The church in the post-postmodern world
IT IS NOW FORTY years since the beginning of the Second Vatican Council. This article will look at one of the principal documents of the Council, The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. The purposes of this revisit of the Constitution are to highlight some of its principal points, to see how the document has faired since its promulgation in 1965, and to explore something of the challenge it still offers to the Church of today.
Before proceeding, however, the first thing to be said should be that the Constitution itself, emerging as it did from the debates on the floor of the Council, was a magnificent achievement of Vatican II. Reading it forty years on, it remains as fresh, inspiring and hopeful as it was in 1965.
Its most remarkable achievement, particularly when viewed in the context of previous Church social teaching, is its enthusiastic affirmation of the value of this life and its integral relationship to the establishment of God’s kingdom (GS 39). Rerum Novarum had seen this world primarily as a moral testing ground for heaven (RN 10). Forty years later little had changed: Quadragesimo Anno, at its most explicit, can only say that injustice is the source for people of ‘serious obstacles in the pursuit of one thing necessary, their eternal salvation’ (QA 130). While the Constitution’s affirmation of this life was certainly foreshadowed in John XXIII’s two earlier ground-breaking social encyclicals, particularly, Mater et Magistra (MM 254-257), it gave the Church its first extended official articulation of the positive place and role of life in the world in God’s plan of salvation (GS 33-39). Human culture (GS 53-62), the unfolding of history (GS 4), the social order (GS 23-32), conscience, even erring conscience (GS 16), liberty (GS 17), are also acknowledged by it as values for Catholic faith.
The Constitution takes its starting point from a renewed ecclesiology—a Church that now sees itself less in institutional terms and more as a community, with its own God- given identity and mission, in dialogue and interaction with a changing world. This renewed self-image of the Church, it was believed, would be sustained by greater collegiality, more active participation of the laity, a reformed liturgy, and a vie w of mission grounded, not in triumphalism, but in service of the world (GS 3). Moreover, what the Constitution offers the world is not ‘dogma’ or ‘moral law’ but Christ as God’s response to humanity’s deepest questions and longings (GS 4-10, 22, 32, 39, 45).
The Constitution had at its disposal in the articulation of its message a new vocabulary, earlier adopted by Pope John XXIII in Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris, the vocabulary of human rights of the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights, plus a more personalist, historical approach to social questions and issues. This same vocabulary, taken from the Western liberal tradition, would allow also the formulation of a radically new approach to religious freedom in the Declaration of Religious Freedom, a far cry from the previous reluctant ‘toleration’ of error, as for example in this quotation from Leo XIII’s social encyclical, Libertas (1888):
For this reason, while not conceding any right to anything save what is true and honest, she (the Church) does not forbid public authority to tolerate what is at variance with truth and justice, for the sake of avoiding some greater evil, or of obtaining or preserving some greater good.1
The important breakthrough which made this reversal possible is to be found in Pacem in Terris:
However, one must never confuse error and the person who errs, not even when there is question of error or inadequate knowledge of truth in the moral or religious field. The person who errs is always and above all a human being and retains in every case his dignity as a human person (186-7).
This affirmation by the Council of religious freedom highlights a changed view of freedom itself in the Constitution. The Constitution’s affirmation of conscience (GS 16), social and political freedom (GS 17, 43, 68, 73-76), its willingness to dialogue with atheism (GS 19-21), culture (GS 53-62) and so forth, is again a radical departure from the earlier conception of freedom as a predetermined potentiality or trajectory, which was then locked into precisely stereotyped roles and activities. This new approach has its inception in Leo XIII’s recognition in Rerum Novarum of the historical role of workers in achieving a just economic order. It comes, then, to its fullest expression in the Constitution’s historical view of the human condition (GS 4-10, 17) and of the human community role in the world (GS 23-39). This new appreciation of human freedom comes especially to the fore in the Constitution’s strong condemnation of every type of discrimination: ‘with respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, colour, social condition, language, or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent’ (GS 29). This was indeed a social message of hope that the church could confidently offer to the modern world.
