The Catholic Church makes a distinction between being human and being fully human, and it does not consider atheists to be fully human. It believes that being fully human requires a relationship with its imaginary God, and that by excluding this from our philosophy we are not fully human. Most of the time they phrase it subtly, by saying that you require religious faith to be fully human, and sometimes they let the mask slip and explicitly say that atheists are not fully human. And most worryingly, they teach this dangerous and arrogant theory of dehumanization to children through the ethos of Catholic schools.
This dangerous arrogance starts at Vatican level. The Catholic Catechism says that man is by nature a religious being, and lives a fully human life only if he freely lives by his bond with God. Pope Benedict recently said that to truly live up to our being we must recognise that we are dependent on God. And Pope John Paul II said that a culture which rejects God cannot be considered fully human; that spiritual values are ultimately what make us fully human; and that Jesus came to teach us what it means to be fully human.
This dangerous arrogance is spread by Cardinals and Bishops and theologians. Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor has said that atheists are not fully human because we leave out the search for transcendent meaning that he calls God. Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo has said that we will be fully human when we see the shining face of God. Cardinal Paul Poupard has said that there does not exist a fully human culture that is not open to the dimension of faith;. Bishop Patrick O’Donogue has said that the fundamental needs of the human person can only be truly fulfilled through encounter with the deepest truths about God and the human person.
More disturbingly, this dangerous arrogance is embedded in the principles of Catholic education of children. The Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario says its Fully Alive program was created to help Catholic parents teach their children to be fully human. An Archdiocesan Board of Education in Iowa says that a Catholic school’s program must concern itself with the whole child in development that is fully human and thoroughly Catholic. Roncalli Catholic High School in Nebraska says its students become more fully human by becoming more deeply aware of God, self and others. Pope John Paul II Catholic School in Chicago says that it fulfills a person’s right to be fully human. Holy Cross Catholic College in Bury says a Catholic College strives to be fully human. These are only some examples.
I have personally heard two Catholic theologians making this argument, at a conference on religious pluralism in education in Ireland earlier this year. Prof Gavin D’Costa said that atheists are not fully human, and he defended this argument when I challenged him about it. And Dr Nick Van Nieuwenhove said that Catholic education enables a person to become fully human, and used a bizarre analogy of atheists seeing a photograph in two dimensions while Catholics see it in three dimensions.
Ordinary Catholics, and indeed Christians of other denominations, can share this dehumanizing belief, if they hear it being promoted by theologians or priests or ministers who they respect. And it can become a test for evaluating your faith and your natural morality. If you treat other humans as being fully human, on the same basis as you are and would like to be treated yourself, then your natural morality and compassion and empathy are over-ruling the theological arrogance that you have been taught to believe about your friends and neighbors and work colleagues who do not believe in gods.
Whatever theological imaginings the Catholic Church chooses to believe, its spokesmen should not articulate those beliefs by suggesting that atheists are not fully human. They should try to think back about various other ideologies that proclaimed that certain humans were not fully human. That didn’t work out very well for human rights, did it? Or for the dignity of the human person? Or for anything good at all, for that matter. And we should highlight this dangerous arrogance every time that they articulate it. We should make clear that the Catholic Church must stop dehumanizing atheists by saying we are not fully human.
Examples at Vatican Level
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part One, The Profession of Faith, reads: (27) “The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God;” and (44) “Man is by nature and vocation a religious being. Coming from God, going toward God, man lives a fully human life only if he freely lives by his bond with God.”
- In 2012, Pope Benedict, in a letter to a Catholic meeting in Rimini, wrote that “every person is created so that he may enter into dialogue with the Infinite… To truly find himself and his identity, to live up to his being, man must turn and recognize that he is a creature, who is dependent on God.”
- In 1998, Pope John Paul II, in an apostolic message delivered in Croatia, said that “A culture which rejects God cannot be considered fully human, because it excludes from its vision the One who has created man in his own image and likeness, has redeemed him through the work of Christ, and has consecrated him with the anointing of the Holy Spirit.”
- In 1995, Pope John Paul II, in a homily at Saint Joseph’s Seminary, Yonkers, USA, said that when he was addressing the United Nations: “My task is not to speak in purely human terms about merely human values, but in spiritual terms about spiritual values, which are ultimately what make us fully human.”
