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The Crisis of Catholic Atheism

On the triumph of anonymous atheism.


The French poet Charles Péguy defined the modern Christian as one who does not believe what he believes. As the Church seeks once again to discern the “movement of the Spirit” and “the signs of the times,” both professed goals of the Synod on Synodality, it would do well—besides examining its conscience—to set aside the focus groups, the pseudo-scientific questionnaires, and the sloppy sociological and political analyses, and heed the words of Péguy. Or Augusto Del Noce. Or Benedict XVI. In very different terms over the course of a century punctuated by two world wars, these disparate and somewhat disconnected thinkers offered complementary diagnoses of what they regarded as the defining crisis of the age: an unprecedented new atheism different in kind from earlier forms of unbelief within the Christian world. Each understood in varying degrees that this atheism was not external to the Church. Péguy was particularly unsparing in his criticism of “the clerks” for reducing the Christian mystique to a mere politique, thus helping to bring this crisis about, and for their inability and unwillingness to see it. Taken together, their diagnoses cast light on the “death of God” in the modern world—John Paul II will call it the “eclipse of the sense of God and of man”—with prophetic foresight and profound insight into the shape of a future that is now our present, when the “death of God” is rapidly bringing about the death of all that is genuinely human.

“The real problem at this moment of our history,” wrote Benedict in 2009, “is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects.” But already, in 1910, Péguy had lamented modernity as a “mystical disaster,” a complete repudiation of “the whole Christian system.” The modern, post-Christian world is a “world that tries to be clever. The world of the intelligent, of the advanced, of those who know, who don’t have to be shown a thing twice, who have nothing more to learn. . . . That is to say: a world of those who believe in nothing, not even in atheism, who devote themselves, who sacrifice themselves to nothing.” Decades later, Del Noce would describe modernity in similar terms. Writing in the aftermath of the great conflagrations of the twentieth century, he saw in postwar modernity a new totalitarianism disguised by affluence, a suffocating immanentism that negated every form of transcendence, an immanentism whose most acute and obvious manifestations were the twin phenomena of scientism and eroticism, all of which had been brought about by the simultaneous triumph and defeat of Marxism. This “post-Christian” atheism world, as with Péguy, hardly merits the name, since hardly anyone bothers to argue for it. Del Noce instead describes a world of pervasive “irreligion,” where God has vanished from the horizon; His exile from our characteristic modes of thought is so complete that He can no longer become a serious question.

Nietzsche foresaw what the death of God would mean because he knew what the life of God had meant in the constitution of the West. We, his last men or perhaps the first posthumans, our eyes well accustomed to the long shadow of God’s eclipse, are not so perceptive. Nevertheless, Nietzsche and his madman also knew that the death of God was perfectly compatible with the continuation of Christianity. Likewise, the death of God is no obstacle to invoking God or “the mystery of the Spirit leading the Church into the future” as an extrinsic addendum to an apprehension of the world and a conception of reality that are fundamentally atheistic, where God and our creaturehood are systematically excluded from our working ontology, from our fundamental thought forms, and their corresponding conception of truth. Extrinsicism is usually thought to take a “top down” form, as in the so-called “two-tiered” Thomism of the last century, which is saved from atheism by its metaphysics in spite of its inadvertent support for the autonomy of the secular. But extrinsicism can also take a number of “bottom up” forms from within the immanent frame. It can be sincere, pious, and hopeful, or it can be ideological and cynical, with the Holy Spirit weaponized to bless exercises of power and to make blasphemers of those who oppose them, a strong candidate, perhaps, for the mysterious “sin against the Holy Spirit.” But these variations are mostly beside the point. “Catholic atheism” is not principally a question of intention, piety, or sincerity of belief but of the structural exclusion of God from our field of vision by the mostly unspoken assumptions that govern our world. Indeed, piety and sincerity serve largely to conceal this atheism from its adherents, making us the inverse of Rahner’s “anonymous Christians”: anonymous atheists who do not know ourselves.

Father Thomas J. Reese, S.J., once a ubiquitous public presence before the media, found other go-to sources for reliable and mediocre Catholic progressivism, recently announced that he did not believe in transubstantiation. The reasons for the ensuing controversy are not entirely clear. Did his words matter primarily because Reese is a prominent American Jesuit, or because he obviously spoke for millions of other American Catholics? In any event, he quickly attempted to assure readers that he did in fact believe in the Real Presence, as distinct from transubstantiation, which he could not believe in because he did not believe in the Aristotelian notion of substantial form which is its ontological presupposition. It seems safe to assume he was not exercising an option for Plato or Plotinus.

