The Church in the modern world. To what extent have we as church engaged with ourselves as the modern world, and to what extent have we transformed the church as people of the modern world?


A. The help which the Church strives to give to Human Activity through Christians (Gaudium et Spes #43)

This split between the faith, which many profess, and their daily lives, deserve to be counted among the more serious errors of our age.

The Christian who neglects his temporal duties, neglects his duties toward his neighbour and even God, and jeopardises his eternal salvation.

Laymen should also know that it is generally the function of their well-formed Christian conscience to see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city; from priests they may look for spiritual light and nourishment.

Let the layman not imagine that his pastors are always such experts, that to every problem which arises, however complicated, they can readily give him a concrete solution, or even that such is their mission. Rather, enlightened by Christian wisdom and giving close attention to the teaching authority of the Church, let the layman take on his own distinctive role.

Now the Church by her presence alone and by all the gifts which she contains, is an unspent fountain of those virtues which the modern world needs the most.

In the present age, too, it does not escape the Church how great a distance lies between the message she offers and the human failings of those to whom the Gospel is entrusted. Whatever be the judgement of history on these defects, we ought to be conscious of them, and struggle against them energetically, lest they inflict harm on spread of the Gospel.

B. The help which the Church receives from the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes #44)

The Church herself knows how richly she has profited by the history and development of humanity.

Her purpose has been to adapt the Gospel to the grasp of all as well as to the needs of the learned, insofar as such was appropriate. Indeed this accommodated preaching of the revealed word ought to remain the law of all evangelization.

The Church requires the special help of those who live in the world, are versed in different institutions and specialties, and grasp their innermost significance in the eyes of both believers and unbelievers.

Since the Church has a visible and social structure as a sign of her unity in Christ, she can and ought to be enriched by the development of human social life.

Whoever promotes the human community at the family level, culturally, in its economic, social and political dimensions, both nationally and internationally, such a one, according to God’s design, is contributing greatly to the Church.

The Church admits that she has greatly profited and still profits from the antagonism of those who oppose or who persecute her.

C. Paul Keating in the Manning Clark Lecture, 3 March 2002:

“We are at risk of becoming, as Manning once said, subjects in the kingdom of nothingness. Subjects of a post-Christian, post-Enlightenment world where there is no inspiration, no higher endeavour, little compassion and no belief beyond narrow self-interest. Like members of a gated community we pretend, in our comfortable urban solace, that all is well including all around us.

Manning used to say that Australian public life broke into two groups: the enlargers, and the punishers and straighteners. As the incarcerated asylum-seekers at Woomera can attest, this government is well and truly into the punishing and straitening game.

To keep the best notions of Australia bubbling within itself, to keep us from that gated refuge of nothingness, the more we remain members of the great project of humanity the better off we will be, and the happier we will be. The more we resist arbitrary and parochial distinctions between peoples, the more our security in this great part of the world will be guaranteed and the more our participation in it will be rewarded.

Ours is an age of distraction. The background to our lives is the white noise of inconsequential television programs, pompous pundits, shrill talkback callers, ten-second news grabs, and the cult of celebrity. In this environment, the need for contemplation and some introspection becomes compelling; a time to stop and think; to make our way, guided by a moral compass, a bearing that divines our best instincts.”

D. Patterns of Economic and Cultural Solidarity. Fr Timothy Radcliffe, O.P (Oceania Synod).

“Oceania largely consists of water, which is for Christians a symbol of life and death. Baptism and destruction. The seas have brought slavery, militarisation and the global market. Today the waters in which these islands must thrive or die is essentially that of ideas. The biggest export of the United States is “culture”. How can the islanders become citizens of this new sea, while retaining their identity and culture? What is required first of all is a new wisdom which is large enough to have a space for their way of seeing things, through song and gift, and yet give space for the skills of modernity.

