Cultural Challenges during Vatican II

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Bartolomeo Sorge, SJ

 Bartolomeo Sorge, SJ / Doctrine / 31 August 2021


Paid Article

The early 1960s, a time of cultural upheaval

The cultural challenges facing the Church and the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s did not come as a surprise.[1] 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.”[2]

This profound cultural and social transformation gave rise to the challenges that the Church,  with a Council in prospect, had to face at the beginning of the 1960s. “Reason,” which had distanced itself from “faith,” claimed autonomy from God and proclaimed itself an absolute. Science and religion were denied the possibility of meeting. Politics and economics rejected any relationship with ethics, the philosophy of being was abandoned to nihilism and “weak thought” (pensiero debole). Positivism and scientism, which became almost natural, eliminated from the human horizon everything that went beyond the senses or that could not be verified experimentally. Religion was considered (or tolerated) at most as a mere subjective matter without public relevance. This led to “secularism,” i.e. the exclusion of God from history and social life, and to “ethical relativism,” i.e. the eclipse of the moral sense and the denial of any transcendent ethical norm.

These, in brief, were the negative cultural aspects of the early 1960s, which formed the background to the summoning of the Second Vatican Council. Gaudium et Spes took note of them and warned against the danger of individualism: “The profound and rapid transformation of things demands, with greater urgency, that there be no one who […] indulges in a purely individualistic ethic. […] It is mandatory for everyone to include among the principal duties of modern man, and to observe, social obligations. In fact, the more the world is unified, the more openly the obligations of men go beyond particular groups and extend little by little to the whole world.”[3]

Unfortunately, history would prove the Council right. With the rise of exaggerated subjectivism and individualism, the serious contradictions of our time would arise. In fact, on the one hand, modernity has created imposing economic, technical and social structures; it has multiplied the quantity of goods produced, giving us more possessions; on the other hand, however, the loss of ethical obligations and solidarity has generated new forms of human poverty and marginalization, damaging humans in their very “being.”

On the one hand, modernity has created spaces and formal structures of freedom and democracy, stressing important values, such as secularity (laicité), tolerance, pluralism, freedom of thought, conscience and religion; on the other hand, however, it has unleashed negative forces that in many cases have diminished the achievements made (forces such as nationalism, the dictatorships and totalitarianisms of the 20th century).

If, on the one hand, modernity has given rise to international bodies of justice and peace, on the other hand, wars have multiplied, the arms race has accelerated and the nuclear nightmare has arisen. Even the extraordinary achievements of biology, genetics and medical sciences, instead of working for life, threaten to bring about death.

The fact that it had to deal with these contradictions of modernity made the Second Vatican Council a unique event in the 2,000-year history of the Church. John XXIII himself, in his opening speech, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, stressed that Vatican II was not convened – as had been the case with the twenty previous Councils – to condemn heresy or to define a truth of faith or to heal schisms. The purpose of Vatican II was, instead, to restate and almost redefine Christian identity and Church identity in a profoundly changed historical and cultural context: how to proclaim the Gospel amidst the contradictions of modernity, in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious world. How to engage with a secularized and globalizing world; How to enable the people of our time to understand the nature and mission of the Church, people conditioned by a culture in many ways post-Christian?[4]

The difficulties of the Council

Let us see, then, the main difficulties that the challenges of modernity created for the Second Vatican Council.

1) A series of challenges came from the outside and resulted in the difficulty of communicating with modern culture, which required not only the use of a new language, but also a confrontation on fundamental values that were no longer universally shared. In fact, the Church and modern culture use concepts and terms that are apparently identical, but in reality differ profoundly. For example, both speak of the human person and place the human person at the center of the discourse on the world and history. But the Church understands humans as personal beings who are oriented to God and to a transcendent end; modern culture, on the other hand, makes humans the absolute, masters of themselves and of the world, who create and transform the universe by their own efforts; who establish their own norms, without the need for a divine legislator. They are people who liberate themselves and consider liberation as exclusively their own concern.

Similarly, the Church and contemporary culture both speak of history, but they do not have the same concept of it. Christianity sees history as the evolution of a providential plan of God working through the free and intelligent activity of people; events are certainly changeable and contingent, but there are immutable realities and truths that give a sense of continuity and growth to human history. Instead, in modern thought, history is pure flow, a becoming without any other meaning than what people can and want to give it: there is no absolute truth; indeed, humans are themselves relative. Everything they are (consciousness, intelligence, will) evolves and comes into existence with the world.