The Aftermath of the Council
What happened to this dream? And it was a dream! First, the Church did change, but not in the way or to the extent required by the spirit of the Constitution. Vernacular liturgy, increased lay participation, a greater commitment to social justice, and so forth, all contributed to a reordering of the Church’s priorities. Collegiality, however, never happened. The ‘local’ church is less a reality than ever, thus hobbling any genuine enculturation. Dialogue with people’s changing experience and perceptions was perceived by many to be shut down almost immediately with the publication of Humanae Vitae in 1968. Structures barely changed, therefore other models of Church never materialised, instead, especially in recent years, institutional control has steadily intensified.
Why this matters so much in the Western world is that the values prized more than any other, such as freedom, human dignity, equality, conscience, justice and authenticity, which in fact can be said to have their origins in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, seem to have so little place within the Church itself. The liberal vocabulary, so enthusiastically adopted by the Church in the early sixties, remains completely unintegrated into the Church’s own ecclesial understanding and rhetoric.2 The Church is not a democracy in its duty to preserve the revelation entrusted to it, but that should not be used as a pretext to cover up the misuse of power in the Church community. In Charles Taylor’s terms it has been a failure in ‘catholicity’:
Our great historical temptation has been to forget the complementarity, to go straight for the sameness, making as many people as possible into ‘good Catholics’—and in the process failing of catholicity: failing of catholicity, because failing wholeness: unity bought at the price of suppressing something of the diversity in the humanity that God created; unity of the part masquerading as the whole. It is universality without wholeness, and so not true Catholicism.3
My second point is that, while the Church did not change, the world did so dramatically. Peter Conrad, albeit in rather biased fashion, in his survey of twentieth century Western culture, Modern Times, Modern Places, describes the revolt at the end of the sixties in these terms:
We are all colonised natives, since civilisation tells a lie about the irrationality of nature. Christianity suppressed the turbulence of the pagan world, with its libertine gods and voluptuous goddesses, by regulating sexual behaviour; during the 1960s what Paglia calls ‘the chaos of sex’ at last disrupted those chaste, monogamous conventions. With its love-ins, long hair and bra-burning, with muddy mayhem at Woodstock and cars incinerated in the streets of Paris, it was a decade of crazed revelry, bringing to an end that warfare between Dionysus and Apollo, instinct and legal restraint, which Nietzsche saw beneath the decorous surface at the end of the nineteenth century.4
The continuing surface traits of this social revolution are obvious—affluence, consumerism, a loss of faith in institutions of all kinds, not just religious ones, the proliferation of alternate lifestyles, an increasingly media structured experience and opinion, information overload, an accelerated pace of urban life, and so on. Back in 1922, in Ulysses, James Joyce set out ‘nine new muses’ for modern social life, and with the substitution of a few more familiar expressions probably all that’s needed, his list is remarkably prescient: ‘Commerce, Operatic Music, Amor, Publicity, Manufacture, Liberty of Speech, Plural Voting, Gastronomy, Private Hygiene, Seaside Concert Entertainments, Painless Obstetrics, and Astronomy for the People’.5
Underpinning these social changes was the development of a new stage of Western industrialisation, made possible by the advent of computer technology. Such factors as more flexible production methods, floating currencies, an internationalised labour market, instantaneous communication, and faster and larger means of transportation, have all contributed to these cultural changes.6
Postmodernism is often the term applied to the deeper cultural phenomena associated with these new economic conditions. Without spending too much time on the topic, Postmodernism’s principal characteristics are:
• a rejection of all ‘totalising’ narratives, in particular a repudiation
of all the destructive ‘isms’ of the first half of the twentieth century;
big missal splayed
The poem captures the modern sense that everything is constantly changing, that there are no fixed points of reference. For religion this means that narratives lose their power to convince—belief, then, has a sense of ‘unreality’ about it. In addition there is a widespread impression that the Church’s moral teaching is out of touch with people’s lives, that it often appears ‘intolerant’, ‘secretive’, ‘obsessed with sexuality’, and lacking in ‘compassion’. There may well be a crisis of Catholic identity, but to think that the remedy is solely a greater insistence on orthodoxy is to fail to see the more fundamental issues underpinning the crisis.
