Fundamentally the Church of God has the same mission throughout all of her history: to attempt to fulfill the commandment of our Lord recorded in St. Matthew's Gospel, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (28:19-20a).
But since the Church exists in history, she:
carries the responsibility of reading the signs of the time and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel ... In language intelligible to every generation, she should be able to answer the ever recurring questions which men ask about the meaning of this present life and of the life to come, and how one is related to the other (Gaudium et Spes, 4).
In order to carry out that responsibility the Church must pay attention to those to whom she has the duty to preach the Gospel. The Apostles themselves first modeled this vigilance, for their method of preaching to Jews was different from their way of addressing gentiles, and St. Paul gave a particularly striking example of how to address pagan intellectuals in his visit to Athens, as recorded in Acts 17.
But it is possible to read the times in different ways, and even to misread them. Long after an event there can still be debate as to whether the right policy was pursued or not. Today's unresolved question concerns the future of the Church and her mission to the world. What should the Church's stance be toward modernity, or now perhaps, postmodernity? What is the best way of communicating the Gospel in this age? This question underlies most of the specific disputes about the liturgy, catechesis, Catholic education and the like.
A rough sort of consensus, it seems, has arisen since the Council, a consensus typified by Pope Benedict XVI in an address to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2005, in which he devoted part of his talk to the Second Vatican Council on the 40th anniversary of its conclusion. Alluding to Paul VI's closing address to the Council, Benedict made the following remarks:
In the great dispute about man which marks the modern epoch, the Council had to focus in particular on the theme of anthropology. It had to question the relationship between the Church and her faith on the one hand, and man and the contemporary world on the other. The question becomes even clearer if, instead of the generic term "contemporary world", we opt for another that is more precise: the Council had to determine in a new way the relationship between the Church and the modern era.
An attitude broadly in line with these remarks has stood behind, I think, the programs of the last several pontificates, beginning with Paul VI or even perhaps with John XXIII, and becoming more precise with John Paul II and his two successors. For looked at in historical context there is essential continuity between these various pontiffs; any differences are mostly in emphasis or personality, even though these are often magnified by the media and presented as fundamental differences or disagreements about policy or even doctrine. Before discussing these questions in detail, however, let us look at another project to address modern man on behalf of the Church, a project that seemed to be in full swing only a few short years before the Council opened.
In 1954 the French philosopher Etienne Gilson, surely one of the preeminent Catholic intellectuals of the 20th century, edited a volume entitled The Church Speaks to the Modern World: the Social Teachings of Leo XIII. This book contains the text of 12 encyclical letters of Pope Leo, with a general introduction to Leo XIII, his life and teaching, as well as specific introductions and notes to each encyclical, all by Gilson. The words in the subtitle, "Social Teachings," must be understood in a wide sense, for Gilson included encyclicals dealing with the revival of Thomistic philosophy, with the foundations of the political order, with marriage, as well as the famous Rerum Novarum.
What is striking about this volume is that as late as 1954 the encyclicals of Leo could be presented as the Church's message to the modern world. A few years later they would be seen as embarrassing relics of the pre-modern papacy, no longer applicable to the Church's apostolate. But just a few years before the Council assembled, Leo's teachings were offered to the world as the Church's considered response to modernity and its problems. Let us briefly look at some of what Gilson wrote.
In his general introduction, Gilson summarizes Leo's encyclical on philosophy,
where the doctrines of St. Thomas on the divine origin of all authority, on laws, and on all the other fundamental notions in political philosophy are said to be, after the grace of God, the best means there is to introduce modern minds to a proper understanding and appreciation of Catholic institutions.
On other points, Gilson notes that,
Practically all the positions rejected by Pope Leo XIII are so many varieties of one and the same error, namely, the refusal to recognize the existence of God, of a supernatural order, and of the duty we have to submit to it.
Gilson speaks of Leo's teaching on "the domestic authority of husband over wife, of parents over children, or of masters over servants [which] not only takes its origin and force from God, but also derives from Him 'its nature and character'." He goes on to sketch the Pope's doctrine on "the natural relations created by God between human beings ... in political societies, between the rulers and the ruled [which] follows from the natural inequalities which obtain between men."
One of the most interesting parts of Gilson's introduction is the section entitled "The Modern Liberties." His summary of Leo's teaching on these liberties is apt to seem odd to a 21st-century reader in the age of Facebook and Twitter:
There can be no such right as that of thinking anything, of saying anything, of writing anything, of teaching anything, and of maintaining every conceivable position about every possible subject. The true meaning of the criticisms of these so-called "modern liberties" is not that there are no such liberties; rather, it is that these liberties consist in the firm resolve only to think, to say, and to write that which is true, and only to will that which is good according to the prescriptions of the natural law, of the human law, and of their common source, which is the divine law.
I briefly pass over Gilson's account of Leo's teaching on Church and state—“when she acquiesces to certain situations in which the fullness of her rights are not recognized, the Church never gives up these rights; she simply waits for more favorable circumstances"; and “in no case will she ever admit that Church and State should be kept separate."
No doubt Leo's teaching strikes one as sufficiently bold and even confrontational to have been uttered in the age of Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud, but to republish that teaching, with a commentary that makes no attempt to hide or water it down, in the age of Bertrand Russell and Sartre might seem insane indeed. But regardless of the effect of such words on those outside the Church, do the words represent a proper stance for communicating the Gospel today? Was it true that "the Council had to determine in a new way the relationship between the Church and the modern era"? To put the question in its strongest form: Who was addressing modern man most effectively and most correctly, Leo XIII and Etienne Gilson or the post-Conciliar Church?
