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Chapter 2: Hope, Apostolate, and Personal Vocation

Question C: What Is the Mission of the Church?

Since each Christian puts hope into practice by finding, accepting, and faithfully fulfilling his or her personal vocation, one’s specific responsibilities in these matters must be considered in detail. Before doing so (in question E), however, it is necessary to treat those aspects of the apostolate common to all members of the Church (in question D), since a personal vocation is an individual’s particular share in the apostolate. But because the apostolate carries out the Church’s mission, that mission must be clarified first, beginning with Jesus’ mission of salvation, which the Church carries on.

1. Jesus’ Mission Was to Establish a New Human Communion with God

Jesus’ whole mission was to prepare for and initiate God’s ultimate saving work, the establishment of the heavenly kingdom. Yet the gospel of the kingdom’s coming includes a call for radical social and economic reform.29

a) Because of sin, humankind needs salvation by God’s mercy. God created human persons in order both to bless them with benefits suited to their nature and make them members by adoption of his own divine family. From the beginning, however, sin alienated humankind from God and led to conflicts among human beings themselves. Because of sin, human persons are doomed to suffering and death, and their desires are distorted: wealth, pleasure, and power often seem more appealing than goods like health and life, good work and truth, marriage and family, justice and friendship, which truly fulfill human persons (see CMP, 14.G–H). Moreover, because the protection and pursuit of those genuine goods often are impeded or blocked by others’ sins and the consequences of sin, fallen men and women frequently are tempted to use bad means in the service of good ends; indeed, in the absence of hope, such wrongdoing sometimes seems necessary to salvage something from the wreckage of the broken world.30 Without salvation by God’s merciful forgiveness, humankind’s situation is hopeless.

b) Jesus’ work will be completed by God’s act of re-creation. The Word became man to overcome evil. But overcoming evil did not lie in destroying it (which cannot be done, since it is a privation) nor in removing human persons from the midst of evil (which cannot be done, since it afflicts every person inwardly). Rather, Jesus’ mission was to end humankind’s alienation from God by establishing new communion with him, to heal humankind’s divisions by inviting everyone into covenantal fellowship, to overcome death by providing the means to gain resurrection life, to rechannel disordered passions by the hope for authentic human fulfillment in the kingdom, and to send the Spirit with his gift of love, which enables those who believe in Jesus to follow him (see CMP, 22).

Although everything Jesus did as man was God’s saving work in him, this work enjoyed only limited success during Jesus’ earthly life, and at the end it appeared a complete failure. Its full salvific significance appeared only when God responded to Jesus’ sacrifice by raising him from the dead. That divine, re-creative act showed how the saving work begun in Jesus’ human life and death will be completed by the Holy Spirit’s power, when evil will be overcome in the new heavens and new earth (see CMP, 34.D–E).

c) Jesus’ mission exclusively served the heavenly kingdom. Today, some argue that Jesus planned Israel’s political liberation, while the traditional understanding of his mission is an ideologically biased, politically conservative misinterpretation, insofar as it omits his this-worldly concerns and focuses on repentance and the heavenly kingdom.

Many in Israel did want Jesus to be a this-worldly messiah, but he firmly rejected that role. Even while showing his concern for the suffering of his fellow Israelites, Jesus aimed at complete salvation through love and presented himself as the eschatological “son of man,” concerned only for God’s kingdom, not for any political society. Political rereadings of the New Testament do not interpret the texts reasonably, but replace their witness with a fictive history concocted to exploit Christian faith by putting it in the service of liberationist politics.31

d) Yet Jesus’ gospel calls for social justice and mercy. The moral teaching of the Old Testament already clarifies many requirements for just social and economic relationships. Jesus perfects and radicalizes these, by teaching a mercy which goes beyond what is usually regarded as justice. Love of neighbor, and even of enemies, demands in practice that those who accept God’s loving kindness extend it to others in concrete ways. Thus, Jesus identified himself with those in need and warned the wealthy and powerful that they were in danger of losing their souls. For this reason, the Church teaches: “The evil inequities and oppression of every kind which afflict millions of men and women today openly contradict Christ’s Gospel and cannot leave the conscience of any Christian indifferent.”32