The Present Post-Postmodern Period
As the title of this article suggests, I am tempted to say that postmodernism as a cultural phase has either ended, or more likely, that a new development within it is occurring. Perhaps the collapse of the Russian Soviet system in 1989 was the beginning of this new phase. Why?
Globalisation is the modern term for the intensification of all those economic, technological and social factors underlying postmodernism. The opening up of markets in free trade, the technical ability to access resources and labour worldwide, higher productivity, the exponential growth of multinationals with the ability to communicate instantaneously, from the Bahamas say, with its subsidiaries anywhere in the world, the growing power of the market to dictate terms to national governments, and so forth, have all combined to turn the whole globe into one market place.
There is no need to demonise the market. It does what it is designed to do very well, namely to efficiently allocate resources.8 What it is unable to do, however, is to distribute goods equitably or to maintain environmental sustainability, both of which have become the flash points within globalisation. The market is grounded in a narrow set of goals, such as profitability, competition, efficiency, productivity, and strategic thinking. When these goals begin to dominate culture, as is now increasingly happening, and to force it into its own narrow confines, tensions increase.
What we seem to have been witnessing since 1989, when the tensions of the cold war ended, is a new complex set of tensions emerging. September 11 will probably remain its predominant symbol for some time. Opposition and reaction is occurring on numerous fronts from violent protests at economic and environmental summits, to anti-American feeling, and, within religion, to the resurgence of fundamentalism, although it should also be noted that the market itself sponsors its own form of fundamentalist Christianity.
A Possible Church Response
We might well ask, therefore, what might the Church do, if it wants to keep alive the spirit of the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World?
Liberation theology has been, in my opinion, one of the most innovative theologies of the past forty years. Its strengths are:
• a foundation in a new experience
of Church in basic Christian communities;
Liberation theology still has much to offer the Church, and hopefully it will be able to in happier times. Here, I do not want to rehearse the ecclesiastical politics of the Church in South America, but I do want to take seriously one of the criticisms made by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its 1984 Instruction on Certain Aspects of The Theology of Liberation. The Congregation rightly maintains that:
the indispensable pillars of an authentic theology of liberation had to be ‘the
truth about Jesus the Savoir, the truth about the Church, and the truth about
man and his dignity’ (xl.5);
What emerges from this critique is a sense that embedded in the Church’s life there should be a praxis that is truly inspired by the gospel, is radically new, and should be the living source for the Church’s reflection on its mission in the world.
A number of glaringly obvious comments seem pertinent here:
first, little attention is paid in the Church to the cultivation of such a praxis,
rather people’s experience would commonly be that the Church tends to ape some
of the less attractive aspects of modern bureaucracies and corporate practice;
The praxis envisaged here perhaps connects with John Milbank’s emphasis on a Christian sociology. In Theology and Social Theory, he states:
The claim here is not that theology, conceived in a broadly traditional fashion, can now add to its competence certain new, ‘social’ pronouncements. On the contrary, the claim is that all theology has to reconceive itself as a kind of ‘Christian sociology’: that is to say, as the explication of a socio-linguistic practice, or as the constant re-narration of this practice as it has historically developed.9
What should, however, be rejected is the strong postmodern turn of Milbank’s theology, which, under the guise of a return to Augustine, repudiates all ‘realism’ in regard to creation,10 and promotes a self-sufficient Christian culture which refuses any validity at all to secular experience. As he says in regard to Aquinas, he ‘moved not very far down the road which allows a sphere of secular autonomy; nevertheless he has moved a little, and he has moved too far’.11
The Catholic Church’s identity is inseparably tied to ‘sacramentality’, a consciousness that has intensified in theological reflection over the past four decades rather than diminished. The impetus has been to broaden and deepen the theme of sacramentality by reflection on Christ as the primordial sacrament, the Church, worship, love of neighbour and creation, as expressions of the ‘mediation’ necessary for God’s self-communication to human beings.
This emphasis on ‘embodiment’ is, I think, at the base of the Church’s concern on a whole range of issues: its defence of the unborn, its opposition to stem cell research, its condemnation of euthanasia, its emerging ‘green’ commitment, its renewed interest in Catholic culture, and its traditional interest in justice and peace—all of which display the high value placed on physical existence itself in all its aspects.
