For the first thousand years of Christianity, society was commonly seen as forming a single whole. Kings, lords, clergy, cathedrals, were all part of the fabric of life, rather like the Muslim idea of society, where religion and the state cannot be separated. Our Muslim rulers are also religious rulers.
In the tenth century, however, there were the reforms of Pope Gregory, and there came an every-growing distinction between the Church viewed as an institution and the sæcular powers of "the world". Over the past thousand years the Church has shown differing attitudes to the world:
- Domination, from what are called the later middle ages, i.e. about 1300. The Church had enormous temporal power and political influence.
- Withdrawal in the 19th century. The French Revolution (1789) marked the beginning of a period during which the world was seen as hostile to the Church, and the Church as hostile to the world. This developed during the 20th. century into -
- Detachment from the world. This was the spirit widely encouraged in the Catholics until the 1960's.
The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World ushered in a new era in Church-World relations. The opening lines of the document clearly and unambiguously state that there is an intimate bond between the Church and mankind. "The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, - these too are the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the followers of Christ.
This highly-controverted document takes as its starting-point that the world is -
- pluralistic, largely urban, mobile, specialised, socialised, sæcularised, subject to rapid and technological change;
- increasingly conscious of human values and the dignity of the human person;
- conscious that freedom is necessary in the pursuit of goodness;
- capable both of solving humankind's problems - and of destroying itself;
- already subject to the influence of the Holy Spirit;
- in need of an encounter with Christ.
In place of domination, withdrawal and detachment, the role of the Church in the modern world is seen to be one of orientation - a prophetic role The Church has to speak out, as the prophets did of old, as occasions warrant.
To such a world, Part I of the Constitution states that the Church has much to contribute:
- a firm basis for the dignity of every human being (21-22; 40-41)
- an appreciation of community that promotes justice and peace among nations (24-32; 42-42)
- a bridge between faith and work, research and science (34-37).
Part II of the Constitution then goes on to address a number of problems facing both the Church and world in the 1960's: marriage, culture, social and economic questions, political life, nuclear arms, peace. In itself Part II is a demonstration that the Council really wanted to waste no time putting into practice what the it had preached in Part I: the desirability of the Church and the world searching together for answers to complex questions. The world receives service from the Church, and the Church in turn learns from the world.
Next: The Church’s Role in the Modern World