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Vatican II on Atheism: A More Fruitful Dialogue

Pope Paul VI

Welcome to the second post in my little series 'Vatican II on atheism'. As noted last time, according to at least one reputable commentator, the Council's primary statement on the subject "may be counted among [its] most important pronouncements". In future posts, we'll be looking at Gaudium et Spes 19-21, as well as the separate statement on salvation in Lumen Gentium 14-16, in some details. So - let's face it—we've all got plenty of exegetical fun to look forward to. This post, though, will be rather different. Its purpose is to set the scene, to explain the contexts out of which GS 19-21 and LG 14-16 grew. Think of it as being akin to a classic "How the Gang Got Together" episode.

Fact is, atheism could easily not have featured in the conciliar literature at all. The Council opened in October 1962. By the start of the Third Session, two years later, the most any of the draft documents had to say on the subject was a passing mention of "errors which spring from materialism, especially from dialectical materialism or communism" in the so-called 'Schema XIII'. Just 15 months before the close of the Council, then, one of "the most serious matters of our time"—as Schema XIII (i.e., the ultimate Gaudium et Spes) would come to describe it—wasn't looking quite so serious after all.

A combination of two things changed that: the bishops, and the Pope (which, incidentally, is exactly the right combination you want making things happen at an Ecumenical Council).

Among many other criticisms of the Schema XIII draft as a whole, its ignoring of atheism was time and again singled out in the bishops' plenary discussions. On the very first day of debate, the Chilean Cardinal Silva Henríquez spoke of "the need for dialogue with contemporary humanism", urging that "The Church must try to comprehend atheism, to examine the truths which nourish this error, and to be able to correspond its life and doctrine to these aspirations." The next day, the Belgian Cardinal Suenens had this to say:

"Atheism is certainly a terrible error...it would be too easy simply to condemn it. It is necessary to examine why so many men profess themselves to be atheists, and whom precisely is this 'God' they so sharply attack. Thus dialogue should be begun with them so that they may seek and recognize the true image of God who is perhaps concealed under the caricatures they reject. On our part, meanwhile, we should examine our way of speaking of God and living the faith, lest the sun of the living God is darkened for them." [These are my translations from the official Acta; for full translations of the speeches, see Peter Hebblethwaite, The Council Fathers and Atheism: The Interventions at the Fourth Session of Vatican Council II (New York: Paulist Press, 1967)]

Taking these comments (and many more on other topics) on board, the Council Fathers duly sent Schema XIII away to be rewritten. A new version—the so-called 'Ariccia text' for Vatican II buffs—was circulated the following summer, and met with much greater, general approval in the September 1965 debates. But yet again, the Fathers proved sticklers when it came to the statement on atheism; though much improved, it still wasn't up to scratch.

In the most powerful of the critiques, the Melkite Cardinal Maximos Saigh warned that atheists "are often scandalized by the sight of a mediocre and egoistical Christendom absorbed by money and false riches", adding: "is it not the egotism of certain Christians which has caused, and causes to a great extent, the atheism of the masses?" In the end, the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, Franz König, suggested that—with the close of the Council only months away—a whole new statement on atheism should be written from scratch. Helpfully, he offered the services of the newly-created Secretariat for Non-believers for this eleventh-hour mission. Which brings us nicely to Pope Paul VI...

Paul was the second of Vatican II's popes, having been elected following the death of John XXIII in June 1963. The following August, he published his first encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, in order to show how and why the Church and the world, as he rather sweetly puts it, "should meet together, and get to know and love one another" (art. 3). 'Dialogue' is the great watchword here, and much attention is given to the value of improving relationships with both non-Catholic Christian communities, and the other world religions. Crucially, atheists are not ignored either.

Paul's opening gambit might not, I readily admit, exactly warm the cockles of the hearts of my atheist friends here at Strange Notions. However, my aim here is not to 'cherry pick' the enticing, welcoming bits of the Church's engagement with unbelief (like you wouldn't see straight through that, right?). So here is what he actually says:

"Many [today] subscribe to atheism in one of its many different forms. They parade their godlessness, asserting its claims in education and politics, in the foolish and fatal belief that they are emancipating mankind from false and outworn notions about life and the world and substituting a view that is scientific and up to date. This is the most serious problem of our time. [...] Any social system based on these principles is doomed to utter destruction. Atheism, therefore, is not a liberating force, but a catastrophic one, for it seeks to quench the light of the living God." (Ecclesiam Suam, 99, 100)

There are a good few paragraphs more in this vein, for those wanting to read them. It becomes clear that the communist regimes of the Soviet Union and elsewhere—and the sufferings of Christians at their hands—are a large part of what Paul has in mind here. But I won't pretend that he explicitly confines his remarks to them alone.

In a certain sense, the above remarks make what Paul goes on to say about atheists all the more significant.

"We see these men serving a demanding and often a noble cause, fired with enthusiasm and idealism, dreaming of justice and progress [...] They are sometimes men of great breadth of mind, impatient with the mediocrity and self-seeking which infects so much of modern society. They are quick to make use of sentiments and expressions found in our gospel, referring the brotherhood of man, mutual aid, and human compassion. Shall we not one day be able to lead them back to the Christian sources of these moral values?" (Ecclesiam Suam, 104)

In my own atheist days, I suppose that I would have found something patronising and presumptuous in those words, not least on the subject of meta-ethics (and perhaps a part of me still does). I like to think, though, that I would have recognized at least as much sincerity and goodwill on the Pope's behalf (however much I thought him misguided on major points), as he is willing to grant to those unbelievers dreaming of 'justice and progress' (however much he thinks them misguided on major points). What do you think?