With that in mind, the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World’s commitment to dialogue and engagement with the world is both an articulation of the Church’s own constitutional need to be enculturated and an acknowledgement that the world itself is an indispensable medium of relatedness to God. It would seem then that the Catholic Church would be denying one of its own basic aspects of identity if it were to go down the path that Milbank has taken.
It is important, however, to endorse his emphasis on Christian praxis as intrinsic to ecclesial self-understanding. Such praxis should not be seen as an addendum or consequence of orthodoxy. Orthopraxis and orthodoxy are not alternatives, but two dimensions of the one reality of authentic Christian discipleship.
Church praxis is dependent first and foremost on its own foundation in Christ, but it remains impoverished if it cannot incorporate into its own tradition the insights that human experience and knowledge are able to gain in other settings.
Every culture in the world is an experiment in social living, where values are articulated in the concrete details of a given time and place. In Western culture, values such as freedom, human dignity, equality, peaceful modes of negotiation, justice and reconciliation, all are relevant to the Christian Gospel and therefore remain potential sources for the Church to learn more regarding the implications of its own identity as Christian.
In the second document on liberation theology of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Christian Freedom and Liberation, in 1986, the Church is referred to as an ‘expert in humanity’ (72). While potentially this ought be the case, at present the impression is that the Church knows little of compassion, justice, freedom, reconciliation, collegiality, genuine participation in decision-making, and the list goes on. A praxis that does not incorporate such values is neither authentically Christian nor of any real use to the contemporary world.
Charity, for example, the highest of all Christian ideals, but which lacks a commitment to justice, which is shut off from the emotional life, which does not accept what is different from itself, which refuses to learn from experience or the humanities, which is not open to the historical challenges of the human condition, is an empty virtue. It is worse than empty, when it is contaminated by authoritarianism, patriarchal attitudes, conformity, clericalism, and abuse.
Instead of addressing these issues, the Church seems set on another course. It has in recent times recognised that Catholic identity is precarious in the post-postmodern world. Liberalism is seen as the culprit. The countermove has been a heavy-handed insistence on orthodoxy and private devotions, and the suppression of dissent. The cost, though, is to become illiberal, more bureaucratic, and more bent on control to inure its adherents against influence from the surrounding liberal society.
This option, however, misses the deeper reasons for the church’s plight, especially in Western societies. The consumer mindset is one factor: it dissolves the individual into discrete wants and desires, then manipulates them to suit its own purposes—the result is a self shut off from deeper needs and higher aspirations. Within this, at a deeper level still, modern technical progress creates a self-sufficiency and self-confidence, which, according to the sociologist, Steve Bruce, lies at the very heart of the secularisation process:
Scientific ideas were not on their own a major source of secularisation. What was much more important was the general sense of mastery over fate…It may be that the citizens of a postmodern world still feel alienated and lost, but one element of the postmodern depiction suggests that we now reject authoritative views because we have sufficient self-confidence to ‘make up our own minds’ and choose our own destinies.12
Faithful adherence to the Catholic tradition is crucial to the Church’s identity. It is difficult to see, however, how a mindless orthodoxy can ever be a proper approach to the broadstream of a society that ‘makes up’ its own mind on its destiny.
Without minimising the difficulties that the Church faces, the right response in broad terms will be an authentic Catholicism with its own true expression in life, practice and mission. To become illiberal is a betrayal of full ‘catholic’ identity, just as much as is any loss of orthodox belief.
Orthodox faith cannot be separated from true charity. Charity, in its fullest terms, is a whole constellation of human feelings, attitudes, beliefs, commitment, and actions. It is concrete human relatedness qualified by authentic faith in Christ. It accepts and is committed to the concrete difference of one’s neighbour in all his or her aspects, particularly the social, political and economic conditions that create his or her plight. It is also a love that truly accepts the ‘conscience’ and ‘freedom’ of another, looking beyond fault or failing to his or her basic dignity as created in the image and likeness of God.
Charity is a life-long, learning experience, which needs to draw upon all the resources of the community, especially its prayer and worship, as well as on all that is best in human wisdom, justice, and scholarship. Only as such is it the authentic praxis of the Church and the expression of orthodox faith. Happily today there are communities within the Church which embody such praxis in their life and mission, but it is far from people’s general perception of the life of the Church as a whole.