The new wisdom must ultimately be created by the people themselves, in the light of the Gospel. We must support their ability to move beyond passivity to create what Augustine calls new song for a new humanity. This is the wisdom that we need for a new millennium. But this will remain merely a theory if it is not embodied in new economic relationships. This may seem too large a challenge, but if Christians do not dare to face it then who will? The first step for the Synod is the development of patterns of economic and cultural solidarity in the region, which give a voice to the island peoples. Von Balthasar talked of the need for “islands of humanity”. Let us hope that Oceania may offer such to humanity.”

Safeguarding Role and Dignity of Women. Mrs Margaret Taylor, Papua New Guinea (Oceania Synod)

“The church in Papua New Guinea in particular is cautious in its deliberations on social and economic issues. It is cautious on its position on transparency and accountability of elected leadership. It is cautious in its approach and stance on the issues pertaining to women, in particular, violence against women. The Church is anxious about the emergence of fundamentalist Churches that entice the young and energetic in Catholic communities. It is a Church that must be anxious about its indigenous clergy and its future. The millennium gives the Church the chance to change its norms from a missionary Church to an autochthonous church, independent in spirit and its pastoral work, a Church that is Melanesian.

There are three key issues:

First is the voice of the Church. The Conference of Bishops must become pro-active. The voice of the Church must be heard on issues of corruption, social and economic injustice.

Secondly, women and the Church. The Church must stand with women, speak out against violence, support women’s health and education, and help women maintain our dignity both in secular and spiritual life. Assist women to become partners in building the Church and in development. The Church must be cautious in its adoption of culture. Culture can disenfranchise women. The Church stands for liberation of those afraid and disenfranchised.

Thirdly, our indigenous clergy need greater support and love. The indigenisation of the Church in the 21st century means our clergy taking a greater responsibility in pastoral and intellectual work and in the management of the Church. We in Papua New Guinea need to ask some tough questions.

Is pastoral work the only avenue for service? Is there a more purposeful role for women religious, for women laity, for laity as a whole?

Is there room for the intellectual side of the Melanesian Church?

What mechanisms are there to be a responsive Church?

All that said, it has, as in the past and more recently, always been the case that when all seems lost, through natural disasters, delivery of services to our sick and education for our children, the Church has provided both spiritual and physical assistance. The Church has been constant.”

Pope John Paul II Address to Representatives of World Religions gathered in Assisi, 24 January 2002:

“To pray is not to escape from history and the problems which it presents. On the contrary, it is to choose to face reality not on our own, but with the strength that comes from on high, the strength of truth and love which have their ultimate source in God. Faced with the treachery of evil, religious people can count on God, who absolutely wills what is good. They can pray to him to have the courage to face even the greatest difficulties with a sense of personal responsibility, never yielding to fatalism or impulsive reactions.”


We need to start with a correct assessment of ourselves. As a group, we are middle class, middle aged, from the mainstream culture in a very first world society. The presenters are still very much male, and the overwhelming percentage of participants are women.

In Gaudium et Spes we move from a view of self, church and the world which separates all three (especially if one is a layperson) to a model of three concentric circles in which one finds oneself, in the church, which is then in the world.

We have moved from a dualistic defensive apologetic of the church versus the world to a more intrinsic theology in which we see the world as being already implicitly graced. This permits new possibilities for inter-religious dialogue and novel spiritualities.

The corollary of finding good news in the world has been expecting to find bad news in the Church. The test is not the authority of the statement but the authenticity of the action. The modern question is not “What is the authority of the speaker?” but “What is the commitment of the listener?”

This conference is entitled “Unfinished Business” – a term first coined in this country by Aborigines. We have even more to learn from them as we endure this difficult time of marginalisation to the mainstream culture and from the State.


At the time of Vatican II, there was a more positive view of the world. Now in Australia and New Zealand there is a more negative view – secular and humanist. Gaudium et Spes speaks about the church as a healing sacrament. How do we now work with the world as healing people? Pre-Vatican II we did not much think about our social responsibility. Now we have a responsibility to be a pilgrim church sharing our gifts. We need to stop and reflect where we might go from here.

