Sunday, May 12, 2013

Leo XIII and the Universal Call to Holiness

When people are asked what one of the greatest teachings of the Second Vatican Council is, we are told that the universal call to holiness is chief amongst those teachings.  An accurate summary is provided in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium:

Therefore in the Church, everyone whether belonging to the hierarchy, or being cared for by it, is called to holiness, according to the saying of the Apostle: "For this is the will of God, your sanctification". However, this holiness of the Church is unceasingly manifested, and must be manifested, in the fruits of grace which the Spirit produces in the faithful; it is expressed in many ways in individuals, who in their walk of life, tend toward the perfection of charity, thus causing the edification of others; in a very special way this (holiness) appears in the practice of the counsels, customarily called "evangelical."
Unfortunately, this statement has far too often been treated as some "new" teaching of the Church.  George Sim Johnston had this passage in mind when he wrote in the pages of Crisis Magazine that the Church was finally telling Christians to take their vocations seriously, something the Church before the Council would never do.

As I have attempted to show with my previous writings on how to integrate modern teaching within the tradition of the Church, this kind of attitude is utterly destructive.  If you take this kind of mentality, you are not only wrong, but you are taking an approach that guarantees you will be missing out on a lot.  Most importantly, you will be missing out on the things that caused the fathers of the Council to teach as they did upon this call.

In the case of the universal call to holiness, we see it receiving special attention during the 1860's at the First Vatican Council.  The Dogmatic Constitution Dei Fillius states the following:

All faithful Christians, but those chiefly who are in a prominent position, or engaged in teaching, we entreat, by the compassion of Jesus Christ, and enjoin by the authority of the same God and Savior, that they bring aid to ward off and eliminate these errors from holy Church, and contribute their zealous help in spreading abroad the light of undefiled faith.
Far too often people have this conception of the Church as an institution, comprised of the clergy, to which the faithful "belong" only in the sense that they go to Mass on Sundays.  This could be viewed as the universal call to laziness.  This is something we modern Catholics absolutely excel at.  Blame the liberals, blame the bad lobbies, blame the Curia, blame the Pope, we are experts at making sure everyone else takes responsibility.  In this, we are only following our father Adam, who threw Eve under the bus the first chance he could find.

A common misconception is that this kind of holiness was strictly based upon doctrinal teaching. When writing about this passage from the Vatican Council, Pope Leo XIII said the following in Sapientiae Christianae:

Let each one, therefore, bear in mind that he both can and should, so far as may be, preach the Catholic faith by the authority of his example, and by open and constant profession of the obligations it imposes. In respect, consequently, to the duties that bind us to God and the Church, it should be borne earnestly in mind that in propagating Christian truth and warding off errors the zeal of the laity should, as far as possible, be brought actively into play.
One has to remember the context from which Leo writes.  For the first time in 1300 years, the Bishop of Rome no longer had a kingdom on Earth.  In lands which were still supposedly Catholic, the truths of the Catholic religion were slowly but surely leaving.  Simply stating the same truths over and over again really won't work.  Catholics needed to be out there living those precepts of the Gospel, and living them boldly.  In that same encyclical Pope Leo viewed a vast "army" of Catholics following the Gospel in public as one of the things the enemies of Catholicism feared most.

When seen from this light, the Second Vatican Council's treatment on the manner makes perfect sense.  they were taking a teaching that had been a central theme of the pontificate of the first pope after the Vatican Council (and several popes afterwards) and looking to give it a more in-depth treatment, with plenty of concrete examples on how Christians should live this universal call to holiness.  We can also see that in the end, doctrine only makes sense when it is lived out visibly, in time and in space, and that is the entire essence of Pope Leo's pontificate and the message he had for the entire world.

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