Chapter Fourteen

THE CHURCH AND OUR WORK

IN THIS WORLD

We have been considering salvation in the next world. What about our work in this one?

Most Catholics understood well enough that to win eternal life, strictly religious activities — prayer, fasting, alms-giving, the pursuit of virtue — are not enough. We have to earn our livings, bring up families, use our talents. A doctor who spent time on his knees which he ought to be giving to his patients, would not be pleasing to God. At this point, being on his knees would, as is now said, be "counter-productive". Nor was it difficult to understand why. The world, time and history exist in the first place for the creation, training and testing of future citizens of heaven. Life is essentially a school with a great final exam. Meanwhile the potential citizens of heaven have to be fed, clothed, provided with shelter and trained so as to rear future citizens of heaven in their turn. Beyond this, the use of our talents gives glory to God the way a work of art is a credit to the artist.

But does the use of our talents and the resources of nature have some further place in God's plan? Are all the things that make up what we call culture — Plato's dialogues, Shakespeare's plays, Greek sculpture, Florentine painting, Palladian architecture, Beethoven's sonatas, Balzac's novels, Newtonian physics, steam engines, airplanes, electric light, telephones, fireworks, farming — are they just accidental goods destined to sweeten life here during our time of testing, or do they have some lasting significance? In other words, if peopling heaven was God's primary purpose in creating the universe (did not an English poet call the world a factory for making gods?), was it his only purpose?

Most of the faithful, had the question been put to them, would, I think, have replied that the products of science and culture are accidental goods destined to vanish forever in the great final bonfire. After all, men can save their souls with or without the blessings of culture and material progress. As for the references in Holy Scripture to a "new earth" as well as a new heaven" after the Last Day, the idea that they could mean the re-creation and transfiguration of the present world (as they indeed do) would have seemed to the majority like adding a belief in Cinderella to the articles of the creed. They tended to think of their eternal reward as a purely spiritual one. The reasons for the resurrection of the body — why a material body should have a permanent place in an immaterial heaven — remained obscure. There was no apparent reason. It seemed to be a divine whim, as perhaps did not a little else in their understanding of the faith.

The reasons the Church had hitherto said so little on the subject are plain enough. To get the majority of men and women to give more than a passing attention to God and the next world has never been easy. Tell them they ought to have a deeper appreciation of this world's goods, and it would be harder still. There was also the danger of giving the impression that the next world was going to be like a Muslim paradise. So in her day-to-day teaching the Church had limited herself to commanding and encouraging whatever in her eyes contributed to civilisation, culture and men's earthly welfare, leaving their place in God's final scheme of things to look after itself.

However by the mid-twentieth century that was no longer possible. With alien thinkers by the score flooding the world with their theories about the meaning of progress, civilisation and culture, it had become imperative for the Church to develop a teaching of her own.

 

The Human Endeavour

How does she view the "human endeavour", the term the new theologians will now start using for cultural and social progress? Is the age-old attempt of men to master the powers of nature, develop their talents, organise social life as best they can, and generally make the world a more agreeable place to live in, without theological significance? Do the history of civilisation and the history of salvation move through time on parallel tracks without point of contact, and with only the latter finding fulfilment elsewhere? Or are they in some way connected? How far, too, can the world be improved, and in what ways and to what extent should Catholics be allowed to take part in the efforts of their contemporaries to transform it into an earthly paradise?

In formulating their answers to these questions, the reformers were hyper­sensitive to atheist criticism of the Church.

These could be summarised as follows. "Why, O Catholic Church, having been in the world for nearly two thousand years, have you failed to produce the perfect world we are shortly going to create? Your doctrine of heavenly salvation is to blame. By teaching men to think of saving their souls in another world, you turn them into selfish individualists uninterested in improving this one. You are the enemies of men's earthly welfare" 1

Hardline or Promethean atheists went a stage further: "Your teaching is not only useless. It is positively harmful. Belief in the Deity's existence means the extinction of man's rights, dignity, freedom and well-being. Whether as a fact or an idea, God is man's natural enemy, reducing this otherwise god­like being to slave-hood. As God's supposed representative you, O Church, are the ultimate obstacle to the full flowering of man's personality, creativity, genius and self-fulfilment. Ecrasez l'infême!" ("Crush the brute") 2

The extent to which the conciliar decrees, above all the decree on The Church in the Modem Work! (Gaudium et Spa), are intended to answer these accusations, and to remove anything real or apparent in the way faith and morals were presented that might seem to give grounds for them, can scarcely be exaggerated. Without some knowledge of what they were (which most of the faithful lack), the tone, style and even some of the substance of the conciliar teaching can hardly fail to be misunderstood. Passage after passage is devoted to rebutting the charge that the Church is indifferent or an obstacle to men's earthly well-being.

