In 1965 the Fathers of Second Vatican Council complained about Catholics, “who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life.” They remarked that “this split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age.” (Gaudium e Spes 43). Clearly these words are still very true today.
The Council Fathers produced two Constitutions on the Church. They followed a distinction borrowed from Trinitarian theology. The actions of the Church were described in terms of the interior works or the nature of the Church versus the Church’s exterior works or mission in the world.
The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) was intended to describe the nature of the Church itself, while a new schema was drafted to describe the Church in relation to the world. This new schema was eventually named Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World).
In order to understand this outward directed mission, the Fathers highlighted the deepest understanding of what it means to be human. Each of us desires true and eternal happiness, or the integral fulfillment of the human condition. While the human condition offers many false substitutes, Christ is the ultimate foundation of our happiness (GS 10). The Council sought to solve fundamental human questions in the light of Christ “in order to shed light on the mystery of man and to cooperate in finding the solution to the outstanding problems of our time” (GS 10).
The fundamental truth is that “only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light” (GS 22). The Fathers note that, “the root reason for human dignity lies in man’s call to communion with God” and that “…many of our contemporaries have never recognized this intimate and vital link with God, or have explicitly rejected it. Thus atheism must be accounted among the most serious problems of this age, and is deserving of closer examination.” The problem of systematic unbelief has not lessened in our time.
One highly significant facet of the mission of the Church in the world is the role of the lay faithful who are called to carry out “all their earthly activities . . . humane, domestic, professional, social and technical enterprises by gathering them into one vital synthesis with religious values” (GS 43). The lay faithful are called to be Christ in the midst of the world, in their daily life and professions. The General Directory of Catechesis notes;
The formation of lay catechists cannot ignore the specific character of the laity in the Church, and cannot be regarded as merely a synthesis of the mission received by priests and religious. Rather, “their apostolic training acquires a special character precisely from the secular nature of the lay state and from its particular type of spirituality” (GDC 237).
The relationship between Christ and culture has generally followed three patterns. One pattern is to attempt to remove oneself from the world, to live in a kind of a monastery in the desert or on a mountain. While such a calling has definite merit, especially for prayer, it is not the vision of the council for the lay person. A second model involves an uncritical assimilation to culture either by abandoning faith or by compartmentalizing or privatizing it so that it has no relevance to daily life. This view was condemned as serious error by the Council Fathers (GS 43). The final proposal is to allow Christ to transform culture through the daily lives of the faithful. This view requires us to be “in the midst of the world” but to fuse our life to our faith in a vital synthesis which transforms culture and bears witness to Christ.
I am reminded of a story told to me by a priest who had lived for a number of years in Europe. He knew a Catholic woman of deep faith in the city of Milan, Italy who had spent her life working as a designer in the fashion industry. One day while she was visiting a fellow fashion designer she noticed that his newest line of apparel was created out of nearly transparent fabric with no attempt in the design at layering or some other method of making the outfit be less revealing. This concerned her deeply because this had potential to influence the whole fashion industry and thus impact the culture of Europe. I was told she looked at him and placed her hand under the fabric and holding it up asked him, “Would you dress your wife in this?” He thought for second and then replied, “No, I wouldn’t.” After she left his studio he apparently got on the phone and reordered his fabric in light of her comments. The presence of this Catholic fashion designer in the midst of a highly secular profession allowed Christ to be present and to transform this small part of culture. The council envisioned the transformation of all human culture as the lay faithful bear witness in every honest and upright vocation.
Holy Mary, Star of the New Evangelization, Pray for us!
Scott McKellar is Director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute.