“The Church in the Modern World” is unique among the documents of Vatican II. It is the longest of the 16 documents issued by the Council; it was not even contemplated in the work of the Preparatory Commissions; and it is written in a style that has come to characterize the newness of Vatican II among the Councils of the Catholic Church.
On December 1, 1962, the Doctrinal Commission presented its outline of the document on the Church (De Ecclesia), expected to be the key document of the Council. It received withering criticism from the majority for being a repetition of the defensive stance of the Council of Trent against Protestantism, with nothing positive to say about other religions or the contemporary world.
A proposal was made that the document should follow the suggestion made by Pope John XXIII in his opening address on October 11th. This would give the document the form of a triple dialogue: the Church in dialogue with its own membership (who are we, and what are we about); the Church in dialogue with other Christians (our brothers and sisters in the Faith, but visibly separated from us); the Church in dialogue with the modern world (how can we serve the world; what can we learn from the world).
This proposal was widely acclaimed. Over the next two years the third dialogue gradually became a separate document. Its title was Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), from its first two words, and it received its final form only during the last two months of the Council. It was finally approved on December 7, 1965, with 2309 votes in favor, and 75 against.
The document consists of 93 articles, filling 110 printed pages. It is divided into two parts. Part One has four chapters which deal with (1) the dignity of the human person, (2) the community of mankind, (3) human activity throughout the world, and (4) the role of the Church – how the Church can serve the world, what the Church can learn from the world.
Part Two has 5 chapters which deal with these specific matters (1) Marriage and the Family, (2) Development of Culture, (3) Socio-Economic Life, (4) Political Life and (5) Justice and Peace.
Apart from the topics under consideration, what is noteworthy about this document is the language. The Council is respectful as it offers to be of service to the world, and recognizes the help the Church has received from the modern world (n.44). The Council is humble as it acknowledges the responsibility of Christians for some of the loss of religious values in the world (n.19).
This optimistic document helps to distinguish Vatican II from other Church Councils with their condemnations and anathemas. It makes an honorable attempt to follow the lead given by Pope John XXIII in his opening address when he declared, “The Church prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations”.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has designated the period from June 21, to July 4, 2012 as the “Fortnight for Freedom”. The two weeks are a special time of prayer, study, catechesis and public action to protest government encroachment on religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The catalyst for this action is a mandate issued in January by the Department of Health and Human Services requiring that all employer health plans include provision of free contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion-producing drugs. The bishops argue that this mandate denies religious freedom to Catholic employers by requiring them to act contrary to the teachings of their religion.
The campaign began on June 21 with Mass in Baltimore at the national shrine of the Assumption, and concludes on July 4 with Mass in Washington D.C. at the national shrine of the Immaculate Conception. During the two week period there are special events scheduled throughout the country to support the campaign of teaching and witness for religious liberty.
I wonder why the bishops and the government failed to agree on a wording for the mandate which would respect the religious freedom of the employers while providing for the rights of the employees. It will have to be done eventually, and it should be attainable for two groups of intelligent people who both claim sincerity and good-will in their dedication to human freedom.
It is noteworthy that, at this moment of Government-Church collision on the issue of freedom, both institutions are under a certain amount of criticism for curtailing the freedom of their own subjects – the Government for intruding on the personal privacy of citizens, and the Church authorities for stifling intellectual freedom and silencing their critics.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is quoted as saying that our institutions are imperfect because they are constructed with the faulty timber of our imperfect humanity. Maybe if Church and State took that as the starting-point in their discussions, they could help each other arrive at an agreed position that may not be perfect for either, but that both can accept as tolerable.