However, the reformers' immediate aims were practical. To rebut the main charge, Catholics must be encouraged to collaborate as much as possible with men of any religion or none in the "human endeavour". Collaboration between Catholics and "all men of good will" must become the basic principle of Catholic action. But for the collaboration to work smoothly, two misunderstandings must be cleared up.

One was the attitude Christians should have towards "the world". Was it true, as the Church's critics said, that she taught her children to despise, hate or fear the world? Did she see the world mainly as a source of temptations?

The Church's answer was "No", but some of the faithful had the impression that the answer was "Yes". This, according to the new theologians, was the fault of certain spiritual writers influenced by philosophical dualism (matter is bad, only spirit is good). These wrong ideas must be corrected. The faithful must be taught to love and appreciate the world.

What, then, about all the warnings, not only in spiritual writers, but in Holy Scripture itself against the dangers of becoming too attached to the things of this world, or Christ's telling his disciples that the world would hate them?

They had been stressed one-sidedly. To correct the balance, the faithful should be reminded more often that "God hates nothing he has made" and "loved the world so much that he gave his only Son to die for it".

The problem, of course, was the double meaning of the word "world"; either created things in general, or a disordered love of them. Everyone agreed that they are to be hated (kept spiritually at a distance) in so far as they turn our hearts away from God. The dispute was about how likely that is. After the Council it was won by those holding the view that, short perhaps of what goes on in down-town Las Vegas, the world has little in it to deflect us from the narrow path and the strait gate.

The other point to be clarified was what the Council would call "the legitimate autonomy of secular realities".

This means that, while all things are subject to and dependent on God, their physical and biological make-up and operations are not for the most part to be learned from divine revelation. Consequently, although the Church has the right to judge the morality of human acts and speak about the deepest meaning of things, it is not the business of the clergy as clergy, to tell scientists how to conduct experiments, painters how to paint, statesmen how to govern, or businessmen how to run their businesses.

Anxious to allay the ghost of the Galileo controversy, the reformers were sending a message to their opposite numbers in the secular intelligentsia. "No more interference by churchmen in matters scientific. No more ignorant old-fashioned bishops loosing off about Picasso and Corbusier, or influencing politics in a conservative direction". Catholic laymen and "men of good will" could work together at the human endeavour with the minimum of ecclesiastical intervention.

Now that many of the Western clergy want to take the lead in improving this world rather than concentrating on getting their flocks safely into the right department of the next one, we hear less about "the autonomy of the secular realities" or "secular realities" being the province of the laity rather than the clergy.

Creating a Christian Humanism

Attempts to answer the theoretical question "Does the history of civilisation, culture and progress have any theological significance?" resulted in the Council's "Christian humanism", of which Gaudium et Spes was the first official expression, and which has since been more fully developed by Popes Paul VI and John Paul II.

Many Catholics are allergic to the word "humanism" because, ever since it first came into use around 1815, it has been associated with unbelief and a quasi-idolatrous cult of man. But if we define humanism as the philosophy of civilisation and progress, or the development of man's natural talents and nature's potentialities, it becomes a neutral term, and in speaking about Christian humanism we arc talking about what has been a fact and a reality since the Church's beginnings. The Church has been the greatest of civilisers and one of the greatest promoters of culture. 3

Compared to the way the faith was previously presented, the conciliar and post-conciliar "Christian humanism" involves a double shift of emphasis; from the importance of achieving salvation in the next world to our duties in this one; and from the sovereignty of God to the dignity and rights of man. The second shift is usually referred to as the "anthropological turn" or "shift to the human subject" in philosophy and theology. The object was to find common ground for dialogue with atheists, since modern atheism in its various forms is now the dominant "religion" of the West, and the West is culturally the most powerful influence worldwide.

