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Is Pope Francis a Practical Atheist?

The Catholic News Agency headline on December 7, 2013 at the beginning of the pontificate of Pope Francis summarized his talk that day and his whole papacy:

"Pope: Neglect of human dignity causes 'practical atheism'"

Pope John Paul II in a General Audience on April 1999 said:

"The contemporary era has devastating forms of 'theoretical' and 'practical' atheism. Secularism... with its indifference to ultimate questions and... the transcendent." (Vatican.va>hf_jp_ii_ 14041999)

Francis's primary focus on only earthly human dignity, it appears, could be a form of practical atheism or secularism.

The Pope rarely focuses on "ultimate questions and... the transcendent" such as heaven and hell as well as the Last Judgement, but almost always on non-ultimate/transcendent issues that tend to bring leftist pro-abortion politicians into power such as radical environmental issues, leftist economic policies and unlimited immigration.

This form of practical atheism has brought about the Pope's seamless garment teachings which we will see appears to be a form of Kantian practical atheism.

The upcoming abortion holocaust in Ireland can, to some extent, be blamed on the Irish bishops following Pope Francis's seamless garment "pro-life" teachings that equates killing innocent human life with pro-abortion politician issues such as the death penalty, leftist economic policies and radical ecology policies.

Even after the abortion referendum was overwhelming lost, to some extent, due to the seamless garment focus as well as inaction by Francis and the Irish bishops, Dublin Bishop Diarmuil Martin had the gall to call for more seamless garment Kantian practical atheism. Martin said:

"Pro-life means being alongside... economic deprivation, homelessness and marginalization." (Crux, "After abortion loss, Irish prelates look to pope's vision of 'pro-life," May 27, 2017)

The seamless garment teachings of Francis and the Irish bishops, to some extent, can be blamed for the coming death of thousands even millions of babies

This teachings come about because of their conscious or unconscious Kantian practical atheism which is this world materialistic and tends to exclude the eternal.

The practical atheist Immanuel Kant while not explicitly denying the existence of God said:

"God is not a being outside me but merely a thought within me." (Fr. Stanley Jaki, Angels, Apes and Men, page 10)

Below is a summary of the type of Kantian practical atheism which appears to be part of the thinking of Francis and the Irish bishops.

In this part of the academic article "Categorical imperatives impair Christianity in culture" by scholar Douglas A. Ollivant it is explained that Kantian practical atheism infiltrated Catholicism and gives a background, to some extent, to why the protection of the unborn ended in Ireland.(July 20, 2010, Religion and Liberty, Volume 13, Number 4):


Traditional Christian anthropology views human beings as participating in both the temporal and the eternal... historical Christian scholars, such as Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, have striven to understand and apply this Christian anthropology, contemporary Christian scholars seem to have moved in a different direction. In addition to our own sloth-induced forgetfulness, we have Immanuel Kant to thank for this wrong turn.

The Categorical Imperative Surfaces

In his must-read Christian Faith and Modern Democracy, Robert Kraynak introduces us to the concept of “Kantian Christianity.” [1] Kraynak claims that the “Kantian influence on modern Christianity is … deep and pervasive.” 

What he means is that Christian thinkers no longer speak about culture and politics in terms of the more enduring principles of moral virtue, law, and the common good but now focus on social justice, understood as solely the immediate, material rights and dignity of the human person. 

Moreover, they have drastically reduced the role of prudence in politics accepted under the historical Christian anthropological understanding, which has recognized a variety of political regimes depending on the circumstances. This historical understanding also acknowledged the harsh realities of the political realm in a fallen (albeit redeemed) world, and the difficulties and agonies involved in fashioning a just or moral response to contingent events. 

Instead of prudential judgments, Kraynak maintains that we now hear only moralistic pronouncements about peace and justice that severely limit the range of (legitimately recognized) political options.
Kraynak maintains that Kantian Christianity has seeped into the language of contemporary Christians even though contemporary Christians do not seem to have a full understanding of the underlying anthropology that comes with it. 

The rights and dignity of each person replaces moral and theological virtues: rational and spiritual perfection. Further, an emphasis on personal autonomy or personal identity diminishes long-established Christian teachings about the dependence of the creature on the Creator, original sin, grace, and a natural law through which human beings may share or “participate” in eternal law.

Following Kraynak, it is clear to see that in our public life and culture, this language of rights and dignity tends to lead to absolutes in morality, or “categorical imperatives.” Now, Christianity has no problem with moral absolutes (and in fact dictates several), provided they are properly stated. But a proper statement of a moral absolute is made difficult by the anthropology lingering in Kant’s legacy.

Kant’s original categorical imperative, of course, states that one must live in such a manner that one’s actions could form the basis of a universal law. It is the quest for “universal laws,” exclusive of a prudent account of circumstance, that proves troubling.

This universalist language is incompatible with the more prudential approaches to public life articulated by Augustine and Aquinas, which was driven by their much richer understandings of the human person and his or her relation to the physical world and the divine..."

The Authentic Culture of Life

But the most flagrant use of categorical imperatives in our current political culture deals with life issues. It must be stated up front that no practicing Christian disputes that life is one of the most precious gifts that God has given to us. The second century “Letter to Diognetus” bears testimony to early Christians not taking part in the Roman custom of “exposing [or “discarding”] their offspring” – the preferred method of pagan infanticide for the weak or unwanted. [3]

But to speak of a “culture of life” – if used simply to express a “seamless garment” univocal defense against any taking of life – has become a categorical imperative. For instance, the core of what we might call the “Bernadin project” is that Christians (in this case Catholics) must dogmatically oppose and fight against any early termination of human life. But this understanding fails to see that there may be an important, and even a critical, difference between a true culture of life and a “culture of merely life.” The former taking into account the authentic existence of human beings within not only the material realm, but also the immaterial, the spiritual; the latter limiting human existence to the breathing of the air in this temporal world only.

