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Unbelief and Bad Belief

Vatican Document Weighs How to Evangelize Culture

VATICAN CITY, MARCH 13, 2006 (Zenit) - Indifference or hostility to religion is a well-established phenomenon in many Western countries. Recent events such as the Mohammed cartoon controversy point to the serious consequences that follow when secular society is unable to appreciate religious sensibilities, giving rise to needless offense.

In this context a document made available a short while ago on the Vatican's Web site merits a closer look. "The Christian Faith at the Dawn of the New Millennium and the Challenge of Unbelief and Religious Indifference" contains the conclusions of the March 2004 plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

To prepare for the meeting, the council gathered information from countries around the world. The answers provided give an overview of some of the main characteristics of secularization.

The document starts by noting the loss of faith in today's world. "There is a rupture in the handing on the faith, intimately linked to the process of abandonment of a popular culture long attached to and impregnated by Christianity," the introduction states. The weakening of this popular religious culture brings with it serious consequences in terms of how people think, behave and judge.

"The Church today is confronted more by indifference and practical unbelief than with atheism," the pontifical council commented. With few exceptions, governments no longer publicly affirm atheism.

Yet while the number of regimes marked by an atheistic political system has declined, a certain cultural hostility against religions has spread. This is palpable in some sectors of the media and is directed against Christianity, particularly Catholicism, the document observed.

The threat here is more subtle. "It is a veritable sickness of the soul which induces to live 'as though God did not exist,' a neo-paganism that idolizes material goods, the achievements of work, and the fruits of power," the pontifical council noted. This leads to what the document terms as "homo indifferens," and often the search for happiness is reduced to a desire for material prosperity and the gratification of sexual impulses.

Causes of unbelief

The document notes that there are old and new causes behind the loss of religious belief. Drawing, in part, on the analysis made in the Second Vatican Council's pastoral constitution, "Gaudium et Spes," the Pontifical Council for Culture identifies some of the main factors.

-- The presumptions of modern science. The vision of the world without any reference to God, that rejects his existence on the basis of scientific principles, has become widespread and commonplace.

-- Man as the center of the universe. Western culture is permeated by a form of subjectivism that professes the absolute subjectivity of the individual and denies the existence of objective truths or values. This exaltation of the individual means that the Church is no longer accepted as a doctrinal and moral authority.

-- The problem of evil. "The mystery of evil has been and always will be a scandal for intelligent man, and only the light of Christ crucified and glorified can fully reveal and express it," the Pontifical Council for Culture notes. Today, the document adds, awareness of the presence of evil is amplified through the power of the mass media.

-- The limitations of Christians and the Church. Negative or unpleasant experiences, or scandals caused by priests, can estrange some people from the Church.

-- Handing on the faith. Changes in the family and Catholic schools make the transmission of the faith to new generations more difficult. The power of the mass media also undermines traditional cultural practices in the area of religion.

-- Secularization. Many believers follow a lifestyle in which God or religion is of little importance.

Changes in sexual morality have also had negative effects for the life of faith, the document notes.

Believing without belonging

Nevertheless, it is wrong to think that this means religion ceases to have a role, the pontifical council contends. After an initial rejection of religion there is a sort of reaction, by a portion of the population at least, and people look once more for spiritual sustenance. But this search is no longer directed through the established churches or by means of traditional forms of worship.

What ensues is a search "for an experience which is entirely individual, autonomous and guided by one's own subjectivity." This sort of instinctive religiosity, the pontifical council explains, is based more on emotions than on doctrine and is expressed without reference to a personal God. The document describes it as "believing without belonging."

Modern culture is, therefore, characterized by a twofold phenomenon: "unbelief and bad belief." Both of them have in common a desire for autonomy. The Pontifical Council for Culture also identifies a number of other characteristics of these new forms of belief.

-- It is a romantic form of religion, a religion of the spirit and of the self which has its roots in the crisis of the subject who is more and more narcissistic, and rejects all historical and objective elements. This do-it-yourself religion leads people to create a new image of God at different stages of their lives, according to the needs they perceive.

-- It is a strongly subjective religion, where the individual is under no obligation to give an account of his reasons or behavior.

-- It is an adherence to a God who often has no face or personal characteristics. God is often seen more as a force or superior transcendent being, but not as a Father. In some circles this leads to a return of pantheism.

-- It is a religion in which there is a lack of interest for the question of the truth. For many, truth has a negative connotation, associated with concepts such as "dogmatism, intolerance, imposition."

Overcoming obstacles

The Pontifical Council for Culture went on to propose a number of ways to tackle the problems outlined.

-- Dialogue, which is personal, patient, respectful, loving, sustained by prayer. This dialogue can be based both on fundamental questions of human life -- the meaning of death, religious experience, the inner freedom of the human person -- and on major social themes, such as education of the young, poverty, human rights, religious liberty and bioethics.

-- Evangelization of culture. This can be done in a multiplicity of ways: a public witness, such as the World Youth Days; city missions that carry the Church out into the marketplace; the work of Christian movements and associations in the public sphere and the mass media; the cooperation of the Church with organizations of nonbelievers to do things that are good in themselves; the promotion of public events on cultural themes. In general, this evangelization needs to ensure the presence of the Church in the public arena, which will help bridge the gap between the spiritual realm and daily life.

-- Help families transmit the faith. This can be started as part of the assistance offered to couples during their preparation for marriage. Once the couple marry and have children they need to ensure that their faith is lived out in concrete ways, such as the proper celebration of religious feasts, family prayer and visits to churches. Through these means parents can help build up solid roots of faith in their children.

-- Improve religious education. This needs to be done both at parish level and in religious schools.

-- Giving witness of Christian charity, by means of forgiveness and fraternal love.

Toward the end the document takes note of the need to convince nonbelievers that they will only find the fullness of their humanity in Christ, true God and true man. A task that could test the faith of any believer.

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Vatican, Culture, Evangelize, Unbelief

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