Pope St. John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council amid great optimism. Pope John called for aggiornamento and an opening of the windows of the Church, but we know that the 1960s were not a time of fresh air. In fact, I would argue it was the breaking forth into daily life of a long trajectory of radical individualism. The Council sought a renewed encounter with the modern world after 450 years of conflict, but wading into the muddied waters of modern culture came with a cost.
We can point to many external indicators of crisis in the Church which followed from misinterpretations and misapplications of the Council. I would point underneath the surface to an underlying disposition as the source of this crisis. The engagement with modern culture, which Pope John rightly sought, led many—mostly unwittingly—to accept the fundamental precept of modern culture: radical individualism and autonomy. This individualism then led many to reinterpret their faith and practice as something which conforms to them (a more anthropocentric view of religion), rather than something to which they must conform (a theocentric view).
We see this individualism coming out in numerous and varied ways, but a few large trends emerged. First, the reinterpretation of revelation not as an objective deposit but as something that comes to us subjectively through experience. Next, we saw the effect of this reinterpretation on catechesis and education, which no longer sought to impart doctrine but to affirm the experience of the individual. Finally, this led to a relativizing and marginalization of the Catholic tradition and magisterial authority as constraints on direct experience. The crisis following the Council was brought about in large part by accepting the ethos of the age, which is made clear by the almost unanimous rejection of Humanae Vitae by laity and clergy alike in 1968. This rejection was in the name of conscience and individual freedom.
I would place the year 1968 alongside of another: 1517. As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation next year, it may be helpful to look to at the subtle and not so subtle ways that the Reformation has impacted the way contemporary Catholics view their faith and the Church’s authority. Luther’s view of the primacy of conscience and the individuality of faith, epitomized by his appeal to conscience before the Emperor Charles V, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise,” have come to shape the way many Catholics view and practice their own faith. Like Luther, many Catholics view their conscience as authoritative while the authority of the Church must appeal to it for credence, rather than allowing their conscience to be shaped by the authority of the Church.
Vatican II and inculturation
Vatican II sought to initiate a dialogue with the modern world. This dialogue was meant to be an extension of the Church’s evangelizing mission. No more would the Church anathematize, but would engage the world in a brotherly exchange. Gaudium et Spes calls for this dialogue and then asks that the Church herself be marked by dialogue:
By virtue of her mission to shed on the whole world the radiance of the Gospel message, and to unify under one Spirit all men of whatever nation, race or culture, the Church stands forth as a sign of that brotherhood which allows honest dialogue and gives it vigor.
Such a mission requires in the first place that we foster within the Church herself mutual esteem, reverence and harmony, through the full recognition of lawful diversity. Thus all those who compose the one People of God, both pastors and the general faithful, can engage in dialogue with ever abounding fruitfulness. For the bonds which unite the faithful are mightier than anything dividing them. Hence, let there be unity in what is necessary; freedom in what is unsettled, and charity in any case….
For our part, the desire for such dialogue, which can lead to truth through love alone, excludes no one, though an appropriate measure of prudence must undoubtedly be exercised. We include those who cultivate outstanding qualities of the human spirit, but do not yet acknowledge the Source of these qualities. We include those who oppress the Church and harass her in manifold ways (GS, 92).
I would argue that this dialogue was not ordered toward a surrender of the Church’s teaching in the face of modern values, but an attempt to listen to the concerns of the modern world and to affirm whatever good could be found within it. In short, the goal was a new inculturation or implanting of the faith in the modern world.
The Church would have to act differently, with more humility and deference, to convince modern men and women that it was not out to take away their freedom but to affirm it. Gaudium et Spes mentions the word freedom 32 times, recognizing its central importance for modern culture, though lamenting its misinterpretation. The appeal to freedom and other modern values were meant to provide new and positive opportunities for evangelization.
The Council’s missionary decree, Ad Gentes, specifies how ordinary men and women must be the ones to carry this dialogue into their daily lives and work. They would have the difficult task of bringing the Gospel to bear within their own culture:
But they must give expression to this newness of life in the social and cultural framework of their own homeland, according to their own national traditions. They must be acquainted with this culture; they must heal it and preserve it; they must develop it in accordance with modern conditions, and finally perfect it in Christ, so that the Faith of Christ and the life of the Church are no longer foreign to the society in which they live, but begin to permeate and to transform it (AG, 21).
This is a task of paramount importance and one that can be done even under hostile conditions, as we see in the centuries long inculturation that took place in the early Church. What we saw in the 1960s and 70s, however, is that rather than Catholics renewing their nations and culture through the faith, their faith in many ways became subverted within a hostile, secular culture. Unfortunately, the Church did not become stronger following the Council, in spite of its dynamic program of renewal.
Pope St. John Paul II was deeply committed to the Council’s vision of dialogue and inculturation, highlighting them in many ways throughout his long Pontificate (you can read my own summary of his teaching on these topics here). He was convinced that the Council’s vision and a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit for the third millennium would lead to a new springtime for the Church. Nonetheless, since the close of the Council he witnessed the legalization of no-fault divorce, contraception, abortion, euthanasia, and the beginnings of civil unions for homosexual couples. The optimism of the Council was harder to maintain due to the dialogue partner’s decline. The modern world had reached a suicidal point, becoming a “culture of death” as John Paul famously pointed out in Evangelium Vitae.