Paul ends his comments on atheism by expressing hope for "the eventual possibility of a dialogue between these men and the Church, and a more fruitful one than is possible at present" (art. 105). This hope was evidently a sincere one. Eight months later, in April 1965, the Vatican newspaper quietly announced Paul's creation of a Secretariat for Non-Believers. As its new secretary explained to Vatican Ratio, its purpose was not only to study atheism, but also "to organize groups of priests and lay people who will be well prepared to enter into a dialogue with atheists, should the occasion arise" (quoted in my The Salvation of Atheists, p. 70). As its president, Cardinal König, used playfully to point out, the Secretariat was named for non-believers, and not against them.

As mentioned earlier, it was the Secretariat's consultors who ended up drafting Vatican II's Gaudium et Spes 19-21. It's this we'll being looking at next time around. I made a point in my last post, though, of ending with a quotation from an actual atheist. While I doubt I'll manage to maintain that tradition for the whole series, here's another one.

It comes from a letter I dug up in the Secretariat's archives, now housed at the Pontifical Council for Culture, about five years ago. It was written by Tolbert H. McCarroll, Executive Director of the American Humanist Association, to Cardinal König, and is dated just five days after the Secretariat was formally announced. McCarroll welcomes this fact, explains a bit about the AHA (enclosing some literature), and cordially invites members of the Secretariat to meet with humanist representatives in the Netherlands that summer. He ends with sentence:

"This letter would not be closed without reference to the late Pope John XXIII. We may differ in our opinion as to the source of his humane concern, but we can join together in our admiration of this great model of humanity."

Pope Paul's desire for a "more fruitful dialogue" seemed like it might come true rather sooner than he had hoped.
(Image credit: Crisis Magazine)

Stephen Bullivant

Written by

Dr. Stephen Bullivant is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at St Mary's University, England. A former atheist, he studied philosophy and theology at Oxford University, and converted to Catholicism while completing his doctorate on Vatican II and the salvation of unbelievers. In 2010, he was the first non-American to receive the "LaCugna Award for New Scholars" from the Catholic Theological Society of America. Stephen writes and speaks extensively on the theology and sociology of atheism, and the new evangelization. He recent books include Faith and Unbelief (Canterbury Press, 2013; Paulist Press, 2014), and (co-edited with Michael Ruse) The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (Oxford University Press, 2013). His latest book is called The Trinity: How Not to Be a Heretic (Paulist Press, 2015).

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  • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

    I find this very encouraging. It would be a better world if all people could come together across boundaries of nation or creed and serve those goals common to humanity, of peace, health, freedom, prosperity and education. Catholics had a big role to play in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml

    Wherever our beliefs are united, we should work together. Wherever our beliefs are divided, we should argue passionately and always peacefully.

  • Danny Getchell

    Stephen, when you get to Gaudium et Spes, I hope you'll deal with the statement that -

    "Still, she [the Church] strives to detect in the atheistic mind the hidden causes for the denial of God."

    - as you expect an atheist to receive it.

    • Stephen Bulivant

      Will do!

  • Peter Piper

    Thanks for this insight into an interesting bit of recent history about which I am entirely ignorant. I'm looking forward to finding out more as the series progresses.

    • Stephen Bulivant


  • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

    There a lot of mixing of atheism, humanism and secularism here. These are all very different. I do find it patronizing to hear that atheism is the most serious problem of the time but that the Church will consider engagement rather than just condemning us.

    I see nothing here that would represent the kind of approach that I think most of us here would expect, such as an acknowledgment that atheists can be moral good people and some openness to consider the other side's argument.

    • Stephen Bulivant

      Couple of points... Firstly, the above really is more like Vatican II's 'first word' on engaging with atheism more seriously, rather than its last word. I'm not saying that you'll like what's to come any better, just that there *is* a lot more to come. Like I say, this is akin to a 'how the gang got together episode'. Secondly, I think that there *is* acknowledgement 'that atheists can be moral good' [e.g., in the second block quotation from Pope Paul] and 'some openness to consider the other side's argument' [in the setting up a Secretariat to enter into dialogue with atheists, and in the comments quoted from the Council Fathers'] here. Like I say, though, there's more to come.

  • picklefactory

    In the most powerful of the critiques, the Melkite Cardinal Maximos Saigh warned that atheists"are often scandalized by the sight of a mediocre and egoistical Christendom absorbed by money and false riches".

    I find that very insightful and self-reflective of His Eminence; that sums up my reaction upon visiting the Vatican a couple years ago quite well.

    • josh

      I think that 'mediocre and egoistical Christendom' can certainly be a contributing factor for a lot of people. But it is also kind of a dodge to put everything on that. Not that I expect the Catholic hierarchy to ever admit it. It's another one of those systems that can only be failed, to believers it can never fail of itself.

      Arrogance and venality by this or that priest look bad, but it's self-deceiving to think that otherwise everyone would find the Church a model institution. As documented in these comments sections, there is an almost endless supply of problems in the teachings and fundamental assertions of Catholicism. If Catholics want atheists to feel that there is any kind of fruitful dialogue to be had, they will have to acknowledge that our objections are more than just an image problem to be solved with better marketing.

      • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

        "Arrogance and venality by this or that priest look bad, but it's self-deceiving to think that otherwise everyone would find the Church a model institution."

        Except this is not what the pope said. He didn't say "everyone"; he said "often." And from my own experience, he's right. I've personally met scores of inactive Catholics who reject the Church because of sinful Catholics they've encountered, be they priests, Church leaders, or other laypeople.

      • picklefactory

        I was not scandalized exactly, but at least alarmed by the Catholic hierarchy's resistance to secularism and pluralism, not to mention their authoritarianism, way before I went to Europe. So I'm certainly not putting everything on that.