- In 1986, Pope John Paul II, in an Angelus statement in Adelaide, Australia, said that “Jesus did not come to lay burdens upon us. He came to teach us what it means to be fully happy and fully human.”
Examples by Cardinals and Bishops
- In 2009, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor told BBC Radio 4 that atheists are not fully human because we leave out of our philosophy the search for what Cardinal Murphy calls God. This is a transcript of the relevant section of the May 2009 interview:
Roger Bolton: “A lot of church leaders speaking on national matters sound rather defensive but you’ve gone on the attack because you’ve talked about secularists having an ‘impoverished understanding of what it is to be human.’ They might find that quite offensive, mightn’t they?”
Cardinal Murphy O’Connor: “I think what I said was true, of course whether a person is atheist or any other…there is in fact, in my view, something not totally human, if they leave out the transcendent. If they leave out an aspect of what I believe everyone was made for, which is, uh, a search for transcendent meaning, we call it God. Now if you say that has no place, then I feel that it is a diminishment of what it is to be a human, because to be human in the sense I believe humanity is directed because made by God, I think if you leave that out then you are not fully human.”
- In 2007, Bishop Patrick O’Donogue in Lancaster, Britain, wrote under the headline: “The Goal of a Catholic School is the Promotion of the Fully Human Person,” that “The fundamental needs of the human person are the focus of Catholic education… These fundamental needs can only be truly fulfilled through a rich and living encounter with the deepest truths about God and the human person.”
- In 2005, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, in a homily about the Eucharist at Saint Peter’s Basilica, said: “In the Eucharist we can deepen and improve our understanding of what the human being and the size of the challenge are… Then, at the definitive encounter with God, we will be fully human when we see God, the shining face of God.”
- In 2002, Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, in a presentation to the Congregation for Catholic Education, said: “What Franciscan schools contribute in the apostolate of education is the integration of faith, culture and life. An effort is made to raise the student to a completely human level open to divine grace.”
- In 2000, Cardinal Paul Poupard, as President of the Pontifical Council of Culture, told a convention in Lvov, Ukraine, that: “I have a dream when Europe will shed its blinkers and open its horizons to a vision that is fully human and Christian… This is the knowledge of the strictest link between faith and culture in the human person. In fact, there is no faith outside the realm of culture, just as there does not exist a fully human culture that is not open to the dimension of faith.”
- In 1997, Cardinal Paul Poupard, as President of the Pontifical Council of Culture, told the Synod of Bishops Special Assembly for America that: “Evangelizing man also means evangelizing his culture – this culture which is the special way by which mankind – in a given peoples – cultivates its relationship with nature, with other human beings and with God in view of reaching a truly and fully human level.”
Examples in the Education System
- The Archdiocesan Board of Education in Gilbertville, Iowa, USA, writes in its policy manual for Catholic schools that “Development of a Catholic Christian identity in the students is a basic aim of the Catholic school community… The school’s program must concern itself with the whole child in development that is fully human and thoroughly Catholic.”
- The Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario, Canada, writes of its educational program Fully Alive that the program “was created to help Catholic parents teach their children to be fully human… The program always presumes the message of revelation and, when needed, Catholic doctrine and morals are explicitly presented.”
- Roncalli Catholic High School in Douglas County, Nebraska, USA, says of its educational philosophy: “We at Roncalli Catholic believe that when we strive to follow the life of Jesus Christ, we become more deeply aware of God, self, and others; therefore, we become more fully human.”
- Pope John Paul II Catholic School in Chicago, Illinois, USA, quotes Pope John Paul II as saying that “the right to education is the right to be fully human” and continues “Following these words of our namesake, Pope John Paul II School provides an exceptional education to fulfill a young person’s right to be fully human, and much more.”
- Holy Cross Catholic College in Bury, Greater Manchester, Britain, writes that “A Catholic College is a centre of community, life and study which strives to be genuinely and fully human.”
- At a conference on religious pluralism in education in Ireland earlier this year, Prof Gavin D’Costa of the University of Bristol said that atheists are not fully human, and he defended this argument when I challenged him about it. And Dr Nick Van Nieuwenhove of Mary Immaculate College said that Catholic education enables a person to become fully human, and used an analogy of atheists seeing a photograph in two dimensions while Catholics see it in three dimensions.