It is no secret that I have a great deal of respect for my atheist and agnostic friends and I feel like I have learned a lot from them about matters that are of profound value to me as a Christian. With Cardinal Ravasi I can also say that I too have absolutely no interest in converting them (or anyone else for that matter). At the same time I am aware of this attitude not having been the mainstream position of the Church for a long time (although there have always been those who have shared it - many of whom were saints) and that atheism is seen by some (many?) in the Church as a problem even today.
It is against this background that I was pleased to hear voices consonant with mine while reading two great books: On Heaven and Earth (by Cardinal Bergoglio - now Pope Francis - and Rabbi - and biophysicist! - Abraham Skorka, mentioned here before) and Colloqui (by Fr. Pasquale Foresi - one of the co-founders of the Focolare Movement).
Here Francis has the following to say:1
“When I meet atheist persons, I share with them human questions […] which are such rich material for sharing and working on together that they can easily lead to mutual and complementary enrichment. As a believer I know these riches are a gift from God[, but] instead of proselytizing, I respect atheists and I present myself the way I am. I have nothing to hide and I would not say that their life is condemned, because I am convinced that I have no right to judge their honesty. […] We have to be coherent with the message we receive from the Bible: all men and women are made in the image of God, whether they are believers or not.”Later in the book, this attitude is also reinforced by Rabbi Skorka, saying that “we are all joined by the links of brotherhood.” While the position is, to my mind, positive - we are all brothers and sisters irrespective of our beliefs and there are great riches to be shared with each other in openness, a point worth elaborating on are the positions that Pope Francis rejects here - i.e., proselytism and condemnation.
Why these are novelties in the Catholic Church is addressed in Fr. Foresi’s book, which I happened to read at the same time :). There he points to the great changes that have been confirmed by the Second Vatican Council, a key point of which was an increased emphasis on and respect for following one’s conscience.2 Among others, this shift also legitimized pacifist positions held by prominent Christians during the last century’s World Wars. E.g., see the Catholic, Italian MP Igino Giordani - now in the process of being considered for sainthood, who championed a bill to allow for conscientious objectors to abstain from military service - incidentally in collaboration with atheist Communists (a great rarity during the first half of the 20th century).
It was on the back of this rediscovery of the importance of conscience that the honesty of atheist beliefs was contemplated and while the Church certainly has a position different from atheism, it stated clearly in the Gaudium et Spes constitution of the Second Vatican Council that,
“motivated by love for all men, [the Church] believes [that the] questions [raised by atheism] ought to be examined seriously and more profoundly. [… T]he Church sincerely professes that all men, believers and unbelievers alike, ought to work for the rightful betterment of this world in which all alike live; such an ideal cannot be realized, however, apart from sincere and prudent dialogue. Hence the Church protests against the distinction which some state authorities make between believers and unbelievers, with prejudice to the fundamental rights of the human person.” (Gaudium et Spes, 21)Fr. Foresi explains that prior to Vatican II it was generally thought that “one couldn’t be an atheist in good faith, and that it was “impossible” for them to be saved.” This has all changed though, so that now there are not only individuals in the Church, who are keen to build relationships with their atheist friends, but it is the Church’s official teaching that the dignity of believers and non-believers alike be protected and valued.
And there is more. In his book, Fr. Foresi recounts how the Focolare Movement, founded by Chiara Lubich, has gone a step further and has done so with the Church’s formal approval. The Focolare Movement is an organization that promotes unity and universal brotherhood among all and even though it started in the Catholic Church during the Second World War, it also has members from other Christian churches and communities and from other religions. And it also counts agnostics or atheists among its members. While links with non-Catholics and atheists were at first informal, as the Focolare Movement was gaining official recognition by the Catholic Church, it also asked for its non-Catholic members to be officially recognized as such - a request eventually granted by the Vatican.
Why am I saying all this? Do I care so much about being “official”? No, not for its own sake, but I believe that it is an indication of how seriously these questions are taken by the Church and how it is not only its declared intention to be open to atheists but also something it approves formally.
1 Since I have the original book in Spanish, the English text is my rough translation.
2 For a more detailed discussion of this topic see a previous post.