        It's just that as an American I am used to them being one religion among the various others that I encounter, not the vast, wealthy, powerful institution that they still are. Before I went to France and Italy I had the impression Protestantism was a mere theological dispute. Now I see the Reformation as a kind of civil war.

        • josh


          Oh absolutely, people are rightly exercised about the problems with the Catholic Church here and now as it actually exists. It's just that the official word tends to be 'that was the action of a few bad apples' or 'we never claimed to be perfect, all men are fallen, blah, blah.' There is no acknowledgement I'm aware of that there could be systemic problems in the foundations of the Church, or that atheists have fundamental intellectual criticisms that can't be blamed on a 'bad' priest.

          • picklefactory

            I certainly did notice that on the "How to Win an Argument with a Catholic" post, yes. Good events are attributable to the moral teachings of Catholicism. Bad events are attributable to the fallen nature of the individual sinners.

          • Rick DeLano

            It has never been a teaching of the Church that Her members are impeccable; quite to the contrary.

            The existence of homosexual pederast networks in the Church is a completely appalling dereliction of duty on the part of the prelates, for which we are paying a terrible price.

            But a reading of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians will show that the Church is and has always been a place of sinners, and a place where sinners are healed.

            It's a hospital, a spiritual emergency room.

            It ain't pretty.

            But it is holy.

          • Paul Boillot

            "By their fruits ye shall know them."

            Your arguments explain so much that they explain nothing. Telling us that the living horror of a child's most sacred trust being broken is analogous to the chaos and dangerous action in a hospital's operating room is ... un-compelling.

            The RCC could literally be the worst institution on the face of the planet, and yet your arguments would suffice to justify it as "sure it's bad, but it's the way to salvation."

          • Rick DeLano

            The Catholic Church is the single greatest civilizing institution in human history. She created Europe. She is the greatest source of charity in human history. She spread the university and the hospital, science and Classical art. And She has done so in the face of members as evil and depraved as the homosexualist pederast freaks who have infiltrated her, and, worse, the prelates who have covered for them.

            There is one institution which will prevail, and it ain't the US.

            Or the UN.

            There is nothing you can do, Paul. She has already come under the judgement of Her Lord and it will be terrible. But She will endure to the end of the world, and She will endure for all eternity.

          • Paul Boillot

            There's nothing I can do, Rick?!?

            About what?

            I would fight for your right to believe whatever you want to believe, no matter how much your beliefs seem cultish to me.

            Europe? I imagine the landmass was there before Saint Paul began preaching to the gentiles. As to the RCC's place in the constellation of factors which contributed to the Europe we know today, of course it had a large part. So did Cholera, Rats, Crop Rotation, the Mediterranean, domesticated animals.... Have you read Guns, Germs, and Steel yet? If not, you might want to do so asap: it might help you stop yourself from making statements like "My religion founded a continent."

            Universities? No, sorry, you're wrong again there. The oldest degree granting institutions of learning weren't Catholic, or even European. http://collegestats.org/articles/2009/12/top-10-oldest-universities-in-the-world-ancient-colleges/
            I don't expect facts to stop you, but there you go. (As a side note, the first school in Europe to use the term "Universitas" was not organized as an organ of the RCC to probe the meaning of the universe, it was designed to protect against outrageous taxes and penalties on foreigners imposed by the city-state, practices all too common in the feudal societies which relied on the fictional divine right of lords promulgated by...your church.)

            However, now that we've come to your prognostication talents and you've let us know of the impending failure of the United States of America and the United Nations, I am speechless...

            Oh well.

            I might not be able to turn back time and stop the RCC from colliding the Eurasian and African tectonic plates together, but I can at least continue to shine a light of reason and fact where it is needed.

            PS. What about the European Union, will that last?
            PPS. How much of the lack of faith of Europe is the RCC responsible for, if it's responsible for Europe's creation?

          • Rick DeLano

            There's nothing I can do, Rick?!?

            >> Nothing.

            About what?

            >> About the divinely ordained establishment, continuance, and final triumph of the Catholic Church.

            I would fight for your right to believe whatever you want to believe, no matter how much your beliefs seem cultish to me.

            >> Yes, the Pantheon is the quintessential solution of the well-indoctrinated pagan. I am sure the Romans could never grasp why the Jews and Christians refused to acquiesce in their politically enlightened inclusiveness. Imagine their surprise when the ragged Christians inherited the world subsequent to Rome's collapse. The smart money certainly wasn't on *that* one ;-)

          • picklefactory

            I'm still trying to figure out how saying things that every atheist I know would find baffling at best and repellent at worst counts as proselytizing.

          • Rick DeLano

            That's easy. Just read the Gospels sometime.

  • Steven Carr

    What dialogue is possible? What can atheists learn from people who claim their god does invisible miracles that nobody can detect?

    Surely Catholics should start talking to Catholics and sort out whether contraception is sinful.

    Atheists just aren't interested in what Catholics have to say to them.

    • Peter Piper

      I am.

      • David Nickol

        Atheists just aren't interested in what Catholics have to say to them.

        Why would atheists not be interested in a dialogue with Catholics for the same reason that Catholics are interested in a dialogue with atheists—to listen to them carefully, find out their reasons for believing what they consider the truth, analyze what is wrong in their minds that they could believe to be true what is not true, and help them face up to reality and see how wrong they have been?

        Catholicism is certainly a terrible error, but it would be too easy to condemn it. It is necessary for atheists to determine why so many adhere to Catholicism or other forms of religion and parade their belief in God and the supernatural in the catastrophic belief that they have the "truth" that will set people free. Many Catholics and others are actually intelligent and well meaning people who are trying to better the world, and they could be made great allies if only they could see the falseness of their beliefs. Also, by analyzing how Catholics perceive the atheist message, atheists may come to see that their own approach to enlightening Catholics is sometimes counterproductive and drives Catholics further into the clutches of the Church rather than liberating them. Think of Catholics as a large focus group on which to test and perfect the atheist message.

        • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

          David, thanks for the comment! Despite those many reasons why theists should dialogue with Catholics, you left out a major one: that atheists may be wrong. Perhaps the Catholic is right, and it's worth determining whether he is.

          • David Nickol

            . . . . that atheists may be wrong

            Brandon, what I wrote was a little parody of some of the Catholic position in the OP. It appears that Catholics never consider the possibility that they may be wrong and atheists may be right. Why should atheists, then, consider that they are the ones who might be wrong?

            Do Catholics want to engage in dialogue, or do they want to proselytize?

          • Rick DeLano

            Every true Catholic proselytizes, because every true Catholic believes the Great Commission; that is, they believe that salvation depends upon the conversion of the unbeliever. This will never change until the end of the world. Catholics are those who hear and obey Christ, no matter what, no matter who.

          • picklefactory

            I guess those Catholics I know that don't proselytize aren't true Catholics, then? I'll let them know from you that they aren't.

          • Rick DeLano

            It's OK, Christ already took care of that.

          • David Nickol

            This will never change until the end of the world. Catholics are those who hear and obey Christ, no matter what, no matter who.

            Just to clarify a point that may not be obvious, I have absolutely no problem with Catholics proselytizing. What prompted me to write my original message was a kind of incomprehension of the absolute certitude with which some Catholics regard their religion. It seems to go beyond the "certitude of faith." When examples are given of faith, often there are analogies such as, "I know my husband (or wife) loves me and is faithful to me, and although I can't prove it logically, or present enough evidence to convince someone who insists on denying it, nevertheless I know it to be true." I would not quarrel with anyone who said that, but I know, and everybody knows, that it happens with some frequency that a person who "knows" his wife loves him and is faithful, or a person who "knows" her husband loves her and is faithful, is faced with facts that prove otherwise. I would never suggest that people constantly entertain the suspicion that their spouses may be unfaithful, nor would I ever insist that Catholics follow every profession of faith with, "Of course, I could be wrong." But as I say, there is a kind of "absolute certitude" that some Catholics seem to possess (and advertise) that goes beyond the "certitude of faith."

            The theologian (and, from your viewpoint, apostate) Charles Davis wrote a book in 1973 called Temptations of Religion of which he identified four:

            1. The lust for certitude
            2. Cosmic vanity
            3. The pride of history
            4. The anger of morality

            He says,

            I want to argue that the pursuit of certitude is not genuinely religious, but a temptation constantly besetting religious institutions and people. Indeed, the direct seeking of certitude corrupts religion and has the same relation to genuine faith as lust has to love. If we open ourselves to love, we overcome lust; if we open ourselves to faith, we overcome the obsession with certitude . . . .

          • Rick DeLano

            The definition of faith of Charles Davis differs from the definition of Faith.

            We have Faith not on grounds of good argument, or persuasive demonstration, or fifty one per cent of the vote.

            We have Faith on the basis of God revealing.

            Those who do not believe in God, of course, cannot have Faith.

            Those who do not believe that Christ has risen from the dead, and thereby informed His word with the note of infallible Truth, cannot have Faith.

          • David Nickol

            Those who do not believe in God, of course, cannot have Faith.

            Do the Jews lack faith in God because they do not believe Jesus was raised from the dead? Do Muslims lack faith in God? Do Mormons or Hindus lack faith? You seem to be defining "faith" to be "believing the things that I do."

            We have Faith on the basis of God revealing.

            Strange Notions has a list of recommended books, one of which is No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, by Michael Novak. I haven't read it yet, but just the tone of the title conveys to me a different shade of meaning than I believe I detect in your statements.

          • Rick DeLano

            I understand completely. Here is the short version:

            1. There was a man named Jesus.
            2. He is reported to have done some remarkable things, the most important of which is that He is alleged to have risen from the dead, as a means of sealing His teachings with an infallible mark of divine origin, and hence complete certainty.
            3. If He did in fact rise from the dead, then His words can be relied upon with absolute assurance.
            4. See "Catholic Church, what has been believed always and everywhere" for the rest.

          • David Nickol

            Did Jesus rise from the dead, or was he risen?

            Assuming that by the teachings of Jesus you refer to what Jesus is reported to have said in the Gospels, it seems that the Catholic Church pays scant attention to them. And that makes a great deal of sense, since they were largely directed to Jews on matters of Jewish Law. But that is another discussion. The central fact of Catholicism, it seems to me, is not that the alleged Resurrection of Jesus confirmed the teachings of Jesus. The Resurrection itself is given a meaning—largely by Paul—who is very much concerned with the Resurrection but very little concerned with what Jesus himself taught during his lifetime.

          • Rick DeLano

            "Did Jesus rise from the dead, or was he risen?"

            >> If there is a distinction, it will be found, in the teaching of the Catholic Church, to be one without a difference, solely excepting relations of origin in the Godhead.

            "Assuming that by the teachings of Jesus you refer to what Jesus is reported to have said in the Gospels, it seems that the Catholic Church pays scant attention to them."

            >> Instead, it would seem that you wish to interpret them privately, against the solemn admonition of Christ Himself.

            "And that makes a great deal of sense, since they were largely directed to Jews on matters of Jewish Law."

            >> "And other sheep I have, that are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice, and there shall be one fold and one shepherd."

          • David Nickol

            “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

          • Rick DeLano

            "And other sheep I have, that are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice, and there shall be one fold and one shepherd."

            So. How are these other sheep to hear His voice, since He manifestly departed this Earth before they could hear Him?

