Spring-Summer 2012

Vatican II and the Church’s “Openness to the World”

Margaret H. McCarthy

“Having received the revelation of the Mystery for which the world was made, but does not yet possess, the Church bears a responsibility for the world.”



It is well known that the relation between the Church and the world was at the heart of the Second Vatican Council’s concerns, and that the renewal of that relation would come in terms of the Church’s “openness to the world.” Such “openness” often, and rightly, entailed the assessment of certain specific problems which the Church faced ad extra, so to speak, in its encounter with modernity, especially where modern science, technology, and the modern state were concerned.1 There was, however, a more basic question about this Church-world relation, also prompted by new problems ad extra, which required the Church to think anew about the relation tout court. We refer, of course, to the phenomenon of modern atheism which in large part drove the final “schema” of what then Fr. Ratzinger called “one of the most important pro- nouncements of Vatican II,”2 Gaudium et spes.3 That phenomenon, as authors of the final draft would note, had a decidedly humanistic character to it and thus offered a fruitful “point of contact,” however much this point of contact was its most virulent point (reasons for which many, understandably, wanted to offer a simple condemnation).4 It would be on account of the very nature of this atheism, and its central concern about “alienation,”5  that the question about the Church’s “openness” to the world would be met in the most radical way. More than showing that there was no conflict—that the Church was not “closed” to the world—the council would have to confirm, in a way unintended by the fathers of modern atheism, that the question of the non-existence or existence of God was the question of the non-existence or existence of man, and of his world.

We are well aware of how the council fathers took up this challenge christologically, in that famous text which followed immedi- ately upon the discussion of the Church’s strongest critics: “only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.”6 It was this solution to which Ratzinger would refer when he wrote in his commentary of the Pastoral Constitution:
In answer to the denial of God for the sake of man, the Church professes its faith in the God who became man. To alleged self- projection of man, which is said to create God, it opposes the God who empties himself of what belongs to him in order to lead man to what is most his own.7

In this text, which the future Polish pope would identify as the “key point in the council’s thought,”8  we are arguably at the heart of the Church’s desire of “openness to the world.” Any “razing of bastions,” through a broadening of horizons (at all levels, whether intra-ecclesial, ecumenical, inter-religious, or simply worldly)—through aggiornamento—would be no less fixed on that specifically Christian element, its “narrow gate,” so to speak: extra ecclesia nulla salus!9 It alone, paradoxically, was both worthy and capable of being translated believably to the world, for every time and every place. The “opening” would require then a deepening of what was most peculiar to the Church, a “discernment of what is Christian” (as Guardini put it).


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1. Gaudium et spes [GS], 54.

2. Joseph Ratzinger, “The Dignity of the Human Person,” in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol. 5, trans. W. J. O’Hara (Montreal: Palm Publishers, 1969), 145.

3. Charles Moeller wrote: “As regards atheism, it was considered that the schema as a whole would itself constitute an answer” (“History of the Constitution,” in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol. 5, trans. W. J. O’Hara [Freiburg: Herder, 1969], 62).

4. Cf. Ratzinger, “The Dignity of the Human Person,” 146.

5. Henri de Lubac masterfully set forth this humanist atheism in his book The Drama of Atheist Humanism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995).

6. GS, 22.

7. Ratzinger, “The Dignity of the Human Person,” 146.

8. Karol Wojtyła, Sources of Renewal (New York: Harper and Row, 1980), 75.

9. This formula, found in Lumen gentium [LG], 14, is, of course, an extension of the doctrine of the unicity of Jesus Christ (LG, 8) and of the paschal mystery (GS, 22). This has been reiterated emphatically more recently in Dominus Iesus, 13–15.