The church in the world

With the publication of Gaudium et Spes in 1965, the Second Vatican Council set the Church on a new course of engagement with the modern world. Pius IX’s blanket condemnations of modernity were consigned to the past as the Council recognised the truth, goodness and justice to be found in what it called the modern social movement. This new moment for the Roman Catholic Church generated a great deal of enthusiasm.

Forty years into the journey, commentators debate whether the Council was overly optimistic about modernity. Did the heady days of the early ’60s influence the Council’s agenda to its detriment? Should we learn from the great tragedies of the 20th century that the world is a much bleaker place than the Council realised?

From my reading, the Council was well aware of the limitations of modern culture, and in a sense the debate about optimistic and pessimistic views of modernity misses the main game. Much more changed with Gaudium et Spes than a more positive assessment of modernity. At the heart of the change is a new understanding of the Church’s relationship with the world.

According to medieval historian Colin Morris, the understanding that guided the Church’s relationship with the world from the middle of the 11th century was the building of ‘Christendom’. This was an attempt to build a civilisation where the structures, institutions and culture reflected the
Christian nature of society. Whatever the nobility of the attempt (inspired by the logic of Incarnation) and its very dark underbelly, the French Revolution signalled the end of the practical life of this understanding, even though some groups still adhered to it well into the 20th century.

Gaudium et Spes clearly abandons the model of Christendom, stating that the Church is not to be identified with any particular political, social or cultural reality. Nonetheless, the Council envisages an important role for the Church in the world, one that could be characterised as both dialogical and trinitarian. In this new understanding, the Spirit of God is continually stirring humanity and the world, and so it is necessary for the Church ‘to listen to the various voices of our day’, discerning and evaluating them in the light of God’s word. The Church does not impose the Spirit on the world.

In early July, Cardinal Walter Kasper addressed some of these issues in a lecture entitled ‘The Future of Christianity: Truth and Dialogue in a Post-Modern Era’, delivered in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. He argued that the model of dialogue is not just a political strategy but reflects the dialogical nature of human existence. ‘There is no return to the 19th century,’ he said, ‘with its opposition between Church and modernism.’ This was a passionate, intelligent and deeply sympathetic lecture that struggled with what it means to speak God’s word in a culture of which some parts do not recognise any

meaningful concept of truth. There is deep need of dialogue here. ?

James McEvoy teaches at Catholic Theological College, Adelaide.



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