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.