Now in fairness to Father Reese, it would be pointless to pretend that the last five centuries haven’t happened. None of us can believe in a Platonic or Aristotelian conception of form in the way that Plato and Aristotle would have done, intuitively and unreflectively from within an inherently intelligible world obviously shot through with the presence of the eternal. This, presumably, is one reason why Péguy said that one had first to become a pagan in order to become a Christian, and why he lamented the defeat of paganism by modernity. Nevertheless, the metaphysical attitude is the natural one, realists that we are; we must do something to ourselves to disabuse ourselves of it. And there remain compelling arguments for form’s ontological and epistemic necessity as well as immediate, firsthand evidence of its reality so obvious as to be almost invisible. Yet despite the ubiquity of substantial, self-transcending wholes, ourselves above all, with interior horizons and a stake in their own being, despite the omnipresence of beauty, the inescapability of meaning, and an incorrigible tendency toward goodness that persists in spite of ourselves, it somehow takes an enormous intellectual effort for us not to see the world as a cold, indifferent mechanism and ourselves as some kind of ghost tacked on to (or emerging epiphenomenally from) a mechanical and malleable body. And whatever assent we are able to muster for the reality of creation as traditionally understood can only be a partial and temporary extraction coaxed out if what George Grant called the “monism of meaninglessness” that forms the entropic background to every form of modern thought, every aspect of modern life and the institutions that enforce it. Which is to say, insofar as we are modern, we can only ever believe half-heartedly. It falls to us to live the reality of Catholicism through the agony of its present impossibility, to discover the transcendent through “intimations of deprival” (Grant again), the pain over its apparent absence.

But there is none of that agony or eros in Reese’s explanation, only the satisfaction and contentment “of the intelligent, of the advanced, of those who know, who don’t have to be shown a thing twice, who have nothing more to learn.” Lost in the brouhaha over Reese’s comments are the other things one would seem unable to believe after breezily casting off Christianity’s Hellenistic patrimony. It is difficult to see, for example, how one could still think of human nature emptied of form and finality as anything other than the accidental summing up of an evolutionary history of cause and effect, much less offer a rational account of it, or imagine that theology or philosophy could have anything true to say about it. Nor is it clear how “truth” itself could stand for anything more than “the facts” provisionally ascertained by the sciences that analyze such processes. The Incarnation would seem to be a bit of an embarrassment then, what with two natures in one person and all that. And it seems difficult to square this formless understanding of human nature and truth with the reality of the divine logos, the traditional doctrine of the divine ideas that contained the archetypes of substantial natures, or a doctrine of creation that has any claim upon the meaning of nature or any real bearing on the ontological structure of the world. It is unclear what place there could be in this two-dimensional view of things for the vita contemplativa or the visio dei, which likewise seem destined for the historical archives, relics of thought from an earlier time in Christian history that has now been surpassed. Indeed, it is difficult to see how one could give more than a pietistic or fideistic account of the “Real Presence” that Reese does claim to believe in, that is, without treating it as an extrinsic addendum to a conception of nature that has been wholly handed over to the empirical and experimental sciences—where nature is whatever happens or can be made to happen and one thing is therefore as “natural” as any other—sciences whose nature, limits, and implicit metaphysics one hasn’t made the slightest effort to understand. Without a substantive account of human nature or an ontological conception of truth, or even a critical historical and philosophical engagement with the sciences, the way is clear to embrace whatever intellectual fashion “science” is now promoting and has baptized as aggiornamento. The line from Reese’s urbane self-assurance to the sophistry of his confrère Father James Martin is short and straight.

What remains of Christianity in the wake of all this? Here I am reminded of a story told to me by a former colleague at Villanova. In the midst of a discussion of some classical author, my friend asked one of her students to explain the concept of the soul. The student, a bright young woman who I presume was the product of a parochial school education in New Jersey, paused, apparently surprised by such an unlikely question. After reflecting a moment, she answered, “It’s sort of like a mist.” I struggle to think of a better metaphor for contemporary Catholicism as a “spent force,” for a Church with little of substance to say about being or history or the times we live in. It stands for a Church which often seems to have little of substance to say about the meaning of being or history, whose ministers mindlessly intone the same religious formulas like so many brute facts and the same platitudes about tolerance and dialogue and the miracle of sharing to the same bored, exhausted, dwindling congregations week after week, month after month, year after year. The dissonance between this therapeutic gospel of niceness, the demystified actions on the altar, and the mystical words pronounced there would stretch beyond the breaking point if anyone were paying attention. What could the Incarnation or the Real Presence be in this world, a world premised upon the Real Absence of every ontological principle and every form of thought that could differentiate them from magic or alchemy? It’s sort of like a mist.