            The Catholic Church.

          • robtish

            It is of course possible that he rose from the dead AND said nothing true. There's no logical contradiction there.

          • Rick DeLano

            "fraid not:

            "The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the ancients and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and the third day rise again."

          • http://wakingupnow.com/ Rob Tisinai

            Sorry. First off, you haven't established that this verse is truth. But suppose it is. That only means the Son of man must suffer these many things and then rise. Logically, however, it does not mean that EVERYONE who suffers these thing and then rises is the Son of man.

            It's just like realizing that the president must be at least 35 years old, but not everyone who is at least 35 must be president.

          • Rick DeLano

            Ummm, sure. In think we can agree that " it does not mean that EVERYONE who suffers these thing and then rises is the Son of man". 'Specially since, like, no other human being has ever been reported to have said these things, and then done them ;-)

          • http://wakingupnow.com/ Rob Tisinai

            Exactly. Therefore just because someone suffers these things and then rises does not mean that they are the son of man. Ergo, there's no logical contradiction in saying that Jesus rose from the dead AND said things that aren't true.

            (Of course, I'm only accepting for the sake of argument that he actually rose from the dead.)

          • Rick DeLano

            "just because someone suffers these things and then rises does not mean that they are the son of man. "

            >>One guy says "I am the Son of man, and while others will deny it, I will prove it by rising from the dead, and telling you in advance that I will",

            The other guy says...So, he actually did it? Meh. Not so much.


            I think the relative merits are pretty clear.

          • http://wakingupnow.com/ Rob Tisinai

            "The other guy says...So, he actually did it? Meh. Not so much."

            Not so fast. The other guy actually says, "So, if I accept for the only for the sake of argument that he did it, explain to me how that establishes that he told the truth about all things?"

            And no explanation is forthcoming. So at least we agree the relative merits are pretty clear.

          • Rick DeLano

            That we do!

          • http://wakingupnow.com/ Rob Tisinai

            "Specially since, like, no other human being has ever been reported to have said these things, and then done them"

            Of course, not only does that fail to establish that he said these things and did them, but it also fails to establish that no one else has said these things and done them.

          • Rick DeLano

            OK. Got evidence? Who else said:

            1. He is the son of man;
            2. He would rise from the dead

          • http://wakingupnow.com/ Rob Tisinai

            First response: I don't need to give you evidence because I'm not making an affirmative claim -- rather I'm questioning your claim, "If He did in fact rise from the dead, then His words can be relied upon with absolute assurance." And asking me whether I have any evidence that your claim is untrue? That's not the same thing as establishing that it is true. So as it stands, your claim remains unproven.

            Second response: Who else said it? Um, this guy named Hank said it and did it 2503 years ago. It's all written down on a piece of paper. I don't have the original copy of course, but a copy of a translation of a copy..

          • Rick DeLano

            I see.

            You don't have any evidence,. but then you don't need it, because you can just make it up as you like.


            The relative merits get clearer and clearer.....

          • http://wakingupnow.com/ Rob Tisinai

            Exactly what am I making up (excepting the satirical story about Hank)? I'm pointing out that you have not justified a key claim that you have made in your argument.

            So I'll ask again and see if you answer: Why would rising from the dead establish that everything he said is true? Until you can explain that, your a key claim in your argument remains unestablished.

          • Rick DeLano

            I think we have established that you have no evidence, and you are prepared to make it up as you go along.

            The evidence of Christ's truthfulness is in the existence of European civilization itself, brought into existence by the Church He founded, and promised would endure to the end of time.

            Motives of credibility, Rob.

            You don;t have comparable ones.

          • http://wakingupnow.com/ Rob Tisinai

            Rick, again, I'm asking you to explain why rising from the dead would mean that he told the truth about everything. It's a *question*; I have no idea why you think this request requires evidence.

            And with that, I'll just leave it be

          • Rick DeLano

            It would mean He told the truth about rising from the dead, Rob, which would tend to suggest to a lot of folks that He could be trusted to have told the truth about eve3rything else as well.

            Works for about two billion of us, anyway......

          • http://wakingupnow.com/ Rob Tisinai

            And of course, Luke 9:22 could just be one of the untrue things that Jesus might have said, thus not disallowing the hypothesis that he rose from the dead AND said nothing true.

          • Rick DeLano

            Wait. How could it be untrue? He did what He said ;-)

          • http://wakingupnow.com/ Rob Tisinai

            Ah, I amend my hypothesis: it could be that he rose from the dead and not everything he said was true. Which is enough to cast doubt on your point 3 above.

          • Rick DeLano

            Weeeeelllll let me put it this way. One guy says "maybe he's a liar who rose from the dead".

            The other guy says "I am going to rise from the dead so you know whether I am a liar or not."

            I'll take Door Number Two, myself.

            Some won't.

            He said that would happen too ;-)

          • http://wakingupnow.com/ Rob Tisinai

            Still haven't explained why rising from the dead establishes that he tells the truth about all things.

          • David Nickol

            If He did in fact rise from the dead, then His words can be relied upon with absolute assurance.

            It certainly seems to me within the realm of possibility, even if Jesus did rise from the dead, that even the best accounts we have of what he said and did are not perfectly accurate, and even if they are, there are many possible interpretations of them. I presume your answer is that Jesus left behind the Catholic Church to guarantee that his message was correctly transmitted and is correctly interpreted, but that, too, is a matter of faith and not fact.

          • Rick DeLano

            And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. [19]And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.

          • David Nickol

            You are proof texting here. Also, you are using the Bible to prove the authority of the Bible. How do we know we can rely on the Bible? Because the Church vouches for the Bible. How do we know the Church has the authority to vouch for the Bible? Because the Bible tells us so.

