The World and the Church

In his speech closing the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI noted that “the trend of modern culture” is “centered on humanity, … the modern mind” is “accustomed to assess everything in terms of usefulness,” “the fundamental act of the human person … tends to pronounce in favor of his own absolute autonomy, … [and] “secularism seems the legitimate consequence of modern thought and the highest wisdom in the temporal ordering of society.”

The Council proposed to deal with that situation, according to the Holy Father, by working with it as much as possible in hopes of eventually getting beyond it. In its deliberations, therefore, “the modern world’s values were not only respected but honored,” so much so that the Church “felt the need … almost to run after [the society in which she lives] in its rapid and continuous change.” The outcome of the discussions was “a simple, new and solemn teaching to love man in order to love God … to love man … not as a means but as the first step toward the final and transcendent goal which is the basis and cause of every love.”

So the ultimate goal did not change: “the effort to look on [God], and to center our heart in Him which we call contemplation, is the highest, the most perfect act of the spirit, the act which even today can and must be at the apex of all human activity.” Nonetheless, the Holy Father seemed to say, the Church must meet and value people where they are, and lead them to God by developing the implications of what they already know, want, and do. Just as all roads lead to Rome, one might say, all human interests and efforts, pursued honestly, consistently, and fully, should lead to God.

Such was the hope, a hope that indeed has much to be said for it. Nonetheless, the process turned out more difficult than expected. As the same pope noted not many years later, the period after the Council saw “the arrival of a day of clouds, of tempest, of darkness, of research, of uncertainty.” The problems were severe enough to make him worry that the “smoke of Satan” had somehow entered the Church.

The problems can certainly be understood, as the pope suggested, as the result of “an intervention of an adverse power.” Like God, though, Satan acts through secondary causes, so more concrete readings of the situation are also possible. His Holiness observed that the Council in its “real and deep intentions” proposed honoring the goals of this human world as part of bringing that world to God. That’s a tricky business, though, and very few of us combine great intellectual breadth and acuity with steady sanctity of purpose. For many Catholics it’s been difficult, in the midst of the confusions, ambiguities, and temptations of life, to keep ultimate intentions vividly in mind when it’s easier to fall in line and run after the present world and honor its goals simply as they understand themselves.

The influence exerted by the secular world is very strong, and it’s difficult to harness to higher purposes. That world is not simply waiting to hear our message, because it already has a message of its own based on its own sense of what’s real. It has nothing it calls a religion, but it has something that functions as such, because it has a way of understanding the world that it believes to be true and morally obligatory.

We are all, faithful Catholics and secular humanists alike, members of the faith-based as well as the reality-based community. God is the Most Real Being, the Ens Realissimum, so whatever is most real to us acts as the center of something that serves as our religion. Because our sense of what’s real lies behind everything we think and do, it’s not something we can isolate and decide at will one way or another. Instead, it grows on us from a thousand sources—upbringing, education, personal experience, what those around us and those we take as our authorities treat as a serious matter.

Those sources are largely social because man is social. If people don’t agree on what’s real they have a hard time cooperating, so a common understanding of reality is basic to every society. That principle applies to modern Western society as well, and therein lies a problem. The public discussion that orders today’s society rejects transcendent realities in favor of a stripped-down understanding of the world. In that understanding what’s real is defined by what we can see and measure, together with our feelings, thoughts, and experiences. Those things are treated as self-contained, so that they don’t point to anything beyond themselves.

On such an understanding the human world generates its own meanings, and becomes the source and criterion of what is good, beautiful, and true. The result is that it takes the place of the divine: human society becomes the Most Real Being. That is why we now face, as the pope also noted in his address concluding the Council, a “religion (for such it is) of man who makes himself God.”

The philosopher Hegel already noticed the situation two hundred years ago when he observed that “reading the morning newspaper is the realist’s morning prayer.” It’s how a faithful reader of The New York Times reaffirms his place and orientation in the world. Such people can indeed be led from secular concerns to something higher. However, that can happen only if they are willing to be led, and when successful in life they are likely to want to stay where they are. So the self-centeredness of the modern world is not just the result of confusion or ignorance that can be dissolved by appropriately-framed explanations regarding the transcendent implications of realities already visible to everyone. It’s also the result of intentional rejection of those implications by social leaders. The “smoke of Satan” is not only in the Church.

