The Teachings of Modern Christianity on Law, Politics, and Human Nature - Vol. 1

By John Witte Jr.; Frank S. Alexander | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
Pope John XXIII (1881–1963)

LESLIE GRIFFIN

Pope John XXIII's view of human nature was very optimistic, and this optimism translated specifically into a positive perspective on the modern world. The legacy of his papacy (1958–63) was the aggiornamento (updating) of Roman Catholicism through a critical acceptance of modernity, which his predecessors had regarded with much suspicion. Pope John's three major accomplishments—the convocation of the Second Vatican Council (1962– 65) and the promulgation of the encyclical letters Mater et magistra (1961) and Pacem in terris (1963)—reflected his unflagging confidence that human beings could build ecclesial, economic, social, and political institutions that promoted unity, truth, justice, charity, peace, and freedom.

Unlike other figures in this volume, Pope John did not propose a systematic theory of human nature. Instead, in sharp contrast to his papal predecessors and successors, he embraced the modern world and led the Catholic Church into dialogue with it. Readers should not underestimate the difficulty or originality of this accomplishment. When Angelo Roncalli took the papal throne in 1958, many church leaders longed to restore the Catholic Church to its prior primacy as the established religion of every empire or state. They opposed the liberal reforms that the Enlightenment had brought to Europe, including freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and democratic government. In other words, in 1958, much of the church's bureaucracy was antimodern.

John's three significant achievements demonstrate that he successfully placed the church in, not against, the modern world. The council, which gathered the world's Catholic bishops in Rome, prompted reform ad intra and ad extra, within the church and in the church's relationships with non-Catholics. It “ended the Constantinian era of the Church and [began] a new historical period.”1Mater et magistra adopted contemporary economic theory. It advocated an expanded role for the state to protect human

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