From its beginnings, Christianity has regarded itself as a true world religion that appeals to all people without distinction of race, nation, or culture. Roman Catholics believe that their church has preserved this missionary thrust more faithfully than any of the non-Roman churches. During the 4th and 5th centuries the Roman church devoted itself to the evangelization of the various peoples who had begun to pressure and cross the frontier of the Roman Empire. Wishing to become “Roman,” these peoples accepted the church as a component of Roman civilization or at least recognized the power of the Christian God, as did the great Frankish king Clovis. The barbarians who established themselves in the Western Roman Empire, notably the Anglo-Saxons and the Franks, became active missionaries after their conversion to Christianity, at times finding themselves in competition with missionaries from the Byzantine world. After the year 1000, the growing awareness of Islam as a religious and political rival of Christianity led to the Crusades. The church’s response to Islam was not solely violent but included active missionary efforts by members of the Franciscan and Domincan orders; the most famous such mission was that of St. Francis during the Fifth Crusade.
The missionary movement received new stimulus during the two ages of European exploration and colonial expansion in the 16th and 17th centuries. Spanish and Portuguese monarchs included missionaries among the colonizers sent to the Americas, Africa, and Asia, and French merchant interests sponsored missionaries in areas that the French explored. In the 17th century, control of evangelical missions gradually passed from national political and economic leaders to the papacy. In the 19th century Rome assumed a much more central role in missionary work, defining missionary territories and assigning responsibility for them to various religious orders, and individual popes personally supported the missionaries and directed their evangelical efforts.
Missionary churches achieved the independence appropriate to the diocesan structure only in the 20th century, many at the time of Vatican II. Vatican II officially ended the colonial phase of missions and declared that “the whole Church is missionary, and the work of evangelization is a basic duty of the People of God.” Nevertheless, it was difficult for Roman Catholic missions to divorce themselves from colonialism, and many missionaries, it must be said, did not want the divorce. Until the mid-20th century, most of the clergy and all of the hierarchy in mission countries were European or American, as were the heads of educational and benevolent operations. Even the peoples of the mission countries, including their clergy and religious personnel, generally wished to give their church a European identity rather than an Asian or African one.
After Vatican II the situation changed, as the very definition of missionary activity was transformed and the duties of all Christians to undertake evangelical work was emphasized. The new evangelism emphasized the importance of bearing witness to Christ, which includes efforts to spread the gospel and to promote the church’s teachings on human dignity. The former missionary churches were placed more and more in the hands of local peoples, and the bishops in regional councils took over leadership of evangelization formerly held by missionary orders. In the decades following Vatican II, the church’s mission was conducted with greater sensitivity toward other cultures, and church leaders emphasized interreligious dialogue. In 1986 and 2002 Pope John Paul II invited world religious leaders to Assisi to pray for peace, and he subsequently prayed at a synagogue and a mosque. The pope offered further guidance on missions in his encyclical Redemptoris missio (December 7, 1990; “The Mission of Christ the Redeemer”), renewing the church’s commitment to mission and calling for the evangelization of lapsed Christians and non-Christians alike.
Between the barbarian invasions and the Protestant Reformation, education in Europe, except in the Arabic and Jewish centres of learning, was conducted by representatives of the church. Learning during the early Middle Ageswas preserved by the monasteries; monks copied the books of the Bible and the manuscripts of Latin pagan writers and of the Church Fathers, and they composed works of history, hagiography, and theology. They were also charged with establishing schools and teaching those with the ability and desire to learn. The establishment of the European universities after 1100 was also the work of the church; these institutions were stimulated by Arabic scholars, whose writings introduced Europeans to Aristotle, thereby laying a foundation for later Scholastic philosophy and theology. The cultivation of literature and the arts in the 15th century flourished under the patronage of the papacy and of Catholic princes and prelates.
