PopeWatch: Libertine Atheism

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Sandro Magister at his blog Chiesa has an interesting post examining an intellectual influence on the Pope:


His name is Alberto Methol Ferré. An Uruguayan from Montevideo, he often crossed the Rio de la Plata to visit his friend the archbishop in Buenos Aires. He died in 2009 at the age of eighty. A book-length interview of 2007 has been reprinted in Argentina and now also in Italy, of capital importance for understanding not only his vision of the world but also that of his friend who went on to become pope:

In presenting the first edition of this book in Buenos Aires, Bergoglio praised it as a text of “metaphysical profundity.” And in 2011, in the preface to another book by a close friend of both men – Guzmán Carriquiry Lecour, the Uruguayan secretary of the pontifical commission for Latin America, the highest ranking layman at the Vatican – Bergoglio once again offered his gratitude to the “brilliant thinker of the Rio de la Plata” for having laid bare the new dominant ideology after the fall of the Marxism-inspired forms of messianic atheism.

It is the ideology that Methol Ferrè called “libertine atheism.” And that Bergoglio describes as follows:

“Hedonistic atheism and its neo-Gnostic trappings have become the dominant culture, with global reach and diffusion. The constitute the atmosphere of the time in which we live, the new opium of the people. The ‘sole form of thought,’ in addition to being socially and politically totalitarian, has Gnostic structures: it is not human, it recycles the different forms of absolutist rationalism with which the nihilistic hedonism described by Methol Ferré expresses itself. It dominates the ‘nebulized theism,’ a diffuse theism without historical incarnation; even at its best it produces Masonic ecumenism.”

In the book-length interview that has now been republished, Methol Ferré maintains that the new atheism “has radically changed its face. It is not messianic, but libertine. It is not revolutionary in a social sense, but complicit with the status quo. It has no interest in justice, but in all that permits the cultivation of radical hedonism. It is not aristocratic, but has transformed itself into a mass phenomenon.”

But perhaps the most interesting element of Methol Ferré’s analysis is in the answer that he gives to the challenged posed by the new hegemonic thinking:

“This is what happened with the Protestant Reformation, with Enlightenment secularism, and then with messianic Marxism. An enemy is defeated by taking the best of his intuitions and pushing them further.”

And what is his judgment of libertine atheism?

“The truth of libertine atheism is the perception that existence has an intrinsic destination of enjoyment, that life itself is made for satisfaction. In other words: the deep kernel of libertine atheism is a buried need for beauty.”

Of course, libertine atheism “perverts” beauty, because “it separates it from truth and from goodness, and therefore from justice. But – Methol Ferré warns – “one cannot redeem libertine atheism’s kernel of truth with an argumentative or dialectical procedure; much less can one do so by setting up prohibitions, raising alarms, dictating abstract rules. Libertine atheism is not an ideology, it is a practice. A practice must be opposed with another practice; a self-aware practice, of course, which means one that is equipped intellectually. Historically the Church is the only subject present on the stage of the contemporary world that can confront libertine atheism. To my mind only the Church is truly post-modern.”

There is a stunning harmony between this vision of Methol Ferré and the program of his disciple Bergoglio’s pontificate, with his rejection of “the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be imposed with insistence” and with his insistence on a Church capable of “making the heart burn,” of healing every kind of illness and injury, of restoring happiness.


Libertine Atheism?  Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die, does sum up a perennial philosophy in this Vale of Tears.  It is also a deeply unsatisfying one, which is why those who embrace la dolce vita can often be fertile ground for evangelization, just as they can be suckers for substitute religions.

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  1. Other than the moderation that Epicurus enjoined, what substantive difference is there between the libertine atheism of the 21st century AD and the Epicureanism of the 4th century BC ? Didn’t St. Paul at one time confront these people at the Aeropagus in Athens ? (Acts 17:18-34)

    These new ideas seem more and more to be regurgitated philosophies of a bygone era, albeit without the intellectual thought that the originators put into what they set forth.

  2. Beauty must be personified. Truth and Justice must be personified. God is beauty Personified. Jesus Christ is Truth and Justice Personified.
    In the conversation about being divinized: Jesus Christ’s Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity is given to man in the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist. The human being becomes divinized as children of God, as brothers of Jesus. Not by man, not by himself is man divinized, and that is blasphemy. Man is divinized by God. Without God, man cannot ever realize his divinity. In hell man can only see what he has lost. In heaven man can embrace the Beatific Vision of God.

