From the point of view of the vocal minority at Vatican II, the Catholic Church was a perfect society. Not only did they subscribe to a Latin phrase translated as “The Church (is) never in need of reform,” and not only were they convinced that there was nothing new that needed to be said in terms of Church doctrine and practice, but as a corollary “the world” was defined as a society that, insofar as it was not the Church, was sin-filled at best, and a hostile force at worst. This view was formed primarily in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Enlightenment movements that included the French Revolution, the conquests of Napoleon, the attempt to establish a French national Church separate from the pope, the press for democracy, and the unification of Italy all conspired to force this view, and there was truth to it—much in these movements had a decidedly anti-Catholic (and even anti-Christian) quality about them. A classic exchange occurred between Napoleon and the pope’s secretary of state, Cardinal Consalvi. Napoleon declared, “We will destroy your Church!” Consalvi replied, “No, you won’t; not even we have been able to do that!” And in fact, though it didn’t seem possible in the beginning of his reign, by the end Pope Pius VII in fact did triumph, and Napoleon was defeated and exiled. But this kind of bitter anti-clericalism and anti-religious sentiment made the popes very wary of “the world.” This was never more the case when the forces of Garibaldi, Cavour, and others finally captured the City of Rome in their effort to unify (create, actually) the nation of Italy—leading Pope Pius IX to regard himself as “the prisoner of the Vatican”—a situation not resolved until 1929, when Pope Pius XI and Mussolini signed an agreement that created Vatican City State.
But Pope (St) John XXIII believed that openness to “the modern world” was crucial for the benefit of Church and “the world”—and this set the stage for all the debates that would lead to Gaudium et Spes, the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.” His word was aggiornamento, “openness.” In opening the Council, he said he wanted to disagree with the “prophets of gloom” who saw nothing but “prevarication and ruin” in the world.
It is critical to remember that just a few months before he died, Pope John wrote the encyclical Pacem in Terris, in which he insisted on many radical things, including that the right to emigrate is a fundamental human right; also, the encyclical was not addressed to bishops or even to the faithful, but to all men and women of good will. The Holy Father was striving to engage the world that others saw as totally demonic. Is there sin in the world? Sadly, yes. Is there sin in the Church? Even more sadly, also yes…
The basic principle of this document is that there is nothing about creation and humanity as such that is alien to the Church since God is the creator and lover of all—and the Church, through the Eucharist, is called to be the sacrament of the “salvation to the whole world,” as a crucial phrase in Eucharistic Prayer #4 would eventually declare. What was rejected was an “us versus them” mentality in favor of an outlook based in dialogue and mutual growth in understanding, accepting from each other what is authentic and good.
I read an interesting essay recently by an atheist who is pro-life; should the Church not work with such people? Respect for the planet is crucial—should the Church not work with others dedicated to respect for the environment? Just FYI—Pope Francis did NOT invent this issue; it can be found, among other places, in the words of Pope [Emeritus] Benedict XVI (especially in his messages for the World Day of Prayer for Peace) and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (actually nick-named “The Green Patriarch”). We are Catholics; we are Christians. But before all that, we are humans, and as God has created us all, God must surely be pleased when we work together as brothers and sisters for the causes of justice, mercy, and reconciliation.
The world is fallen; the world is not 100% evil. The Church is the sacrament of salvation; the Church is not 100% perfect. Let’s join hands and work together.