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A new understanding

Forty years ago, Vatican II promulgated one of its last documents: the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Many have said that it was too optimistic about modernity. Some commentators locate that optimism in the heady days of the 1960s and argue that since we are now more aware of humanity’s radical brokenness, the document’s optimism should be tempered. The Pastoral Constitution is certainly a good deal more optimistic than the Church’s dismissal of modernity prior to the Council. However, in my view, the debate over the Council’s optimism is a furphy—it distracts attention from the fundamental shift in the Church’s relationship with the world, articulated by the Council.

In the 150 years before the Council, the Roman Catholic Church’s pessimistic evaluation of modernity was intimately related to its understanding of its role in the world. The world view of Christendom collapsed as new understandings of the individual in society arose and the Church was separated from the state. When the Church lost its directive role in the world, it saw the world as lost from God. In the Pastoral Constitution, however, the Council considered the Church-world relationship in a fundamentally new way. It finally, officially set aside the hope of re-establishing the Church-state alliance on which Christendom depended. It also set aside the blanket condemnations that characterised the Church’s attitude to modernity in the 19th century: ‘The Church also recognises whatever good is to be found in the modern social movement.’

Yet the change effected was more fundamental than the Church simply shaking off the mechanisms that facilitated the Christendom world view. The Pastoral Constitution articulated a better, richer theological description of the Church’s role in the world. This new relationship is built on two key insights. First, the Council recognised that history has intrinsic significance for the way in which God acts in the world, and that therefore the Church is charged with the task of remaining open to the presence and purpose of God in history. Second, the Council recognised that the Spirit of God is at work in the modern world, both in individuals and in social movements.

Condemnation would hardly be an appropriate response to a world in which the Spirit of God is at work. Rather, dialogue and discernment will be the Church’s crucial tasks. In the Council’s words: ‘Impelled by the belief that it is being led by the Spirit of the Lord who fills the whole Earth, God’s people works to discern the true signs of God’s presence and purpose in the events, needs and desires which it shares with the rest of modern humanity.’

The Pastoral Constitution does not offer a global evaluation of modernity. Neither does it advise whether optimism or pessimism is a wiser stance. It does articulate a fundamentally new understanding of the Church-world relationship as a dialogue. 

James McEvoy teaches at Catholic Theological College, Adelaide.



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