Rorate Caeli

Atheists, conscience and salvation

The following is a very timely sermon by a traditional mission priest on a confusing recent message on atheism. You may listen to this sermon in its entirety here (text via Rorate, audio via our partnership with AudioSancto). 

Man is made by God. We came from God and we will return to God, at least to be judged. Listen to St. Paul: “For none of us liveth to himself; and no man dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; or whether we die, we die unto the Lord. Therefore, whether we live, or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and rose again; that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living” (Rom 14:7-9). We belong to God, and we must render to Him His due!

St. Hilary says: “We are bound to render unto God the things of God; our body, soul, and will; for the coin of Cæsar is in gold, in which his image is engraven; but God’s coin is man, in whom is the image of God.” And S. Bernard adds: “Render unto Cæsar the penny which has Cæsar’s image; render unto God the soul which He created after His own image and likeness, and ye shall be righteous.”

We begin to render unto God what is God’s by first admitting He is our Creator… that He made us out of nothing! We continue to render unto Him what His due by following His commandments and that means we enter His Church to worship Him, adore Him, serve Him according to how He has shown us. That is precisely why we are here today at this Ancient Latin Mass (which has been proven to go back to St. Peter himself).

The Church teaches ALL men can know with certainty by the light of natural reason alone… that God exists and that He is our Creator. All men must start here to render unto God what is God’s. Faith is not required for this first step. It comes with being a creature in the Cosmos made by God. Listen to this infallible statement of the First Vatican Council: “If anybody says that the one true God, Our Creator and Lord, cannot be known with certainty in the light of human reason by those things which have been made, anathema sit” (Dz 1806). If there is order, there must be an Orderer.

If intelligence, must be One Who is Intelligence. If love, must be One Who is Love Itself. In the book of Wisdom we read: “For by the greatness of the beauty, and of the creature, the Creator of them may be seen” (13:5). St. Paul says to Romans: “the invisible things of God, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; His eternal power also, and divinity: so that they [i.e., the ungodly] are inexcusable. Because that, when they knew God, they have not glorified Him as God, or given thanks; but became vain in their thoughts, and their foolish heart was darkened. For professing themselves to be wise, they became fools” (1:20-22). King David says, “The fool hath said in his heart: There is no God. They are corrupt, and are become abominable in their ways…” (Ps. 13:1). St. John Damascene says: “The knowledge of the existence of God is implanted (by Him) in all in their nature” (De fide orth, I, 1).

It is held by eminent theologians like Ludwig Ott that “Inculpable and invincible ignorance regarding the existence of God is not possible for a long time in a normal, grown-up person…” (cf. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 16). Such people choose to ignore their very nature. As, St. Paul says this is “inexcusable.” They are fools and foolish. They are basically saying, “We have no king but Caesar” and they render unto men what should be given to God. Such ones are called atheists.

Atheists are by definition people who say with some conviction that there is no God, at least no Personal God to Whom men are responsible for their actions… to Whom we owe reverence, obedience and due worship. Since it is built into man’s very nature to know there is a Personal God… that He does exist… such atheistic men cannot escape falling into the worst of sins by taking this position… “they are corrupt … and abominable in their ways.” St. Paul makes it abundantly clear where such thinking leads: “Wherefore God gave them up to the desires of their heart, unto uncleanness, to dishonour their own bodies among themselves. Who changed the truth of God into a lie; and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. For this cause God delivered them up to shameful affections. For their women have changed the natural use into that use which is against nature. And, in like manner, the men also, leaving the natural use of the women, have burned in their lusts one towards another, men with men working that which is filthy, and receiving in themselves the recompense which was due to their error” (1:24-27). The spread of atheism leads inevitably to Sodom and Gomorrah. (Note, by the way, how St. Paul had no problem judging the grave evil of these sins … calling them unnatural, filthy, shameful, lustful… causing disease and evils to be visited upon those who embraced them.) Atheism opens the door to this evil. Obviously, atheism in any form whatsoever should be discouraged... it is not reasonable! It is not rational! It is foolish! It is corrupt! It is blind…and leads to more blindness.

From God’s point of view, atheists deny God His right… namely His right to man’s complete and dedicated service based on the fact that (i) God made man out of nothing, (ii) that God is the source of man’s every good and perfection, and (iii) that God redeemed man, purchasing him from the slavery of sin and the devil by the Passion, Death and Resurrection of His Majesty, God made man, Jesus Christ. To deny God His rights is of the greatest evils in the world. Even Vatican II says that “Atheism must be regarded as one of the most serious problems of our time” (G&S 19). Atheism is what fueled the Wars of the 20th Century… the bloodiest Century of all Centuries combined! Clearly, unemployment of the youth and the loneliness of our elderly is far down the list of problems man faces at this moment in time. That’s a contradiction to the Gospel’s teaching.

In light of these Gospel truths, we should ask ourselves a few questions: First question: can an atheist ever be pleasing to God? Answer: It is impossible! As the very word atheism indicates, it is against God. Thus, it is totally opposed to Him and His rights. It leads to blasphemy, such as saying outright that God does not exist, among the greatest of sins, …as well as to unnatural, unbridled vice of the flesh… in the end it can lead to final impenitence… which is a sin against the Holy Ghost! The eternal destruction of a soul, made so easy by the spread of atheism, is very displeasing to God… Thus, atheism is hateful to God… it is evil. Listen to St. John of the Cross express this poetically (God the Father is speaking to His Son): “My Son, only Your company contents Me, and when something pleases Me, I love that thing in You; whoever resembles You most satisfies Me most, and whoever is like you in nothing will find nothing in Me. I am pleased with You alone, O Life of My Life!” (Romances, 2).