Our church leaders get very upset about stem cell research but do not seem to be at all upset about the incarceration of children.

Priests are being too defensive about the present issues of sexual abuse. Are we as a church ready to receive help from the modern world? Are we still arrogant, thinking that we have all the answers? We need to look more to the signs of the times, the signs of God in the world.

All governments are now trying to be more inclusive of women. Women should be included more in all the pastoral aspects of the Church.

Many of us were brought up to be docile and obedient, expecting a strict separation of church and state, and expecting the government to be all caring. Now we are more questioning, hoping for more involvement by church in the activities of state, knowing that government has no intention of providing all the needs of civil society.

As church, are we to be an elite or an all-inclusive group? Our weekly Eucharist should give us the greatest sense of church but we do not have the sense of being the People of God with mission to the world.


Church as Hierarchy

In the Vatican II documents, the Church comes across as hierarchical. Point B4 on the handout (Church enriched by the development of human social life) ought to get us back to a simpler Church, to what Jesus did. Point F on prayer is the answer to this simpler Church. Church has become more complicated since Vatican II, not simpler. As Church, we have let ourselves be seduced by capitalism and materialism.

All organisations need structure. The ordained need to lead, and lead well, but we need to lead too, and participate.

Re. women and the Church – there has been an Australian inquiry on this issue. We’ve come a long way. Modern world has alerted Church to this issue.

Australians have the gift of being serious without being formal. The wider Church does not appreciate this. But this Australian style allows things to happen that couldn’t in a rigid hierarchy.

Church and Social Justice

People are transforming the world. There is hope. People are doing good things.

Frustration at the lack of response of parishioners on social justice issues. Not enough just to pray, we’ve got to do something. Early on, Catholics needed social justice to survive. Now they’ve become middle class and complacent.

The way the children overboard issue is brushed aside in society indicates a moral decline. We as church share responsibility for that. In terms of social justice, in our parishes there is a lack of commitment, lack of awareness, people think they are just spectators.

Biggest problem in getting social justice issues before the parish is an unwilling parish priest.

Point A2 – We need to be doers in the temporal realm.

In the pre-election period, people seemed to feel powerless, not willing or able to engage. Leaves us with a social and moral vacuum in society.

Feel powerless in terms of communication and media – who can we trust on these issues?

Voice of the Church in public matters, matters of injustice, needs to be heard. But aware that sometimes Church authority can be seen as a negative voice, and the media complicates issues by choosing what to report.

How to get information to people? One way, the Internet. Caritas or a parish example.

Who is Church? What is Church?

When we gather as church, we are middle class women, privileged women, not representative, nor ethnically diverse, nor dealing with vulnerable women in our community.

Point B5 on the human community and human family – what do we do to promote this community? Do we judge our fellow humans in discriminatory ways? If we can’t see Church in young people, or people with kids, take the time to find out what they think and where they are at, if we judge them instead, we are not contributing to the Church. Church is in the people we meet – we are the Church. Remember that Jesus didn’t only preach at the temple.

Point B3 on the handout suggests that Catholics need to hunt out and listen to other experiences. It is wrong to divide the world into the secular and the sacred. We need to find reasonableness and knowledge from other traditions too.

Right to be concerned about young people’s lack of participation in church. But only 14% of Catholics attend Mass. What are we doing about the other 86%? People engage when a part of Catholic school community, then move off into blue yonder.

Remember to let our faith shine in our hearts. Prayer is not a means to escape history, but gives us strength. Love is the greatest thing we’ve got.

(Father Frank Brennan SJ, AO is a priest and lawyer. He is Adjunct Fellow at the Australian National University in the Research School of Social Sciences, Honorary Visiting Fellow in Law at the University of New South Wales, and the Associate Director of Uniya, the Jesuit Social Justice Centre in Sydney)