By Msgr. Anthony R. Frontiero, S.T.D.
The Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World offers a poignant reflection on the plight of people in a contemporary context and on how the Church “weighs in,” if you will, on the realities facing us as individuals and as a human family. The document gives a historical overview of the triumphs of human advances and technology. It rightly celebrates the wonders of the human genius as well as the progress we have realized and of which we are capable. It also, however, recognizes the tragedies and sorrows that plague us (and perhaps that have always plagued us), and asks some questions that need to be answered if we ever hope to live fully and with hope. The wisdom of this document is as precious today as it was when it was published:
“Nevertheless, in the face of the modern development of the world, the number constantly swells of the people who raise the most basic questions or recognize them with a new sharpness: what is man? What is this sense of sorrow, of evil, of death, which continues to exist despite so much progress? What purpose have these victories purchased at so high a cost? What can man offer to society, what can he expect from it? What follows this earthly life?
The Church firmly believes that Christ, who died and was raised up for all, can through His Spirit offer man the light and the strength to measure up to his supreme destiny. Nor has any other name under the heaven been given to man by which it is fitting for him to be saved. She likewise holds that in her most benign Lord and Master can be found the key, the focal point and the goal of man, as well as of all human history. The Church also maintains that beneath all changes there are many realities which do not change and which have their ultimate foundation in Christ, Who is the same yesterday and today, now and forever. Hence under the light of Christ, the image of the unseen God, the firstborn of every creature, the council wishes to speak to all men 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, no. 10)
When the Church “weighs in” on human and social problems, she does so with the mandate of Christ himself. Indeed, the body of Christ, which is the Church, has something to say, something to teach, and something to witness. At its core, the message is this: God creates, and for this reason, we are made in his image and likeness, we are fallen but redeemed, and we are not alone.
Sadly, the basic truths about who we are and to Whom we belong have become blurred. The potential for this blurring, or even the deliberate attempt to smash these truths completely on the part of individuals and entire cultural, political, and social systems has been and is currently a particular challenge for us. As history attests, we are susceptible to such challenges both in times of prosperity and pain and suffering, such as we are in the midst of natural disasters, pandemics, and moral chaos.
More than a decade before the election of Pope Benedict XVI, John Paul II commissioned the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. In the lead up to its publication, John Paul was at pains to have Catholics and, indeed, all people of good will, embrace the truth about themselves in God, mainly so that we could resist what seemed like an all-encompassing “culture of death,” or what Pope Francis has more recently called a “throw away culture.”
In two parts, the Compendium pulls together the major themes of Catholic Social Teaching, beginning with God’s Plan of Love for Humanity (the Church’s mission and social doctrine; the human person and human rights; and the principles of the Church’s social doctrine). Part Two treats The Family as the First and Vital Cell of Society (human work, economic life, the political community, the international community, safeguarding the environment, the promotion of peace, social doctrine and the commitment of the lay faithful, and building a civilization of love).
Recently, Ignatius Press has published selected writings of Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI). In Faith and Politics (2017), Ratzinger surveys the Gospels on the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate and poses the question: “Is truth a political category? Or has Jesus’ kingdom nothing to do with politics? . . . Can, indeed, politics accept truth as a structural category, or must truth be thought to be unattainable, or be relegated to the subjective sphere, and its place be taken by an attempt to build peace and justice using whatever instruments are available to power?”
Ratzinger asks some very important questions about truth and its place in political decision-making and discourse. “What happens when truth counts for nothing?” “What kind of justice is possible?” The question Pilate poses to Jesus, “What is truth?” is a critical one. Bearing witness to the truth means giving priority to God, and to His will over and against the interests of the world and its powers. (Faith and Politics, pp. 45-61)
Five years ago, Pope Francis published the Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ (2015), and renewed the appeal of the Church to the human family to embrace an integral ecology in the face of global climate change. In a world befuddled by pandemic and politics, The Holy Father’s wisdom is even more important today: “We are not faced,” Francis teaches, “with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental” (No. 139). Hence, we need an ‘integral ecology’ that sees all these concerns as part of one interconnected whole (No. 138). Indeed, a renewed, honest, and integral understanding of the truth and of what is good and beautiful, is a pre-condition for the healing, well-being, social harmony, and peace in our time. I submit that Catholic social teaching can help us to get there.
Monsignor Anthony R. Frontiero, S.T.D., is the Vice Rector and Director of Human Formation at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland and a Fellow of the Institute for Human Ecology.