"What kind of a being is man?" was judged to be a better starting point for discussion with atheists than the question "Does God exist?" About God's existence there is open conflict. About man's dignity and rights and the way he ought and ought not to act, the Church and modern atheism are in agreement on some points. It was hoped that by analysing the most fundamental human experiences, those common to all men, it would be possible to show that man is of necessity a being oriented towards God, and that if this is not so, theories about his dignity, rights or ultimate perfection and happiness go up in smoke.

In the words of Pope Paul, belief in man's dignity and rights without a God who confers them are like roses which can only live for a short time once cut from the bush (Christianity) on which they grew.

This has been the main thrust of the Church's case in its argument with atheism since the Council, a case based on the "personalist" philosophies of Jacques Maritain, Emmanuel Mounier, Martin Buber, Gabriel Marcel and Max Scheler. Maritain's and Mounier's "personalism" is more socially and politically oriented than Buber's and Marcel's. They wanted it made clear that the "human endeavour" is part of God's "one plan of creation and salvation", as Lumen Gentium puts it. (See Maritain's Humanisme Integral, 1936). Buber and Marcel concentrate more on man's inner life than his external activities. Man is an "I" who only finds fulfilment in entering into communication with a "thou", and in responsibility and self-giving.

Thc other major thinkers influencing the "anthropological turn" or "shift to the human subject" were Martin Heidegger, the founder of existentialism and philosophical mentor of Fr. Karl Rahner, and Heidegger's French counterpart, Jean-Paul Sartre.

* *           *

All these men — Buber, Marcel, Scheler, Heidegger and Sartre — could be called philosophers of the human spirit, and although Buber was Jewish, Marcel  a Catholic, Scheler a spiritual vagrant who wandered in and out of the Church at different times, and Heidegger and Sartre were atheists, all drew heavily on the 19th-century Danish writer Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), arguably the most influential religious thinker since his works were first translated into the major European languages at the beginning of the last century.

The "anthropological turn", which has had the backing of John Paul II, has inevitably meant the introduction of a more subjective approach in Catholic philosophy than was hitherto allowed. In general one can say that the orthodox have mainly made use of Buber, Marcel and Scheler, with the heterodox favouring Heidegger and Sartre.

The main Scriptural foundations for the conciliar Christian humanism are the first chapter of Genesis; the doctrine of the Incarnation; and what could be called the "cosmological texts" in the epistles of St. Paul. Fr. de Lubac was their chief and earliest exponent. (See his Catholicisme, les aspects sociaux du dogme, 1939 [English edition: Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1988).

In Genesis 1, God declares creation to be good, makes man "in his own image", and commands him to "fill and subdue the earth".

The Incarnation (God taking a human body as well as soul), exploded once and for all the notion, promoted by a number of oriental religions and philosophies, that matter could be evil or an illusion. Human nature was raised to unimaginable heights, and, most amazing of all, through "divine adoption", man's "deification" (a term familiar to Eastern theology) became a possibility.

In this teaching about man's "deification", the new theologians saw a way of stealing some of atheist humanism's thunder. What was its cult of man compared with what the Church has to offer? This explains Pope Paul's oft-quoted remark in his speech at the end of the Council: "The Church too has its cult of man."

It was perhaps not a very wise remark. As so often, the Pope had his eyes on cultivated unbelievers more than on the ordinary faithful, many of whom were not a little scandalised. Were statues of Beethoven and Einstein about to be set up as objects of worship? But his words were not without good theological foundation. Man is not an object of worship, but in each man the image of God and reflection of Christ, however defaced, should be venerated and the promotion of his bodily and spiritual welfare seen as a religious as well as a moral obligation.

What I have called St. Paul's cosmic texts are those in which the apostle of the Gentiles gives us a glimpse of the way the fate of the universe is bound up with man's. Nature has been mysteriously "condemned to frustration"; it "groans" as it waits for the "adoption of the sons of God". 4 But all things will be "reconciled in God", when Christ, having first "subjected them" to Himself,"hands them over to his Father:'

Some of the Greek Fathers had likewise speculated about the dependence of nature's fate on man's, and the form of its final transformation, trying in the process to reconcile the Pauline texts with neo-Platonic philosophy. For this reason, they too were dear to the new theologians.

