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With Vatican II, world became 'horizon for the church,' says cardinal

By David Gibson
Posted: 5/27/2015

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WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The Second Vatican Council opened the church to the world in ways essential to the faith community's self-understanding today, said speakers at a May 21-24 international, ecumenical and interreligious conference in Washington.

The church is a mystery and a communion, but it is not "self-centered," Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines, told the conference. He said, "The church focused on itself will lose its identity."

When Pope Francis underscores the importance of witnessing to Christ in the world and recognizing the dignity "of human beings who have been forgotten," he is not expressing "a new idea" but is reminding people of Vatican II, said Cardinal Tagle.

The church's opening to the world is neither "a strategy" nor "a fad," the cardinal stated. It involves "the identity of the church."

The cardinal spoke May 22 at Jesuit-run Georgetown University to the ninth conference of Ecclesiological Investigations, an international network of scholars that fosters dialogue among people of differing churches and religions, and with others of goodwill.

The Washington conference was a collaborative initiative of Ecclesiological Investigations, Georgetown University, Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, and Washington National Cathedral, the cathedral of the Episcopal Church in the U.S. capital.

The conference's more than 270 registered participants came from North America, Europe, Australia, Africa and Asia. They were men and women, old and young; they included theologians, church leaders, ministers, sociologists and others.

Participants viewed the conference as an opportunity to understand the perspectives of others in positive ways.

"Vatican II: Remembering the Future" was the conference's theme. Gerard Mannion, a Georgetown University theologian who is chairman of the 10-year-old Ecclesiological Investigations network, explained that the theme was "linked to 2015 being the final year of the round of years marking" the council's 50th anniversary.

But Mannion told the conference's opening session that the theme also offered an opportunity to hear "what people from other churches, other religions and secular thinkers made of Vatican II."

The council "isn't ancient history," he said. "Above all else," he added, "we are going to explore what is going to happen to Vatican II and its legacy in the future."

Thus, conference speakers, who included Catholics, Anglicans, Protestants, Jews, Muslims and others, turned their attention to the council's future implications for their relationships and work in the world.

Cardinal Tagle reminded conference participants that for the church, "Jesus is the reference point." However, he said, "being referred to Jesus refers us to the world."

With Vatican II, he commented, the world became "the horizon for the church." Within this horizon the church is called to be present to the created world and the environment, and to human beings and the world constructed by them.

The church must be present to the world as it actually is, with all its volatility, complexity and ambiguity, the cardinal said.

French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, also called attention to the church's concern for the world when he addressed the conference May 21.

"The council has renewed the question of the relationship between church and society," he said. "The council tried to better understand the relationship between Christ and humanity."

Today, Cardinal Tauran commented, few council themes seem "quite so important" as the consideration given to Muslims in its Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions ("Nostra Aetate") -- "these Muslims whom we must come to know and whose culture we are called to understand."

Highlighting Vatican II's characteristic as a pastoral council, Cardinal Tauran pointed out that in the council "there is no condemnation, no dogmatic definition." But, he said, this does not mean that the council did not teach.

The council taught much, Cardinal Tauran told the conference. It did this "not by imposing definitions but by breathing a style of relationship, which has helped the church to move from commandment to invitation, from threat to proposition and from monologue to dialogue."

Jesuit Father John W. O'Malley, a Georgetown University theologian, affirmed in a conference presentation that calling Vatican II a pastoral council does not imply it did not teach, even though it "did not define a single doctrine."

Father O'Malley listed numerous Vatican II teachings that are not "trivial" and are not "platitudes."

For example, he said, the council "taught that it was the duty of the church and of every Catholic to respect the religious beliefs of others and to work for reconciliation among the Christian churches."

Vatican II taught that the church's structure "is hierarchical," but "also collegial, that is, participatory."

Moreover, said Father O'Malley, "the council taught that 'the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ.'"

Father O'Malley concluded that "Vatican II was a pastoral council, not in the conventional sense of ensuring proper public order in the church but in teaching" truths that help people live lives of holiness and increase their faith.

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Gibson was the founding editor of Origins, Catholic News Service's documentary service. He retired in 2007 after holding that post for 36 years.