine dialogue cannot happen unless we as Christians make clear our conviction that Christ is God. Notice also that I don’t defend installation of the art that Gregory discusses. If you consider this relativist, then we must disagree about what this word even means.

        Regardless, I am a sinner in need of your prayers, for which I thank you. I am not, however, a priest yet. Please add to your prayers that I become a good one someday.
        In Christ,

  10. Twice Thinking says:


    The NFP position could be turning converts away in China where it is dangerous to the very family unit (but we never count who we don’t convert)…. as the ancestral rites controversy did turn many away in the 17th century and Rome later in the 20th century did a 180 degree turn on the matter of the ancestral rites which then in the 17th century was clearly denounced by the Pope of that time.
    The Church is way unclear on birth control in the existential sense though she is crystal clear in the documentary sense. Are we a library or should people look at the behaviour of our Popes also on such issues?

    Existentially no recent Pope is even calling a worldwide synod to address dissent which is supposed to be homicidal in this case of the pill and the IUD for example. Yet no Pope stops a vacation or misses a concert at Castel Gandalfo or misses the blessing of a new church building…in order to call a synod and stop what is supposed to be mass murder. In fact no Pope proceeds to an ex cathedra encyclical whose purpose is to settle disturbed issues by definitions that are crystal clear and crystal clear authoritativly (HV was twice introduced at its press conference as non infallible by Monseignor Lambrushini).

    Unless perhaps Qualis, the Popes are less convinced than you at the existential level that this area is the same as if 90% of Catholics were murdering each week. They..the Popes… may know more of the history than you do: that only about 10 Popes out of 265 have ever written a thing about birth control (see footnote 4 of HV) and 29 Popes were in formal cooperation with the sterilization of young boys for the castrati system within the papal churches for singers….stopped by Leo XIII in 1878 but started by Sixtus V in 1589…..their singing filled the churches of Italy with Sunday Mass attendees and Benedict XIV is said to have kept it for that reason. You will not find the topic at new advent mysteriously. Birth control was denounced early in the church but so was soldiering since birth control was associated with prostitutes and soldering was associated with the Roman empire as it got more brutal. Now soldiering is again coming under Catholic scrutiny but was alright from Augustine til recently. To wiki….

    Wiki is as accurate as the individual who takes on that topic so that some articles are excellent, others partly so and others deficient. But you yourself while a critic of Wiki and the people who cite it….you had said that Catholics outnumbered party members and I can find no “legit” sources that say that. Let’s go to “legit” sources which implicitly may or may not contradict wiki on Catholics depending on what proportion Catholics are of the totals:

    Time Magazine Aug.20,2006….65 million Christians of all denominations above and below ground.,9171,1229123,00.html#ixzz0cDX2vGOo


    MSNBC 2009 80 million all types of Christians above and below ground


    Asia Times Aug 2007 100 million


    But to return to the point of the thread of evangelizing the non believer, my “jab” at NFP is most sound and I see no one in the Church at least admitting: that to accept Catholicism in China for a young couple means that they are signing on to a life of radical insecurity which can mean fines of 10 times their yearly income or it can mean the wife being taken and forced to have an abortion and it can surely mean the destruction of family units by prison or desertion. Whereas some pro life people here are trying to say that contraception intrinsically leads to abortion; in China, NFP leads extrinsically to abortion and to the breakup of the family….if it is obeyed at all and I think not since if they were obeying, it would be trumpeted by pro life people here and very loudly. I don’t hear such.

  11. Henry A says:

    Dear Fr. Michael,

    Thank you for your questions and for the great blog, which I read often. I was also struck by the same phrases: “The first step of evangelization” and “Court of the Gentiles.”

    I believe, and I am certain, that Christ has shown us what the phrases should concretely look like in reality by creating the ecclesial lay movement Communion and Liberation.

    Why do I say that?

    Because that “something that comes first” was always of utmost importance for the late Msgr. Luigi Giussani, the founder of CL; and it is the primary concern of the current president of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, Fr. Julian Carron. This extract from Fr. Giussani’s book “At the Origin of the Christian Claim” and the text of the 2006 Spiritual Exercises (“You Live for Love of Something Happening Now”) preached by Fr. Carron is, in my opinion, a concrete example of a way that Christ is making the phrase “The first step of evangelization” concrete:

    It would be impossible to grasp fully what Jesus Christ means without first grasping the nature of that dynamics that makes man man. For Christ presents Himself as an answer to what “I” am, and only an attentive, tender and impassioned awareness of who “I” am can open me up and dispose me to acknowledge, to admire, to thank and to live Christ. …Without this awareness [tender and impassioned, of who “I” am], even Jesus Christ is merely a name.”