The Signs of the Times

The architects of the new humanism also made much of Our Lord's injunction about "Reading the signs of the times". If his hearers had read the signs of the times correctly, they would have recognised him for who he was. From the signs of the times we can sometimes learn how God wants us to act. But recent theology had been giving the expression a wider meaning. The signs of the times can give us an insight into the future. They can show us the way God's plans are unfolding and their theological significance. For the neo­Protestant theologian Karl Barth, the wise theologian carries a Bible in one hand, a daily newspaper in the other. From this it could be a short step — the step taken by modernists — to the notion of on-going revelation. Through current events, God is revealing new truths. The Council makes occasional if not clearly defined references to reading the signs of the times, but not in the last sense.

Which signs of the times, or features of contemporary history, did the new theologians regard as most charged with theological significance, and most influenced the development of their Christian humanism?

There were seemingly three: modern democratic political movements, in which they saw a belated fruit of the Incarnation; the growing unification of the world through rapid travel and communications; and the rain of riches, in the form of scientific knowledge, technology and cash, which has been pouring down on the once Christian industrialised countries of the West for the last 150 years, and since the second World War has become an inundation.

Democratic political movements: All that needs to be said here is that the more politically conscious reformers, like Maritain, Emmanuel Mounier and Fr. Marie-Dominique Chenu, wanted the Church to recognise the social and  political movements of the last two hundred years, carried on in the name of liberty, equality, fraternity and democracy, as in some degree inspired by God. They also wanted the faithful hunched into the quest for the perfectly just social and political system en masse.

To these two demands the Council, with due reservations, gave its assent. The faithful are urged to take their social and political obligations seriously "Justice and peace" commissions (parish, diocesan and regional committees to implement the Church's social teaching) have multiplied. 5

But how much justice is possible? Is perfect justice attainable, and how is the goal to be reached? Should it be by increasing or diminishing the powers of the state?

Here the Council refused to commit itself. It kept to general principles about social and political conduct. "The concrete forms, structure and organisation of public authority adopted in any political community may vary according to the character of the various peoples and their historical development" (Gaudium et Spes 74). However, the thinking of most of those responsible for drafting the text, reflected in its ethos, tended to be utopian and democratic.

One World: The unification of mankind as the climax of history is an idea which has been haunting the Western mind for at least two centuries, and under the influence of the evolutionary ideas of Fr.Teilhard de Chardin, had come to dominate the thinking of the new theologians too. History is moving ineluctably towards this consummation.

However, men are not united simply by being brought into closer physical contact or gathered together under one government. True unity presupposes some measure of agreement about the purpose of life and how to achieve it. Round what set of ideas, then, are men to be fully and finally united?

The Church's answer can only be: around belief in Christ. That is why the Council, after calling the Church "the universal sacrament of salvation", gives a further definition: "the sign and instrument of communion with God and unity among all men". Whatever some of the new theologians may have intended, the Council was rejecting the claims of Marxism, secular humanism, freemasonry, and every other "-ism" and "-ology", to be the instrument of mankind's final unification. A sign or sacrament does not have to achieve what it signifies. People are free to use or not to use it. But if full and final unity is to come about in this world, it can only be under the God-Man, the human race's Head and Redeemer. A unity based on mutual tolerance of diverse views would not be final unity.6

Western Prosperity: About the right way of using the inundation of knowledge and riches, the answers were again at hand in the Church's social teaching. All goods must be come by honestly. Those on whom God has showered them beyond measure must be generous and share them. Sharing includes helping the less well-endowed to help themselves.

These principles had long been recognised as applying to the internal life of nations. But the reformers, backed by the missionary orders, wanted it made plainer that they apply as much to relations between nation and nation, and region and region. This, in a nutshell, is the teaching of Gaudium et Spes on the subject.