The birth of modern science was coincidental with the Reformation and the ages of European expansion. The Roman Catholic response to the new science, as well as to the new philosophical systems that accompanied it, was hostile; consequently, the world of European learning after 1600 was dissociated from the Roman Catholic Church, which patronized only defensive learning. At the same time, Roman Catholic initiatives in educating the poor were gaining momentum. The invention of printing had diffused education to an extent far beyond what was possible before, and all the churches were interested in reaching the minds of the young. This interest was matched after theFrench Revolution by the modern states, which in the 19th century moved toward the exclusion of church influence from education. But the Roman Catholic Church, through its religious communities, was a pioneer in educating children and the poor.
In the 20th century the Roman Catholic educational endeavour in many European and American countries, particularly in the United States, had become a vast enterprise. In the second half of the century, however, mounting costs and reduced numbers of religious instructors and other personnel created critical problems for Catholic schools, and even their survival was at stake in many regions. The problems were not lessened by the fact that Roman Catholic education, even where it was strongest, reached only a minority of Catholic students. In addition, the church had to confront its traditional reputation as an adversary of the intellectual freedom that the modern academic world cherishes. Pope John Paul II took steps to improve relations with the scholarly world by promoting the value of modern science and technology and by commissioning a review of the church’s condemnation of Galileo (see BTW: Galileo’s Condemnation).
Institutional benevolence to the poor, the sick, orphans, and other people in need has been characteristic of the Christian church from its beginnings. The church’s charitable activities have involved organized assistance, supported by the contributions of the entire community and rendered by dedicated persons. The church in this way fulfills the duty of “the seven corporal works of mercy” mentioned in the Gospel According to Matthew (chapter 25) and carries on the healing mission of Jesus. Protestant churches continued the works of institutional benevolence after their separation from the Roman church. Institutional assistance to the needy is a legacy from the church to modern governments.
Church and state relations
The most important modification in the Roman Catholic theory and practice of church-state relations was the declaration of Vatican II in which the Roman Catholic Church recognized the modern, secular, pluralistic nation as a valid political entity. Union of church and state had been the common pattern since the era of Constantine, and all pontifical declarations of the 19th century rejected separation of church and state as pernicious. This position was steadfastly maintained despite the fact that the union of church and state had been accepted by the Protestant countries of Europe; it reflected a long history of the state’s domination of the church and the church’s involvement in political power struggles. Vatican II declared that the Roman Catholic Church is not a political agent and will not ask for political support for ecclesiastical ends. A significant change in the Roman attitude toward the state was the council’s explicit endorsement of freedom of religion. Although they did not support any specific form of secular government, the popes of the 20th century, including John XXIII and John Paul II, asserted that the state must guarantee the human rights and personal dignity of all its citizens.
Economic views and practice
During the centuries when the Roman Catholic Church constituted the whole of Christendom, each individual’s place in the church reflected his place in the political and economic structure. In modern times the identification of the church hierarchy with the landed aristocracy led the revolutionaries of 18th-century France to attempt to destroy the Roman Catholic Church along with other components of the old order. The Roman Catholic Church entered the 19th century with a firm official bias against revolutionary movements, and the brief liberalism of Pius IX ended with his experiences in Italy during and after the Revolutions of 1848. The Roman Catholic Church was inflexibly opposed to all forms of socialism, and its opposition to Marxist communism was implacable. Thus, the Roman Catholic hierarchy was identified with the new capitalist classes of industrial society. In many European countries this meant that the church lost membership among the working classes. In Rerum novarum (1891), Leo XIII became the first pope to speak out against the abuses of capitalism. The church’s teaching on social issues was further elaborated by Pius XI in Quadragesimo anno (1931; “In the 40th Year”), by John XXIII in Mater et magistra and Pacem in terris, by Paul VI in Populorum progressio, and by John Paul II in Centesimus annus (1991; “In the Hundreth Year”). The church’s opposition to socialism has gradually diminished, and it has approved of labour unions and even moderated its staunch opposition to liberation theology. John Paul II, whose role in the fall of communism is widely recognized, was highly critical of unregulated capitalism as well as Western materialism and consumerism.