    We normally tend to be dialectical: if we speak of the heart, of the “I,” we seem to leave Christ aside; and if we speak of Christ, then we seem to exclude the heart.

    Regarding the unarticulated question: what would a modern “Court of the Gentiles” look like? I believe that the annual week-long public cultural festival, the Rimini Meeting for Friendship Among Peoples, the Crossroads Cultural Center, the New York Encounter and the weekly gesture called “School of Community” are concrete examples of modern day “court’s of the Gentiles.” They are public events open to anyone!

    I realize that Christ has generated other methods and charisms in the Church, but CL is the one that helped me (a former Zen Buddhist) to recognize that Christ is a present Presence that daily activates and fulfills the deepest desires of my heart.

    Thank you again for the blog.


    Henry A.

    • Michae! Magree, SJ says:

      Dear Henry,

      Thanks so much for your comments. I’m delighted that you enjoy the blog.

      I am also very happy that you brought up Communion and Liberation (CL) as one area where the Pope’s hope is already actively being pursued. I was thinking of CL also when I read the Pope’s words, and I even referred someone to the upcoming New York Encounter in a facebook discussion about this blog post. In my small acquaintance with CL (mostly through my family, who are very much involved), I have been struck exactly by the point you mention and quote – CL is based around the conviction that we can’t understand what it means for me that Christ became man, unless we start to take our humanity seriously! And this question of what it means to be human is precisely where we can be in conversation with all human beings.

      Thanks again for sharing what this movement has meant for you. I pray that it can be a place of encounter for others as well. in Christ,

      p.s. Henry,
      None of us working on this blog are ordained yet, so no need to address me as “Father”. In formal address, Jesuits called to priesthood go by “Mr” up until ordination. In the casual forum of this blog, please feel free to call me Michael. pax- MCMsj

  12. Qualis Rex says:

    Twice thinking, once again your modernist rants are falling on deaf ears. Christianity is not an “easy” religion. The early converts were faced with martyrdom at the hands of the Roman Empire, and yet they still converted. While you may wish to use the draconian policies of the Communist PRC government as an excuse to forego the NFP stance of the church, I will remind you that the church will outlast the Communists in China as it did in Europe…and it will outlast your opinions as well.

  13. Henry A - with summa citation says:

    Thank you Michael for your encouragement and your support of the charism.

    Fellow writers, I’d like to share my experience with the hope that my sharing of how Christ grabbed me might be of some help, especially since we are trying to better understand this beautiful and mysterious phrase: “The first step of evangelization”.

    I grew up without a faith and I was, quite honestly, absolutely indifferent to questions about God, etc. In my teens I started studying martial arts and thus became a Zen Buddhist. Simultaneously, I attended both an art high school and an art college and thus I have personally imbibed almost every “ism” you can well imagine.

    Nevertheless, while at college a friend, who was a film major, asked me to go with him to see a movie “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” becuase he liked thought the director was great. Well, the movie is an absolutely horrible movie, from an artistic and theological point-of-view and yet, and yet I was struck by St. Francis (I wouldn’t have been able to tell you why at the time, especially since I loved being a Zen Buddhist).

    The next day, I found, on top of a garbage pail, a flyer that said – “Come to the Church of St. Francis if you are interested in learning about the Catholic Faith.” Imagine that, on the top of a garbage pail!!! So I went because I wanted to learn more about St. Francis.

    After studying for a year with the priest, who is probably the most orthodox Franciscan (excluding Fr. Groeschel) that I have ever met, he went around the class to ask if anyone was interested in being baptized. When he got to me, I said no and he asked me why? And I answered: because what you Catholics believe is nonsense. Imagine, I was 23 years old at the time and we had already become good friends.

    How did he respond: “I see you have questions, so let’s meet once a week to discuss your questions.” And what did I study? Everything – the Catechism of the Council of Trent, the Summa, the Baltimore Catechism, The Fathers, the writings of the saints and mystics, various magisterial documents…in short, almost anything written prior to and slightly after Vatican II. For how long, another two years, which was the time it took me to believe that Christ was truly God incarnate and that the Catholic Church is the one True Church.

    I am sharing this with you because I want you to know that if Fr. McDonald (may he rest in peace) had started calling me a relativist, modernist, pagan, etc., (all terms, by the way, which would have truthfully described my situation at the time) I probably would not be a Catholic today (I say probably because Christ overcomes any obstacle!).

