Treatment of the document Gaudium et Spes was proving to be the discussion that would not die, containing as it did so many controversial points. One of these was atheism, and perhaps this should not be surprising. The Church had never, in previous councils, been forced to face this issue in its raw form. Previous controversies had always, in some way, shape, or form always reverted to a mistaken or misunderstood aspect of revelation. Never before had a council faced a condition of worldwide rejection of the very idea of God. Very quickly the Council fathers were learning that atheism was a multi-headed monster.
Xavier Rynne quotes a remarkably open passage from Paul VI’s encyclical Ecclesiam Suam (1964): “[Atheists] are scandalized by a mediocre, selfish Christianity which, relying on riches and arms, defends its own interests. If we had lived and preached the gospel of brotherhood, we would have defeated world atheistic communism.” Historians note the pope’s endorsement, in the same encyclical, of priests’ immersing themselves into the plight of blue collar workers, a redemption of the famous French Worker-Priest experiment of the 1950’s suppressed by Pope Pius XII.
Many Council fathers were quite sympathetic to Pope Paul’s analysis, able to discern that much of atheism was dissatisfaction with organized religion, notably Roman Catholicism’s paralysis during two world wars and the holocaust. However, there were other factors in play as well. Of great concern to the Church was the suppression of freedom to worship in Communist totalitarian nations, where atheism was the state religion, so to speak. But even beyond the Iron Curtain, atheistic Marxist philosophy was influencing intellectuals around the world, including the United States, with its vision of the future as a climax of equality and just distribution of goods, when the world would be classless.
This eschatological or futuristic view stood in marked contrast to Christian eschatology, which defined the end time as the return of Christ as the climax of the human experience, a time of glory and judgment, the “Second Coming.” In the 1960’s, however, this Christian vision of the end times seemed pale in comparison with an earthly future in which the lot of mankind could be improved by present day efforts. One did not need to be a card carrying communist to embrace a more activist effort to erase social injustice.
The Council did not wish to abandon the vision of the future to atheistic Communism. The majority of fathers realized that there was much to learn about atheism, and that teachings on the Church’s identity and works must better embrace the concrete injustices of the present world. Archbishop Wojtyla (the future John Paul II) called for moderation and study. (According to Andrew Greeley, when Cardinal Wojtyla entered the papal conclave to elect a successor to John Paul I in 1978, he brought a Marxist philosophy journal and read it during the proceedings, at least until his own growing vote tally began to disturb him.)
Discussion continued on schemas of “Church and Culture,” “Economic Social Life;” “the Community of Nations and Peace.” The latter was probably the most useful to the degree that it prompted theologians after the Council to examine questions of “just war” and “nuclear deterrence.” I can recall in the 1980’s that my bishop asked me to serve on his advisory board regarding the morality of war; we had Saturday morning breakfasts with the brass from nearby Patrick Air Base, who argued diligently about their ability to fight a limited nuclear war. I was dubious.
The Council addressed the schema on “Missionary Activity.” Again, here was a topic where twentieth century theologians raised concerns about the one-dimensional nature of the Church’s missionary vision, which was essentially to bring everyone to Roman Catholic baptism. A number of Council fathers wondered about the propriety of this approach. Rynne observes that “missiology” was going through its own identity crisis. (513) After World War II a highly controversial work appeared in France: France, Pays de Mission? (Is France a Mission Country?) Regrettably, the book has never been published in English. The gist of the book’s argument is that a mighty Catholic country like France, which bore the title “Daughter of the Church,” was itself in need of missionary endeavor. In a sense, the word “mission” became entwined with “revitalization,” and I suspect there is a strong blood line between this critical post-War insight and the “new evangelization” we hear so much about in contemporary Catholicism. The underlying question, of course, was whether the Church was in good enough shape to enjoy credibility in its mission to the unbaptized or the non-Catholic Christian.
The mission discussion also embraced ecumenical concerns. Under Pius XII the official Catholic Church position toward Christians of other churches had been the position of Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War: “Unconditional Surrender.” Many in the Curia still adhered to this. But the experience of World War II, where American Catholic soldiers fought German and Japanese to the death with Protestants as comrades in arms—a dramatic example of what was being played out around the world in countless episodes of life—was making the old guard position harder to accept. On another front, there were thoughtful churchmen who questioned the propriety of upsetting centuries of cultural practices and imposing Latin rites. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, religious order missionaries in China became embroiled in the Chinese and Malabar Rites Controversies. The Chinese difficulty involving long-standing rituals of honoring deceased ancestors. Clement XI banned celebration of the rites by Chinese converts in 1704. Documents already approved by the Council implied the need for more respect of indigenous peoples.
It was becoming clear that this final Session IV of the Council was revealing a need for serious and prolonged discussion of older, long-standing understandings of Church practices, and equally raising new points of study that could hardly be processed in the six weeks remaining. One can easily imagine how theologians envisioned years of work ahead of them, much of which continues to this day.
I neglected to recommend an excellent book on the worker-priests of France, Priests in Working Class Blue. (1986) The book is a bit pricey and may require more than the usual browsing.