Both the strength and the weakness of the Vatican II Constitution is its optimistic view of the world. Its strength is that it still reads as a statement of hope. Its weakness is that it does not seem to take sufficient account of the real obstacles to dialogue and engagement that do exist in the world or, perhaps, the sixties offered more opportunities than seem to be available at present. In the post-postmodern world we seem to be more aware of the ugly, dangerous and destructive forces that lie beneath the surface of contemporary life. The calculative and instrumental reason, which has the power of the global market invested in it, is conjuring up ever increasing spirals of violence. Here in Australia also, although we are only little players on the world stage, we keep catching glimpses of the defensiveness, xenophobia and greed that hides behind the obsessive sporting face that Australia presents to the world.
An authentic Church praxis should have an alternative way of living to offer the roller-coaster ride to increasing violence, inequality and despair that presently seems to be civilisation’s course. If it were to be an ‘expert in humanity’, its compassion, for example, to asylum seekers might be more vocal, it might be able to offer its expertise in reconciliation to indigenous people seeking justice for their cause, and it might include more sustainable living in its own spirituality and lifestyle as a sign of hope for the environment. In general it should be ready to give a voice to the voiceless, express indignation at oppression of all kinds, resist jingoism, not be taken in by political spin, and above all to find in its own life and practice a source of inspiration and insight which is truly a ‘hope’ to offer the modern world.
While such things can be said in general vein, this task of engagement with the world must, in fact, be attentive to the particular circumstances of time and place. The Church finds itself in many different cultures and historical situations. Its relationship to Vietnamese or Polish or Ugandan society will differ according to conditions and opportunities. The age of Christendom is past: Church and society are separate. What is required is a genuine understanding of the particular nature of each society, its history, political structures, economic situation, etc. Only then is the Church’s engagement able to be a true response to that culture, rather than an attempt to impose wholesale its message on unwilling participants. Australia presents its own unique circumstances. Its indigenous peoples and their cultures, its convict origins, its foundation during the Enlightenment, liberal ideology, isolation, market drive, Protestant majority, multiculturalism, and so forth, are all factors that define Australian society and create its own particular opportunities and limitations. At present, the Church’s response to this particular cultural and social mix appears more sporadic, piecemeal and often ill-advised, than a coherent vision of what the church might have to offer these particular circumstances. Xenophobia, loss of communal ties, family breakdown, unsustainable lifestyle, refusal of reconciliation with indigenous people, substance abuse, poor self-identity, widening economic inequality, the plight of the bush, loss of a sense of integral humanity, increasing violence and abuse, particularly against women and children, etc, all seem to offer occasions for the gospel message to offer some positive contribution to Australian society.
What the Church appears to find so difficult to accept in pluralist societies such as Australia is the ‘thin’ notion of the good from which they operate. Opinions and lifestyle choices vary so considerably that society is forced to operate on a lowest common denominator basis. This is also a source of instability, as the increase in substance abuse, violence, etc testify. The opportunity in these circumstances is the expansion of the ‘social space’ within which the Church is able to carry out its mission. Acceptance of values above this minimum is now, however, a matter entirely of free choice, rather than control, a choice that will be motivated by the attractiveness of what the Church witnesses in its own life and by the style and content of the message it preaches to society at large.
Forty years on, the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World continues to offer the Church in the post post-modern world a challenge. It is a challenge not to conform to the world of the present, but to become more its true self, as the local spirit-filled community of Jesus’ faithful disciples, with an engagement in the contemporary world that is finely tuned to the given conditions of time and place.
Claudia Carlen (ed), The Papal Encyclicals 1878-1930 (Wilmington: McGrath, 1981),
This article is from a public lecture from Vatican 2: Memory and Hope – 40 Years On, a conference presented by the Forum of Australian Catholic Institutes of Theology (FACIT) with Australian Catholic University, and held at St Patrick’s Melbourne Campus of ACU in October, 2002.
Fr Neil Brown is President of the Catholic Institute of Sydney and lecturer in Christian Ethics.