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Vatican II on the Church and the World: Community and Activity

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 18, 2010

The remaining three chapters of the first part of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World continue sketching the contemporary human situation and the role of the Church. Having examined “The Dignity of the Human Person” in the first chapter, the Council focuses on “The Community of Mankind” in the second, describing the social nature of the human person, which is even more obvious in the modern world with its increasing interdependence (23). Indeed, “God, Who has a fatherly concern for everyone, has willed that all men should constitute one family and treat one another in a spirit of brotherhood” (23). Jesus himself prayed to the Father “that all may be one…as we are one” (Jn 17:21-22).

Consequently, the Council first lays particular “stress on reverence for man” and declares the following:

Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. (27)

The Council warns against contenting ourselves “with a merely individualistic morality”, for “the obligations of justice and love are fulfilled only if each person, contributing to the common good, according to his own abilities and the needs of others, also promotes and assists the public and private institutions dedicated to bettering the conditions of human life” (30). The Council teaches that “this communitarian character is developed and consummated in the work of Jesus Christ” who formed “a new brotherly community composed of all those who receive Him in faith and in love”, namely the Church (32).

The third chapter, “Man’s Activity throughout the World”, takes note of the prodigious output of human activity and asks “what is the meaning and value of this feverish activity” (33)? The answer is that man was “created to God’s image” and “received a mandate to subject to himself the earth and all it contains, and to govern the world with justice and holiness, a mandate to relate himself and the totality of things to Him Who was to be acknowledged as the Lord and Creator of all” (34). Hence, the Council argues, “it is clear that men are not deterred by the Christian message from building up the world, or impelled to neglect the welfare of their fellows, but that they are rather more stringently bound to do those very things” (34).

The Fathers also take up the claim that people make for autonomy in earthly affairs. “If by the autonomy of earthly affairs we mean that created things and societies themselves enjoy their own laws and values which must be gradually deciphered, put to use, and regulated by men, then it is entirely right to demand that autonomy.” Indeed, “by the very circumstance of their having been created, all things are endowed with their own stability, truth, goodness, proper laws and order.” But if the independence of temporal affairs “is taken to mean that created things do not depend on God, and that man can use them without any reference to their Creator, anyone who acknowledges God will see how false such a meaning is” (36).

This falsehood leads to grave problems, “for a monumental struggle against the powers of darkness pervades the whole history of man.” Therefore, “if anyone wants to know how this unhappy situation can be overcome, Christians will tell him that all human activity, constantly imperiled by man’s pride and deranged self-love, must be purified and perfected by the power of Christ’s cross and resurrection” (37).

The fourth and final chapter in Part One covers “The Role of the Church in the Modern World.” Entrusted with the mystery of God “who is the ultimate goal of man”, the Church “opens up to man at the same time the meaning of his own existence, that is, the innermost truth about himself” (41). Since “whoever follows after Christ, the perfect man, becomes himself more of a man”, the Church “can anchor the dignity of human nature against all tides of opinion.” She both “proclaims the rights of man” and ensures that human movements are “penetrated by the spirit of the Gospel and protected against any kind of false autonomy” (41). And since “she is bound to no particular form of human culture…the Church by her very universality can be a very close bond between diverse human communities and nations” (42).

The Council “exhorts Christians, as citizens of two cities, to strive to discharge their earthly duties conscientiously and in response to the Gospel spirit.” Therefore, “let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other.” However, “secular duties and activities belong properly although not exclusively to layman”, and the following passage was considered remarkable by some in the 1960s:

Laymen should also know that it is generally the function of their well-formed Christian conscience to see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city; from priests they may look for spiritual light and nourishment. Let the layman not imagine that his pastors are always such experts, that to every problem which arises, however complicated, they can readily give him a concrete solution, or even that such is their mission. Rather, enlightened by Christian wisdom and giving close attention to the teaching authority of the Church, let the layman take on his own distinctive role. (43)

Part One concludes by stating the Church’s single intention: the salvation of all in the coming Kingdom of God. “For God’s Word, by whom all things were made, was Himself made flesh so that as perfect man He might save all men and sum up all things in Himself.” Thus the Church and all people together “journey toward the consummation of human history, one which fully accords with the counsel of God’s love: ‘To reestablish all things in Christ, both those in the heavens and those on earth’ (Eph. 11:10)” (45).


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