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Del Noce’s response to the modern atheist age

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This photo shows del Noce at home in his study surrounded by correspondence, papers and books. Photo: Marcello Mencarini, Bridgeman Images
This photo shows del Noce at home in his study surrounded by correspondence, papers and books. Photo: Marcello Mencarini, Bridgeman Images

Counter-Catholic trends in the contemporary Western world are well-known to the average person in the pews: the banishing of religion from the public sphere and the embrace of atheism as a “liberation” from religion, the ever-present eroticism of everyday life, the notion that Christianity is on the “wrong side of history.”

An increasing number of Catholic intellectuals are finding rejoinders to these trends in the work of the 20th century Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce, a lifelong Catholic critic of totalitarianism who died in 1989, and whose books The Problem of Atheism, The Crisis of Modernity and many others have been recently translated into English by the mathematician and philosopher Carlo Lancellotti.

Leading Catholics were fortunate to hear from Mr Lancellotti on 21 September via Zoom, at the invitation of the PM Glynn Institute at the Australian Catholic University.

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The institute’s Dr Kevin Donnelly, a contributor to The Catholic Weekly, was organiser of the Del Noce seminar and has been a driving force in the promotion of his thought in Australia.

Mr Lancellotti introduced participants to Del Noce’s enormous body of work, leading them through the thinker’s key criticisms of the authoritarian and totalitarian ideology he thinks is typical of the modern age.

According to Del Noce, totalitarian ideologies try to exclude their critics from rationality by calling them sub-rational. “Scientistic” thinkers claim only science and technology produce truly reasonable results; psychoanalysis says freedom comes from liberation from sexual repression; Marxists said that only the analysis of economic forces was truly rational; Nazis and Fascists had a racialist “science,” and so on.

“In this sense, Del Noce thinks that totalitarianism is an utterly modern phenomenon, because it’s tied to the denial of philosophy … The existence of a common logos [rationality] in which we all participate,” Mr Lancellotti said.

All of these false ideological claims are related to a “positive atheism” that does not only deny God but claims, contrary to Christian belief, that human beings can liberate themselves.

With this comes the false idea that history has a certain necessary direction, moving towards liberation, meaning there’s no “way back” from our modern predicament.

Del Noce criticises the view that “what is good is what serves the direction of history, what is bad is what stands in the way of the direction of history,” Mr Lancellotti said.

Carlo Lancellotti spoke to leading Australian Catholics about the work of Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce, pictured, at a seminar organised by ACU’s PM Glynn Institue on 21 September. Photo: Supplied
Carlo Lancellotti spoke to leading Australian Catholics about the work of Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce, pictured, at a seminar organised by ACU’s PM Glynn Institue on 21 September. Photo: Supplied

This view is a myth or a trick, he believes—it is always possible to ask questions about God, meaning, beauty and other perennial themes of human existence. History has not made them obsolete.

“Modernity should be better understood not as this juggernaut, but just simply as the period in which after the growth of Christianity, there was an anti-Christian response: atheism,” Mr Lancellotti said.

“Modernity is the age of the manifestation of atheism, and the age of the Christian response to atheism.

“The idea is we can improve, purify, become more clear and better-formulated, in response to the critique coming from modern atheistic philosophy.”

For Christian thinkers and politicians attempting to address contemporary secularism, Mr Lancellotti said the key was not to try to impose Christian moral norms by fiat, but rather to revive the credibility of religious questioning.

Where Marx thought religious questions were a sign of people’s alienation, and psychoanalysts thought they were a sign of sexual repression, Catholics should keep pressing the reasonableness of the religious dimension of life.

“The task of a Catholic politician, for example, is not to try to have everybody go to Mass on Sunday, but to create an education, a symbolism, in all aspects of life, an environment in which religious questions are recognised as part of rational human discourse,” Mr Lancellotti said.

“[Del Noce] thinks we must be aware there is this attack at the level of the religious dimension itself.”

The conference was also addressed by Dr Michael Liccione from La Roche University, Pennsylvania, while Dr Wanda Skowronska (also a contributor to The Catholic Weekly) and Dr Donnelly spoke on specific themes in the philosopher’s work.

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