  3. The bias in this small sets of citations is overwhelming – loaded imagery, straw men, etc. Maybe it is because Ferre is from South America where neo-Marxism is more present than in other countries, but his characterizations of atheism would not hold true in the US or in western European countries with a primarily atheist perspective.

    Most atheists are far from nihilistic or hedonistic or epicurean. To claim this as the “state of modern society” is an unsupportable overgeneralization. What has happened is a conflict between conservative catholic morals and modern society. Most countries are taking a consequentialist approach to morals and ethics. This is true of things like gay rights and marriage equality. While many members of the church continue to oppose these things, most people have come to realize that the state of being gay is neither moral nor immoral since it harms no one. Similarly, the use of birth control is actually a way to relieve suffering in places where poverty and over-population are rampant. Without going point by point, many elements of church doctrine are statements of belief rather statements of good or evil based on consequences.

    The elephant in the room is that many portions of conservative catholic doctrine actually increases suffering in the world rather than making anyone happier or “closer to god.”

  4. “Most atheists are far from nihilistic or hedonistic or epicurean.”

    Atheism is by definition nihilistic. As for hedonistic most atheists embrace, as you, do homosexual “rights” and contraception. By our definition that is hedonistic.
    “The elephant in the room is that many portions of conservative catholic doctrine actually increases suffering in the world rather than making anyone happier or “closer to god.””

    55 million infants have been slaughtered in this country by abortion since Roe v. Wade, something that Catholicism views as a crime that cries out to God. I will debate morality with you when you condemn that.

  5. Libertine and atheism are both negative … the negative atheism modified by the negative adjective libertine— both expressing the same thing— rejection of authority. Doubling down. Not a good bet to make. They think they are rejecting authority but they are rejecting Authority. And He doesn’t take that forever.
    Yes, we can recognized this recycled rebellion.

  6. Chris said the state of being gay is neither moral nor immoral… hurts no one.
    Same sex attraction, the state of being gay, is not a sin. Living in the gay lifestyle is. Don’t kid yourself Gays and lesbians are hurt.

  7. I would like to know any facts that justify this comment:
    “…many portions of conservative catholic doctrine actually increases suffering in the world”

  8. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think Chris Weiss’s comment rather proves the point.
    It seems to me at any rate that his argument is based on a new, or newish, sort of knowledge, presumably one that supercedes the Tradition conservative Catholics cling to in the face of modern society.
    As for Mr. Ferre, he

    maintains that the new atheism “has radically changed its face. It is not messianic, but libertine. It is not revolutionary in a social sense, but complicit with the status quo. It has no interest in justice, but in all that permits the cultivation of radical hedonism. It is not aristocratic, but has transformed itself into a mass phenomenon.”

    Again, speaking for myself, I suspect that he underestimates both the extent that messianic Marxism’s social revolutionary sense was libertine, and also the aristocratic tendency of hedonistic neo-gnosticism/libertine atheism.

  9. “Libertine Atheism” seems not dissimilar to the Positivistic Atheism of Auguste Comte.

    As Jacques Maritain points out very perceptively, Comte’s atheism, unlike that of Marx or Feuerbach is not revolutionary, but “as conservative as the theism of Hegel”: “it is neither militant nor argumentative, nor wishful of self-proof — so surely and comfortably installed that it is not even conscious of an adversary (its Adversary has disappeared). It has a quality of ease and naturalness, of proud tranquillity, which makes it unique in its kind. It has no need for Prometheus, it does not insult the gods, and does not raise against God the claim of the enslaved or alienated man.”
    Quite simply, “in the generative movement of Comtian atheism, it is not mankind that is the concern, but Comte himself. And Comte does not feel the need of being God, it is enough for him to be Comte. What happened in him when he became conscious of himself was a simple phenomenon of internal shiftings. He “spontaneously” and “naturally” recognized that the central place which God was thought to occupy really belonged to himself, Comte, and he slipped into that place as into the hollow of his bed, never to move from it. It was a psychological operation which could be accomplished with such irreproachable assurance only through that infinite self-esteem he indulged in from the very moment of his reaching the use of reason…”
    Comte was astute enough to realise that this required banishing every trace of causality and meaning from science. For him, metaphysics seeks causes, whereas science seeks laws – invariable relations between phenomena, rising above simple empirical observation only in order to foresee facts or phenomena in a deductive manner. Natural laws are “nothing else than the general expression of the relations observed in their development” Only the measurable is real and measurements can be combined as variables into differential equations, where they are functions of each other.
    Comte, not coincidentally, wished to replace history with “sociology”; he is the inventor, both of the name and the discipline.