In its own practices, the Roman Catholic Church has insisted on exercising complete control of its private property and productive investments. It is not accountable to the laity for its funds, which are managed by the hierarchy; hence, the wealth of the Roman Catholic Church has long been a mystery. However, the raids of greedy anticlerical governments, as well as some public disclosures, have indicated that the wealth of the church is exaggerated in popular belief. Following Vatican II, there was a strong movement in favour of public financial reports.
Roman Catholic teaching identifies the family as the social and moral centre of the community; the family, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is “the original cell of social life.” The guiding principle of church teaching, the stability of the family, does not admit divorce, which was banned by Jesus. Although the church long defined the family as a hierarchical structure headed by the father, it now in keeping with the declarations of Vatican II and the teachings of John Paul II rejects the traditional subordination of women in the family in favour of equality of dignity and responsibility between men and women. The family, moreover, is child-centred; traditional Catholic teaching makes the primary end of marriage the procreation and rearing of children. Only recently have Catholic theologians begun to speak of mutual love as an end “equally primary.”
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the Roman Catholic Church was faced with the problem of preserving the unquestioned values of mutual love and responsibility in marriage while attempting to come to terms with the realities of modern life. The practice of birth control has proven particularly controversial within Catholic sexual ethics, which uphold the family ideal. In Humanae vitae (1968; “Of Human Life”) Paul VI restated the church’s traditional prohibition of birth control, against the recommendations of a commission instituted at Vatican II and despite the opposition of many theologians and laypersons, asserting that “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” In the 1980s and ’90s the church’s position banning condom use by Catholics was criticized by health and human rights advocates as possibly fostering the spread of AIDS. Vigorously upheld by John Paul II, the ban was reaffirmed by his successor, Benedict XVI, after a 2006 study on the theological ramifications of using condoms with the intention of preventing sexually transmitted diseases rather than insemination. Dignitas Personae (2008; “The Dignity of a Person”), a Vatican statement on bioethics, proscribed Catholics from taking the “morning-after” pill, because its use manifests the intention to commit abortion; denounced in vitro fertilization, because it disrupts the natural process of conception; and condemned medical research using embryonic stem cells, though it endorsed research with adult stem cells. While many theologians, clergy, and laypersons agreed with church policy on these matters, many others disagreed and even chose to defy it.
The church also struggled with the issue of homosexuality among the laity and clergy. The church opposed gay marriage, declared homosexual behaviour to be sinful and homosexuality an “objective disorder,” and advised gay Catholics to remain chaste. It also provided specific guidelines for the pastoral care of homosexuals, denounced violence against them, and taught that the fundamental dignity of homosexuals as human beings must be respected.
The church since Vatican II
Vatican II, one of the most important councils in church history, profoundly changed the structures and practices of the church. It sought, in the words of Pope John XXIII, aggiornaménto, “to bring the church up to date,” and many of the council’s decrees did bring the church into the modern world. Although the reforms were welcomed by many, they produced internal disruptions greater than any the church has known since the Protestant Reformation. Some have argued that the council did not go far enough, while others have maintained that its reforms went too far, too fast. In the decades following the council, liberal and conservative Catholics were divided over interpretation of its decrees. Although such disunity posed a real threat of schism, there were only a few group departures. The number of departures of individual members of the laity and clergy, however, was large enough to cause concern and remained an important matter for the church long after the council ended.
In accordance with Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church officially abandoned its “one true church” position and formally ended the thousand-year schism with the Greek Orthodox Church. It also entered into ecumenical conversations with other churches with the hope of establishing greater Christian unity. The church has assumed observer status in the World Council of Churches and has participated in groups associated with the World Council. Representatives of the church participated in the discussions sponsored by the World Council that led to the publication of the important document Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (1982), which identified areas of agreement between the churches on several core teachings; the church responded positively, though with qualification, to the text. Steps to improve relations with non-Christian religions were made at Vatican II and by the popes of the later 20th century. The council’s declaration Nostra aetate (October 28, 1965; “In Our Era”) rejected the traditional accusation that the Jews killed Christ, recognized the legitimacy of Judaism, and condemned anti-Semitism. Efforts at improving relations with other religions, especially Judaism, were pivotal to the papacy of John Paul II, who prayed with world religious leaders in 1986, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and prayed in a mosque and a synagogue.