When we look back at the 50 years since the close of the Council, we can see that opening wide the windows of the Church has allowed the problems of the modern world to enter into the Church and the lives of many Catholics. I would argue that the primary place for the dialogue with the modern world is no longer without, but primarily within the Church. The first place where we encounter the distorted views of modern culture and the wounds it inflicts upon people will be in the pews and within our own selves. In a way, it makes the project of inculturation all the more necessary. We must find a new way to live faithfully as Catholics as we navigate the treacherous waters in which they live.
Amoris Laetitia and the project of inculturation
Why this lengthy prelude to speaking about Amoris Laetitia? I would argue that the document should be understood in light of the call for dialogue and inculturation by the Second Vatican Council and the decline in culture we have seen in the last 50 years. Pope Francis has clearly reaffirmed the Church’s doctrine on the nature of marriage and its teaching on sexuality. The pastoral implications of the document, however, have caused a great amount of controversy.
Pope Francis makes it clear at points that he is attempting to continue the vision of Vatican II, even quoting Ad Gentes’ teaching on inculturation and applying it to the family: “Discernment of the presence of ‘seeds of the Word’ in other cultures (cf. Ad Gentes 11) can also apply to the reality of marriage and the family (77).” Just as Ad Gentes had called for this inculturation to occur uniquely within each nation and culture, so Francis asserts: “Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs” (3). This attempt will certainly differ according to region. When may appear daunting or even impossible in America will be easier in Africa.
Nonetheless, Francis is not overly optimistic about modern culture, calling it “ephemeral” (39, 124), dissuading young people from starting a family (40), lonely with the absence of God and relationships (43), exploitative of women (54), “without fathers” (176), a “through-away culture” (191), casting aside the elderly (192), and dishonest (214). In this regard, Francis shows consistency with the teaching of John Paul II, recognizing that modern culture has become hostile to the human person and to the Christian faith.
Francis also, however, maintains the optimism of the Second Vatican Council and its positive interpretation of modern values in many ways. Francis uses the word “freedom” 36 times—even more than Gaudium et Spes—recognizing it as a great gift, but one which we many times distort: “Freedom is something magnificent, yet it can also be dissipated and lost” (267). Nevertheless, Francis puts forth a dynamic understanding of the possibilities open to freedom in its encounter with the world: “This freedom, which fosters independence, an openness to the world around us and to new experiences, can only enrich and expand relationships” (115). When it comes to conscience, we see most fully the difficulty of modern inculturation, found in maintaining the balance between the many distortions of freedom in a culture of death and upholding the aspirations of the free individual.
Gaudium et Spes had referred to conscience 28 times as it sought to lay out an agenda for more positive engagement with the world. Nonetheless, it spoke of conscience as a “law” discovered within oneself, but not imposed by oneself, and which requires obedience (16). In relation to marriage, Gaudium et Spes is very clear on the duty of conscience, which can err, to conform to the teaching of the Church: “But in their manner of acting, spouses should be aware that they cannot proceed arbitrarily, but must always be governed according to a conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law itself, and should be submissive toward the Church’s teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel” (50). Though Vatican II sought to bring greater dialogue and uphold positive values in modern culture, when it came to conscience it was clear that the Church’s authority binds conscience, particularly in matters of marriage and sexuality.
Francis, in this area, leans more positively on the modern understanding of freedom and conscience. He states: “We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations” (37). And further:
Therefore, while upholding a general rule, it is necessary to recognize that responsibility with respect to certain actions or decisions is not the same in all cases. Pastoral discernment, while taking into account a person’s properly formed conscience, must take responsibility for these situations. Even the consequences of actions taken are not necessarily the same in all cases (302, quoting the Synod Fathers). …
Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal. In any event, let us recall that this discernment is dynamic; it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized (303).
If I am correct in my claim at the beginning of this article that the chief characteristic of modern culture is individuality, Amoris Laetitia goes further than any previous magisterial teaching in embracing this modern value. Francis certainly recognizes the problems of modern culture, which create difficult conditions for the modern Catholic. Nonetheless, he makes more room for individual freedom and discernment within the context of these problems, placing the burden on the individual more than on the authority of the Church.
As we left the fiftieth anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council behind this year and move on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation next year, we should ask serious questions about the future prospects of the inculturation of the faith into modern culture. In his novel Silence (coming soon to theaters), Shusaku Endo describes the difficulty of inculturation in his native Japan: “This country is a swamp…. This country is a more terrible swamp than you can imagine. Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot, the leaves grow yellow and wither. Now we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp.”
Although I believe strongly in the vision of evangelization set forth by the Second Vatican Council, I also recognize that for our efforts of evangelization to succeed we must turn a swamp back into fertile land. Until we form our faithful more thoroughly in the faith, the swamp of the culture of death will continue to distort our understanding of morality, marriage, and even our faith.