Péguy, Del Noce, and Ratzinger are united in tracing the eclipse to a metaphysical revolution underlying the other, more obvious faces of revolution that characterize the modern age and institutionalize it as a permanent feature of modern life: the political revolutions against the ancien régime that began in the eighteenth century and forever subordinated Christianity to the transcendental horizon of political order, the scientific and technological revolution against the limits of possibility, and the sexual revolution against our own nature and the principle of reality itself. Del Noce identifies the apex of this revolution with the “suicidal” triumph of Marxism and its conflation of theory and praxis. This conflation measures the “truth” of our ideas by their effectiveness in changing the world through scientific and political action and ushers in irreligious atheism by bringing the “philosophy of comprehension,” the tradition extending from Plato to Hegel, to an end. Though Marx is obviously monumental for twentieth-century history, I regard Marxism as a latecomer to a revolution already long underway, locating its origins in the earlier Baconian conflations of knowledge and power, theory and practice, and truth and utility, and the mechanistic understanding of nature that coincides with the birth of modern science. This revolution takes form in technological society, whose interminable pursuit of technological progress provides the collective raison d’être of liberal order. And I have argued, furthermore, that the American experiment, which gives political form to this vision of things in a kind of synthesis of the Second Treatise and the New Atlantis, more perfectly realizes “total revolution” than Marx himself does. The “euthanasia of Platonic Christianity” that Jefferson was so eager to see completed was inscribed into its essence from the outset, with its inherent pragmatism, its worship of possibility, and a Protestantism that was already “irreligious.” In either event, the result, as Del Noce put it, is a conception of reality as a manipulable “system of forces,” mute and meaningless, “not of values.” This system replaces the vertical transcendence of eternity—and with it a transcendent order of being, nature, and truth—with a horizontal transcendence of futurity. “The mystery of the Spirit leading the Church into the future” becomes mysteriously indistinguishable from the spirit of progress.

This immanent horizon determines the limit of our vision and defines what it now means for us to think. Thomas Aquinas wrote that “the name intellect arises from the intellect’s ability to know the most profound elements of a thing; for to understand (intelligere) means to read what is inside a thing (intus legere). Sense and imagination know only external accidents, but the intellect alone penetrates to the interior and to the essence of a thing.” But where there is no longer an interior essence, intellect, strictly speaking, ceases to be intelligible or even necessary. For there is no longer anything to penetrate or read, indeed no longer any way to pose questions of truth in the traditional “what is” form. This is why there is no such thing as a profound question in American public life. Where reality has no depths, the abyss seems rather shallow. What we now mean by thinking is almost wholly exhausted by questions of the functionalist type: How many? How far? How fast? Where from? Under what influence? To what effect? In whose interest?

Truth within these functionalist forms of reason is then reduced either to an assemblage of social, psychological, historical, and economic conditions—the historicist option—or to its function in legitimating and maintaining various systems of power; this is sociologism. Or it denotes the provisional limit of our present technical capacities, which necessitates its own overcoming. We can call this technologism. It may be conflated wholly with appearance, renamed authenticity, and measured by our self-understanding. The result is a pastoralism indistinguishable from therapy, which, like public health, can be called upon to justify just about anything. Or, last but not least, truth simply vanishes from the horizon as something we can think meaningfully about at all. This is pragmatism. And this is the paradigm shift we seem to be undergoing.

The now axiomatic assumption from within this horizon is that metaphysical truth claims are merely the expressions of ideology. Like Del Noce, Ratzinger regarded this crisis of truth as perhaps the central question facing the Church and Western civilization more generally: “Is there, in the course of historical time, a recognizable identity of man with himself? Is there a human ‘nature’? Is there a truth that remains true in every historical time because it is true?” The answer for those whose unstated assumptions preclude the possibility of transcendence—for whom metaphysics is simply another ideological project of mastery—is no; indeed, an answer in the affirmative would mark the end rather than the beginning of progress in thought. But they are wrong. Truth, understood in its traditional, metaphysical sense as a property of being as such, supplies the channels through which thought can run and denies us permission to stop thinking before we arrive at the infinite. As Del Noce observes:

Primacy of contemplation just means the superiority of the immutable over the changeable. It just expresses the essential metaphysical principle of the Catholic tradition, which says that everything that is participates necessarily in universal principles, which are the eternal and immutable essences contained in the permanent actuality of the divine intellect. . . . The primacy of contemplation, the primacy of the immutable, the reality of an eternal order are equivalent affirmations, which coincide with taking intellectual intuition as the definition of the model of knowledge. The recognition of this form of knowledge is inseparable from the very possibility of metaphysical thought.

The striking thing about so much contemporary Catholic thought is how little thought is actually in it, especially in comparison to the generations immediately preceding ours, which gave us Blondel and Péguy, Claudel, Bernanos and Guardini, Balthasar, and Ratzinger. Say what one will about them—the mere mention of some of these figures is provocative in some quarters—but each was a genuinely speculative (and therefore mystical) thinker who attempted in his own way and in his own proper genre to discern the “signs of the times” by means of a deeper penetration of the fundamental Christian mysteries.

