Vatican II’s openness to “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and anxieties” of the modern world was not easily achieved. The Catholic Church entered the modern era in the West weakened and under attack. The pre-Reformation Church had been a major player in society as a political and moral force providing many services of social assistance and charitable works, as well as being the ultimate arbiter of social morality. As the prime mover in the creation of medieval Europe from the chaos following the dissolution of the Roman Empire, the Church promoted stability as the central social value, and the resulting feudal system did provide centuries of social stability.
Three major movements — the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution — ended the social primacy of the Catholic Church.
First of all, with the Reformation there was no longer one Church as social arbiter; and the newly established Protestant Churches, as well as the Catholic Church, lost ground before the emerging centralized nation-states.
Secondly, the Enlightenment established that autonomous human reason, independent of religious faith, could also provide answers to social questions. With the Enlightenment, a distinction was clearly established between moral values and ethical values. Moral values are those values which flow directly from a specific religious tradition, and which may or may not be shared by other religious traditions or by nonbelievers. Ethical values proceed from rational or philosophical analyses, and are generally agreed upon by believers from different religious traditions as well as nonbelievers. There developed the tendency to consider religion and morality as private areas of concern, whereas ethical values are those that all rational people can agree upon and which, when shared, can serve as the basis for public policy. This distinction is important to remember especially in dialogue with non-Western individuals and organizations who share a deep commitment to a just social order.
Thirdly, the legal and constitutional reforms of the French Revolution in Catholic countries removed the Church as a major social player. For example, by the end of the 19th century, the faculties of Catholic theology were expelled from many great universities, and the pope was legally just another Italian citizen.
The Catholic Church’s reaction to these modern forces was to combat Protestantism; establish political alliances with European counterrevolutionary forces seeking the re-establishment of the ancien régime; and morally condemn the whole package of Enlightenment thought as the heresy of Modernism which was to be resisted at all costs.
Source: Rev. Peter L. Ruggere, M.M. (Associate at the Maryknoll Fathers’, Brothers’, Sisters’ and Lay Missioners’ Office of Social Concerns in Washington, DC).