The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds.
Hence this Second Vatican Council, having probed more profoundly into the mystery of the Church, now addresses itself without hesitation, not only to the sons of the Church and to all who invoke the name of Christ, but to the whole of humanity. For the council yearns to explain to everyone how it conceives of the presence and activity of the Church in the world of today.
Thus opens Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World issued by the Council Fathers of Vatican II and promulgated by Pope Paul VI on December 7, 1965. The Church addresses itself not only to its own members, or even to all Christians, but to the entre human family and it does so in a dialogic manner. The Church has picked up not only on our spiritual needs but on “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted.” The Church here approaches the world with a very different tone and a revised set of priorities than had been used at Vatican I or Trent or even in much of the papal magisterium of the previous centuries. I say “much” because the amazing encyclicals Rerum Novarum of Leo XIII (1891) and Quadrigesimo Anno of Pius XI (1931) had made brave sallies into the practical world of everyday concerns regarding the rights of Labor and a just ordering of society, putting aside for the moment the more ethereal concerns of the what some might call the “purely spiritual.” Even these encyclicals, however, were delivered in a magisterial tone where the respective popes intended to “set things right” by decree. Gaudium et Spes took an entirely different approach, inviting the world beyond the Church to enter into a dialogue by which both the world and the Church can be enriched by a common exploration for the Truth. Actually both tone and matter of Gaudium et Spes was to some degree anticipated in the Encyclicals of John XIII, namely Pacem in Terris and Mater et Magistra.
The entire tone of the Second Vatican Council was one of dialogue. Nostra Aetate calls us into dialogue with non-Christian Religions. Unitatis Reintegratio establishes dialogue among the various branches of the Christian family. Sacrocanctum Concilium calls for the various differing cultures of our human family to be integrated into our Roman Rite as a way of expanding our awareness of the broad diversity of cultures within our Catholic faith. Christus Dominus calls for the Pope to act collegially and dialogically with his brother bishops in leading the Church. Often our vision is so locked on the “trees”—the individual changes of Vatican II—that we fail to see the “forest”—the fundamentally different ecology of the Post-Vatican II Church.
Unfortunately there was an attempt during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI to soothe the nerves of those for whom this fundamental shift in the Church’s self-understanding was overwhelmingly threatening. This shift led to what was called “the hermeneutic of continuity,” an attempt to blunt the Council Father’s vision but reinterpreting it in a more narrow context. Certainly there is great continuity in the Church throughout its history and it has not been broken by the Second Vatican Council. The immutable and eternal Truths of the Creed remain intact. The basic nature of the Mass as a Sacrificial Banquet in which we are made present to and participant in the Death and Resurrection of the Lord remains. The Pope is still infallible—in fact, under John Paul and with the articulation of Josef Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) there was even an extension of infallibility into the ordinary magisterium. John Paul and Benedict often “talked the talk” of collegiality and dialogue, they fairly rarely “walked the walk.” There was a strong recentralization of authority in the Roman Curia with the consequent demission of the authority of the bishops, both collegially and individually. The Ecumenical and Inter-religious dialogues have all but imploded. The Liturgy, especially under Benedict, was returned to a European expression of faith.
All this is a bit of a background to Pope Francis and in particular to his visit to the United States. It is becoming undeniably clear that there are two Churches in the United States. There is a majority Church which not only accepts the Council but is enthusiastic about the dialogical approach. They want discussion about the issues of the day: climate change, immigration, income inequality, the death penalty. They want a Church is that more inclusive and where there is honest dialogue between those of differing opinions. They understand the moral underpinnings of the great social and economic challenges that face our nation and our world. On the other hand there are those who want to go back to the Church of Gregory XVI (reigned 1831-1846) whose monastic background left him frightened, defensive, and condemnatory of the world around him. (This was the Pope who condemned gas lighting and railways which he saw as dangerous innovations that threatened the existing social order by promoting the bourgeois class.) These Catholics want the Church to retain its authoritative tone and to limit is voice to those issues which they perceive to belong to the “spiritual realm.” Needless to say, they perceive Pope Francis’ speeches and actions during his American visit to threaten their entire understanding of the Church and its mission.
Ultimately what is at stake from a theological perspective is our understanding of the Incarnation. What does it mean for God to have become human in Christ Jesus? An orthodox perspective sees that the Divine has entered directly into our human experience. As such God has taken on himself the concerns of the human family as one of us. There is nothing that does not fall under his reign or his benevolence—economics, politics, education, health, displacement of peoples from their homes, the protection of life at every stage—discipleship demands a response from us in this world and the Kingdom of God is seen as something that not only finds its realization in the eschaton but involves the transformation of this world by the grace of God.
On the other hand, the attempts to limit the Church’s mission to the “purely spiritual” represent theologically a Nestorian position where God comes among us in human appearance but never truly embraces our humanity and makes it his own. This scheme verges on Gnosticism in which the world is divided into the “sacred” and the “profane” and the Church’s only interest is with the “sacred.” In such a scheme “salvation” is about the eternal reward of the soul in a post-apocalyptic heaven. (The body gets to go along as a free ride in the Resurrection of the Dead, but the concern is the soul.) This world and those who belong to it meet only judgment and destruction. This scheme separates charity from justice, content that the poor and those on the margins of society receive the crumbs that fall from the tables of their betters. The orthodox scheme realizes that without a determination for justice there is no true charity only condescension.
The split between the two Churches in the United States grows stronger and stronger. It isn’t a result of Vatican II, though I think Vatican II has to some extent crystalized it. Years ago I approached the same issue from the perspective of the English Colonial Catholic Church and the Maryland Recusant Tradition as opposed to the European immigrant Church Tradition which challenged Colonial Catholicism in the early 19th century and afterwards. The conflict for the Church found its way into Vatican II. There were many influences for reform and change, but there is no doubt that the universal Catholic Church was highly influenced at Vatican II by the distinctly American tradition as represented in the Decree on Religious Freedom and by a more communal and less hierarchical self-understanding. To a notable extent the Universal Church was “Americanized” at the Council and the conflict continues today between those who want a monarchial and authoritarian Church and those whose vision is a more communal and dialogical Church. In the end the Vatican II model will prevail both because its foundation was well laid at the Council and because the vast majority of Catholics worldwide have embraced it. The question will be, how long can the two Churches co-exist in mutual recognition?