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"Work in Progress" by James Hanvey


Originally published in The Tablet - International Catholic Weekly Newspaper

There’s an old joke about Cardinal Otaviani, one of the leading conservatives at Vatican Two. Getting into a taxi after one of the sessions of the Council the driver asked him, Dove?” (where). His reply ‘Trento!’  As we mark the 50th anniversary of its beginning, the question ‘Where?’ seems just as urgent now as then. Not only in theology, but also in discipline and liturgy there is deep struggle within the Church over the meaning, legacy and future of the Council. For many, its great promise seems to have been lost in a Church preoccupied by secularism, ill at ease and mistrustful of contemporary culture and worried about its own diminishing authority.

We have become accustomed to disputes about the way in which we understand the event of the Council.  Was it one of ‘rupture’ which licenced a progressive liberalising of the Church’s life and teaching, a perpetual aggiornamento, or one of continuity?  Continuity here being used to promote a restorationist agenda intent on asserting hierarchical and priestly authority which it feels has been undermined in the reforms of the Council and content to live within a smaller, ‘purer’  but more coherent and obedient Church. The ‘resident alien’ in a confused and dangerous world holding out for the unchanging verities of Catholic faith and life. Interestingly, and erroneously, both claim that the failure to follow one way or the other lies at the heart of the abuse scandals that have so deeply wounded the interior life of the Church and its public credibility.  

In his last interview Cardinal Martini spoke about the Church weariness.To some extent the cause lies in the struggles about how to understand the Council. [Of course there have been a number of wrong turns and cul-de-sacs as well as glorious and lasting achievements since in the Church’s life since 1962. Like Israel in the desert, the miracle of liberation can be forgotten in the dust of the journey. There is the temptation to look back to the idealised past of an Egyptian captivity, lamenting the loss of an apparent security, ‘at least we knew who we were then’. But the Church does not journey alone; it also journeys with the culture in which it lives. There is no doubt that even fifty years ago many of the Church’s positions on personal and social morality would have found wide acceptance but culture itself is changing. It has had its own crises – positive developments as well as confusions.  These will determine its capacity to hear and understand the Church. Has society become more hostile or simply more doubtful about any answer to the human situation and the enigma of history? Horrors that we might have hoped ended in the last century are very much with us and many of our social and economic systems appear broken.  Answers look increasingly jaded and any moral vision or political imagination is reduced to the transitory moment of a vacuous soundbite. Is it that the Church is weaker now because of this culture or is it that we can no longer disguise our ownwounded institutional fragility?] 

As we enter the ‘year of faith’ and begin the synod on the new evangelisation, we need to ask if we have lost the creative capacity to find a new language and the new intellectual confidence to speak to contemporary society.  These questions, too, were very much present in the mind of the Council Fathers at its beginning. They were certainly in the mind of the Pope who summoned it. In his opening address Pope John XXIII signalled a new attentiveness and disposition towards the world. He understood that the Church, even when faced with hostility or incomprehension, achieves more when it prefers to speak with “the balm of mercy” rather than “the arm of severity.” He also dismissed the pessimism which underwrote the Church’s sense of being embattled, “We feel that We must disagree with these prophets of doom, who are always forecasting worse disasters, as though the end of the world were at hand. Present indications are that the human family is on the threshold of a new era. We must recognize here the hand of God, who, as the years roll by, is ever directing men's efforts, whether they realize it or not, towards the fulfillment of the inscrutable designs of His providence, wisely arranging everything, even adverse human fortune, for the Church's good.”  A Church which feels itself embattled and believes it needs to resurrect all the symbols of its past glory in order to bolster its authority, is a Church which is living a dangerous illusion. It will have no use for Johannine generosity. It will fail to see that such generosity springs not from naïvity or weakness, but from a deep and serene confidence in the triumph of Christ which is quite different from the triumphalism of an institution. So, how is the Church to engage contemporary society without ‘going native’ or becoming an embattled and suspicious religious sect?  In the ‘Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World’ (Gaudium et Spes), I think the Council develops a remarkable answer. 

 Gaudium et Spes was the fruit of a long and arduous process but it can be seen as the synthesis of the Council’s theological perception of the Church and its mission. Still the source of some controversy, it can be easily misread. It falls into two parts: the first establishes the theological vision and principles which inform the treatment of the issues addressed in the second. It would be easy for pragmatists or those with particular social agendas to ignore the first part and concentrate on the second. It deals with the creation of a genuinely human culture, the dignity of marriage and family life, economic development in the service of humanity, political and public life and the urgent need to develop the structures which support and sustain peace.  Today, much of it will sound overly optimistic, theoretically weak or underdeveloped. But Gaudium et Spes does not intend to provide either definitive analyses or solutions to these questions it singles out, instead it indicates a Catholic orientation and approach. In this sense, the Constitution is unique. It does not mark an end but a beginning.  Indeed, in all of the fields which it discusses, together with new questions which have emerged since 1962, the Church’s thinking and teaching has been in continuous developed. One can see this not only in the work of theologians but in the teaching of the Popes and the national episcopal conferences over fifty years. This is especially marked with John Paul II whose full intellectual legacy the Church has yet to absorb. It is a witness to the fact that the Council allowed us to be a responsive and learning Church not an embattled one. Yet in all of these areas, the principles are derived largely from part one of the Constitution. Here I believe the Church can still find a theological and spiritual vision which continues to be a resource, a task and an inspiration for a weary Church today.

