‘Opening the windows of the Church’: Vatican II on the Church and the Modern World

Critical engagement with the world means detecting where God is working in our workplaces at the same time being critical with the ambivalent forces in it

Today, people accuse the priests, sisters and bishops of “politicking” when they criticize politics, economy, culture in our times. They are just following the command of Vatican II to “read the signs of the times,” to judge it from the light of the gospels and act on it as to change and transform the world.

As Pope Francis says now: Catholics should meddle in politics because “politics is one of the highest forms of charity.” This article attempts to explain “Gaudium et Spes,” a Vatican II document where all these comes from (“Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World”).

Pope John XXIII goes down in history with this famous phrase: “I want to open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in.” And fresh air there was. There was a time when the church acted like a besieged fortress in a gesture of defense from the imagined “barbarians on its gates.”

We can still see this even today. When thousands are killed in extra-judicial killings, no one gives a damn. Catholic Christians even justify these killings by blaming it on the victims. But when their ways of worship or an iota of their doctrine is attacked, everyone comes to the rescue. They all gang up on you and perform a vehement counter-attack, some to the point of violence. Not that doctrine or liturgy is unimportant; but it is sad to see that real human lives, concrete persons, have been willingly sacrificed in the altar of religious orthodoxy.

This was the basic stance of the Church in the Council of Trent against the Protestants, and during the late 19th century against the “modernists.” This feeling of antagonism was internalized by the Catholic faithful so much that my grandmother forbid me to enter any Protestant church or befriend anyone from another religion both at the pain of mortal sin. Many Catholics have been happily liberated from this obsession with the enemy, though many still think this way today. This is a sign of persecution complex and a besieged mentality. You can read them on Facebook.

It is in this atmosphere of paranoia that one understands the ceaseless condemnations and anathemas which was the spirit of the previous Councils. It was a defensive stance from a threatened position. In one of the preparatory meetings of the Vatican II with the Roman Curia, Pope John XXIII took a ruler and measured a page in one of the drafts: “Seven inches of condemnation and one of praise: is that the way to talk of the modern world?”

Vatican II basically changed all that. The rest is history.

Though we also notice that this same history reversed itself in some sectors of believers. This reminder of Pope Francis is directed at them: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the center and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures” (Evangelii Gaudium 49).

What is new in Gaudium et Spes is its openness to the world. The dualism that characterizes binary theological thinking (natural vs. supernatural; human vs. divine; secular vs. sacred) dissolves into the one genuinely human world — the only world where the Divine reveals Godself to us. And “outside this world there is no salvation,” Schillebeeckx once said (Extra mundum nulla salus). God revealed himself to the world; it is only in this world that God’s saving act happens. Not anywhere else.

Several corollaries follow from this: we need to listen to the world by “reading the signs of the times” (GS 4); the world has to be respected for what it is (autonomy of the secular order); all humans are historical (there is no such thing as abstract human nature following an abstract natural law).

Despite initial difficulties in the final text of Gaudium et Spes, the young Ratzinger remembered: “The great majority of bishops were jointly able to affirm this point of view, and they carried the Council with them, so that in the end resistance came only from that comparatively small group which generally felt the spirit of the Council to be an abandonment of the Christian tradition and thus dangerously mistaken” (Ratzinger 1966).

Among this comparatively small group were Cardinal Ottaviani, then Secretary of the Holy Office of the Roman Curia, and Cardinal Lefebvre, the founder of the now breakaway group called Society of Pius X (SSPX). Ratzinger disagreed with them. He thinks that Gaudium et Spes is a far better text than Lumen Gentium where the “human” — in its being autonomous in himself — is rightly seen as leading him beyond and above himself towards God (Ratzinger 1969b, 162-63).

What proves surprising is that in recent times, Ratzinger follows the opposite course: he critiques the autonomy of the human sphere; he is more negative in his assessment of the modern world, etc. In a somewhat dramatic reversal, he now thinks that Gaudium et Spes should be read from the lens of Lumen Gentium because it is the weakest among the documents. While reading him, I sometimes get the feeling that the events he experienced in post-conciliar times, mainly with European Christianity, led him to re-assess the positive appreciation Gaudium et Spes has for the world (Ratzinger 1987, 367-93; Boeve 2002).

In our level, what do we learn from Gaudium et Spes?

More concretely, this means a critical engagement with the world of today. This is precisely what is meant by “reading the signs of the times” popularized by Vatican II. It means detecting where God is working in our workplaces at the same time being critical with the ambivalent forces in it.

For instance, it means engaging the postmodern mind of the millennials, the technological advancement of globalization and the new vision of the world that it affords. The “world” is naturally messy. But Christians should not shy away from it; we should engage with it. In the secular sciences, this stance vis-à-vis the world has several names — critical thinking, reflexivity, critical evaluation. In religious parlance, we call this “discernment.”

Another instance is to listen to the cries of the poor. The Latin American theologian writes: “extra pauperes nulla salus” (no salvation apart from the poor). This is the main point of Pope Francis. Our over-concern for Church structures, rites and doctrines blinds us from listening to the real needs of the poor.

Following the French theologian, Henri de Lubac, Pope Francis calls this problem “spiritual worldliness” (spiritual but “worldly”). There are people who are seemingly “spiritual” but their concerns are selfish; people who profess to defend the Church — its doctrines and liturgies — but are in fact concerned of their own security; people who can give their lives to defend orthodoxy but do not care about justice and solidarity.

They are the “priests and Levites” in the parable of the Good Samaritan. They have always despised the Samaritans in their unorthodox faith and worship. But their preoccupations with their “selfish spiritual concerns” and religious laws of “purity” that made them blind to the person stranded on the way. Ironically, it was him whom they despised who stopped and helped the needy. This is the main point of his recent encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” (Read Chapter 2).

Pope Francis writes: “More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat’ (Mk 6:37)” (Evangelii Gaudium, 49).

Father Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M. is a theologian, professor, and pastor of an urban poor community in the outskirts of the Philippine capital. He is also Vincentian Chair for Social Justice at St. John’s University in New York.

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