  10. This article and the people in it make a fascinating study. We need to go much deeper into the thinking that is cited here.

    This is largely on the money. Think about it: every time a libertine atheist is presented with the Church’s teachings his reaction is ‘This is a dogma, and the strictures of dogma make people unhappy’. This thinking is an axiom, a basic unquestioned postulate. It is reflected in the bumper sticker ‘My karma ran over your dogma’. It has a hideous strength.

    This thinking is so embedded in our culture that there are only two alternatives for the Church.

    The first alternative is to circle the wagons against the culture. Convince Christian families to give up the television. Hold tight to the teaching of the Church. Be confident. Get ready to survive the eventual collapse when war, changing demographics, or an asteroid strike push the current society over the edge. And pray, pray, pray.

    The second alternative is to do an end run around the culture. Proselytize. Hold tight to Christian happiness and hold it up. Be happy. Show the world that its happiness is weak and shallow by comparison. And pray, pray, pray.

    Actually these alternatives are not exclusive. It is simply a matter of which to put first. It is obvious which Pope Francis puts first.

  11. Michael Paterson-Seymour on Friday, April 4, A.D. 2014 at 3:44am

    “Libertine Atheism” seems not dissimilar to the Positivistic Atheism of Auguste Comte.

    As Jacques Maritain points out very perceptively, Comte’s atheism, unlike that of Marx or Feuerbach is not revolutionary, but “as conservative as the theism of Hegel”: “it is neither militant nor argumentative, nor wishful of self-proof
    – “

    And again,

    “It has a quality of ease and naturalness, of proud tranquillity …”

    A very well stated review of an extremely significant, and often overlooked, angle.

    You might even compare some of Rorty’s stated views with the implications that can be drawn from Comte’s perspective and predicates.

    Causality as well as intrinsic teleology are as you say abolished. Any appeal to essential natures – assumed as the connotative plasm within the cell of a real universal – is ruled out of court.

    Every internal attribute other than appetite, that is.

    Yet, through some sleight of hand, or sleight of rhetoric, the value-free existential conditions of this or that existent thing, or “person”, are presented by the consequentialists endorsed by Mr. Weiss, as if they were still value bearing entities in the traditional sense, and therefore entitled to the benefits of deductions formerly drawn.

    And even more bizarre, is the term “good” as used by the consequentialist in regard to his outcomes: as if it had an objectively ascertainable public meaning, rather than merely functioning as a contentless variable used to cover any variety of supposedly self-justifying subjective preferences or pleasures.

    In order to convince you to care for a reason, you have to be convinced that X is entitled by Y value bearing attribute; or is a value bearing entity itself is some persuasive sense. But on their own values nihilist analysis, no single attribute is defining, and no material expression (a thing or a person for example) can be said to imply a moral value in itself.

    So then, why should those granting the consequentialist’s framework for the sake of argument, care what kind of consequences these non-value bearing others experience, much less how it is supposedly decided, and by whom, whether the particular end is “good” or not?

    How can any supposed ought claim, made within such a nihilistic interpretive framework, be rendered both logically coherent and morally imperative once the very enabling universals and essential attributes once thought to objectively exist have melted away?

    Well, given their own values nihilist metaphysical and logical assumptions, no such claim can be made or taken as existing on the basis of anything other than as the expression of a desire by a thing reduced in definition to a transient appetite.

    Which is probably why advocating solidarity, inculcated through emotional brainwashing, is such a big deal with ironists and hedonic utilitarians and the like; as they have in fact no intellectual grounds for asserting any objective commonality of substantive human interests; no way of arbitrating tastes or preferences; and, no real way of establishing membership in logically useful classes, other than by what are on their own terms arbitrary stipulations.

    For if in this atheist default assumption “gays” really are fundamentally different, and not just broken normals, then the trivial seeming but important immediate inference is that they are not existentially the same. And then on what logical class membership basis is their claim on the forbearance, or tolerance, or even worse, on the self-sacrificial solidarity one may choose grant to the like-minded within a community of interests, to be established as applying to them on any intellectually defensible basis?