    So, while it can be true that a person is a pagan, heretic, liberal, etc., I do not believe, because of my own experience, that the most effective way to show a person the magnetic Beauty of Christ is to reduce him or her to a label. Why do I say that? Because doing so forgets that the person in front of you (whether virtually or not) is kept in existence by Christ precisely becuase He loves him/her and hopes and desires that they will love Him in return with their whole heart. For it’s that act that allows Him to “save” him or her.

    Lastly, I believe that the great St. Thomas Aquinas, in his discussion on Fraternal Correction stated that prudence and charity dictates that if we believe that a sinner will be hardened in their sin that we must wait for an opportune time to offer our fraternal correction. (I do not have the citation of where this can be found or I am remembering the wording exactly and so I will provide that information later). Note, St. Thomas doesn’t say that we shouldn’t correct (with love) our errant brother or sister, but that we must wait for the Lord to show us the opportune time. (And, IMHO, many of the writers are trying to allude to this.)

    Blessing to all the writers!


    Henry A

    P.S. here’s a citation from the Summa but the actual one I am thinking of will follow later:

    “Article 6. Whether one ought to forbear from correcting someone, through fear lest he become worse?”

    Objection 3. Further, according to the Apostle (Romans 3:8) we should not do evil that good may come of it. Therefore, in like manner, good should not be omitted lest evil befall. Now fraternal correction is a good thing. Therefore it should not be omitted for fear lest the person corrected become worse.

    Reply to Objection 3. Whatever is directed to end, becomes good through being directed to the end. Hence whenever fraternal correction hinders the end, namely the amendment of our brother, it is no longer good, so that when such a correction is omitted, good is not omitted lest evil should befall.

    From New Advent cite: Summa Theologica > Second Part of the Second Part > Question 33

    • Qualis Rex says:

      Hello Henry, and welcome home! My Franciscan friends and I always have this debate about “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”. It was a call to “spirituality” in its time, but it was written, developed and produced by Protestants. Hence their very anticlerical view (i.e. the bad theology you described). St Francis means so many different things to so many different people who often adopt him as their personal role-model to justify whatever type of behavior, lifestyle, call to spirituality they are championing.

      St Ignatius on the other hand was pretty cut-and-dry, with little room for debate on what he championed. I often wonder if he is in heaven scratching his head.

      • Henry A says:

        Thank you Qualis Rex. No gift compares to the gift of Faith and I will always be grateful to Christ for “invading” (in the positive sense) my life with His love and mercy! What you say about St. Francis is sadly true and I, in many ways, feel so sorry for him because so many trim him down to support their ideological position. The real St. Francis is so different – and richer – than the popular and/or distorted image of him!

  14. Twice Thinking says:


    The early martyrs died for beliefs that were de fide and largely from the Bible itself (non de fide ordinary magisterium tradition was little then). I know of no martyr that died for the problematic that Popes existentially do not even work on… on an ongoing basis despite great dissent rates.

    Do you think birth control in the Bible? Read Onan again and notice that in the NAB he did the act repeatedly and was only killed after a time which infers that his willing of no children at all forever was the real problem and not the act which the old translation focused on due to its being done once only in that translation….sacrilege was thus the sin since Christ had to come from one of these four men and if Onan spilled his seed each time, then Christ could not be born from Tamar and she could not move on to the next brother until Onan died so God killed him and Tamar is in the later genealogy and Revelations says that Christ was the Lion of Judah. So Onan was actually guilty of something worse than any sexual sin imaginable: he was guilty of risking the non appearance of Christ…inadvertently probably but God killed Uzzah for inadvertently trying to steady the ark with excellent intentions.

    Judah and Tamar sin as to fornication and incest respectively in the same story and go unpunished atll…at all by God… because from front to back in the bible, God kills intimately one on one only for sacrilege: Ananias Act 5/Herod Acts 12 etc. Do the research and note that not all writers agreed with Augustine on this being about birth control. St. Alphonsus Ligouri did not and he in the 18th and 19th century was the standard in moral theology while Augustine faded due to his being liked by both Jansenists and by Protestants…though fellow Catholics used ad hominems against Ligouri for other matters while he was alive in the 17th century…much like you use them in both your first post and your last.

    Germain Grisez and Ermenigildo Lio are almost the only two well known theology names that think the issue of birth control infallibly settled. You’ll notice no Pope punished Rahner and Haring for public dissent and what follows will explain why.
    Humanae Vitae still merits the religious submission of mind and will of Lumen Gentium 25 unless one dissents with sincere prayerful struggle. That last concept is little known to laity but is in all good Catholic moral theology tomes which no one reads but priests do …since in stores for the laity they are rare or expensive.

