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Being of this world
The laity’s charge following Vatican II
In Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope)—the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World issued at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council in 1965—the questions of special urgency all had to do with ethics and politics. Marriage and family were addressed first, followed by the development of culture, socioeconomic life, and political community. Though a Catholic document, Gaudium et Spes in fact addressed “the whole human family.” The world, and not only the Church, it said, is created in love, fallen to sin, and “emancipated now by Christ.”
That approach to the modern world exuded energy, optimism, and engagement, in a vein that was more collegial, more global, more empowering of the laity, and more ready to learn from individuals and groups beyond the Church’s borders. It was in some ways very much of the 1960s, hopeful and upbeat about putting our collective shoulders to the wheel to produce widespread social change through engagement in public issues. The question is, was the optimism warranted?
Unfortunately, the evidence of history does not clearly substantiate it. To be sure, there has been change in some areas, such as human rights, women’s rights, and care for the environment. But here in the United States, to look more narrowly, most Catholics are not, in fact, committed to addressing economic inequality. According to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), 80 percent claim that helping the poor is important to Catholic identity, yet 60 percent believe that one can be a good Catholic without actually doing so. In his book Racial Justice and the Catholic Church (2010), Rev. Bryan Massingale of Marquette University shows how racism is and always has been endemic in the U.S. Catholic Church, despite lip service to the contrary.
Worldwide, civilian deaths in wars and civil conflicts are at an all-time high; and the gap between the richest and the poorest is widening. Therefore, a major 21st century challenge to the Church’s public agenda is to be realistic about the intractability of global exploitation and violence, yet socially engaged, committed to solidarity, and hopeful about the future.
A key development of the Second Vatican Council has been the twinning of natural law and Gospel as the foundations of the Church’s engagement in the public arena. At its most basic, natural law is simply the idea that human beings are similar enough, despite cultural pluralism, to agree about what constitutes basic human needs and goods and what the minimum requirements are for cooperative social life.
At the same time, the Council’s 1965 Decree on Priestly Formation calls for moral theology to be “nourished” by Scripture. But to what degree and how does this Gospel identity enter into the public sphere? The combination of natural law and Gospel in the effort—called aggiornamento—to “bring the Church into the modern world” has produced a major tension around which identity or source will control in which situation or with what audience. We have seen some conflicted debates about who owns Catholic identity and its social expressions, how to interpret natural law and Scripture, and which provides the normative bottom line on which issue.
For instance, one way in which the Gospel has influenced social ethics is by the introduction of the preferential option for the poor. The preferential option means more than justice as equality or equal access, and more than freedom as non-interference. It means a special priority and affirmative action for those who are now most left out. Coming from liberation theology, this phrasing is more explicit in the writings of Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, and certainly looks like it’s going to feature prominently in the statements of Francis I. But the preferential option also has precedents in Vatican II. Gaudium et Spes reminds us that it is a matter of justice “to come to the relief of the poor.”
In turn, new insights into human nature and dignity have affected Catholic teaching based on Scripture and tradition. For example, new understandings of the dignity of the person, human rights, justice, and the common good have influenced what the tradition has long taught as both natural and revealed—that is, the subordination of women to men and the priority of the procreative meaning of sex. The premise of natural gender equality has emerged since the Council, though with difficulty. Now, men and women are at least in theory seen as equal, and sex is also and equally for love. But there are still many questions about whether the Roman Catholic Church has really come to terms with the full equality of women in family, society, and Church. The so-called complementarity model, the references to the “special genius” of women, and the notion of motherhood as women’s most important vocation (which is not posited of fatherhood for men), still provoke critical questions. Moreover, global cultural differences on these issues remain huge.
Given such tensions, there are at least two different ways of looking at Catholic identity since Vatican II. Several authors—Massimo Faggioli of the University of St. Thomas, Rev. Joseph Komonchak of the Catholic University of America, Rev. Ormond Rush of the Australian Catholic University—have described an “Augustinian” direction and a ” neo-Thomist” direction, which apply to interpretations of the Council and to the Church in the public arena, as well.
Keeping their distance from the aggiornamento of Vatican II, the Augustinians see the Church as a haven of grace in a sinful world: Catholics should be bringing the experience of a real but transcendent God to an increasingly secular public and emphasizing the distinctive moral and religious practices that set the faithful apart. For Augustinians, the Church is faith-community oriented more than public-engagement oriented. Social service is a work of the Church, especially of laypeople, but broad social transformation is not the real program.
At the time of the Council and after, key theologians driving this train of thought included Rev. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cardinal (and future pope) Joseph Ratzinger, and Cardinal Henri de Lubac, SJ. The issue was raised with new force during the pontificate of Benedict XVI through some of his encyclicals, especially his 2005 Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) and his 2009 Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), which prompted debate about whether he saw justice as truly the mission of the Church and whether his teaching lens was the global Church or the rapidly secularizing countries of Europe.
The progressive neo-Thomists, on the other hand, have been represented by Karl Rahner, SJ, the Dominicans Marie-Dominque Chenu and Cardinal Yves Congar, and John Courtney Murray, SJ. They have stressed the created goodness of the world, history, politics, and the sciences, with the affirmation that grace is already present in our world. Also important to neo-Thomists is historical consciousness, in light of which they believe that our knowledge of truth is constantly in progress, not a finished product that has already been revealed, known, and taught.
