In the contemporary world, the Catholic Church has been seen as a monolithic community with a narrow worldview. This perception seems justified at times, as the Church can function in a closed-in, ecclesial-focused manner that can approach the world with perceived hubris and a spirit of judgment.
The Second Vatican Council and the pontificates following it, especially that of Pope Francis, have challenged this confined and oftentimes cramped way of thinking and acting.
Is this inclusive approach of Vatican II new to the Church? How is the Church called by Jesus Christ to approach the world?
Perhaps a secular model can help to better assess the Church’s history and identity.
This Monday, July 4, the United States celebrates its Independence Day. The founding of this great nation was an acknowledged “experiment” since it sought to be a democratic republic politically and a melting pot of many different peoples culturally.
While things have changed on the world scene in the last two hundred years, the pluralism of the United States was a monumental break from the status quo at the time of its founding. The intention of the United States was radically unique, since cultures and nations at the time of its founding were more strictly defined and lived by people.
Germany consisted of Germanic peoples, France consisted of French people, but the United States would have no such national identity. It would consist of all people, and would truly be a multicultural nation.
While the United States has always struggled to live out this founding spirit, such as in today’s immigration debate, the model of multiculturalism was an innovative spirit from the young nation of the New World.
Multiculturalism has nourished great virtues within the human family, such as tolerance, understanding, and a broader spirit of compassion, and it stands as a reminder and a summons to the Church today of its own identity and call within the human family.
Historical events of the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the Church’s pastoral response to them, shaped the way in which the Church saw itself and the world around it. Too often the Church’s response was more of a reaction against the world with both the bastions raised and the entrenchment deepened.
The Church ran the risk of becoming a ghetto, a very self-contained, disconnected entity within the human family. Pope Pius XII would summarize this sense in 1939 with the English title of his first encyclical, Darkness Over the Earth.
Was such an approach consistent with the commission given to the Church by Jesus Christ? Did this approach serve any good for humanity or the Church itself?
The Second Vatican Council hoped for a different approach. In contrast to former reactions, the council’s first document on the Church was entitled, Light of the Nations (Lumen Gentium). And the council’s second document on the Church, hailed as the crown of the council, was pastorally named Joy and Hope (Gaudium et Spes).
The “new” approach, however, was actually a retrieval and restoration of the Church’s identity and proper engagement with the world.
On Pentecost, the peoples and languages of the world were united in the Church. From this nascence through its history, the Church has always been at its best when it remained faithful to this call to diversity and multiculturalism.
Eventually, the Church would take on the name catholic, an adjective-turned-noun, precisely because of this inclusive “universal” welcome to all peoples, nations, and languages.
Multiculturalism was the Church’s unique identity. It distinguished the Church from all other institutions and cultures.
In the ancient world, where a human being’s very personhood was granted and affirmed by its specific culture and proper society, the Church broke that mold and invited all men and women into its fold and fellowship. Even those ostracized by the world at that time, such as the foreigner, the stranger, public sinners, orphans, widows, the sick and poor, were especially welcomed and even valued as “treasures of the Church.”
In this way, the Church was the original multicultural body.
As the Church found itself entrapped by its reactions to historical events in the modern world, it was summoned and humbled back to its proper catholic identity and open engagement with the world. The multiculturalism of the United States and eventually that of other new or reborn nations reminded the Church of her own vocation to be a mother to all men and women and a refuge to those isolated or intimated by the structures and powers of the world.
Teaching and living a renewed understanding of the Church as a multicultural body has been the work of the post-conciliar popes, and the intense mission of Pope Francis.
Multiculturalism and the openness it nurtures belong to the very identity of the Church and should mark all of her teachings and actions.
The degree to which the Church and her various institutions are faithful to this multiculturalism – this catholic nature – is the degree to which the Church will be effective in the mission entrusted to it by Jesus Christ.