Decree 3: “The Task of the Society Regarding Atheism,” General Congregation 31 (1966)

Pope John VI opened the 31st General Congregation by noting the “fearful danger of atheism threatening human society.” Through the Jesuit delegates gathered for the congregation, the pontiff gave to the entire Society of Jesus (the “champion of the Church and holy religion in adversity”) a special task: “the charge of making a stout, united stand against atheism, under the leadership, and with the help of St. Michael, prince of the heavenly host.” The delegates responded, in part, by promulgating the following decree. The document notes some of the causes of atheism, some of the motives of atheists, the apostolic reasons for dealing with “difficulties which are raised against faith,” and how Jesuits might adapt their ministries to the pontiff’s mandate that they resist atheism.

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1. The Spread of Atheism and the Mandate of the Holy Father

1.     The glory of God, as the goal of all creation, and man’s own good require that he acknowledge, reverence, and serve God. Hence, the danger of atheism which faces so many men today should greatly stimulate the companions of Jesus to offer a purer witness of religious life and a more zealous devotion to apostolic work. The denial of God is no longer, as in former centuries, an isolated phenomenon; it has become widespread, affecting entire social groups and nations. In some countries, atheism is systematically spread by public authority, thereby violating the rights of man to the free investigation of truth and the practice of religion. In many more regions, the denial of God or indifference to religion has directly or indirectly infected the cultural and social life. The Supreme Pontiff Paul VI, on the occasion of the gathering of the Fathers for the 31st General Congregation, committed to the Society, in view of its special vow of obedience, the task of resisting atheism “with forces united.” Each Jesuit, therefore, earnestly though humbly, should take part in this task by prayer and action, and each should be grateful that he can thus better serve “his Lord alone and the Church, His spouse, under the guidance of the Roman Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ on earth.”


2. The Understanding of Atheism and Its Causes and of the Motives of Atheists

2.     All Jesuits, whatever their particular apostolic work, should give more attention to atheists and try to reach a better understanding of atheism and of indifference to religion. They should examine the different kinds of atheism, both systematic and practical, and should understand them as well as possible.

3.     They should also distinguish its causes, such as the relationship which the modern denial of God has to all the changes taking place in the material and social condition of mankind; or those “complex and multiple” causes which may exist “in the minds of atheists, so that one should be cautious in passing judgment on them”; or those social injustices which, especially in developing countries, incline many men to accept the atheistic doctrines which are connected with programs of social revolution.


3. Some Difficulties Urges Against Belief in God and How to Deal with Them

4.      To overcome the difficulties which are raised against faith, often even among believers, Jesuits should take appropriate action, not for any political reasons, but purely from apostolic motives.

5.     Many difficulties arise from this, that “there is a demand that the world of divine realities be presented in a higher and purer way than has been the custom in some imperfect forms of speech and worship.” Jesuits should therefore try to purify the presentations of God and to promote a truly personal adherence to the faith among believers.

6.      There are also some atheists, “gifted with a greatness of spirit,” who are motivated by impatience with “the mediocrity and desire of personal advantage which infect so many parts of human society in our times.” Jesuits therefore should make every effort to see that faith may always lead to a genuine love of neighbor, a love that is practical and social-minded.

7.      On the other hand, the legitimate aspiration toward the autonomy of the sciences and of human enterprise is often carried to such a point that it arouses objections against the acknowledgement of God; indeed, some men present abandonment of religion as man’s path to freedom. Therefore, our aim must be to let faith penetrate the concrete totality of life. It should be made clear that the Christian life does not turn away from developing the world. In fact, human values, cultivated without pride, and the universe itself, cleansed of the corruption of sin, illuminated and transfigured, will have their place “in that eternal and universal kingdom” which Christ will restore to the Father at the end of time.


4. The Character of Our Way of Life

8.      These means should be applied by members of the Society first of all in their own lives. Each should constantly cultivate an awareness of God who is living, working, and loving, an awareness which the Exercises of St. Ignatius impart through the meditation on the Foundation and the Contemplation for Obtaining Love. And, as far as possible, what God is should be made evident in the entirety of the Jesuit way of living and acting, namely, by taking on that basic attitude which the incarnate Word of God revealed throughout His life and especially in His supreme sacrifice, the attitude which the Exercises aim at, beginning with the contemplation on the Kingdom of Christ.

9.      Because atheists, estranged as they are from the environment of the religious world, will mainly judge us by our lives and actions, our way of living and acting must be entirely sincere and free from all appearance of pride or pretense.


5. The Formation of Jesuits

10.     The formation of Jesuits should be adapted so as to establish and promote this kind of spiritual life and a sincere and fraternal manner of acting. Scholastics should also be trained to understand the mentality of atheists and their theories, and they should be furnished with appropriate information, especially in the scholarly disciplines dealing with man, presented in modern terms. Care should also be taken that, as far as this is possible, those especially who come from an entirely Christian environment can, in good time, have some personal contacts with atheists.


6. The Right Order of Our Ministries and Their Adaptation to the Task Commissioned by the Holy Father

11.     The mandate of resisting atheism should permeate all the accepted forms of our apostolate so that we may cultivate among believers true faith and an authentic awareness of God. But we must also direct a greater part of our efforts, more than we have in the past, to nonbelievers, and we must search for and experiment with new ways for coming into closer and more frequent contact with atheists themselves, whether they belong to those parts of society which are most in need or to those which are culturally more advanced.

12.     With regard to the areas where atheism is being spread, we should concentrate on aiding the developing regions, where religious life is liable to greater and more abrupt disturbances because of the faster rate of change.

13.     In the light of the principal causes of atheism, it is clear that we must emphasize both the social and the university apostolates, either at our own or in secular universities.

14.     The vigorous intellectual efforts of all our scientists, philosophers, and theologians are also called for, and there should be a continuing cooperation among Jesuit scholars in various disciplines, especially the sciences dealing with man.

15.     In our schools, the modern atheistic positions should be explained and subjected to careful evaluation, not by indulging in empty polemics, but by promoting the most accurate critical understanding of the atheists’ arguments and ways of thinking.

16.     Jesuits should approach atheists with the firm conviction that the divine law is written in the hearts of all men and with the belief that the Holy Spirit moves all men to the service they owe to God their creator. Both by a style of proclamation adapted to each person, combined with religious respect, and by a brotherly witness borne in the concrete details of living and acting, Jesuits should work to remove obstacles and to help atheists find and acknowledge God.

17.     All superiors should see to it that our apostolate is constantly adapted to this end. It is especially recommended to Father General that in conversation with the Holy Father he try to obtain a clear knowledge of his mind with regard to the task he has committed to us and that, with the advice of experts, he direct the entire apostolate of the Society in carrying out that mission as effectively as possible.




Original Source (English translation):

Jesuit Life & Mission Today: The Decrees & Accompanying Documents of the 31st35th General Congregations of the Society of Jesus, ed. John W. Padberg. St. Louis, Mo.: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 2009, General Congregation 31, Decree 3, “The Task of the Society Regarding Atheism,” pg. 53–56 [24–40].

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