I noted at the beginning of my series on the “new atheists” (Contra Dennett 1, 2, and 3) that Pope Paul VI entrusted the Society of Jesus with the mission of combating atheism in the modern world. At least one commenter questioned just how effective the Jesuits—and the institutions calling themselves “Jesuit”—have been in answering the Holy Father’s challenge. That’s a fair question, one which might even prompt our least Society to do a bit of soul-searching.
I thought, therefore, it might be useful to reprint Pope Paul’s charge, which came at the outset of the Order’s 31st General Congregation in 1965. The Pope’s exhortation begins by praising the contributions Jesuits have historically made to the Church, mentioning Church Doctors St. Peter Canisius and St. Robert Bellarmine. Pope Paul’s tone is confident, speaking of the Society as the Church’s “most devoted sons.” The laudatory preamble heightens the importance of the substance of the Holy Father’s challenge:
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.
Pope Paul goes on to underline the priority that is to be given to this task as a mission from the Holy Father in light of the Jesuits’ fourth vow.
It should be obvious enough by my bringing up Pope Paul’s special mission that I think the charge to combat atheism has lost none of its relevance. Indeed, what might at the time have seemed exaggerated concern over the spread of atheism now appear to have been prophetic.
Have we risen to the challenge? This is a question I pose not only to Jesuits themselves but also to our collaborators and to those who look to Jesuit and various Ignatian traditions for inspiration. Have we used the tools of discernment handed on to us by Ignatius to unmask atheism’s masquerades or have we unthinkingly gone along with what the world labels as “progress”? Have we been too quick to brush aside the hard work and, indeed, combat entrusted to us by the Holy Father with the excuse that “everything I do combats atheism”? Have we become so caught up in ecclesiastical civil war that we have failed to notice the legions of genuine enemies overrunning our borders?
Regardless of how we answer these questions, it is obvious that atheism has grown in the West over the past decades. In religious surveys, a greater percentage of people profess no religion or are avowedly atheists; the media and entertainment industries have become more overtly hostile to religion; and the new atheists, if neither creative nor particularly coherent, are both confident and aggressive. They clearly see themselves on the march. Increasingly, traditional Christian moral principles can no longer take even legal toleration for granted.
While it is true that the evidence seems to show that our efforts thus far have not been adequate, this does not mean that the mission is lost. In fact, the crude boldness of the neo-atheists is itself a source of hope. As Pope Benedict writes in Jesus of Nazareth (Part II): “Across the centuries, it is the drowsiness of the disciples that opens up possibilities for the power of the Evil One” (153). It may have been easier for past generations to succumb to such drowsiness, but what were warnings on the lips of Paul VI are today manifest realities. Slumber is no longer a possibility, but it is never too late to take up the good fight under Michael’s banner.