Where are the artists, mystics, and thinkers in our suffocating and desiccated landscape? You shall judge a tree by its fruits, and our fruits are prunes. This dearth of thinking, or rather this inability to see, is not the exclusive property of the Catholic left. It is increasingly a problem on the Catholic right, especially as it becomes more reactionary, taking refuge in liturgy and traditional theological formulas and confusing philosophy with intellectual archaeology, with the ever more precise re-presentation of Saint Thomas Aquinas or some other ancient authority. But the problem is particularly acute on the Catholic left. Take Massimo Faggioli, the “historical theologian” who seems genuinely not to know the difference between theology and the sociology of religion. He epitomizes Del Noce’s “somewhat farcical-looking character . . . the engaged religious sociologist,” and therefore represents perfectly the degradation of contemporary Catholic thought. One could pick almost at random from the constant deluge of tweets, articles, books, and lectures—whether it’s his embarrassing book on Joe Biden and Catholicism, his reduction of doctrine to “doctrinal policy” in his book on Vatican II, his definition of “synodal church” as “ecclesial processes that are less centered on the clergy and more open to the leadership role of the laity, especially women,” his conclusion that the divisions currently roiling the church have “less to do with the finer points of dogma and doctrine (as was typically the case for the councils of the first millennium regarding Christology and the Trinity) and more to do with the translation of Vatican II’s teaching in the social and political sphere and on Church governance,” or his exhortation to discern the signs of the times by starting with “the decline of global democracy”—and one would struggle in vain to find a properly philosophical or theological idea. It is one thing to think politically about theology and quite another to think theologically about politics. And it’s politics all the way down. Even his occasional apologia for theological education ends up reading like an argument for the primacy of religious sociology and a sociological justification for the continuing relevance of “theology.” There is no room within this functionalist form of thought and its working ontology for the presence of an Eternity that is immanent within history precisely as transcendent; thus there is simply no way for a proper question about God, being, nature, or truth to ever arise. And so it never does.

One can measure the triumph of “anonymous atheism” in the Church by the prominence of these functionalist forms of thought within it, that is, by the triumph of “sociologism,” and the replacement of theology and philosophy by history, psychology, economics, and the social sciences as the Church’s fundamental modes of thinking and seeing. The triumph of sociologism is the triumph of an apprehension of the world and corresponding forms of thought that systematically exclude God, being, nature, and truth from its field of vision, though again there is nothing to prevent a kind of “bottom-up extrinsicism” from later baptizing this godless vision with “the mystery of the Spirit leading the Church into the future” or to prevent Faggioli from saying that “ecclesial processes that are less centered on the clergy and more open to the leadership role of the laity” are really “about sacramentality and the Church as a sacrament,” burdening that little preposition “about” with more work than it can possibly perform. The more complete the triumph, the longer the shadow of God’s eclipse, the more we are deprived of the light even to see what we are missing. Contemporary champions of a “paradigm shift” within the Church—that is, of changing the subject instead of answering an argument—demonstrate some awareness of this fact. Nevertheless, the pervasiveness of sociologism within the Church and the broader culture explains why our atheism is anonymous and presumably why its animating principles are not acknowledged or argued for but simply assumed, apparently without thinking. The jury is still out on the “synodal process,” but the early returns and the campaign by Faggioli, Austen Ivereigh, and others to manipulate the outcome suggest that the arrival of the “synodal church” marks a further stage in this triumph, the Church of pure administration, albeit with administration “democratically” parceled out to committees of lay experts.

Whatever the merits of such reforms, and I am willing to concede there might be some, one can hardly think of a more profound betrayal of the Church’s essence than the Church of pure administration, or a more superficial and undiscerning response to the crisis of Catholicism in the modern world. There is no bureaucratic adjustment, no contrived exercise in artificial “dialogue,” no number of un-habited nuns or lay experts that one can appoint to replace the Catholic vision and the living Christian community that we have done our utmost to destroy, and no amount of historical, political, or sociological analysis that can apprehend what we have lost.

But if Christian Platonism, that is, Catholicism, has ever been true, then it is still true. If “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” if “all things came into being through Him, and without Him not one thing came into being,” then as it was in the beginning is now, and ever shall be. The first principles of reality do not cease to be simply because we are no longer able to apprehend them. If we truly wish to discern the signs of the times, much less believe what we believe, we must begin by attempting to glimpse, through a glass darkly, what we can no longer see and to come to terms with the depths of what we no longer believe.

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Michael Hanby is an associate professor of religion and philosophy of science at the John Paul II Institute at The Catholic University of America.