            I think it is a mistake to interpret "my church" in this passage as the Catholic Church. At the time Jesus is said to have spoken these words, Peter calls Jesus the Messiah, and Jesus confirms it. About the last thing the apostles would have meant in using the word Messiah is a person who founds a church that will exclude Judaism and will prosper only by converting Gentiles.

          • Rick DeLano

            I am simply reporting to you what Christ said. The authority of the Bible flows from #2, 3, and 4 above.

            "How do we know the Church has the authority to vouch for the Bible? Because the Bible tells us so."

            >> No. Because Christ rose from the dead and founded the Catholic Church, saying:

            "...thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. [19]And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven."

            "I think it is a mistake to interpret "my church" in this passage as the Catholic Church."

            >> It cannot possibly have been any other. None other can present itself as historically continuous from that moment to this, *in communion with the successor of Peter*.

            "At the time Jesus is said to have spoken these words, Peter calls Jesus the Messiah, and Jesus confirms it. About the last thing the apostles would have meant in using the word Messiah is a person who founds a church that will exclude Judaism and will prosper only by converting Gentiles."

            >> To the contrary. Messiah must be rejected of the Jews,


            Isaiah 53:1, 3 – “Who has believed our message? To whom will the Lord reveal His saving power? He was despised and rejected – a man of sorrows, acquainted with bitterest grief. We turned our backs on Him and looked the other way when He went by. He was despised, and we did not care.”

            and His Church must convert the nations (gentiles):

            Isaiah 55:5 - "Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know, and a nation that did not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you."

          • David Nickol

            There are no references to, or prophecies about, Jesus or a Messiah in Isaiah.

            Many interpreters give a "messianic" interpretation to the Servant Songs of Isaiah, especially to the Fourth Servant Song (Isa 52:13–53:12). That mode of interpretation is tendentious and problematic, because, to begin with, משיח is not found in any of the Servant Songs; nor is the verb משח used in any of them. . . .

            As the Fourth Song stands in its present Deutero-Isaian context, however, "there is no room for an expected Messiah as the ruler of the age of salvation." In fact, the passage does not envisage the Servant even as a royal figure, or as a scion of David, or associate with him any political role.

            If the reader wonders, then, why the Fourth Servant Song has been introduced into this discussion at this point, it is simply to stress once again that there is no passage in the book of Isaiah that mentions a "Messiah" in the narrow sense, and all attempts to speak of Isaiah's "messianic prophecies" are still-born.

            From The One Who Is To Come by Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., pp. 39-43.

          • Rick DeLano

            Since the Catholic Church from Her very inception has, including by the exercise of the heaven-protected magisterium which allows Fr. Fitzmayer to know what the Scriptures consist in in the first place, taught that the Servant Songs are prophetic utterances concerning the Messiah, we are faced with a choice.

            We can believe the Church, or we can believe Fr. Fitzmeyer.

            It is exactly in this way that we determine whether we believe Christ, or the scribes.

          • http://wakingupnow.com/ Rob Tisinai

            Let's see. I've got to choose between one post that offers reason and explanation and another post that doesn't engage with that reasoning in any way but instead offers an unsubstantiated appeal to authority.

            I don't know which post (if either) is correct, but I can tell you which one's off to a more promising start.

          • Rick DeLano

            Score one for the scribes ;-)

          • David Nickol

            Are you saying it is dogma that Isaiah contains messianic prophecies, or that the servant in Isaiah is a prediction or prophecy about Jesus? If so, could you point out to me where such dogma is documented?

            This is not in any way to imply that some of the New Testament authors (and even Jesus himself) saw Jesus as a reflection or a kind of embodiment of the servant. But that is quite different from saying there are messianic prophecies in Isaiah, or the servant in Isaiah is a prediction of Jesus.

            I know that many people have strong convictions about interpreting various passages of the Bible, and I know it is often claimed that the Old Testament as filled with "prophecies" about Jesus, but to the best of my knowledge, there is little in the way of dogma or magisterial statements about particular interpretations of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. I am aware of general statements, such as the following from Dei Verbum:

            God, the inspirer and author of both Testaments, wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and the Old be made manifest in the New.

            However, I am unaware of anything that forces us to choose between any official teachings of the Church and any given interpretation made by Fr. Fitzmeyer. There is a book by F. F. Bruce titled New Testament Development of Old Testament Themes on my bookshelf which I haven't read a word of, but I think a great deal of what some people consider Old Testament foreshadowing or prophecies are much more appropriately New Testament developments of Old Testament themes. If Jesus was inspired by the depiction of the servant in Isaiah and saw part of his destiny to identify with and take on the role of servant, that does not mean Isaiah "prophesied" about Jesus. It means Jesus incorporated into his thinking and actions ideas from Hebrew Scripture, which is quite understandable for a first-century Jew living in Palestine.

          • Rick DeLano

            The Servant Songs belong to Scripture, of which God is the Author. The only authentic interpretation of the Scriptures belongs to the Church established by Christ to teach in His Name and with His protection.

            CCC713 The Messiah's characteristics are revealed above all in the "Servant songs."82 These songs proclaim the meaning of Jesus' Passion and show how he will pour out the Holy Spirit to give life to the many: not as an outsider, but by embracing our "form as slave."83 Taking our death upon himself, he can communicate to us his own Spirit of life.

            714 This is why Christ inaugurates the proclamation of the Good News by making his own the following passage from Isaiah:84

            The Spirit of the LORD God is upon me,
            because the LORD has anointed me
            to bring good tidings to the afflicted;
            he has sent me to bind up the broken hearted,
            to proclaim liberty to the captives,
            and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
            to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor.

