Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Practical Atheism and Pernicious Peace: The Silent Assassins of Our Age

In a 2012 Wednesday audience, Pope Benedict XVI made a penetrating observation:

A particularly dangerous phenomenon for faith has arisen in our times: indeed a form of atheism exists which we define, precisely, as ‘practical,’ in which the truths of faith or religious rites are not denied but are merely deemed irrelevant to daily life, detached from life, pointless. So it is that people often believe in God in a superficial manner, and live as though God did not exist.[1]

Pope Emeritus Benedict was not talking about the aggressive and vocal expressions of atheism that typically garner the headlines. This is not the kind of atheism that waves picket signs declaring, “God is dead.” This is a silent and seemingly innocuous, dare we say “practical” atheism that is particularly prevalent in the world today. It doesn’t deny the existence of God, it just relegates it to the margins of our busy lives. It doesn’t deny the Church, the Scriptures, and the Sacraments, it just asks that they be administered at our convenience. This atheism is not so much philosophical as it is practical.

Yet many in the Church today don’t see the problem. They go to church on Sundays (at least when it doesn’t conflict with a ballgame or practice), send their kids to Catholic schools, and insist on giving their kids “a firm foundation” by getting them confirmed (often independent of their kids’ feelings on the matter) before heading off into the wild, wild West of high school or college. Isn’t that what being Catholic is all about?

Sometimes I wonder if we have been lulled into a deep and dangerous sleep. At least this is how John Cassian described it in the fifth century.[2] Cassian, a master of the inner workings of the heart, noted that even those Christians immersed in religious life can so easily be soothed into the feeling of security when, in fact, their very souls are in danger. He called it pax perniciosa, or “dangerous peace.”

In the midst of reciting prayers and attending liturgies, at the center of the Church’s life and ministrations, Cassian observed many falling asleep in this dangerous and pernicious peace. He offered the piercing insight that “even the way of prayer can be dangerous if it never leads you to great love.”[3] Noting the same phenomenon in contemporary society, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore warns, “Our lives can come to resemble a Potemkin village – a façade of religiosity concealing our flimsy relationship with God and with others.”[4]

“Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns,” Pope Francis writes, “there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard.”[5] "Come on!" many will say. "Get realistic." "It's such a harmless vice, a permissible peccadillo in our busy age. I mean who, practically speaking, has time to make God the very center of modern life?"

St. John of the Cross reminds us, “It makes little difference whether a bird is tied by a thin thread or by a cord. . . Admittedly the thread is easier to break, but no matter how easily this may be done, the bird will not fly away without first doing so.”[6]

[1] Archbishop William E. Lori, “Who Matters Most?” accessed July 15, 2014 at:
[2] St. John Cassian was a brilliant mystical theologian of the fourth and fifth centuries whose formidable work informed the likes of St. Benedict, St. Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Jesuits), St. Dominic (founder of the Dominican Order), St. Francis de Sales and even John Henry Cardinal Newman. Cassian’s mystical reflections were largely responsible for the codification and translation of the Desert Fathers into the Western Medieval Church. 
[3] Richard Rohr, “True Prayer Leads to Compassion,” adapted from Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation (Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media, 2014), 15.
[4] Archbishop William E. Lori, “Who Matters Most?” accessed July 15, 2014 at:
[5] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), 2.
[6] John of the Cross, The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, transl. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodrigez (Washington, DC: ICS Publications 1991), 143.

1 comment:

  1. Michael...where to begin, where to begin?! As I read your thoughts and those of the others included in your text, I couldn't help but say AMEN especially those offered by John Cassian (in the 5th century no less). I have often said and believe that within comfort lies apathy. I believe we all need a "gut check" at least bi-annually, which the Church naturally offers us with the seasons of Advent and Lent; but those checks need to occur outside of the "special' events as well - a Wednesday in July perhaps...thanks Michael!!!


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