The openness of the Catholic church following Vatican II took surprising forms in places such as Latin America, where local church leaders supported liberation theology (the Latin American movement that sought to aid the poor as a religious duty and criticized existing socioeconomic structures) in the 1970s. For a time, the church adopted a less confrontational approach to communist governments in the hope of improving the lives of Catholics in those countries. Following the election of John Paul II, however, the church supported opposition movements in communist eastern Europe and suppressed liberation theology; at the same time, it remained keenly involved in international affairs, as the pope undertook numerous pastoral visits throughout the world.
Problems, however, have been more in evidence than progress. The church faced the challenge of resolving the long-latent conflict between the hierarchy and the lower clergy over the tradition of total obedience in lifestyle and ministry. This conflict has come to a head on the issue of clerical celibacy; although there are no sure statistics, there are estimates that as many as one-half of Catholic clergy wish celibacy to be optional. The issue of clerical celibacy was raised anew in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when members of the clergy, as discussed earlier, were accused of sexually abusing minors.
There was also discontent among the clergy regarding the nature of the church’s ministry. Many religious workers felt that the conventional ministries were not reaching enough people and were not meeting their most urgent needs. The desire to work “in the world,” while hardly alien to the New Testament ministry, was not easily satisfied within the traditional roles assigned to the clergy. And what might have appeared to be a minor issue in some places became a major issue in others; many priests and religious (women religious in particular, who have had more of a problem) no longer wished to wear the identifying garb, because they believed it to be an obstacle to personal relations. The discontent with life and ministry led to a large number of departures from the priesthood, most dramatically following Paul VI’s encyclical Sacerdotalis caelibatus (June 24, 1967; “Priestly Celibacy”), which confirmed the necessity of celibacy. The laity too became more restive, and many left the church for a variety of reasons, including the church’s teachings on birth control. Some left because they believed the reforms of Vatican II were too liberal. More generally, there was a widespread but not explicit rejection of the traditional uses of authority and obedience in Roman Catholic clergy and religious communities.
Vatican II also made profound changes in the liturgical practices of the Roman rite. It approved the translation of the liturgy into vernacular languages to permit greater participation in the worship service and to make the sacraments more intelligible to the vast majority of the laity. The change, a sharp break with the older tradition of using Latin in worship, caused discomfort for some but allowed for adaptation of the liturgy according to the needs and desires of many throughout the world.
Perhaps the most significant change brought about by Vatican II was the beginning of what the German theologian Karl Rahner (1904–1984) called the emergence of the Weltkirche (German: “world church”). Vatican II was not dominated by the churches of Europe and the Americas, the traditional centres of Catholic strength. The Weltkirche continued to develop during the rest of the 20th century, as the Catholic church established a vigorous presence in Africa and parts of Asia and became a more prominent and outspoken church in Central and Latin America.
The shifting demographics of contemporary Roman Catholicism have presented the church with a number of challenges. How should it respond to declining church attendance, declining numbers of religious, and the increasing secularism in the West and in the traditionally Catholic countries of Europe in particular? Would the ordination of women and married men check these trends? How should the church respond to the growing numbers of Muslims in some of these countries? How should it adapt its message and its practice in non-Western regions of the world, especially Africa? How should it balance papal authority over the entire church and the rights of the bishops over the local churches so as to avoid centralized authoritarianism on the one hand and the loss of unity on the other? What pastoral strategies should be used to combat the aggressive evangelization by fundamentalist groups in Latin America? Such challenges are among many that will face the church in the new millennium as it tries to be faithful to that Gospel dictum of “bringing forth old things and new.”