2. The Church’s Mission Concerns Exactly What Jesus’ Mission Concerned

As an extension of Jesus’ mission, the mission of the Church concerns what his concerned and only that. Vatican II teaches that this mission is one but complex: “For this the Church was founded: that by spreading the kingdom of Christ everywhere in the world for the glory of God the Father, all people might be made participants in saving redemption [note omitted], and through them the whole world might be ordered in reality to Christ” (AA 2).

a) The Church’s mission concerns every true human good. The religious purpose of Jesus’ mission was to reconcile sinful humankind with God and perfect its communion with him. This purpose also dominates the Church’s mission. Reconciliation and communion in the body of Christ are the heart of the gospel which the Church preaches and the primary blessing which the Holy Spirit confers through her sacraments. Still, just as Jesus built up a network of disciples, cured the sick, and fed the hungry, the Church always has worked to build up her human communion and has shown her concern for education, caring for the sick, helping the poor, and promoting peace, justice, and other human goods.33

b) Other human goods are not mere means to the religious end. Someone might object that insofar as these goods are distinct from holiness and grace, they are mere signs or instruments of the Church’s true concern, and so valueless except as means, to be used or set aside in the interests of her purely religious purpose. As a matter of fact, the Church’s concern for goods other than religion does help fulfill her religious purpose. By putting love into action, this concern bears witness to the gospel’s truth.

However, nothing belonging to the kingdom is a mere means. For the kingdom gathers in all good things and unites them to God in the fullness of Jesus: “For all things are yours . . . all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (1 Cor 3.21–23; cf. Eph 1.10, Col 1.20). Thus, the Church always has taught that the kingdom includes not only the communion of sinless souls with God but the communion of human persons in immortal bodily life with Jesus and one another. Moreover, Vatican II teaches that the elements of the temporal order “are not only helps to the final end of human beings but have a God-given value of their own” (AA 7). The Council also teaches that the kingdom includes “all the good fruits of our nature and effort” (GS 39). In short, the kingdom is to include all good things, restored to one in Jesus: truly new heavens and a new earth, not merely a spiritual world. Hence, the Church’s mission does not reduce all human goods other than religion to the status of mere means to holiness, grace, and the vision of God.34

c) The Church’s mission is limited to what pertains to the kingdom. While the Church’s mission is not confined to strictly religious matters nor concerned with other human goods only as means to her religious purpose, still, like Jesus himself, the Church serves nothing but God’s kingdom. Hope is her only interest; she intends nothing but its object: the kingdom. Thus, she cares for no human good except insofar as it contributes to the building up and coming of the kingdom. This not only is the teaching of the entire Christian tradition but of Vatican II: “While helping the world and receiving many benefits from it, the Church has a single intention: that God’s kingdom may come, and that the salvation of the whole human race may come to pass” (GS 45).35

But if the Church’s mission is limited to what pertains to the kingdom, what does that exclude? Evidently, not only the pursuit of wealth, pleasure, and power for their own sakes, but even the promotion of the most genuine human goods apart from their relevance to the kingdom. However, secularized society as such is concerned precisely with human goods as unrelated to the kingdom, for its interests are this-worldly and temporal, to the exclusion of Christian hope. The limitation on the Church’s mission therefore means she should not act according to any secularized understanding of human goods, method of serving them, or plan for humankind’s liberation.

d) Like Jesus, the Church makes a preferential option for the poor. As Jesus came to save sinners, not the righteous, the Church exists to mediate salvation, not to promote the greater flourishing of those already successful and happy. Vatican II teaches that the Church sees in the poor and suffering the likeness of Jesus and, like him, loves sinners and all who suffer from human weakness and the miseries of the fallen human condition (see LG 8).

