The Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church was held from October 11, 1962 to December 8, 1965 producing what is commonly referred to as “Vatican II” or the Vatican II reforms. Vatican II represented a liberalizing of the Catholic Church, the Catholic Church reaching out to the “modern world.”
“In the early 1960’s, the Vatican knew that there was a need to give the Church a facelift. Many of its policies seemed out of place, and most of its forms of worship were stiff and outdated. There was a feeling among the bishops that the Church needed to evolve with the times, and there was also a growing [belief that] to reunite with Rome, that she was going to have to give herself a more pleasant and appealing appearance. There was also criticism from her own ranks that her doctrines needed to be clarified and “restated” in a more simple and less dogmatic tone than previous councils had done.
Thus the Second Vatican Council was called by Pope John XXIII in 1962, and continued under Pope Paul VI until 1965 when it issued “The Documents of Vatican II,” each on different aspects of church teaching and doctrine. The spirit and attitude of these documents were remarkably different from any the Roman Church had ever produced. They were full of scriptural references, and did not include any blatant “curses” on those who did not agree (as previous councils had done). They were revolutionary in freeing individual parish priests to conduct Masses in the way they best could reach the local culture and community. This, as well as changes in church administration and religious freedom were the main results of the Council.
In the following years, there were other changes that proceeded out of Rome as a result of the new attitudes which were born from Vatican II. These included the removal of the strict requirement to refrain from eating meat on Fridays (and also the command to fast during Lent). Although these practices were still encouraged, they were now optional instead of mandatory. The whole Church seemed to be loosening up. And ecumenical leaders the world over were beginning to see the light at the end of the church-unity tunnel.”
All of the Popes from 1963 to 2013 (Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, Benedict XVI) took part in the opening session of the Second Vatican Council. The current Pope, Pope Francis, is the first Pope to not have attended the Second Vatican Council since the Second Vatican Council. Pope Francis became Pope on March 13, 2013.
Pope Francis has recently entered the news for “reaching out to atheists and agnostics” based on a letter to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica addressed to Eugenio Scalfari, a founder of the paper and a well known Italian atheist journalist.
Why would a Pope reach out to atheists and agnostics? There are two reasons I can think of; to try to convert them away from unbelief to Catholicism or alternatively to encourage a political alliance between atheists and agnostics who support the sociological and moral aspects of Catholic teaching and the Catholic Church. In other words there are two ways the Catholic Church might gain from reaching out to atheists; gaining new converts and forming cultural political alliances with atheists.
So is this what Pope Francis is doing? This is the relevant part of the letter Pope Francis sent to La Repubblica addressing Eugenio Scalfari:
“As for the three questions you asked me in the article of August 7th. It would seem to me that in the first two, what you are most interested in is understanding the Church’s attitude towards those who do not share faith in Jesus. First of all, you ask if the God of the Christians forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith. Given that – and this is fundamental – God’s mercy has no limits if he who asks for mercy does so in contrition and with a sincere heart, the issue for those who do not believe in God is in obeying their own conscience. In fact, listening and obeying it, means deciding about what is perceived to be good or to be evil. The goodness or the wickedness of our behavior depends on this decision.
Second of all, you ask if the thought, according to which no absolute exists and therefore there is no absolute truth, but only a series of relative and subjective truths is a mistake or a sin. To start, I would not speak about, not even for those who believe, an “absolute” truth, in the sense that absolute is something detached, something lacking any relationship. Now, the truth is a relationship! This is so true that each of us sees the truth and expresses it, starting from oneself: from one’s history and culture, from the situation in which one lives, etc. This does not mean that the truth is variable and subjective. It means that it is given to us only as a way and a life. Was it not Jesus himself who said: “I am the way, the truth, the life”? In other words, the truth is one with love, it requires humbleness and the willingness to be sought, listened to and expressed. Therefore we must understand the terms well and perhaps, in order to avoid the oversimplification of absolute contraposition, reformulate the question. I think that today this is absolutely necessary in order to have a serene and constructive dialogue which I hoped for from the beginning.”
It is a bit hard for me to figure out what exactly the Pope is saying here; perhaps the confusing way the Pope is speaking is intentional? Maybe he is trying to avoid being too specific to maintain his wiggle room and not be “pinned down?”
It seems to me in the first paragraph above the Pope is saying that since God’s mercy has no limits for those who are contrite and sincere in seeking forgiveness that means that the atheist’s duty is simply to follow his own conscience sincerely and humbly and that will be “good enough” for God to grant mercy.
The second paragraph above is about whether truth is absolute and universal or if it is relative and variable. The Pope then blatantly says that “truth is a relationship” and goes on to talk about how truth starts with oneself; and comes from ones history, culture, and the situation one lives in. The Pope then says this does not mean truth is variable and subjective, it means truth is given to us as a way and a life.
The Pope finishes his thoughts on “the truth” expressing his desire “to have a serene and constructive dialogue” on the issue; such “serene and constructive dialogue” being facilitated by “avoid[ing] the oversimplification of absolute contraposition.”
What is the Pope doing here in this way of reaching out to atheists and agnostics? He seems to be saying that the atheist obeying his own conscious is functionally equivalent to the Catholic obeying God and that truth is relative to ones cultural environment and what one is taught by the wider society one is in even if truth is not absolutely relative and variable. These are stunning concessions for a Pope to be making to atheists.
Why is the Pope groveling for approval from atheists? This makes no sense. The Pope should be advocating for the truth of Catholicism, I would think? The Pope should be representing and advocating for his own side.
Elsewhere in Pope Francis’ letter to Eugenio Scalfari he says this:
“For those who experience the Christian faith, this does not mean escaping from the world or looking for any kind of supremacy, but being at the service of mankind, of all mankind and all men, starting from the periphery of history and keeping the sense of hope alive, striving for goodness in spite of everything and always looking beyond.”
It is a common Christian saying to say that Christians are “in the world but not of the world.” Pope Francis is saying that Christians should not be seeking to escape from the world or to seek “any kind of supremacy” but instead should be at the service of all mankind. Is Pope Francis saying that Christians should be subservient to non-Christians? I thought the whole point of Christianity was to show non-believers a better way? That would necessarily imply that the Christian way is superior to the non-Christian way but here Pope Francis is saying that Christians should not be “looking for any kind of supremacy” so I suppose the whole idea that the Christian way is better than the non-Christian way is out the window.
How I view things, the Pope should be Catholic first; the Pope should first and foremost advocate for his own side and his own position. He should seek the approval of atheists only to the extent that atheists can help his Catholic goals and mission either through conversion to Catholicism or through uniting on potential shared goals in common such as atheists supporting Catholic moral positions. In other words the Pope should seek support from atheists and agnostics only on Catholic grounds for Catholic purposes and goals.
It seems to me Pope Francis is doing something very different in his letter to Eugenio Scalfari; that he is seeking “understanding” with atheists and agnostics on the basis of “meeting the atheists halfway” by saying that the atheist following his own conscience is roughly equivalent to the Catholic obeying God and by saying that morality is partially relative, that it is dependent upon how ones culture tells one how to live.Pope Francis’ conciliatory gestures to atheists makes me feel like Pope Francis is giving up on the special meaning and purpose of Catholicism, that he is surrendering the Catholic mission in a hopeless and misguided effort to be “liked” by people who are not his friends in the first place. There is a new and aggressive form of atheism on the rise that rejects the whole idea of objective truth that one is bound to obey. Religious leaders should be fighting against this “New Atheism,” not trying to make nice with it.