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Father Muench Says...

The place of the Church in the World

November 7, 2012

By Father William Muench
NCC columnist

This week I would like to get back to looking at the documents of the Second Vatican Council. Most of the documents of the Council considered the concerns of the Catholic Church within the Church.  There was one document that considered the place and activity of the Catholic Church in the affairs of the world at large.  Actually, this was a rather unique document – and became the impetus for many of the activities of the Church in the present.  As I have reread this document, I have discovered many initiatives that have developed and grown in the years since the Council. 

This document is entitled the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (called Gaudium et Spes).  This document is interesting in that it was not part of the original agenda of the Council.  After the discussion and debates that developed the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the Council Bishops felt that there was much more to say about the Church, especially the Church’s activities in the life of the whole world. 

At the time of the Council, a Protestant theologian wrote of how impressed he was with the document’s positive attitude toward the world.  Before the Council, the Church had a reputation of being very negative of the things of the world – with many condemnations.  However, from the very beginning this document took an affirmative stance.  The Council Fathers in this document call for all peoples to better the human lot.

Today, I think of my Church, the Catholic Church, as being open to the activities of the world, interested and concerned to all that is happening in this world of ours, interacting with the culture of each of the countries where the Church is.  Let me share with you a few of the examples mentioned in this Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World that helped lead the Church to where it is today. 

This document encouraged the bringing of new forms of art into the sanctuary.  You and I are rather familiar with the unique styles of art in our Churches today.  This was not always allowed.  So here the Council – the Bishops of the world – recognized the importance of the Church to discover beauty in the world, especially to use in the Churches of a country, the wonderful art of their own country and culture.

Another example – the Council calls the Church to blend modern society and its  theories and new discoveries with Christian morality and doctrine.  I am certain that you are well aware of the Church’s readiness to listen to and investigate and study what is popular these days and to try and investigate and speak out on how the Catholic Church can fit our own teachings into those around us.

Again, the Council urges that Catholic theologians and teachers should “collaborate with those well-versed in the other sciences.”  This is an area that has often caused conflict for Catholics with especially scientists and cosmologists.  Yet, the Council urged – even back then – that the Church not be afraid to enter into dialogue concerning the challenging discoveries of science, which have become ever more wonderful in our day and age.
I have had the great opportunity of meeting and talking with a Jesuit priest who is a well-known astrologist and cosmologist – and was for a time Director of the Vatican Astrological Center.  This wonderful facility is an indication of the Church’s readiness to be open to and a part of the findings of science.  There have been too many times that the Catholic Church has made poor decisions and poor statements about the findings of great scientists. 

This document reaffirms the strong call of the Council to the involvement of lay men and women in the life of the Church and participation in the activities of bringing the message of the Lord to our world.  Recently, our Holy Father has developed a program called a New Evangelization – bringing the message of the Church to those Catholics who have drifted away from involvement in the Church.  This Evangelization will be carried out best by lay people – through their contacts in ordinary life. 

The Second Part of this Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World is entitled “Some Problems of Special Urgency.”  I would like to consider them in the next column – this section concerns Marriage, the development of Culture, Economics, the Political Community and Peace in the world.

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