There are at least three aspects of the theological vision in part one that are important for us. Undoubtedly, the first is its Christ-centred humanism. Christ is the lens through which the mystery of the human person may be grasped and the darkness of history illuminated. In other words, the Council places Christ at the centre and refuses to read humanity, society, history or culture apart from him. This may seem rather obvious and expected but it represents a magnificent theological reclamation of the secular. It also places the Church at the heart of humanity and the creation of a truly human and humane culture.  Many of the tensions with contemporary culture that engage the Church often have at their centre a defence of this vision of the human person, human dignity and ultimate purpose.  In the philosophies and political systems of a secular society, Gaudium et Spes sees something that risks a reductive and instrumental understanding of the human person.  Only when we are prepared to acknowledge that human beings have also an intrinsic spiritual reality – however that may be expressed – can we do justice to human flourishing.  Where this is not acknowledged or honoured then there can be no lasting progress, only a deep impoverishment and disfiguring of human life. If society is truly to serve human flourishing then it must also find those values and structures which do justice to the totality of the human life: Human nature is so lofty that we need God to reach it.

The Christian humanism of Gaudium et Spes reclaims the secular as the proper realm of God’s dynamic and salvific love; it reorients the Church to the world and vice versa. It outlines a theology of ‘graced immanence’ so that the Church’s presence in the world is not only integral to the Church’s own mission but to good that both long for. With astonishing depth and clarity, Vatican II grasped that in living out of the mystery of Christ’s own person, the Church can only have an unquenchable love for humanity. It is its defender and servant. (GS 3)

The second aspect takes up the central themes of the secular Enlightenment, especially freedom. It shows how only in Christ can the emancipatory desire at the heart of the Enlightenment be realised. In sense,  Gaudium et Spes (along with other texts) begins to outline what a Catholic Enlightenment or a Catholic modernity might look like. It thinks through the great positive values and insights of ‘secular’ Enlightenment, deepens and integrates them into the fullness of the Catholic metaphysical and sacramental vision. Unlike other previous attempts – Catholic and Protestant - it in no way comprises Christian truth or sacrifices it on the altar of relevance to the cultural zeitgeist. Rather, it integrates secular humanism into the Incarnation and its hope in the emancipatory progress of history into the dynamic of salvation history.

The strategy of Gaudium et Spes is to reject the atheistic construction of the secular. It out thinks it by showing not only that it relies on a false notion of the human person, but actually works with a false notion of itself. The secular does not have to be a ‘God-free’ zone in order to be secular. In fact, it cannot banish or limit the range of God’s action. Yes, there is a legitimate separation of the Church and the State but there are no moral, intellectual, or geographical borderswhichcan deny grace its citizenship in the world. God is in the world he created and at home with us whether we acknowledge him or not. To accept the secular narrative would not only limit the mission of the Church but imprison the human spirit in a self-constructed cage masquerading as liberty. Gaudium et Spes rightly perceives that the greatest danger to Christianity is to internalise the secular narrative, huddle in the space of the private and resign itself as a curiosity lingering with diminishing relevance  on the margins of a vibrant secular world.  

Taking up the modern concern with freedom, Gaudium et Spes asks what is the purpose of human freedom and agency?  This is surely a critical issue for political as well as moral and social life in every age but especially our own. It is precisely here, in the drama of our freedom, that we need to know what our vocation is. That freedom is not a way of claiming our self-grounding, self-sufficiency – our absolute autonomy – as if in this only do we have our dignity. Rather our dignity and true value lies precisely in the recognition freedom calls us beyond our selves to choose and create in justice and in love for others. For freedom opens us to relationship, to  the ‘we’ – so often stressed by Pope Benedict – which is the basis of society and the gratuity without which human flourishing could not be sustained. (GS 23-32) It is no accident, therefore, that in the cultural and intellectual demi monde of the postmodern, among the strongest defenders of the values of modernity - responsible freedom, being, beauty, truth, reason, solidarity, etc. - have been John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

The third dimension has been less appreciated in recent years but is no less important.  Even though the secular may still continue to misunderstand itself, believing that it can only exist as ‘secular’ by denying God’s action in it, the Church does not have this option. If we have truly understood the meaning of God who is redemptively immanent in every aspect of the human aspiration to seek and realise what is good, then we must also recognise that precisely out of this secular world God can and does speak too. And, in obedience to the Word that it serves, the Church must listen and learn from the good the Spirit brings to light there as well. Dialogue is only the servant of truth when it is two way. In recognising this the Church celebrates God’s reality, it does not  compromise its own.

In Gaudium et Spes we see the first gestures of this discerning attentiveness to the ‘signs of the times.’ (GS, 44) Even through the ‘secular’ world God shapes his Church and purifies it.. It was the ‘secular’ world that helped the Church address the wound of abuse. It is the same secular world that also needs the Church; it does not need another institution which pays lip service to the Values of dignity, justice, transparency, truth and compassion. It needs a Church which lives these, and in living them manifests the genuine freedom that faith confers.

Finally, throughout the foundational texts of the Council but especially in Gaudium et Spes, one finds the leitmotif of a Church that understands its own poverty and the evangelical beauty of the humility in which Christ calls it to service of the world.  Opening the Council Pope John expressed this hope. As we mark its anniversary can we also renew it? “The great desire, therefore, of the Catholic Church in raising aloft at this Council the torch of truth, is to show herself to the world as the loving mother of all mankind; gentle, patient, and full of tenderness and sympathy for her separated children. To the human race oppressed by so many difficulties, she says what Peter once said to the poor man who begged alms: "Silver and gold I have none; but what I have, that I give thee. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, arise and walk." In other words it is not corruptible wealth, nor the promise of earthly happiness, that the Church offers the world today, but the gifts of divine grace which, since they raise men up to the dignity of being sons of God, are powerful assistance and support for the living of a more fully human life”.

James Hanvey SJ

Lo Schiavo Chair in Catholic Social Thought

University of San Francisco.