To make matters worse, that refusal to be led beyond this-worldly concerns has come to be publicly identified with all that is good. The highest values publicly recognized today are autonomy, man determining his course and even his nature by his own choice, and equality, the equal standing of all choices that are consistent with equal treatment for the choices of others. Those principles are considered requirements of reason and viewed as the only possible basis of a civilization of peace, progress, and human dignity.

To reject those principles as highest standards, it is thought, is to choose hatred and oppression, so to speak of love is to sign on to them. Expressions like “human rights” and “social justice” are interpreted accordingly, and explaining why the Church means something different requires arguments that not many can present clearly and very few secular people understand or pay much attention to. The result is that the true goals of the Church are confused with those of secular progressivism, and when they seem to differ as a clear practical matter, as with what are dismissively referred to as “pelvic issues,” people feel entitled to assume that the differences are hangovers from the past that will someday change and in the mean time can be dismissed as secondary in importance.

It seems, then, that to retrieve and carry forward the goal of the Council, bringing modern man to God, we need more than ever to emphasize what’s excluded from the secular concerns that are increasingly treated as complete in themselves. We need to insist on opening the windows of the modern world. At the Council the Church emphasized an irenic conception of the Faith that would accept secular concerns, build on them, and complete them. The Apostle Paul, who “became all things to all men, that [he] might save all,” knew how to be irenic in that way. He also knew that he sometimes had to preach the word out of season, and insist on points that were a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. Recent experience shows the importance of following him on that point as well. We are nothing unless (to recycle a political slogan) we provide a choice and not an echo.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared July 11, 2014 on Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

  • ForChristAlone

    Another home run hit by Mr Kalb – a unique combination of erudition and common sense. Not too often that we’re treated to such a recipe to sustain us.

    • Giovanni Cattaneo

      I don’t see how to continue to square the circle can be called common sense?

      As I understand it, and please forgive me if I don’t, Mr. Kalb seems to be proposing at the end of his article to keep running after the modern world even though its answer is clear and even though doing so will continue to erode the Church’s authority with those that still obey.

      The discussion continues to be VII which has been hijacked, misinterpreted, badly implemented, needs to be reimplemented once again I hate to bring the same analogy but how many times must the square peg meet the round hole before we realize that it won’t work. Most importantly how many souls will be abandoned to their own devices as they are mostly in the western world by prelates that only see the council and are not paying attention to the spiritual decimation of their flock?

      • My proposal is to emphasize the aspects of Church teaching that the modern world doesn’t agree with and can’t make sense of. For all that I do accept that unnecessary disputes are to be avoided, unnecessary difficulties removed, and points of actual agreement highlighted. I’m not sure why any of that should be objectionable.

        • ponerology

          Montini deluded himself. One must love God first in order to love his fellow man. There is no other way, regardless of Montini’s or modern man’s hopes, dreams, or delusions. Once the church let go of the first commandment, all the rest fell like dominoes.
          As the world at large sees it, it has very little use for Christ Jesus and His bride. Therefore, there exist very few “points of actual agreement” to highlight. The mission of the Church was to bring (some of) the world to the Church, via its immutable Truths.

  • Alojzije

    “the modern world’s values were not only respected but honored,” so much so that the Church “felt the need … almost to run after [the society in which she lives] in its rapid and continuous change.”

    Some things don`t change, Church is still running after modern world values.

  • Excellent article. It is true, our sense of reality – what is real – is crucial. In my reality, it was no accident that I recently read the book and two nights ago saw the movie, “Heaven is for Real.” I was struck by the simplicity and honesty of both book and movie, and the credibility of both because of that simplicity and honesty. “Unless one turn and become as a child, he cannot enter…”

    I continue to wonder and ponder the call to believers in this time – how, Lord – HOW – are we to be witnesses in this dark world?

    • Mark

      Dear Thomas – my own soul echoes your cry. But there is only one answer: to become holy. As the darkness worsens the brighter your light will shine. We are needed right here, right now, where God has placed us, to witness by our humble, simple, holy lives. And close our ears to the world’s din, which would seek to paralyze us by telling us we aren’t being productive in our witness.

    • Objectivetruth

      “Sell everything you have………and follow Me.”

      Personally, I’m trying to adopt a pilgrim’s attitude. This is not my home, and I’m journeying home. On this journey, do the best you can, and love as much as you can.

      We try to put too much of the burden on ourselves. Try to be as holy as you can, and have trust that God is doing the heavy lifting.

  • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

    “Oh dear! tut-tut-tut, what have I done. Silly me, I have destroyed the liturgy of the church and opened the church to the Prince of Darkness. “

  • NE-Conservative

    With all due respect to Mr. Kalb’s erudition and insight, it appears to me that too many in today’s hierarchy have implemented ‘irenic solutions’ to the point of basically surrendering any moral and ethical rigor that was once the very essence of Christianity.
    I suggest that our spiritual ‘leader(s)’ need to spend a little less time in erudite, high-sounding pontification (at the very root of what that means) and more time proclaiming in very clear terms the Truth that is the foundation of our Faith.

  • DE-173

    “To make matters worse, that refusal to be led beyond this-worldly concerns has come to be publicly identified with all that is good.”

    Of course. Everybody knows they will die, but nobody believes it.

  • DE-173


  • Fantastic piece that captures the hard situation Christians find themselves in today. The notion of pointing to realities beyond those espoused by secular culture is crucial to evangelization. I think we forget that we have something that contemporary culture can’t offer: eternal life. Sow the seeds “in season and out of season.”

    • Giovanni Cattaneo

      I agree that it does a great job of capturing the situation however its solution seems to be just more of the same so we will continue to wonder the desert for another 40 years.

  • fredx2

    Justice Kennedy perhaps voiced the shallowness of the times best when he wrote in Casey that our Constitutional rights are really all about each person figuring out the meaning of the world for themselves. He said

    Liberty is the right to “define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

    What he forgets is that a lot of people are going to get that definition wrong – dead wrong. That is why people have always needed a strong moral authority at the center of society to guide people in setting their definitions.

    • Guest

      And what is the strong and enduring moral authority at the center of a secular-conceived society?

      Kennedy’s definition of Liberty is merely Liberalism taken from its origin (Protestant Individualism), through its adolescence (Secularism — the U.S. Founding), to its maturity (Atheism).

  • ColdStanding

    It strikes me that the dynamic that was set up, by the bishops and their enablers moved the focus of their pastoral care from the Body of the Anointed aka the Body of Christ, to those outside of the Church*. Most of the conflicts that come up over annoying things like doctrine, devotions, liturgy, and etc., pretty much all of what, here-to-for the Church preached and practiced, can be chalked up to the bishops having to weigh the obligation to those not in the Church with their obligations to those in the Church and habitually favoring the former^.

    Basically, if you claim to be in the Church and intent on practicing the Christian Catholic faith you can’t be the object of the care of the hierarchy because their are now concerned with the engaging the World, and you, incorporated into the Body of Christ as you are, are not of the World. Ergo, you are not the object of the new focus of interest of the hierarchy.

    The faithful exist to enable the hierarchy to to care for those in World. If your interests, like the salvation of your eternal soul, conflict with their program of establishing good relations with the World, well, sorry, but you’ll just have to go to…

    *setting aside the obvious fact that one group has elected to place themselves under the care of the Church and one group has not demonstrated it desires the pastoral care of the Church’s hierarchy.
    ^even when the obligation to one is total and to the other non-existent.

    • Part of the problem I think is that today it’s even hard for people who theoretically believe otherwise to avoid being affected by the view that the real world is what you see on TV and read about in mainstream journalism, social science, government reports etc. On that view the Church is an organization for people with a special private interest and gains whatever importance it has from its contributions to the real world as so defined. So on that view doctrine, devotions, liturgy, etc. are all inward-turning matters, they’re all navel-gazing, and concern with them is at odds with the proper mission of the Church, which is to do something about poverty numbers etc.

      • ColdStanding

        I thank you for recasting my point with a more mature tone.

  • Giovanni Cattaneo

    If that was the ultimate end of the council meaning its main purpose (and lets be honest we still don’t really know what the end of the pastoral VII was even to this day) that ship sailed long ago and it did so very much during lifetime of Paul VI.

    In other words the society that was just beginning to ask those questions back in the 60s during which and around which the council was speaking has long since answered and the answer is a resounding “no” to the Church.

    As you point out the society would only be led if it lets its self be led. The world in which the Church could propose with some semblance of authority paths forward or towards God was supplanted long before even the council was a thought.

    I can only say that if that was the plan and that was the reason then its time to let VII be in the dust bin of history because it failed and failed spectacularly.

  • WalterPaulKomarnicki

    our next papal saint.

