You allude to the problem of the reception of the Church's teaching in
today's world, especially in the area of ethics and morals. Some
maintain that as far as issues of morality, and above all sexual ethics,
are concerned, the Church and the Pope are not in touch with the
contemporary world with its trends toward an ever greater freedom of
conduct. Since the world is going in this direction, one gets the
impression that the Church is moving backward, or, in any event, that the
world is leaving the Church behind. The world, then, is moving away from
the Pope; the world is moving away from the Church.
This opinion is widespread, but I am convinced that it is quite wrong. The encyclical Veritatis Splendor demonstrates this, even if it does not directly address sexual ethics, but addresses rather the great threat posed to Western civilization by moral relativism. Pope Paul VI sensed this deeply and knew that it was his duty to undertake the battle against such relativism for the sake of the essential good of man. With his encyclical Humanae Vitae he put into practice the words the Apostle Paul wrote to his disciple Timothy: "Proclaim the word; be persistent whether it
is convenient or inconvenient. For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine" (2 Tm 4:2-3). Unfortunately, don't these words of the apostle seem to characterize the situation today?
The media have conditioned society to listen to what it wants to hear (cf. 2 Tm 4:3). An even worse situation occurs when theologians, and especially moralists, ally themselves with the media, which obviously pay a great deal of attention to what they have to say when it opposes "sound doctrine." Indeed, when the true doctrine is unpopular, it is not right to seek easy popularity. The Church must give an honest answer to the question "What good must I do to gain eternal life?" (Mt 19:16). Christ forewarned us, telling us that the road to eternal salvation is not broad and comfortable, but narrow and difficult (cf. Mt 7:13-14). We do not have the right to abandon that perspective, nor to change it. This is what the Magisterium admonishes; it is also the duty of theologians-above all, moralists-who, in cooperation with the Magisterium, have their own special part to play.
Naturally, the words of Christ remain true when He warns about those burdens which certain teachers, unwilling themselves to carry them, load upon others (cf. Lk 11:46). But we have to consider which is the greater burden-the truth, even the most demanding truth, or, instead, an appearance of truth, which creates only the illusion of moral honesty. The encyclical Veritatis Splendor helps us to face this fundamental dilemma which people seem to be recognizing. I think, in fact, that today this dilemma is better understood than in 1968, when Paul VI published the encyclical Humanae Vitae.
Is it true that the Church has come to a standstill and that the world is moving away from it? Can we say that the world is only growing toward a greater freedom of behavior? Don't these words perhaps hide that relativism which is so detrimental to man? Not only abortion, but also contraception, are ultimately bound up with the truth about man. Moving away from this truth does not represent a step forward, and cannot be considered a measure of "ethical progress." Faced with similar trends, every pastor of the Church and, above all, the Pope must be particularly attentive so as not to ignore the strong warning contained in Paul's Second Letter to Timothy: "But you, be self-possessed in all circumstances; put up with hardship; perform the work of an evangelist; fulfill your ministry" (2 Tm 4:5).
Faith in the Church today. In the Creed-both in the Apostles' Creed and in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed-we say: I believe in the Church. We place the Church on the same level as the Mystery of the Holy Trinity and the mysteries of the Incarnation and of the Redemption. Nevertheless, as Father De Lubac has clearly pointed out, this faith in the Church signifies something different from faith in the great mysteries of God Himself, since we not only believe in the Church but at the same time we are the Church. Following the Council, we can say that we believe in the Church as in a mystery. And at the same time, we know that as the people of God we are the Church. We are also the Church as people who belong to its visible structure and, above all, as sharers in Christ's messianic mission, which has a threefold character-prophetic, priestly, and kingly.
We can say that our faith in the Church has been renewed and deepened in a significant way by the Council. For a long time the Church paid more attention to its institutional and hierarchical dimension and neglected somewhat its fundamental dimension of grace and charism, which is proper to the people of God.
Thanks to the Council's teaching, we can say that faith in the Church has been entrusted to us once again as a duty. Post-conciliar renewal is above all a renewal
of this extraordinarily rich and fruitful faith. Faith in the Church, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, demands that we reexamine certain excessively rigid schemata-for example, the distinction between the teaching Church and the learning Church must take into consideration the fact that each of the baptized participates, albeit at his own level, in the prophetic, priestly, and kingly mission of Christ. Therefore we are talking not only about changing concepts but also of renewing attitudes, as I tried to show in the book I wrote after the Council, Sources of Renewal.
But let me return for a moment to the current religious situation in Europe. Some hoped that after the fall of Communism there would have been an instinctive turn toward religion at all levels of society. Did this happen? It certainly did not happen in the way some had imagined; but nevertheless we can affirm that
it is happening, especially in Russia. How? Above all in the return to the traditions and practices of
the Orthodox Church. In those regions, moreover, thanks to the restoration of religious freedom, there also has been a rebirth of the Catholic Church, which had been present for centuries through the Poles, the Germans, the Lithuanians, and the Ukrainians living in Russia. Protestant communities and numerous Western sects, with great economic resources at their disposal, are also enjoying a renewal there.
In other countries the return to religion, or perseverance in one's own Church, occurs in direct relation to the Church's actual experience during the Communist oppression, as well as in relation to older traditions. This is the case in societies like Bohemia, Slovakia, Hungary, and even predominantly Orthodox countries like Romania or Bulgaria. The former Yugoslavian and Baltic countries present their own particular problems.
Where does the true power of the Church lie? Naturally, over the centuries in the West and the East the power of the Church has lain in the witness of the saints, of those who made Christ's truth their own truth, who followed the way that is Christ Himself and who lived the life that flows from Him in the Holy Spirit. And in the Eastern and Western Churches these saints have never been lacking.
The saints of our century have been in large part martyrs. The totalitarian regimes which dominated Europe in the middle of the twentieth century added to their numbers. Concentration camps, death camps-which produced, among other things, the monstrous Holocaust of the Jews-revealed authentic saints among Catholics and Orthodox, and among Protestants as well. These were true martyrs. It is enough to recall such figures as Father Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein and, even earlier, the martyrs of the Spanish Civil War. In eastern Europe the army of holy martyrs, especially among the Orthodox, is enormous: Russians, Ukrainians, Byelorussians, and those from the vast territories beyond the Ural Mountains. There were also Catholic martyrs in Russia, in Byelorussia, in Lithuania, in the Baltic countries, in the Balkans, in the Ukraine, in Galicia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, and in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. This is the great multitude of those who, as is said in the Book of Revelation, "follow the Lamb" (cf. Rev 14:4). They have completed in their death as martyrs the redemptive sufferings of Christ (cf. Col 1:24) and, at the same time, they have become the foundation of a new world, a new Europe, and a new civilization.