Second question: Can an atheist ever do anything good? Answer: Well, it depends by what we mean by good. On a natural level, he may build a good house, one that is solid … or he may make a good car that runs well or plant good crops that grow and feed man. But how is that good in the sight of God, Who is utterly Supernatural.. How can any work of an atheist be counted on the supernatural level when it is not referred to God as the Creator of all good things and the end to which all good work must be directed? As St. Paul says: “For other foundation no man can lay, but that which is laid; which is Christ Jesus. Now if any man build upon this foundation, gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble: Every man's work shall be manifest; for the day of the Lord shall declare it, because it shall be revealed in fire; and the fire shall try every man's work, of what sort it is. If any man's work abide, which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward” (1 Cor 3:10-14). Atheist, by definition, deny Christ as the foundation of the world! Clearly, they do not build on Christ as their foundation! That makes their lives and all they do, no matter how naturally good it may be in appearance, useless in the end…completely flammable. Again, St. Paul: “if I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor, and if I should deliver my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity… believeth all things…”

This is one of the lessons of the parable of the Good Samaritan. The priest and Levite could not help the man Adam in the ditch. All they could do was go down the mountain to Jericho themselves. We can only do good that lasts…supernatural good with the Christ, symbolized by the Good Samaritan! The Good Samaritan brought the fallen man into the Inn (that is, the Church) and paid the Inn Keeper (the Pope and all who help him) two coins to take care of him. In other words, Christ came and empowered, enabled His Church to do good with Him as its principle cause through His two natures…symbolized by the two coins. Me thinks the reason why some are making these erroneous statements about atheism is that they are conflating the natural level and the supernatural level, treating them as being the same thing (which is Modernism…a condemned heresy)…when, in truth, they are vastly separate, immeasurably different. Only in union with Christ and His Church can we do anything good and pleasing to God! Listen to the “feminine genius” of St. Teresa of Jesus: “Since these works [of those not in a state of grace] do not proceed from that principle which is God, Who is the cause of our virtue being really virtue, and are separated from Him, they cannot be pleasing in His sight” (Interior Castle, I,2).

Third question: Can the atheists be saved if they do not violate their conscience, especially given what has been said recently about this matter, namely “the issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience… Sin, even for those who have no faith, is when one goes against their conscience…” Answer: after His glorious resurrection, Our Blessed Lord said: “Go ye into the whole world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).

Conscience is an act of our intellect by which a judgment is applied to an action (whether future, present or past) such that it helps us determine whether that action is good or evil. It is a specific act of the mind applying its knowledge to a concrete moral situation. It does not force man but tells him what he ought to do. What the conscience decides in a given case depends on principles already in the mind. In other words, the conscience needs a basis on which to make a judgment, and this foundation is first and foremost the Natural Law—the way God made things to work in this world. Furthermore, the common term for conscience is “the voice of God.” Cardinal Newman called it “the aboriginal vicar of Christ.”

Think about it. Given that God’s existence is naturally knowable to all men, but is rejected by atheists, then is not this very ACT of rejection, in and of itself, a deep and grievous violation of conscience? Furthermore, if conscience is “the voice of God”, why should the atheist accept the voice of God while rejecting Its Author? After all, philosophers have rightly used the very existence of the conscience in man as a proof for the existence of God. They go together! So, if a man cannot obey his conscience in such a serious and grave matter as God’s existence, how can he follow it in other less grave matters? He cannot! He is corrupted…foolish!

The great Russian Novelist Dostoevsky put it best when he said in his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, “If God does not exist, everything is permissible.” We know that Christianity has had a great effect on the world…but that is starting to fade…we are seeing more and more atheistic thinking where “everything is permissible.”

What is more, given our fallen nature, each man is duty bound to keep his conscience properly informed so it can help him in making good decisions. As we said a moment ago, the principles used by the conscience are presupposed as known to the mind, either from the light of natural reason reflecting on the data of creation, or from divine faith responding to God's supernatural revelation. Conscience does not produce these principles; it accepts them. Nor does conscience pass judgment on the truths of reason and divine faith; it uses them as the premises from which to conclude whether something should be done (or should have been done) because it is good, or should be omitted (or should have been omitted) because it is bad. This is one of the reasons Our Blessed Lord came down from heaven and gave us His Church… to teach right from wrong… to inform our consciences. Thus, we have the Sermon on the Mount… as well as teachings like the ones we heard today: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The conscience of man, therefore, cannot validly be put in opposition to the Word of God… to God’s Voice speaking through the natural law… In other words, there is no such thing as an “autonomous conscience” making it impossible for an atheist to have a clear conscience! Our King meant what He said: “He that believeth not shall be condemned!” We must not affirm them in any way but rather seek their conversion.

O How good it is to be Catholic! To know God exists, to be able to love and adore Him… in ways He has shown us…to receive His Sacred Flesh in Holy Communion… to know the Voice of God speaking to us through His Majesty and His Church and His Saints to guide us. How good it is be Catholic, able to render unto God, All that is His … with a clear conscience!