    You will find in the very conservative “Christian Moral Principles” of Germain Grisez himself on pages 850-854 the concept and that book was imprimatured for seminaries after Lumen Gentium 25’s “religious submission of mind and will”. As Yves Congar had noted…council statements are often incomplete and Grisez’ book and others often complete the concept of religious submission of mind and will with its other half (struggled sincere dissent) while clericalism within the Church tends to sequester it let us say… much like the concept of Epikeia is sequestered from the laity for their entire lifetimes unless they read voluminously despite its being a large theme as to the disciples breaking the Sabbath rules in the gospel.

    Without “religious submission”‘s other half in certain centuries, you would have erred greatly following some Popes. If you had religious submission of mind and will to Ex Surge Domine in 1520 by Pope Leo X, then you condemned Luther as “against the Catholic Faith” for being against “burning heretics at the stake” at least then… but your religious submission of mind and will would have been rebuked for doing so in our time by the Church both in section 80 of “Splendor of the Truth” which condemned torture and in John Paul II’s “Toward the Third Mellenium” where he apologized for the coercion of the Church in times past in religious matters. Are you beginning to see how the mimetic version of Catholicism does not work if you actually know tradition in detail. You are too little on content and large on rude terms like “modernist rant”.

    More well known theologians in Europe said no…birth control is not infallibly settled even in the ordinary magisterium…including the editor of the “Enchiridion Symbolorum”….Karl Rahner… which is one of the highest dogmatic roles within Catholicism. “Humanae Vitae” was introduced at its press conference twice as non infallible by Msgr. Lambrushini who must have had Paul VI’s injunction to so announce it despite Ermenigildo Lio later coming up with something that heavily depends on his and Brian Harrison’s creative imaginations of what happened behind the scenes…an oft found conservative technique of bonding with Popes without the Popes knowing it.

    No martyr I ever read about died for the non infallible. Should you be sacrificing others in foreign countries on what Lambrushini said was non infallible at HV’s press conference. As time went on tradition grew and sometimes tradition was erroneous. Let’s hope no one died for Gratian’s “all that is beyond principal is usury” which was eternalized for 800 years in the decretals. Calvin knew it was incorrect in 1545 but Luther didn’t… and we then knew in the Vatican between 1822 and 1830’s that it was incorrect.

    And read way more. I believe you are using ad hominems like “modernist rants” as a substitute for actual reading. Check your posts. There is little content that depends on reading but perhaps you are young or a new convert.

  15. Qualis Rex says:

    Twice I am a cradle Catholic. And I can smell modernists and liberals a mile a way. Thank you for your invitation to read, but I have my own reading list. And if you are asking me to take your little opinions over the teaching of the church, well, then I think you may have severe dillusions here. The subject of this thread was “Church for Agnostics” which you have repugnantly hijacked for your own windmill fight. So, this will be my last post to you here on this thread and on this website.

  16. Henry A says:

    While debates are interesting and vital, they often, in my experience, quickly denigrate into a war with each person hell bent on winning no matter what. So, for Christ’s sake, let’s remember that we can proclaim the Truth – which for us is a Person and not a concept – without having to belittle our “opponent.” I don’t know if there is a way to take the battle “off line” but if there is, please consider doing so because, keeping in mind the theme of the post, we have definitely strayed from it long ago.

    Now, when I was studying moral theology and learned about things like “double effect”, “epikeia”, etc., I was surprised and awed by the wisdom by the Church – which of course, I should not have been because I had been taught that Christ and the Church are one.

    While I strongly believe there are merits to both the “man-in-relationship-to-law” model and the “restless-heart-toward-God” model of moral theology, they do seem to be bitterly opposed. So how do we break through this conundrum? I think a clue is found in a phrase in Deus Caritas Est: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

    Now, this quote obviously presupposes a taboo word: Obedience. While there are many aspects of obedience, at bottom, I believe that any definition must take into account that it involves using our freedom to acknowledge that Christ’s plan is better than ours.

    It’s late, I’m tired, and so this sinner is going to bed.



  17. Twice Thinking says:

    “Christ and the Church” were not “one” on countless issues like the inquisition throughout history and hence obedience is not a simplistic issue. The Church needed disobedience at certain times throughout history and it got mass conformism instead. You see it today. Young priests in 1952 said yes to Pius XII affirming the death penalty and 40 years later the same priests acquieced silently when John Paul II called it “cruel” in St. Louis in 1999. That is the abscence of self respect…not obedience. Health in a Church would have been at least 10 Cardinals our of the many publically disagreeing with John Paul II. Arnold Toynbee, the macro historian, admired Catholicism and yet saw Catholicism as having aspects of an arrested culture due to an excess of the mimetic.

