Can atheists be left in peace?
Fr Andrzej Przybylski
Yesterday I talked for a long time to my peer who said that he was an atheist. We covered many topics. We began with the problem: man’s freedom vs. the necessity to live according to God’s plans. We talked about the divinity of Jesus and about many painful matters in the history of the Church, which showed that believers did not follow the Gospel. At the end of our conversation he asked why we, Catholics, persecuted atheists, why we could not understand that it was their free choice and they had the right to have such a worldview.
God forbid! We do not persecute anyone. I do not know what happens in particular cases but certainly the Church, proclaiming the teaching about man’s dignity and freedom, opposes any persecutions. If they can happen somewhere this is not according with the teaching of the Church and the Church gives no permission to any such actions. I agree with your colleague that as Catholics we must have much understanding and love while talking to atheists. Since atheism is not always a simple and cynical choice of man; it does not always result from his desire to oppose or fight against Christianity but is often connected with his inner philosophy of life and way of seeing the world. For us, Catholics, it is a false and not understandable worldview but for atheists it can be the only acceptable way to conceive reality at a given moment. I have met a mature and educated man who said that he respected our faith and would like to believe in God very much but for him that was not a matter of desire and decision. He might have lacked the grace of faith although I believe that through such a confession he was close to meet God. Therefore, we cannot persecute atheists and cannot condemn them and judge them easily. However, we have the right to pray for them and proclaim Christ to them. This results from our faith and is the basis of the missionary nature of the Church. In one of his speeches the Holy Father Benedict XVI reminds the faithful of the necessity to proclaim Christ to all people and explains the groundless statement that unbelievers must be left in peace. I allow myself to quote a fragment of his speech, ‘From many comes the temptation to think this way regarding others: "But why do we not leave them in peace? They have their authenticity, their truth. We have ours. And so, let us live together in harmony, leaving all persons as the are, so that they search out their authenticity in the best way". But how can one's personal authenticity be discovered if in reality, in the depth of our hearts, there is the expectation of Jesus, and the genuine authenticity of each person is found exactly in communion with Christ and not without Christ? Said in another way: If we have found the Lord and if he is the light and joy of our lives, are we sure that for someone else who has not found Christ he is not lacking something essential and that it is our duty to offer him this essential reality? We then leave what will transpire to the direction of the Holy Spirit and the freedom of each person... we must also be convinced that we do harm to no one if we show them Christ and we offer them in this way too the possibility to discover their true authenticity, the joy of having discovered life’ (Benedict XVI, Rome, 2005). I think that this fragment of the papal teaching contains the answer to the question. We cannot persecute, reject unbelievers in any way or show them no respect, but we also have the right to live according to our faith, to proclaim our views, to defend Christian truths of faith since Christianity is the Person, the Event, the Life. We would have to stop living in order not to proclaim the One who through faith has become our all life.