Again, both the Church and modern culture insist on the central importance of reason. But, for  the modern person, reason is considered a “goddess”: she makes truth and is its sole and unquestionable criterion, to the point of considering false or non-existent everything that exceeds our logical capacity and cannot be scientifically demonstrated. According to the Christian conception, on the contrary, reason is capable of knowing God; it is open to transcendent truth. Indeed, it is precisely the transcendent goal that gives meaning and unity to human knowledge, to the discoveries of science and the achievements of technology. In other words, faith not only does not hamper intelligence, but purifies it, orients it, and helps it to discern the truth beyond “worldly” conditioning.

Finally, both the Church and modern culture talk about freedom, but they have a different understanding of it. For the dominant culture, being free is equivalent to being able to do whatever one wants, to satisfy all one’s desires, with the only limitation that of not preventing others from exercising the same freedom. According to the Christian vision, on the other hand, “freedom” is synonymous with responsibility in the choices that people make, using the appropriate tools to the end one wishes to achieve, voluntarily adapting to the ethical norm, respecting the rights and freedoms of others in the pursuit of the common good.

The objective diversity of language and concepts was therefore the first difficulty with which the Council had to come to terms as it undertook to restate and redefine the identity of the Gospel message in a way that would be intelligible to the people of our time. Gaudium et Spes explicitly recognized this: “The exchange of ideas is increasing,” it says, “but the same words used to express the most important concepts take on very different meanings in different ideologies.”[5]

2) Other difficulties came from within the Church itself and from Christians. First of all, there was the fact that, for centuries, the Gospel message had been identified with Western culture, had  become firmly embedded in the so-called “regime of Christianity,” or Christendom. For a long time this prevented the Church from understanding that some values of modern culture – such as tolerance, freedom of thought and of the press, freedom of conscience, equality of all religions before the State – were not hostile to, but in full harmony with the Gospel.

At the same time, there was an attitude of distrust that the Church and Christians instinctively nurtured toward modern scientific progress. It is true that the so-called “secular culture” had often tried to give the new scientific hypotheses a materialistic and atheistic meaning.  (Think of the way Darwinian evolutionism was presented, as if it were a proof against the creation of the world and against the existence of the spiritual soul.), but this does not justify the prejudicial hostility of the Church to any form of new approach to reality and thought. (Think not only of the excesses of the repression of “Modernism” and any other attempt to “modernize” the Christian message, but also of the delay in realizing the extraordinary help that the modern “historical-scientific method” could give to the understanding of Sacred Scripture and to the exegesis of the Word of God).

Thus, if we want to give an overall judgment on the cultural difficulties that the Second Vatican Council had to face as it commenced, we must say that they came not only from without, from the challenges of a culture without God, but also from within, from the delays and fears of the Church herself. Nevertheless, the Council, caught between the challenges of mainstream thought and the “prudence” (or fears) of a substantial part of Catholics, had the light and the strength to undertake the courageous aggiornamento (updating) called for by John XXIII, involving a renewed proclamation of the Gospel to today’s world. It remains to be seen, then, how it did so.

The choice

The choice was clear and unequivocal. The Council concluded that the encounter between the Gospel and modern culture is not only possible, but it is necessary; indeed it is even advantageous both for the world and for the Church. To achieve this, there is no better way than “dialogue” and “inculturation.” What does this mean?

Paul VI, at the beginning of the second session of the Council, had already written: “It seems to us that the relationship of the Church with the world […] can best be represented in a dialogue, and this not in a univocal way, but adapted to the character of the interlocutor and the circumstances of the case.” This is suggested, he continued, “by the transforming dynamism of modern society, by the pluralism of its manifestations, as well as by human maturity.” He explained: “This form of relationship indicates a purpose of correctness, of esteem, of sympathy […]; it excludes aprioristic condemnation, offensive and habitual polemics […]. While it certainly does not aim to obtain the immediate conversion of the interlocutors, because it respects their dignity and freedom, it does aim at their advantage, and would like to lead them towards a fuller communion of feelings and convictions.”[6]

It is a matter – the Council further specifies – of acquiring a new mentality and attitude. In fact, in order to engage in dialogue, we need to adopt the attitude not only of a giver, but also of a listener, and humbly accept the “many elements of truth” that are found outside the Catholic Church,[7] among non-Christian religions, which “not infrequently reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all people,”[8] and even among non-believers “who value high human values even though they do not yet recognize their source.”[9]

The mature fruit of dialogue is “inculturation,” that is, a process, an itinerary characterized by two inseparable moments: complementarity and critique. In other words, it is a matter of learning to live together while respecting our differences. In fact, starting from what unites does not mean ignoring what divides. The common search for truth presupposes both the courage to bear witness and an awareness of the critical function that must always be exercised in relation to others and to oneself.