          • David Nickol

            Very good response. I had never read this section of the Catechism, and I am actually quite surprised that it gets this specific. I do wonder, however, if any of the above is dogma. Checking the footnotes (quickly), they all appear to be scriptural references, which leads me to believe (or at least conjecture) that what the Catechism is giving is a very "traditional" view of various interpretations of scripture, but of course presenting them in the Catechism does not (as we know) give them any greater weight than they have otherwise. So I am still interested if any of the above is actually dogma, and if holding the opinion that the Servant Songs in Isaiah are not prophecies pertaining to "the one who is to come" is actually in conflict with official Church teaching.

            The Catholic argument seems to me to be that Jesus was the Messiah, and so anything that can be found in the Old Testament that appears to foreshadow Jesus is a Messianic prophecy. The blurb on the back of Fitzmyer's book says the following:

            "Messiah" is one of the most contested terms in Christian reflection, with many people reading the concept back into early Old Testament texts. In The One Who Is to Come Joseph Fitzmyer contradicts that misreading, carefully tracing the emergence of messianism in Judaism to a much later date—the second century B.C.

            Since Isaiah was written around the 8th century B.C., reading messianic prophecies into it would (if Fitzmyer is correct) be illegitimate.

            It has long seemed strange to me to claim Jesus was the Messiah and the Jews did not acknowledge him because they were mistaken about the kind of person the Messiah would be. The fact is that Jesus was not acknowledged by the Jews as the Messiah because he didn't resemble the first-century Jewish conception of the Messiah. in claiming Jesus was the Messiah, it was necessary for the early Christians to redefine the existing concept of the Messiah to fit whom they believed Jesus to be. This is quite different from looking at Jesus and saying he must be the Messiah because he fulfills prophecies about the Messiah. Jesus was not accepted as Messiah by the Jews because he in no way resembled what they expected the Messiah to be. I am certainly not an expert in this area, but to the best of my knowledge, there is nothing in the Old Testament to imply any connection between the Suffering Servant and the expected Messiah. It appears quite illegitimate to me to claim Isaiah describes the Messiah when in fact the text of Isaiah does not make any references to a Messiah.

            In any case, you have given a very good answer, but I am still not convinced that it is dogma that Isaiah's passages about the Suffering Servant are messianic prophecies and that they are "supernatural" predictions of Jesus. It seems to me that such a hypothesis would have to be proven by explicating the text. It does not seem just to "blame" Jews for not recognizing Jesus as the Messiah even if they saw Jesus as having some of the characteristics of the Suffering Servant, because there was nothing to indicate that the Suffering Servant material was to be taken as messianic prophecy.

            Of course, if you take it as a given that Jesus was the Messiah, and that everything about Jesus is messianic, then you can of course ransack the Old Testament for phrases and concepts that might seem applicable to Jesus ("He will be born, live, and die . . .") and call them Messianic prophecies. But surely the legitimate way to determine if a prophecy (in the sense of a prediction or foretelling) is fulfilled is to take a look at the prophecy itself and try to determine what it meant, and then look to see if there is something that happened after the prophecy that seemed, in some striking way, to make it come true. Taking what has already happened and searching old texts for "prophecies" that did not seem to be predictions of the future when they were originally made seems to me to be "inventing" prophecies after the fact, as is done with the writings of Nostradamus, for example.

            I have done a word search of the Bible, and it is amazing how infrequently the word Messiah appears. One would think from hearing some talk of Christianity that the entire Old Testament is about the wait for the Messian, and the entire New Testament is the story of the arrival of the Messiah. It does not appear to me to be anything like that.

          • Rick DeLano

            It is dogma that Christ is the Messiah.

            It is doctrine that the Servant Songs apply to Him.

          • picklefactory

            I guess I look at this and my response is that one reason I'm not a Catholic is that, in my experience, Catholics who are proselytizing tend to say things like Rick is saying.

            Me: "Hey, that didn't make a whole lot of sense. I'm not an ex-Catholic; I've never been religious. Forgive me, the parts that did make sense also kind of came off as pompous."

            Proselytizing Catholic: More authoritarian pronouncements with Capital Letters also Mixed In.

            The reason I seem to keep coming back to Strange Notions is that even though the Catholics are not making arguments that I can really grok, at least they are putting in an effort to make an argument, and I can appreciate that.

            The Catholics get something too -- for instance, Joe Heschmeyer will presumably have his rhetorical sword sharpened by good arguers like Geena Safire.

            Below Rick says that Christ no doubt told my Catholic friend that he wasn't a True Christian because when we were sitting around drinking beer and talking about the world a couple months ago he didn't attempt to convert me. I mean, other than an opportunity to gather some empirical data, what am I supposed to make of that?

            Compared to Joe, Rick, what you aim to achieve is harder to figure out. Other than scolding the Catholics that read these comments for not proselytizing enough, I guess?

          • David Nickol

            I was raised Catholic, do not consider myself an atheist, and think it is in the realm of possibility that Catholicism may be true. However, when Catholics make their case for Catholicism by saying such things as they know they are right, because God revealed what they believe, and God can't like, that has the effect of driving me away. I can respect people who believe things with all their hearts and have what I call the "certainty of faith," but people who just know they are right because God told them so are to be found among Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, and basically any religion. People with deep faith move and impress me. People who know they are right and everyone else is wrong, especially those who claim to be self-evidently right while all who disagree with them are at best self-deluded or at worst lying by pretending to disbelieve what they know perfectly well to be true, sometimes make me feel discussing religion is pointless.

            I am watching Pope Francis with great interest.

          • Rick DeLano

            Simply making sure that, amongst the many admirable arguments and discussions, the one important thing is presented:

            Christ rose from the dead, and certain inescapable, if often unpopular, truths flow from this fact.

            One of them is that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church.