This issue cuts very close to home, as it deals with some of the most controversial politics in our culturally fragmented society: abortion, war, capital punishment, infanticide, and euthanasia. To introduce questions of prudence into these debates is often difficult, but such introductions must take place to prevent the categorical imperative from seeping further into contemporary Christian thought. On issues of great import, no matter whether these issues involve economics, politics, or human life itself, making proper distinctions is always of the essence. To choose perhaps the least charged of these issues, Christians – and particularly Roman Catholics – have been engaging in a debate over the proper limits of state-imposed punishment for some time. 

Led by the personal opposition of Pope John Paul II, the Catholic Church has grown ever more dubious of the appropriateness – and therefore the justice – of capital punishment. Many prominent Catholics in America – some out of deep conviction, others in reaction to the dissolving Democratic party monopoly on Catholic political allegiance – have sought to link opposition to the death penalty with opposition to abortion, having the effect (whether intended or not) of neutralizing any partisan distinctions on “life issues.”

But this categorical language seems to conceal more than it clarifies, for even Pope John Paul II has conceded that the death penalty is a legitimate option “when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.” Now, a categorical use of this language seems to imply that the state can only take a life when failure to do so endangers other lives. But as Cardinal Avery Dulles has pointed out to us, it may be that:

When the pope speaks of the protection of society as grounds for using the death penalty, he may have more in mind than mere physical defense against the individual criminal. To vindicate the order of justice and to sustain the moral health of society and the security of innocent persons against potential criminals it may be appropriate to punish certain crimes by death. [4]
In other words, to insist on categorical language – maintaining that the Church must insist on the continuation of physical existence regardless of the attendant circumstances – may actually be contrary to the “culture of life” that the Church seeks to promote. It is not self-evident that a “culture of life” is promoted by the continuation of human lives that have been tainted by egregious sins against human dignity. By committing the churches to this univocal definition of the culture of life, forbidding any prudential account of circumstances, the lives of the innocent become equated with the lives of the guilty. This inability to make relevant distinctions is indicative of a certain poverty in our contemporary understanding, a focus on the material that implicitly denies access to, and perhaps even the reality of, the transcendent. This univocal focus on pure physical existence does not permit us to assess, to use the Cardinal’s terms, the “moral health of society,” let alone its Christian witness or sanctity. But it does excel in permitting the generation of convenient “categorical imperatives.”

Instead of speaking dogmatically about a “right to life,” it may be that Christians could better promote human dignity by returning to more traditional language, explicitly grounded in a Christian anthropology, that allows for proper distinctions of this sort. 

To quote at length from Kraynak:
Proclaiming a right to life easily turns into the claim that biological existence is sacred or that mere life has absolute value, regardless of whether it is the life of an innocent unborn child, or the life of a heinous criminal. And the claim that life is a “right” diminishes the claim that life is a “gift” from God: How can a gift be a right? Proclaiming a right to life eventually leads to the mistaken idea of a “seamless garment of life” that is indistinguishable from complete pacifism or a total ban on taking life, including animal life, even for just and necessary causes. It also makes one forget that the good life, not to mention the afterlife, is a greater good than merely being alive in the present world – an unintended but significant depreciation of Christian otherworldliness. [5]
Christian Life in Otherworldliness, Not Categorical Imperatives

Kraynak forcefully reminds us that in the end the Christian life is about “otherworldliness.” We are merely pilgrims here in this world. A world of “categorical imperatives” seeks to bring about the kingdom of God on earth. This goal is, however laudable in intention, subject to serious abuse, as the totalitarianisms of the past century have so forcefully taught us. And while the categorical language of Kantian rights hardly threatens human dignity and decent government in the same manner or with the same severity as the ideologies of the past century, it does threaten to diminish effective Christian witness in our fallen world. If Christians merely echo the claims of modern Kantians, where is the “sign of contradiction?”

A return to a more prudent politics does not mean that the debate on capital punishment has been resolved in favor of the practice. It may in fact be the case that even a prudential assessment of the societal costs and benefits of executing certain criminals may prove the practice to be undesirable. Perhaps, in the final analysis, a culture of life would be best promoted by the elimination of capital punishment. But I suggest that the churches can only begin to make this assessment by moving away from categorical language, permitting considerations other than the mere continuance of physical existence to enter into the calculus.

The churches and Christians do have an important temporal witness in a fallen world, and part of that witness is an eternal vigilance against the crimes of theft, tyranny, and murder. However, Christians must always be prepared to defend certain truths; not all taking of property is theft, not all restriction of liberty is tyranny, and not all taking of life is murder. Kantian Christianity has indeed seeped into the language of contemporary Christianity and, by discounting its eternal realities, threatens to diminish its temporal witness. A return to the politics of prudence –“Love God and do as you will” – provides the basis for a much more consistent and Christian public ethic.

[Pray an Our Father now for the restoration of the Church.]

ENDNOTES:
1. Robert Kraynak, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: God and Politics in the Fallen World (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001).
2. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Volume III, IIa–IIae QQ. 1-148 (Westminster, Maryland: Christian Classics, 1981), pp. 1474-75 (IIa-IIae, q. 66, a. 7).
3. This same letter also contains another amusing warning against “categorical imperatives,” stating that the Christians have a “common table,” but not a “common bed.” Food is to be freely shared, while sexuality is to be guarded. Again, proper distinctions are important.
4. Avery Cardinal Dulles, “Antonin Scalia and His Critics: An Exchange on the Church, the Courts, and the Death Penalty,” First Things 126 (Oct 2002), p. 8.
5. Kraynak, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy, p. 173.

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