John XXIII, in his encyclical Pacem in Terris, observed that dialogue properly understood serves, on the one hand, to open up partial truths to total truth and, on the other, helps Christians themselves and the Church to a more mature and deeper understanding of the same revealed truth about humanity.[10] The Council, in turn, exhorts Christians to allow themselves to be challenged by the values and stimuli coming from different cultures and ideologies, in order to seek together “the whole truth” about the human person: “In fidelity to conscience,” says Gaudium et Spes, “Christians join with others in seeking the truth and in resolving truthfully the many moral problems that arise in the life of individuals as well as in the life of society.”[11]

Therefore, “inculturation” does not only consist in the effort to translate the Christian message into a new language more comprehensible for the people of today, but above all in the effort to help every culture to develop its own potential, opening it to an integral humanism. Faith is not meant to extinguish, but to nourish the just expectations of people and to open them up to horizons of true justice and universal fraternity. This is why modern culture itself cannot fail to draw benefit from an engagement with the Christian faith.

At the same time, however, it would clash with the evidence to deny how much the confrontation with modern culture has helped to purify the faith and the Church. The Council explicitly recognized this: “The progress of the sciences, the treasures hidden in the various forms of human culture, through which human nature is more fully revealed and new paths to the Truth are opened up, all this is of benefit to the Church as well.”[12] For example – as we have already mentioned – the Church has greatly benefited from modern culture’s appreciation of history and from the scientific methods proper to paleontology, archaeology and linguistics, applying them to the study of the sources of Revelation.

However, affirming that the encounter between the Gospel and modern culture is possible, necessary and useful does not mean that it is easy. Among other words of caution, the Council warns against the danger of “reducing” the Gospel message to its cultural and social dimension alone. The promotion of human values, certainly, is an integral part of evangelization, but the credibility and effectiveness of the proclamation of the Word of God depend above all on the witness of Christian love, which cannot be reduced to mere philanthropy, but lies in placing one’s life at the service of one’s brothers and sisters, especially the poorest, loving them with the same love with which Christ has loved us.

In conclusion, the witness of holiness remains for the Church the main way to face all challenges and to overcome all kinds of difficulties, external and internal, which will never be lacking. In fact, trials and the cross are the signature by which God authenticates his works. The Church, therefore, will accept with faith the purification through which the Lord always renews her, making her more prophetic, poor and free.


DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no.9 art. 6,  0921: 10.32009/22072446.0921.6

[1].      On November 24 and 25, 2012, a conference was held in Florence on the theme “Cultural and literary challenges in Italy fifty years after the Second Vatican Council.” Organized by the diocese of the Tuscan capital, it saw the participation of intellectuals, writers and theologians who analyzed issues related to the distinctive novelties of the Council and the time in which it took place, the 1960s. The coordination was entrusted to Don Vincenzo Arnone, who, in the following years continued the planning of other conferences on various literary-religious themes (“The theology of poetry”, “On the trail of the hidden God” and other topics). Among the speakers were Pietro Gibellini, Fr. Ferdinando Castelli, Davide Rondoni, Alessandro Zaccuri, Melo Freni, Pasquale Maffeo, Marco Beck, Liliana Cantatore and Neria De Giovanni. The introductory talk e: “Cultural challenges at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council” was given by Fr Bartolomeo Sorge. We reproduce the text because it seems to us very interesting for its precision, breadth of vision and clarity of analysis of the difficulties in the relationship between the Gospel and modern culture.

[2].       Benedict XVI, “Address to the University Students of Rome”, December 13, 2007, in www.vatican.va

[3].       Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Gaudium et Spes, No. 30.

[4].       Cf. John XXIII, Address at the Opening of the Council, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia (October 11, 1962).

[5].       Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Gaudium et Spes, No. 4.

[6].       Paul VI, Encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, Nos. 80-81.

[7].       Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Lumen Gentium, No. 8.

[8].       Id. , Nostra Aetate, No. 2.

[9].       Id., Gaudium et Spes, No. 92.

[10].     Cf. John XXIII, Encyclical Pacem in Terris, No. 83.

[11].     Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Gaudium et Spes, No. 16.

[12].    Ibid., No. 44.