The cultural challenges facing the Church and the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s did not come as a surprise. They were the culmination of the long evolution of modern Western culture, the origins of which go back to the Enlightenment. These challenges had emerged with the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution and were then brought into focus in the 19th century by the great modern philosophical currents (German Idealism, Positivism, Marxism, Nietzschean vitalism, evolutionism), by the birth of the new human sciences (psychology, sociology, psychoanalysis…), and by the advent of constitutional, republican and democratic political regimes and the various economic systems born out of mass ideologies and technical-scientific discoveries.
Benedict XVI has summarized this long evolution as follows: “In the 17th century, Europe experienced an authentic epochal turning point and from then on it has increasingly experienced a mentality which views human progress as the work of science and technology alone, while faith is viewed as concerning only the salvation of the soul, a purely individual salvation.”
“The two powerful ideas associated with modernity, reason and freedom, are, as it were, separated from God in order to become autonomous and to cooperate in the construction of a ‘human kingdom,’ practically in opposition to the Kingdom of God. From here a materialistic concept spread, nourished by the hope that, by changing the economic and political structures, one could finally bring about a just society where peace, freedom and equality would reign. This process, which is not deprived of values and historical motivations, contains, however, a fundamental error: the human person, in fact, is not only the product of predetermined economic and social conditions; technical progress does not necessarily coincide with the moral growth of the person; rather, without ethical principles science, technology and politics can be used, as has happened and unfortunately still happens, not for the good but to harm individuals and humanity.”