Although the nature of modernity can and has been hotly debated, I think one can make a case that the defining characteristic of modernity is the removal of the Church from her leading and official role as shaper of culture. All else about modernity flows from this fact, directly or indirectly. Prior to the modern era, the Church in varying degrees and ways informed culture and usually had an official or semi-official role in doing so. Whether by design or not, the Church realized well the aspiration of Pope Paul VI that "[t]he gospel must impregnate the culture and the whole way of life of man." This synthesis broke down, sometimes dramatically, sometimes gradually, depending on time and place, between the early 16th century and the early 19th, so that the Church lost her leading position as shaper of culture and began a slow retreat into a perceived cultural and intellectual obscurity or even irrelevancy. Adherence to the Catholic faith now began to be fundamentally a personal choice; there was no longer an overriding Catholic cultural or intellectual framework within which nearly all individuals found meaning for their lives. That overarching framework was instead provided by liberal individualism, which offered a radically different mental blueprint for understanding reality. Modernity on this reading came about when adherence to the Faith began to become simply a personal choice and no longer rested on acquiescence in a socially-accepted cultural frame of reference.
One can argue that because of this important cultural change a radically new kind of apostolate is necessary. But when Leo XIII set forth his program of a deliberate restatement of fundamental Catholic positions concerning philosophy, the political and social order, and the family, modernity was already well entrenched throughout the Catholic world, at least among elites. Despite this, Leo did not hesitate to restate Catholic teaching in ways that without doubt were jarring to the dominant liberal mind of the 19th century. By the middle of the 20th century, however, this approach no longer seemed sufficient to many. Their reading of the signs of the times was that something new was necessary. Were they correct?
Whatever can be said for and against both Leo XIII's program and that of the Council and its aftermath, the best way by which we can evaluate whether the new approach was a realistic reading of the times is by examining how it has contributed to the success of the Church's mission. Although it is often said, and rightly, that we are called to be faithful, not successful, nevertheless it is both natural and sensible to hope that the Church's apostolate will be both. The program that Leo XIII inaugurated, which was in the main a restatement of the Church's historic positions, did seem to be a success. The Catholic intellectual revival, which had begun under Pius IX or even earlier, received new energy and not only attracted converts of a high quality, but forced those outside the Church to take notice of Catholic positions on any number of questions
A chief feature of Leo's program was clarity about what the Church believed. That clarity had a twofold effect, an effect on those outside the Church and on her own members. As I noted above, it managed to attract numerous talented and learned people to the Faith, and it gave those already Catholics a sense of identity. Frank Sheed spoke about his youth in a provincial Australia, where a Catholic ghetto mentality prevailed, afraid of intellectual contact with the outside world: people were "proud of being Catholics, but [with] an unstated feeling that while we had the Faith, the others had the arguments!" But then came his first contact as a young student with the Catholic intellectual revival in the writings of Chesterton and Belloc: they "turned my mental world upside down," he wrote. When Pope Francis speaks with aplomb to the world this likewise has the potential of increasing Catholic self-confidence. But unless Catholics can also recover clarity of doctrine, a sense of why being a Catholic matters, I fear that no program will have the success that Pope Leo's did, either on Catholics or those outside the Church.
But another objection may be raised. Both approaches, that of Pope Leo and that sketched by Pope Benedict, presuppose a Church fully engaged with the world, including with the political powers of the world. Is that realistic today? Is it not better, perhaps, to emulate an earlier Benedict, who in his time retreated into the wilderness, whence his followers eventually emerged to till the soil of all Europe—both literally and figuratively? Benedict fled the world to establish a dominici schola servitii, a school of the Lord's service, as he says in the Prologue of his Rule. But even while his monks sought God in the wilderness, the Church pursued her life at the center of things, interacting with emperors and barbarian chiefs who were rapidly becoming kings in their own right. Can the Church of God turn her back on the world, even if only temporarily? Will the world ignore us or forget us while we seek to recover the spiritual resources we seem to have squandered?
In my view, no. Neither will the world allow us that leisure nor ought we even to seek it. For some, certainly, it can and probably should be the path sought, for it can be an important part of any Catholic recovery.
But for the Church as a whole I do not see that.
The Church has been set within the world since her beginning, and especially since the ending of Constantine's persecutions. Pope Francis is certainly not shy about engaging the world, and this is to the good. But the entire post-conciliar "new way" for "the relationship between the Church and the modern era" has not proved itself. I regard it as beyond serious debate, moreover, that in the effort to delineate a "new way" for "the relationship between the Church and the modern era," her apostolate was seriously weakened. Something at least of Pope Leo's program must become part of any successful Catholic engagement, in the modern era as in any other. No doubt his approach cannot simply be replicated. But if Pope Leo's program did seem at one time an adequate approach to modernity, we should not reject it merely because it does not seem up-to-date. History can never be merely slavishly imitated, but intelligently used, it can be an important guide for our present conduct. I suggest we look seriously at Leo XIII's program and adopt its essentials as the best response we have to the situation today: A situation that, in its essentials, is the situation that always faces God's Church in her pilgrimage through history toward eternity.