    • Henry A says:

      Dear Twice Thinking,

      Your reply beautifully points out that the problem of the Church is exactly the problem of the “incarnation” because the Church’s most specific claim is not just that it is the vehicle of the divine, but that the Divine works through the human reality we call the Church. This is the crux of the problem: a human phenomenon claiming to be the bearer of the divine, whereby, through the Church’s presence in human history, the problem Christ raised is re-proposed in all its scandal. Thus the Church challenges our history, just as Christ challenged his own time.

      I certainly agree that obedience is not a simplistic issue but did I give you the impression that I believe that “obedience” is the same thing as “submission”? Do you? I personally do not believe that and that’s why I wrote: “while there are many aspects of obedience, at bottom, I believe that any definition must take into account that it involves using our freedom to acknowledge that Christ’s plan is better than ours.”

      I intentionally phrased it that way because my concept of obedience is linked to love rather than power. And that makes a world of difference!

      You’ve raised some very good points and I’d like to discuss them with you further but not in this forum – afterall, this in not our blog and I do not think we should highjack it for our own private discussion. So, if you agree, I suggest we discuss the points “off line” and all we have to do is figure out a way to do that. What I propose is that we both write to the “blog” coordinators and give them permission to pass along our e-mail addresses to each other – agreed?



  18. Twice Thinking says:

    No I’ll keep that email private having had a theology debater actually hack somehow into my unlisted phone number one time and call… and at that it was an unlisted number under my wife’s maiden name only. But God be with you. As long as you see the problem of massive conformism which by the way is partly financial dependency. Justice Scalia was the only Catholic to protest the new morphing of the death penalty position and he has a salary outside Catholicism; John T. Noonan Jr. has deeply found holes in our white washing versions of history (check new advent on Pizarro as victim in Peru…lol…then read Niall Ferguson’s best seller..”The Ascent of Money”)…and he…Noonan… too earns his keep as a Federal judge and so is not dependent on Catholics for survival money. Adieu.

  19. Jay Hooks says:


    Thanks for your post.

    I have many friends and acquaintances who are open to the idea of faith in “a higher power” but are unable to explore or concretize these intuitions. Many of them say of themselves, “I am agnostic.” But in my conversations with them, I sense an introductory clause that goes unsaid and that changes the landscape of the “agnostic” label considerably. It would probably go something like this: “In the absence of means to explore and deepen an enduring sense that I stand in relation to something-greater-than-myself… (I am agnostic).” Other friends conclude that they are atheists, but their reasoning sometimes rests on images of God and religion that no informed Catholic would accept. So I agree that the Church should feel an urgency to develop its “dialogue with those to whom religion is something foreign”. Without a doubt, “the Gentiles” continue to be curious, and they continue to dialogue amongst themselves about topics of spirituality. The Church stands in a good position to contribute positively to the conversation.

    The mere fact that blogs like yours exist is a step in the right direction. The Pope seems to agree:

    “A pastoral presence in the world of digital communications, precisely because it brings us into contact with the followers of other religions, non-believers and people of every culture, requires sensitivity to those who do not believe, the disheartened and those who have a deep, unarticulated desire for enduring truth and the absolute. Just as the prophet Isaiah envisioned a house of prayer for all peoples (cf. Is 56:7), can we not see the web as also offering a space – like the “Court of the Gentiles” of the Temple of Jerusalem – for those who have not yet come to know God?”

    I took this quote from Whispers in the Loggia. Here’s the link to the full text of the Holy Father’s speech:

    This is a tough project, but one that is worth our time, prayer, and energy. Thanks for your work!


  20. What you can do for these people is have confidence in God. Would God separate a good person from God? What about a bad person? If God is harmful to people because they do not understand, or any other reason, what does that say about God.

    In the new testament text one thing is very clear, Jesus sought forgiveness for his peers. Those who brutally murdered him, even as he agonized and died, on his cross. Sin does not harm Gods concern for us. We can not escape God and God does not harm us.

    When we have the likes of Hitler, Pol Pot, or just the average jerk who would harm you, for no apparent reason, we do not need to fear Satan. I mention Satan because a harmful God is Satan. Who else could it be?

    Satan is just the boggy man. As is our flesh Satan is only temporal and only wields influence. We choose to be as we are and God accepts us as we are.

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