Editorial: The Church (and bioethics) in the (post) modern world

It is 50 years since the Second Vatican Council opened in Rome. For Catholics, the Council marked a significant transition in self-awareness – from a Church which saw itself as largely set ‘apart’ from the world to one which is deeply connected with – literally ‘in’ – the world.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the Council document “The Church in the Modern World” which sets out how the Church should conceive its activity in the world, scrutinising and interpreting “the signs of the times” in the light of the Gospel.1 It admonishes Catholics who would shirk their “earthly responsibilities” in favour of seeking “a city to come”; rather, authentic faith means they are more obliged than ever to measure up to their secular duties and activities (n. 43).

Importantly, the document acknowledges that the Church has profited richly from the experience of past ages, the progress of the sciences, and the treasures hidden in human culture (n. 44). While the implications of this would have astounded many Catholics of the 1960’s, they are hardly radical today. Yet, they remain incredibly challenging in the post-modern world in which we live: Christians do not have the monopoly on the truth but are joined with all of humanity in searching for it (n. 16); the presence and grace of the Holy Spirit are not confined to the Church, but work in an unseen way in the hearts of all (n. 22).

In addition, the document offers a sober reminder that we are all weak beings who often do things we should not and fail to do what we should (n. 10): “It does not escape the Church how great a distance lies between the message she offers and the human failings of those to whom the Gospel is entrusted” (n. 43). Recent events in the Catholic Church have forcibly reminded us again of this fact – the scandals of sexual abuse mean we should dare to witness to our faith only with a real sense of humility grounded in an awareness that the weaknesses of human nature run through the Church and all its members. If prior to the Council it was the Church that presented itself as a perfect society and was in certain ways hostile to the world, now, at least partly because of the current scandals, it is the world that has become more hostile to an imperfect Church – a situation that is both understandable and regrettable.

Consequently, many Catholics wishing to bring a faith-based perspective to the social and political realms are experiencing a new antagonism; when we speak, we can no longer expect that what we offer will always be welcomed or seen as credible. This state of affairs is surely one of the signs of our time that we are obliged to scrutinise, interpret and respond to.  The question arises: ‘How can we best articulate our faith-based perspective in the post-modern world in which we live?’

There are great insights to be gleaned from “The Church in the Modern World”: we must strive to understand the world in which we live (n. 4); we must promote “a living exchange between the Church and the diverse cultures of people” (n. 44); we need to acknowledge that the Church requires the special help of those who are versed in the different institutions and specialties (n. 44); we must extend respect and love to those who think or act differently than we do in social, political and even religious matters and strive deeply to understand “with such courtesy and love” that we enter into real dialogue with others (nn. 21, 28).

Further, taking to heart the document’s claim that nothing genuinely human should fail to raise an echo in the hearts of Christians (n. 1), we need to show that the power of the Catholic moral/ethical tradition lies in the way our teachings are themselves signs – signs pointing to the truth about human existence and allowing that truth to be more deeply penetrated and better understood for human advantage (n. 44). As the document itself notes, faith throws a new light on everything, ultimately directing the mind to solutions which are ‘fully human’ (n. 11). There is, in other words, an intrinsic link between faith and human flourishing (n. 43).

For those engaged in Catholic bioethics there is a clear onus to first listen so as to understand and learn from others while facilitating the conditions for honest and sincere dialogue. Then, within that dialogue, we must convincingly articulate the wisdom of the Catholic tradition in terms of its relevance for constructing a world more genuinely human, all the while using language intelligible to the current generation (n. 4) and remaining faithful to the “befriending Spirit” (n. 3) that animates and guides us all.

50 years on, I find much wisdom and hope in a document that was promulgated before I could even read.  

John Kleinsman is director of The Nathaniel Centre

1. "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World." In Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, edited by A Flannery. Collegeville, Indiana: The Liturgical Press, 1965, n. 4.