  12. I noticed Chris Weiss decided not to deride the slaughter of 55 million unborn humans, a figure that not only would “Amaze Charles Darwin”, as SS General Reinhard Heydrich said at the Wansee Conference where the Final Solution was drafted, but would humble and amaze Heydrich, Himmler and Hitler himself. One of the horrifying sacraments of the Secularists is abortion. They celebrate it. And they will die defending it. Oddly enough, all of the defenders of Abortion have been born. Catholics who say they are pro-choice or pro-contraception fool only themselves. The Current Pope in addition to the last 2 say “Pro-Choice Catholic” is an oxymoron. You can be Pro-Choice or be a Catholic. When our Spirits leave our body, one is done fooling themselves. Another instance of how hard it is to be a Catholic. Don’t mess with God’s creative process. If it was easy to be a Catholic, there would be no Protestants.

  13. I have deliberately not responded to any of the comments made until now, but I will say that a society cannot be pro-life and anti-contraception. You must have one to have the other. Currently, abortion in the US is at its lowest rate since 1973, and teen pregnancies are at a 40 year low as well. These two numbers have one and only one root cause: better contraception, including better sex ed.

    The Catholic doctrine of pro-life and anti-contraception is antithetical to a balanced and moral society that tries to decrease human suffering.

    Similarly, the Catholic church’s standards around sex and relationships also results in pathological behavior. The pedophilia and perversion of clergy is clear evidence that creating imbalances around human sexuality only creates negative consequences. As a child I went to Catholic school, and unlike some young men, I had a very positive experience. My favorite priest who was a family friend and very much like a caring uncle, and my favorite nun, who was one of my teachers, eventually left the church to marry. Of course, they were excommunicated for breaking their vows. How can the normal, healthy and devoted love of two adults ever be a sin the eyes of god? Really?

  14. “but I will say that a society cannot be pro-life and anti-contraception.”

    Rubbish, The Church is against artificial birth control and society is drenched in it. To use that to attempt to justify 55 million innocent deaths is deranged.

    “pedophilia and perversion of clergy is clear evidence that creating imbalances around human sexuality only creates negative consequences.”

    Like all anti-Catholic bigots you have no idea what you are talking about. The rate of sexual abuse among Catholic priests is no higher than in other professions and quite a bit lower than among some, teachers for example. The vast majority of priests involved in abuse were homosexual priests going after teens rather than pedophilia. Their attraction to this perversion is all the rage in the larger society today, as we see in the effort, for example, to push gay scout masters on the Boy Scouts, something I am sure you are all in favor of. The abuse scandal for you is merely something to belabor the Church, and you care about the innocents harmed in that scandal just as much as you do about the 55 million innocent lives snuffed out in abortion in this country since Roe.

    Atheist and bigot is no way to go through life son.

  15. DNW

    Yes, for a positivist, who denies the intellect can know or understand being, the consquentialist position is incoherent.

    One solution, often adopted, is a form of Neo-Kantianism. There are truths of (empirical) fact and there are truths of value and they have absolutely nothing to do with each other. This is the underlying principle of Liberal Protestantism, Catholic Modernism, Existentialism &c: there are truths of faith and truths of (empirical) science that can never conflict with each other, for they have no common subject matter.

    Comte himself saw that there was no source of unity in a world, reduced to a mere succession of phenomena, but that the intellect, of its nature, demands unity. Accordingly, he located it in the subject and, especially, the universal subject, Humanity. As Maritain explains, “intellectual unity could not have its source in the object, or in the “objective synthesis.” It is in turning to the subject — the universal subject, humanity — that Comte claims to have discovered the hierarchy of the sciences, and, in general, the possibility of regulating scientific research and unifying the work of the intellect.”

    Altruism became for Comte the equivalent of Kant’s categorical imperative and egoism the equivalent of Original Sin; hence, his Religion of Humanity, with its feast days and festivals and with Comte himself (of course) as the High Priest of Humanity.

  16. Marine Doc wrote, “One of the horrifying sacraments of the Secularists is abortion.”

    If one cares only for humanity, this is inevitable. One will certainly be a eugenicist and, almost certainly, a Malthusian. “Breed ‘em, feed ‘em and weed ‘em” is every stock-breeder’s motto and pity for the individual is cruelty to the species.

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