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Engaging the modern world for the sake of faith

February 13, 2012
Last week I attended a Theology on Tap at the Ryerson University pub, hosted by the Catholic Chaplaincy operating out of the Archdiocese of Toronto. The discussion was led by a Ryerson professor of radio and television arts, and a practicing Catholic, on “Faith in a Secular World.” The assembly of about forty young people, consisting of both students and non-students, was a sort of microcosm of the theme itself – people of faith, or just genuine curiosity, gathering in the heart of a secular university, in the heart of a secular society.
This question of how to be a person of faith within a pluralistic social order, which is sometimes indifferent but increasingly militant in its attitude towards religion, is really the central question for many Christians today. It is also a question that unites us very concretely with our most distant ancestors: the first Christians of the Mediterranean world. The question for them (as it is for us) was, that having witnessed the incarnation and subsequently been changed by it, how do we be in the world but not of the world. That is, how do we live faithfully to the truth that was revealed, within a society which finds that truth primitive, inconvenient, or even unnecessary? As G.K. Chesterton put it, how can we hate the world enough to change it, yet love it enough to think it worth changing?
The professor’s view on this question reflected that of most Catholics today, namely, to engage the world proactively. There is much debate on what exactly this means, but it is essential to recognize that it is the predominant view among Catholics. And it is all the more essential because of the fact that for a period of time, from the Enlightenment until Vatican II, it was not the official Catholic position. That period of about three-hundred years was a time of great fear in the Church, as social and intellectual revolutions laid the foundations for the modern world as we know it. Now consider the paradigm expressed above. Prior to the Enlightenment, the Church was very much a Church of the world; it was an institution with tremendous spiritual and temporal authority, and thus social and political influence. If we can imagine for a moment the first murmurs of revolution, we may conclude that fear was the natural reaction. There was much to lose.
But in this defensive reaction to modernity, the paradigm shifted once again, and in a way the Church was neither in nor of the world. It was not in the world in that it became a sort of gated community, condemning much of the activity on the outside. It was not of the world in that, having condemned most of it, it tended to focus primarily on the salvation of the souls within it. An example of this can be seen in the thought of Karl Marx who, in developing his socialist philosophy, criticized Christianity for its preoccupation with the afterlife while ignoring the widespread social and economic injustices in this one. I am by no means advocating Marxism, but simply highlighting the real divide between the Church and the world during this period.
Of course young Catholics today, like myself and those who attended the Theology on Tap event last week, have a completely different notion of “Church.” We are all Vatican II Catholics. With that council the paradigm shifted yet again and has come full circle. There were two reasons for which it was called and it is not by chance that they directly correlate to the matter at hand. The first was “aggiornamento,” the updating of the institutional Church for modern times. The second was ecumenism. The first broke down the gates; the second sent us rushing into the world outside. It was the rediscovery of an old balance, that as Christians we must be in the world but not of it; that, like the first Christians, we must engage the world in order to redeem it.
One final comment on this shared experience with the first Christians. It is interesting that, in its attitude towards religion our society today so closely resembles that of the Roman world in the first centuries. The Christians of that time lived (as we are beginning to live now) in greater tension with society. But they never became a gated community; they rushed outside. And in this regard, the shift which took place at Vatican II cannot be seen as a modern fabrication. If we are true to the tradition, we can only conclude that it was an authentic renewal; a renewal that is shaping the twenty-first century Church in the tradition of our oldest brothers and sisters, many of whom knew Christ personally. We are, in that sense, more fully Christian – that is, more fully ourselves – as Vatican II Catholics.
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