James T. Keane
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Faith and obedience, Pope Benedict XVI reminded Americans in his homily at Yankee Stadium in April, are “not easy words to speak nowadays. Words like these represent a stumbling block for many of our contemporaries, especially in a society which rightly places a high value on personal freedom.”

Some of the contemporaries to whom Benedict referred in his celebrated visit have gained a certain amount of fame in recent years in their propagation of what is broadly termed the “new atheism.” A motley assortment of pundits, philosophers and pop-culture commentators, they have directed particular ire toward the established Christian churches and their adherents. This issue of America includes five essays by noted scholars on the “new atheists” and their self-invented creeds. Each essay addresses the central concerns and propositions of the new atheism and also offers critiques of some of the arguments put forth by the more prominent standard-bearers for the atheist cause.

Foremost among those voices is the acerbic conservative and avowed atheist Christopher Hitchens, who after 9/11 also experienced a convenient conversion to American jingoism, less than a decade after he was denouncing American politicians as war criminals in his role as the enfant terrible of left-wing Anglo-American journalism. Despite his recent embrace of the glories of Western civilization, Hitchens continues to find no greater enemy than Christian believers, and several years ago delivered his personal coup de grace to Mother Teresa. “I wish there was a hell,” he said, “for [her] to go to.” This crowd, it seems, will not be known by their love.

The vitriol of Hitchens and his peers stands in remarkable contrast to the words and actions of Pope Benedict XVI during his joyful visit to Washington and New York in April. Who among us was not moved at the serene happiness that emanated from Benedict, a supposedly shy and retiring man, every time he came into contact with members of the Catholic faithful? Did he or the hundreds of thousands who turned out to greet him give the impression that their faith had harmed their lives or hindered their human development? “The Gospel,” Benedict reminded us, “teaches us that true freedom, the freedom of the children of God, is found only in the self-surrender which is part of the mystery of love.... True freedom blossoms when we turn away from the burden of sin, which clouds our perceptions and weakens our resolve, and find the source of our ultimate happiness in Him who is infinite love, infinite freedom, infinite life.”

In seeking alternate sources for that ultimate happiness, Hitchens and his ilk are reminiscent of a central character in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. In that novel, a priest on the run from an atheist regime in Mexico is finally captured by government soldiers. Late in the story, the lieutenant responsible for his capture has a conversation with the man he is planning to execute in order to deprive the local population of its last active priest. “You’re a danger,” the lieutenant tells him. “That’s why we kill you. I have nothing against you, you understand, as a man.”

“Of course not,” the priest replies. “It’s God you’re up against.”

“No,” says the atheist, “I do not fight against a fiction.”

What, then, is that angry soldier fighting against? If God is a fiction, how does he explain his rage? Like his real-life counterparts today, he seeks not the death of God, but the extermination of belief. As such, he can only fight against believers, and his strategy devolves into violence against the faithful. No one would accuse today’s prominent atheists of such thuggery, but their rhetorical violence is there in spades for all to see: arguments based on scorn, ridicule and clever bon mots pitched to a media culture hopelessly enamored of the sound bite.

American Catholics heard much more than sound bites and catch phrases from Benedict XVI last month. No single phrase has characterized his visit, unless it is perhaps the congratulations of our commander in chief: “Awesome speech, Your Holiness.” After following the pope through a busy week of important ceremonies, discussions, meetings and liturgical celebrations, many took away an enduring memory of a man whose faith has brought him real joy, a joy he wishes to share with his fellow believers, the children of God.

James T. Keane, S.J., is an associate editor of America.

Comments

MAUREEN TURLISH SISTER | 4/29/2008 - 11:15am
CHILD ABUSE AWARENESS MONTH The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has gone all out in publicizing its support in promoting April as Child Abuse Awareness Month and I applaud all such actions especially this one described by the bishops as "a major initiative of the Catholic Church in the United States," (http://www.usccb.org/ocyp/07-021pressrelease.pdf) and (http://usccb.org/ocyp/april_cap_month.shtml). The sexual abuse, molestation, rape or sodomizing of any child, especially when done by a trusted family member, minister, priest or teacher, is a conscious act of unspeakable moral depravity. It is a crime, a sin against humanity and a violation of a sacred trust. Make no mistake about it. Child abuse prevention along with accountability for past offenses is every bit a Right to Life issue. So in light of all that dioceses are doing across the country according to the PR hype being disseminated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the institutional church's reluctance to be more proactive and aggressive in its support for states across the country which are considering removing all statutes of limitation regarding childhood sexual abuse is especially troubling. Rest assured that the institutional church's loud protestations of commitment to victims of sexual abuse in the present offer neither absolution nor justice for the sins and the crimes of the past. While materials produced under court order in "discovery" have proven the existence of incriminating records, religious denominations as well as other institutions need not worry about defending against such "age-old lawsuits," because the responsibility to prove culpability belongs to those bringing forward older suits in civil court - that is the "alleged" victim or victims of sexual abuse, the plaintiffs. Those who were sexually exploited by anyone, parent, minister, priest or teacher, should have the right to the full protection of the law and arbitrary statutes of limitation need to be removed in order to even seek justice, let alone obtain it. But justice delayed IS justice denied. Does it make any sense not to do everything we can to provide justice for the voiceless of the past as well as for those of the present and the future? "We can never rest when it comes to protecting children and teenagers," were the words spoken just recently by Bishop Gregory Aymond, chairman of the USCCB's Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People in commenting on April as Child Abuse Awareness Month. If the bishops truly believe this then they need to be proactive, along with states' Catholic Conferences, in supporting those states like New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland, which have been in the process of crafting legislation and introducing bills that would more adequately protect children instead of attacking legislators like Maryland Assemblyman Eric Bromwell who recently introduced such a bill in Annapolis only to be intimidated into withdrawing it. It is unconscionable to be spending millions of dollars of church monies attacking adult victims of childhood sexual abuse in court from known sexual predators on technicalities or arbitrary SOLs. Removing SOLs is the single, most effective method of holding sexual predators and any possibly complicit or enabling individuals or institutions accountable along with the inclusion of "Window Legislation" to bring forward previously time barred cases of abuse. On July 10, 2007 Senate Bill 29 was signed as the Child Victims Law in the state of Delaware removing all criminal and civil statutes of limitation regarding the sexual abuse of children. More than that, Delaware instituted a two-year civil window for bringing previously time barred cases forward in civil court giving anyone who was ever sexually abused as a child in the state of Delaware until July 10, 2009 to bring forward his or her case. I was privileged to testify in suppo
MARGANNE DRAGO | 4/27/2008 - 4:50am
The continuing challenge: to listen to the words of our Pope Benedict; to live the words with the firm belief that there is NO OTHER WAY to live in this world. Hope, love, and a firm resolve to surrender to what all of the Holy Father is trying to lead us to: something sure and certain - life with God.

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