          • David Nickol

            One of them is that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church.

            Here we go again.

            I hope you will acknowledge, at least, that a person does not have to be a Catholic to be saved. It is heretical to claim that only a baptized, professing Catholic can be saved.

          • Rick DeLano

            One must of course be baptized in order to be Catholic. Profession is required only of those who possess the faculty of reason.

          • David Nickol

            If you claim that one must be a baptized Catholic in order to be saved, it seems to me you are contradicting the position of the Church that Catholics may legitimately hope that infants who die before baptism may be saved. The Church does not, of course, say with certainty that they are saved, but in teaching that there is hope that they are, the Church would be teaching error if indeed there were no hope.

            By the way, does your idea of baptism include "baptism of blood" and "baptism of desire"? If someone in a repressive, anti-Catholic country is on the verge of converting to Catholicism (and being baptized) and is killed for taking instruction in the Catholic faith or dies in an automobile accident on the way to be baptized, is that person saved by baptism of blood or baptism of desire? It seems to me this is a firmly held teaching of the Church.

          • Rick DeLano

            Hope is one thing. Dogma is another. That there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church is dogma. The theologians have tied themselves up into some pretty ugly knots trying to find a way to get those outside the Church inside it, but none of these speculations are dogmatic.

          • David Nickol

            Hope is one thing. Dogma is another. That there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church is dogma.

            If "outside the Church there is no salvation" means only baptized Catholics may be saved, and that is dogma, isn't it teaching error even to teach that one may hope that infants who die without being baptized might be saved?

            If it were to be taught, say, that we may hope that an unrepentant person who dies in the state of mortal sin might be saved, would that not be an erroneous teaching?

            If it is indeed a dogma that "outside the Church there is no salvation," and if it is true that it means no unbaptized person may be saved, then it is a false teaching to teach that one may hope otherwise, is it not? Is it acceptable for Catholics to hope that dogmatic teachings are not true?

          • Rick DeLano

            "If "outside the Church there is no salvation" means only baptized Catholics may be saved, and that is dogma, isn't it teaching error even to teach that one may hope that infants who die without being baptized might be saved?"

            >> It is a very dangerous teaching, one not found in Scriptures, or the Fathers. It is not heresy, since it is theologically bulletproof to suggest that God can do what He will.

            The problem comes in when this theological certainty is set against what He has in fact told us He will and will not do.

            So, it is not heretical to hope for the salvation of those outside the Church.

            It is heretical to hope that they can be saved in any way other than being joined to the Church.

          • picklefactory

            Looks like you got your answer.

      • Geena Safire

        Best. Comment. Ever.

    • MichaelNewsham

      Fromthe above-quoted Cardinal:

      "Franz Konig, the retired Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, referred to the
      "irritating distinction between |artificial' and |natural'
      contraception." Cardinal Konig stated: "Here [on birth regulation] we
      have ended up in a bottleneck above all because of the distinction
      (cast into doubt even by medicine) between |artificial' and |natural,'
      as if even from the moral viewpoint what is important is the |trick' of
      cheating nature.""

    • Stephen Bulivant

      'Atheists just aren't interested in what Catholics have to say to them.' - Says an atheist who (presumably) has just read an article by a Catholic, writing for atheists, about what some other Catholics have to say about (and to) atheists... Errr?

  • Kevin Aldrich

    I think this is a very fine OP, Stephen.

    Also, thank you for being "here" to respond.

    Unfortunately, sometimes the very best articles get the fewest comments. I've seen that on many internet sites.

    • Stephen Bulivant

      Thanks very much, once again, Kevin. To be honest, this little series isn't exactly intended to be the most comment-provoking thing SN's ever published... But if it interests, however mildly, and entertains, however occasionally, then that's quite enough for me.

  • hvaiallverden

    Sometimes the lack of coments arent a sign of anything, I didnt intent to coment anyway, since the article is of high quality and simply a good read. I dont see any reason to ad anything to it.
    Exept this time.

    Guilt by asosiation, is the basics of the childish debates the rages on forums, where as a religious man cant or be into the latest in science, and vise versa, huh.
    I have zero problems with science, no contradictions at all, and I dont have any problems with anyone, regadless, its not what he bows to or follows, that marks a man, its his actions and deeds.
    Case and effect.
    This divertion is for me a bitt tirering, its artificiale and based almoust solely on asumptions from both directions, pimping polarisation, marginalisations, "cutt and paist" induced clipps to direct hatred to larger groups, and thrown into a pott and whirwled the soup into warpp speed, and in the end, if its a point at all to "winn" a debate, in this predatory times, where barbarism is been hailed and wurshipped, nothing usefull is been sayed or done at all.

    Then WE all loose, what the current issue is, its about the cure issue, no sidetrack of moronic rants about someone did that or so, its about the founding of our reality, the besisi of existence of matter, and its metamorphosis to life, the following reality is dimmed by consciousness and aparent ability to criticaly think on whats the sunbject is about and be focused to make fruitfull results based on cooperations, regandlessly of what, where and who.
    I corrupted system, looses its core, its credibility is shattered by individuals and their actions whitin any system, and religion have been an easy target for criminals and to maintain a possition based on false teachings, and lies.
    To blame an entire religion for whats happening to day is a flatout lie.
    All systems is and can be corrupted, the process now is to look forward, to be faitfull to the coreteachings, to practise, and repearing the system takes time, anyway.

    Reconsiliations, is alsways painfull, fait in the end and the responcebility WE all have to be sinsere and just, is what will be tested, and the creator dont give a f... about exuses, He simply aks, what did YOU do to others down there.
    Thats all he needs to ask.
    Not about the zise of your flattscreenTV.



    “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”
    Robert F. Kennedy