But what is the deeper meaning of the inundation? Could it too, like the movement for civil and political rights, so the thinking of the reformers ran, be a continuation of the liberating work of the Incarnation? To begin with, men had had to be set free from false beliefs, false fears and evil desires. That had been the principal achievement of the first 1500 years of the Church's history — spiritual liberation. But beginning with the decline of slavery and accelerating as we approach modern times, can we not see flowing from that interior liberation an external liberation of man taking place; what will one day be a liberation for everybody from hunger, pain, disease and the drudgery of work as the forces of nature are increasingly harnessed to man's service? 7 In other words, God wants more than the salvation of souls. He wants integral salvation: the "salvation" of men's bodies as well, and, through men, of nature in its entirety. 8

But if this is what the "reconciliation of all things in Christ" means, is it largely a work of men completed before the last day, or largely a work of God brought about after the last day? In other words, is the building of the kingdom of God, or is it not, to be identified with the building of an earthly Utopia?

To this question, which lies at the heart of the Church's struggle with modernism and about which the new theologians were divided, the Council gave a definite No; there is to be no such identification — though not, it seems, often and loud enough to silence those who wanted the answer to be Yes. 9

"We know neither the moment of the consummation of the earth and of man, nor the way the universe will be transformed. The form of this world distorted by sin is passing away, and we are told that God is preparing a new dwelling and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (Gaudium et Spec 39). Pope Paul and Pope John Paul II have also both repeatedly insisted that the "human endeavour" and the building of the kingdom of God are not to be identified. Building the Kingdom of God is not dependent on the success  of the human endeavour. The Kingdom is built up principally by adding to the number of the saved. 10

However the Council endorsed the idea that improving this world is a proper activity for Christians as Christians.

"The Church was founded to spread the kingdom of Christ all over the earth . . . in order to make all men partakers of redemption and salvation, and through them to establish the right relationship of the entire world to Christ." (Decree on the Laity, art. 2). Or as Gaudium et Spes puts it, the spiritual and temporal orders "although distinct, are so connected in the one plan of God that he Himself intends in Christ to appropriate the whole universe into a new creation, initially here on earth, fully after the last day"

In other words, the Church, like marriage, has a primary and a secondary end, which in so far as possible should go hand in hand. Making men Christians not only sets them on the path to salvation, it contributes to making the world better; and making the world better (the human endeavour) is to be seen as an extension of the primal act of creation.

Building a better world is the Church's answer to modern atheism's notion of building a perfect world, and to get the accent in the right place, Paul VI launched the idea of building a "civilisation of love". Without love, no amount of prosperity will make the world better. It will be worse.

But if all the products of art and culture are eventually going to go up in smoke, as the first Pope has told us (II Peter 3:7), "what", asked the Council Fathers,"is the final meaning of man's activity in the universe?" (Gaudium et Spes 11). How will it have contributed to the "new earth", to which they refer?

On this point the Church has not said anything explicit, though there are hints in Gaudium et Spes and towards the end of John Paul II's encyclical on work, Laborem Exercens, that in some sense the products of our brains and hands in this life, will, if found worthy, have a place in transfigured form in the "new creation". Neither document goes so far as to say we shall hear Chopin or enjoy impressionist paintings. But the direction of the thought seems to indicate it as a possibility.

We have now covered, if not all, at least the main new orientations. Our next task is to see why the new theology, which was largely responsible for them, had become impregnated with error, as well as yielding valuable insights. For that we must go back to the early 19th century and the beginnings of the movement for coming to terms with "modern thought", which we can roughly define as the sum of 19th- and 20th-century knowledge and opinion, ideas and ideologies, clustered around the doctrines of the 18th-century Enlightenment.

Notes to Chapter Fourteen

1. "Why is it so often said that Christianity does not work? 'You have been on the job for nearly two thousand years in this world: what is there to show for it?'  so runs the familiar accusation?' Jean Daniélou, The Lord of History, Longmans. London, 1938. p. 87. For Teilhard de Chndin "the great objection against Christianity in our time . . . is . . . that our religion makes its followers inhuman" (Le Milieu Divin, Collins 1960, p. 41). In regard to the history of the Church as a whole, the accusations could hardly be more preposterous. The Church is not in the business of producing Utopias. In spite of this it is Christians who have filled the non-Christian world with hospitals, schools, orphanages and refuges for the poor, not apostolic disciples of Voltaire and Marx. Since the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, we can also point to the devastation these accusers have worked all over the world in a mere seventy years. Unfortunately the reformers did not have the benefit of this hindsight. It might have made them less sensitive to the accusations.

