The schema on the Church in the Modern World, which underwent almost three weeks of sharp debate, inevitably will receive drastic revision between now and the fourth session of the Second Vatican Council.
The lively discussion on the schema in the council hall made it very clear that, in the opinion of the council Fathers, the present draft does not present a completely adequate theology of the Church and the world. However, this is not surprising in view of the fact that no previous council of the Church ever addressed itself to this subject and in view of the further fact that contemporary theology has yet to arrive at a consensus on the subject.
On the other hand, there can be little doubt that the present schema marks a historic step in the right direction. It can and will be improved substantially in the light of the oral and written interventions of the Fathers and, while no one expects the final draft to say the last word on the subject of the Church and the world, we can be certain that it will be a document worthy of a council which was called not to settle disputed questions in speculative theology, but rather to bring about an aggiornamento (updating) in the pastoral life of the Church.
Refinements in the speculative theology of the Church and the world will come in due time from scholars in the field of the sacred sciences who can now be expected, under the stimulus of schema 13, to give greater attention than ever before to this all-important subject. It goes without saying that they will need to cooperate as closely as possible with competent scholars in every pertinent branch of secular learning. The document has a fourfold purpose:
1. To instruct all men how they should view and perform even their temporal duties in the light of their one true vocation (Chapter 1).
2. To have the Church order its relations with the world so as not only to manifest the spiritual nature of its mission, but also its contribution to the common good of all humanity (Chapter 2).
3. To persuade every Christian and all Christian communities that they should make known Christ living in the midst of His brethren by their honest and generous cooperation with all men in a spirit of brotherhood, poverty and service (Chapter 3).
4. To urge all Christians without exception to apply themselves energetically to the solution of the most urgent problems of the day and at the same time to lay down certain basic moral principles pointing toward a sound solution of these problems (Chapter 4).
The outside world has tended to concentrate almost exclusively on the last of these four purposes of the schema and has given only passing attention to the first three. This is understandable, but in many ways also regrettable. The basic problem confronting the Church in its relations with the world is not to solve specific problems in the temporal order — important as these problems are — but rather to develop what might be called a theology of temporal or terrestrial values and to motivate the faithful to fulfill their own obligatory role in the temporal order in the light of this theology.
This means, for example, that the Church must, in the first instance, formulate as clearly as possible its own theology of the world, the nature and the limitations of its own role as an institution in the temporal order, and finally the duties of the faithful in the world. It is only after it has completed this preliminary spade work that the Church can address itself meaningfully to specific problems in the temporal order.
With regard to the fourth section of the schema, which received the major part of public attention given the schema, it is well to emphasize that it was never the intention of the council to settle any or all of the specific problems confronting the world at the present time. Bishop John J. Wright of Pittsburgh made this point emphatically in his official introduction of the schema to the council Fathers.
“It is not therefore our intention,” he told the Fathers, “to bring up and settle individual points in detail, or to attempt easy and over-simplified answers which could be only glib and, in the long run, deceptive.”
He added that the “signs of the times” are offered as points of reflection for the Fathers, both in the council and afterwards, working with sociologists and other experts in a common search for adequate answers.
“In no way does our chapter pretend to be either exhaustive or definitive,” Bishop Wright said. “It ought not to be the last word in our dialogues with the modern world, but rather the first word, or the beginning, from our side, of an entirely new dialogue.”
The importance of Bishop Wright’s cautionary explanation of the precise purpose of chapter 4 of schema 13 can hardly be exaggerated. There are those who will disagree with the bishop and will argue that the council should at least attempt to say the last word on the morality of nuclear warfare, for example, or on the morality of the pill. But this does not appear to be the opinion of the majority of the council Fathers as expressed in the council debate.
What the Church can be expected to do is to begin to clarify the theology of its own role — and the role of its individual members — in the modern world. It can also be expected to state as clearly as possible its own understanding of the moral law as it applies to some of the major problems of the day. But the world is doomed to be disillusioned if it expects the Church to do much more than that at the present time.
Msgr. George G. Higgins
Msgr. Higgins is director of the Social Action Department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference and a council expert who assisted in the preparation of a substantial amount of the material covered by the schema.