Among the neo-Thomists, there is a sense of positive engagement and learning—perhaps most visibly from the natural and social sciences—in areas such as sex and gender, economics, evolution, and the environment. In this perspective, Catholic social teaching is reclaimed and promoted, and the preferential option for the poor is seen as an agenda for political action and structural change.
Today, 50 years after Vatican II, we may be witnessing the emergence of a third vision of the Church, one that appeals to the post-Vatican II generations. This model might be termed neo-Franciscan. It has been around since the pontificate of John Paul II, and is not necessarily to be equated with the outlook of the new Pope Francis. Like St. Francis, it prioritizes small faith community and personal devotion and service. A neo-Franciscan public agenda for the Church would take shape in care for the poor, nonviolence, environmental concern, and dialogue with other religions to accomplish shared goals. This approach would stress an evangelical identity in the world. It would be strong on Christian “holiness,” prayer and ritual, but, consistent with Catholic tradition, it would not represent a sect-type Church, which is to say, one that withdraws from politics and renounces all “worldly” values. Yet neo-Franciscans, in my view, need to—but do not always—incorporate the strong commitment to structural justice found in Catholic social teaching.
We often think of Vatican II as empowering the laity. The journalist Robert Blair Kaiser, who reported in the 1960s on the history, substance, and politics of the Papal Birth Control Commission, has put it this way: “Vatican II had written a charter for a people’s Church,” representing a “passing of power from old elite institutions to the people.”
In reality, the Council’s message on the laity was a little mixed and ambivalent about just how far the institutional Church, papacy, and episcopacy wanted to go in recognizing the voice and authority of the non-ordained. In its 1964 Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), the Council stated, “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ, and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent.”
But the Decree on the Apostolate of Laity, a year later, is more promising. It says the apostolate of the laity should be “broadened and intensified. With a constantly increasing population, continual progress in science and technology, and closer interpersonal relationships, the areas for the lay apostolate have been immensely widened, particularly in fields that have been, for the most part, open to the laity alone.”
In terms of public engagement by the laity on behalf of the Church, or as explicitly Christian and Catholic, the United States presents perhaps more opportunities than many other societies, including Western Europe. Unlike Western Europe, but like many areas of the global South, the United States is still a relatively religious country. Our public officials frequently invoke the name of God. Religious figures can be media pundits, and the lobbying of religious bodies is actually of note and concern to voters, public officials, and candidates for election. Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback Church, hosted a presidential debate in 2008; Peter Steinfels’s religion column has appeared regularly in the New York Times. And America’s Catholic universities are sites of public Catholicism, engaging Catholic intellectual traditions with contemporary fields such as economics, history, philosophy, and science; founding centers and institutes for the study of society, ethics, and politics; and sponsoring speakers on topics from the ethics of genetic research to climate change to the plight of immigrants and refugees worldwide.
It bears emphasizing that lay activism can and does go in quite different directions, both neo-Thomist and neo-Augustinian. Yes, we have the Nuns on the Bus rallying support for social justice, and dozens or hundreds of progressive-minded lay theologians. On the other side, we have very powerful conservative lay voices such as Robert George (Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism, 2013), George Weigel (Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century, 2013), and Richard Doerflinger, who works for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on pro-life activities. These are some of the intellectual and political powerhouses behind the public engagement of the current USCCB. Regarding Catholic college campuses, the lay-run Cardinal Newman Society should be mentioned in the same breath for its high-pressure and often successful efforts to police the Catholic “orthodoxy” of classroom content and campus lecturers.
Even more significant than these diverging voices is the fact that lay involvement in the actual life of the Church—beyond the scholars, movement leaders, and culture war elites—is in decline. We may debate whether the laity are empowered, but how many of them even care enough to invest personally in the reforms of Vatican II? According to statistics from CARA, the number of American Catholics is decreasing, women are leaving the Church at a higher rate than men, and only 15 percent of the millennial generation—born between 1979 and 1993—attend Mass regularly. The majority of Catholics say they want a more democratic Church, yet only a minority say they are interested in getting more involved in their parishes.
The legacy of Vatican II is mixed with regard to public engagement on morality and politics, but lay responsibility and lay activism are crucial to realizing the Council’s vision of aggiornamento and to doing so with a lively yet charitable pluralism of vision. We are all the Church, and only by mediating the Church’s social message among the world’s cultures in a positive, active way will we, the Church, be able to make a difference in the struggle against human suffering.
Lisa Sowle Cahill is the J. Donald Monan, SJ, Professor in the theology department of Boston College and the author most recently of Global Justice, Christology, and Christian Ethics (2013). Her essay is drawn and adapted from a September 26 presentation in Gasson 100 on the Second Vatican Council and the public arena, part of a symposium on the Legacy of Vatican II sponsored by the School of Theology and Ministry and the University. The event was among a series of academic symposia held over the past year and a half to mark Boston College’s Sesquicentennial.
Read more by Lisa Sowle Cahill