  • jacobum

    The modernists progressives hijacked Vatican 2 and turned Truth, Tradition and Dogma on it’s head. They compromised with the world (the world has/is winning…big time), created a new non sacrificial, Protestant, man-centered liturgy out of thin air, and in effect created a New Religion far from the proceeding 1950+ years. All of it was done in defiance of warnings, condemnations, and censures by previous councils and Popes before JP23. In short V2 implemented Darwinism for Dogma and Modernism for Objective Truth. The results of this disaster speak for itself. PP6 saw the disaster unfolding a scant 3 years after implementing his New Mass. What did he do? Absolutely Nothing! In October he is supposed to be raised to “Blessed” which will complete the “Canonization” of Vatican 2. “Heroic Virtue”, “Life worthy of emulation” etc, etc…Really? Surely the Vatican jests? The brief respite of PB16 has been replaced by the confusion of PF and his modernist minions seemly determined to accelerate and complete the self-destruction of the Church ignited 50 years ago i/n/o “updating” the Church. Apostasy by anyone or any other name is still Apostasy.

    • Glenn M. Ricketts

      I have never been able to unravel the riddle of Paul VI: on the one hand, this is the Pope who issued such stellar pronouncements as the 1965 encyclical Mysterium Fidei, the 1968 Credo of the People of God and, of course, the prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae, which becomes more powerfully compelling with each passing year. At same time, he it was also who single-handedly effected the complete destruction of the liturgy, who stonewalled any and all considerations to the contrary and imposed – in the words of Cardinal Ratzinger – a fabrication concocted by

      • It seems to me he was a very intelligent and devout man but not a man’s man. He may have followed too much in line with the people and movements that impressed him. When they betrayed him or things went badly he wept, but he wouldn’t follow a steady independent line of action. I don’t think it was in his makeup. For all that he would do particular things that were obviously needed even when people he generally respected opposed it, as in the cases you mention.

        • Glenn M. Ricketts

          Thanks, and thanks also for the frequent fine contributions to this web site.

          All I can still say, however, is that I haven’t figured him out. Help was available from those who could have assisted him, but he usually refused it. And in the matter of the liturgical reform, he seems to have acted in almost complete isolation, although I’ve seen some evidence that, late in his life he deeply regretted it. For all of that, though, Humanae Vitae stands out as not only prophetic, but -forgive my presumption – almost an act of divine intervention, and for that I am truly grateful.

      • jacobum

        The deciphering PP6 becomes much easier if one reads Part 5 of Randy Engels book, “The Rite of Sodomy”. You can get it in the Kindle Edition on Amazon. The entire book is almost 1400 pages with close to 3,000 foot notes. It is parsed into to 5 parts on Kindle…each at $9.95. R.E. is a serious investigative journalist and so are her works. No hatchet jobs. Just documented facts. The R.O.S took her almost 17 years to complete. It is an eye opener.

  • Your article sets off so many brushfires in my mind, Mr. Kalb. This clause may summarize all of them: “the true goals of the Church are confused with those of secular progressivism.” In order to offer the world (as Jesus commanded us) “a choice and not an echo” – life – we the laity must live and be the light that He entrusted to us. A grave impediment remains among us and in us: a vast and deep confusion continues, despite persisting urging from recent popes to become otherwise, to become clear and true, to become evangelizers by first becoming evangelized.

    Instead of instituting programs for substantive, comprehensive adult formation in the Faith, the Church seems content with policy statements affirming the importance of such formation. Many, many among the clergy seem content with their sacramental ministry, and neglect or simply omit the need for evangelization and catechesis, thus failing to form and to deepen that proper interior disposition necessary for sacramental graces to be fruitful in the believer. The result? Much wasted grace! This, in spite of the Vatican II teaching, “But in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain.” (SC 11)

    The weeds (darnel) are not distinguishable from the wheat, until the fruit begins to emerge! What then of our witness? What then of the “choice” we offer the world? As the secular messianism of the world counterfeits more and more closely the Truth of the Gospel, as the City of Man more and more closely sounds like the City of God, ought the Church continue to slumber? Ought we now, at last, “make disciples”?

    The Catechism clarifies the future we face, and it gets closer and closer:

    The Church’s ultimate trial

    675 Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. [Cf. Lk 18:8; Mt 24:12] The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth [Cf. Lk 21:12; Jn 15:19-20] will unveil the “mystery of iniquity” in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh. [Cf. 2 Th 2:4-12; I Th 5:2-3; 2 Jn 7; I Jn 2:18, 22]

    676 The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgement…..

  • pdxcatholic

    Another insightful and poignant article by Mr. Kalb. Thank you for articulating what many of us feel when attempting to carry out the New Evangelization.