Lesson 8a: Christian Life in the Modern World

Vatican II, The Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), 1965, analyzed the modern world and its special needs. Positively, advancing science and technology make possible the solution of many human problems of health, poverty, and communication under which the world has labored for centuries. Also more democratic and participatory forms of government and sensitivity for some human rights surpasses most government of the past. But negatively technology has been abused, consumerism along with poverty has grown, the environment is raped, violence and the culture of death is fostered, family and morals decay, and moral relativism and skepticism and ignorance of God and eternal life seem on the increase.

The basic reason for this paradox is the weakness of a divided Christian Community that prevents it from preaching the Gospel of justice and peace. This division of Christians that resulted from the schism of the Eastern Church in the eleventh century and of the Reformed or Protestant churches in the sixteenth century led to terrible religious wars. These in turn led to disillusionment with Christianity among the European intellectual elite in the last half of the 1600's who then turned to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was essentially an anti-Christian substitute for religion, based on hope that the rise of modern science and technology could solve human problems apart from any revelation from God. This Enlightenment, or Secular Humanism, however, found that modern science, at least as it was interpreted by Kant and other philosophers, was "value free" and hence did not supply a value system necessary for any philosophy of life to function for a culture. Hence within the Secular Humanism of the Enlightenment the movement of Romanticism arose which taught that since no system of values and morality is supplied by nature or by God's revelation, it must be invented by humanity like a work of fine art. Hence in our times morality is believed to be relative to a particular culture; invented by geniuses and disseminated through literature, films, and television, it is accepted in a purely pragmatic manner without any claim to be founded in a deeper truth that transcends human free choice.

The result is that our culture, subject to constant change, is deeply polarized into "conservatives" who fear change and "liberals" who put their hopes in it. This division has also entered the Church. The liberals appeal to the Bible for a "liberation theory," and favor gay rights, sexual freedom, inclusivism, and "free choice" of abortion, but deny or ignore the Bible's moral norms as outmoded and oppressive. Conservatives, on the other hand, in reaction to the liberals, appeal to biblical fundamentalism, yet support a free market economy, are nationalistic, militaristic, racists, etc., but also favor strong families, are pro-life, and support traditional moral norms. Among Catholics this polarization tends to take the form, not so much of denying the values favored by the other side, as placing a different emphasis, accenting the values they favor and neglecting the others. Catholic conservatives emphasize family values and say little about social justice, while the Catholic liberals make the opposite emphasis. Both exaggerate the faults of the other side and both betray an unconscious influence of secular humanism, the conservatives by accepting the free-market, the liberals by accepting excessive emphasis on personal choice.

Thus American culture tends to be essentially "libertarian" emphasizing individual autonomy at the expense of social solidarity and rejecting the guidance of authority even when that authority is God. This appears among conservative Catholics in their lack of concern for progressive Vatican II teachings and in their political conservatism that rejects government interference with business. With liberal Catholics it appears as ignoring Church teachings about private morality.

If we are to recover the genuinely Christian morality that Jesus taught, not as it was sometimes defectively understood in the past, we must examine the roots of our culture and see how we got into our present mess. Two basic reforms are needed. The first was provided by Vatican II in its promotion of ecumenism. We must overcome the scandal of the division of the Church in the past by winning back the Christians who separated themselves from the Catholic Church. This can only be done by patient dialogue and a good example of Christian life motivated by love. It cannot be achieved by compromising the truth of the Gospel, but that Gospel must be freed of historical accretions that have sometimes obscured it and led to the divisions in the first place.

The second basic reform that Pope Pius XII began and Vatican II and John Paul II have continued is still in its first stages. That is to assimilate modern science and technology into our Christian thinking and way of life as Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and others assimilated to the Gospel the good things of pagan Greco-Roman culture while purifying it of what was evil. In the field of moral theology this means making use of what modern science has truly discovered about our human body, our psychology, our social structures, and our history. This assimilation of the results of modern science, however, also requires a rethinking that frees that science from the distortions of Enlightenment philosophy. With this better understanding of human nature and the world in which we live, our moral theology can also be deepened.


  1. Vatican II, The Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), 1965.

  2. Vatican II, Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio), 1964.


  1. How do you understand the terms "liberal Catholic" and "conservative Catholic"?

  2. Are you a conservative or a liberal? What good can you see in the other party's positions?

  3. What was the Enlightenment? How is it still an influence today?

  4. What is "moral relativism?"

  5. What is your understanding of the work of Vatican II in the history of Christian moral teaching? Are you sure this is what Vatican II really said?


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