2. Prometheus: the legendary Greek figure who was punished for stealing fire from the gods to benefit mankind.

3. The renaissance had used the word "humanist", not the word "humanism", but the idea was already there, i.e. that scholarship, learning and the development of human talent and welfare do not have to be of a strictly religious kind to be pleasing to God. St. Thomas More, St. John Fisher and Erasmus are well known examples of Christian humanists. Many more instances can be found in Vite di uomini illustri del Secolo XV by the Florentine bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci, first published from a manuscript in the Vatican library in 1839 (English trans., under title The Vespasiano Memoirs, Routledge, London, 1926, reprinted Harper & Row, NewYork„ 1963). Humanism as an idea only begins to become toxic when it is assumed that the pursuit of man's earthly welfare and development can be conducted without reference to his supernatural end.

4. The older translations of Romans 8.22 speak of nature or creation "groaning in travail" or "groaning and travailing together", to which the English translators of the Jerusalem Bible add the phrase "in one great act of giving birth". But these last words, seeming to imply some kind of Teilhardian evolutionary climax to history, are not found in the Greek text.

5. In many cases, unfortunately, only to become unwitting channels for left-wing propaganda

6. Fr. de Lubac saw in mankind's final unification another motive for renewed missionary zeal. Before Christ comes again, the unification ought at least to be under Christian inspiration.

7. See de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism, p. 5. Whether the scientific and technical marvels of recent times are or are not part of the liberating work of the Incarnation, one can easily think of some other purposes they might have: (a) They facilitate the preaching of the Gospel to all nations. (b) By putting much greater power for good and evil in our hands, they subject us to more demanding tests — we are being transferred to a higher classroom in God's high-school, not to a permanent apartment in a cosmic Ritz hotel. (c) Before the world ends, human nature is to display all its potentialities  before the watching, wondering, crowds of angels to whom St.Paul refers. For Maritain, "the manifestation of all the potenuahties of human nature" is one of the world's "natural ends" (The Peasant of the Garonne, Chapman, London, 1968, p. 41).

8. The concept of "integral salvation" was initially intended as a corrective to the misunderstanding I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter — the idea that God is not much interested in our bodies or the material creation; they are incidental to his overall plan. Unfortunately the concept rapidly received heterodox interpretations. Obviously, for the Church, the body is only "saved" in a metaphorical sense. Its "salvation" depends entirely on the soul. If the soul is lost, the most physically perfect body will be lost with it. Conversely, if the soul is saved the body will share in its glory. The body can do nothing towards its salvation apart from the soul. Modernism, on the other hand, rapidly gave the "salvation of the body" a largely this-worldly significance. Bodily salvation begins here below with advances in medicine and health care and keeping physically fit. The well-being of people's bodies should therefore be as much a concern of the clergy as the well-being of their souls. To think otherwise is to be guilty of "Platonic dualism". All this helps explain why in many places the traditional spirituality of self-denial has been replaced by a spirituality of self-fulfilment, and we have "centres of human development" as well as retreat houses.

9. It should be remembered that much of the "advanced" thinking on this subject in the pre-conciliar decades was heavily influenced by the evolutionary optimism of Fr. Teilhard de Chardin. in whose scheme of things it is difficult to distinguish "the human endeavour" from the building of the kingdom of God. Men first "transform the world". and when the work is complete, Christ returns to take it over.

10. 'We likewise confess that the Kingdom of God, which had its beginning here on earth in the Church of Christ, is not of this world, whose form is passing, and that its authentic development cannot be measured by the progress of civilisation, of science and of technology." (Paul VI, Credo of the People of God, "The Solicitude of the Church"). And here is John Paul whom no one can accuse of disinterest in "transforming the world" in so far as that is possible. Addressing the Brazilian bishops on the then forthcoming celebrations for the new millennium, he observed that "it is not a nutter of indulging in a new millenarianism (Tertio Millennio Adveniente 23) with the temptation to predict substantial changes in it regarding the life of communities and of each individual. Human life will continue, people will continue to experience success and failure, moments of glory and stages of decline. and Christ Our Lord will always be the one source of salvation until the end of time" (Osservatore Romano, 7th Feb. 1996).


Copyright © Phillip Trower 2003, 2011, 2017


Version: 27th November 2017

 

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