Although this love is preferential, in aiming to give priority to more pressing human needs, the Church does not take the side of one class of people against others; her preferential love excludes nobody. On behalf of those suffering material poverty due to exploitation and oppression, the Church teaches the wealthy their responsibilities and thus works for social justice. But this work also seeks the true good of those who do injustice, by calling them to repentance and offering them liberation from sin.36

e) The Church’s way of serving temporal goods is realistic. The gospel clarifies the requirements for human liberation. There are great evils in the world, and Christians must struggle against them. Sin is the source of misery and oppression; only love of neighbor rooted in love of God overcomes misery and begets social solidarity. Thus, the redemption of economic institutions and social structures requires conversion. If oppressors cease doing injustice, make restitution, and work for socioeconomic reforms, that is progress.

By contrast, destructive acts, so often claimed to be indispensable for human liberation, are not an effective means, for they do nothing to heal and build society into a communion of justice and love. Grandiose schemes for social change through revolution treat people as mere means to be used on the way to an imagined better future. Thus, the Church unhesitatingly rejects morally unrestrained class struggle as a tragic error which only increases misery.37

The gospel, far from being ineffectual, is realistic and effective, for it brings with it the Holy Spirit’s power. True, oppressors can reject the grace of conversion and refuse to repent; Christianity offers no panacea. The struggle against sin and its consequences will meet with only limited success; the kingdom is not of this world. Even in the course of history, however, the Church’s way of serving temporal goods contributes to human progress and liberation, for it deals with the human situation without illusions.38

3. The Church Carries on Jesus’ Mission as a Complex, Integral Whole

God’s saving work in Jesus bears on the whole of the human world and even on the cosmos, which somehow is implicated in the broken human condition (see Rom 8.18–23; cf. Hos 4.1–3). Thus, the Church’s mission likewise extends to everything human and to the cosmos itself. This complex mission nevertheless is integrated into a unity.39

a) The Church recognizes her mission’s complex unity. The complexity is recognized, although not explained as clearly as it might be, in recent Church documents. Vatican II teaches: “Christ’s redemptive work, while essentially concerned with the salvation of humankind, includes also the renewal of the whole temporal order. Hence the mission of the Church is not only to bring to all people the message and grace of Christ, but also to penetrate and perfect the temporal order with the spirit of the gospel” (AA 5). The Synod of Bishops states: “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.”40 And Paul VI teaches:

The church proclaims liberation and cooperates with all those who are working and suffering on its behalf. She does not assert that her function is strictly confined to the religious sphere without regard for the temporal problems of men. But she reaffirms the primacy of her spiritual function and refuses to substitute for the preaching of the kingdom of God a proclamation of liberation of the merely human order. She declares that her advocacy of liberation would not be complete or perfect if she failed to preach salvation in Jesus Christ.41

b) The Church’s primary concern is each person’s salvation. Jesus’ new covenant initiates the heavenly kingdom. It exists in the world and spreads through times and places. The Church is sent to preach the gospel, to manifest its truth in communal life shaped by love, to baptize those who wish to believe, and to teach believers everything Jesus commanded, so that they can live in and celebrate communion with the divine persons and one another. Because saved persons make up God’s kingdom, the Church’s hope requires that each human person’s salvation be her primary concern. Thus, Vatican II teaches that in becoming man, the Son of God in a certain way united himself with every human being (see GS 22). From this teaching, John Paul II draws the conclusion:

The Church therefore sees its fundamental task in enabling that union to be brought about and renewed continually. The Church wishes to serve this single end: that each person may be able to find Christ, in order that Christ may walk with each person the path of life, with the power of the truth about man and the world that is contained in the mystery of the Incarnation and the Redemption and with the power of the love that is radiated by that truth.42

c) The Church’s secondary concern is to make salvation integral. John Paul II teaches: “If the Church makes herself present in the defense of, or in the advancement of, man, she does so in line with her mission, which, although it is religious and not social or political, cannot fail to consider man in the entirety of his being.”43 The last phrase, “in the entirety of his being,” shows why the Church’s concern is not limited to personal piety, but includes social justice, peace, and the advancement of science and culture: these elements of the temporal order also belong to the fullness of human persons.

True, only individual human persons believe and hope in God, and love him and one another. But human persons complete one another in various forms of society, and are fulfilled by work and culture. Indeed, “man in the entirety of his being” refers even to the surrounding cosmos, for people cannot live without the natural world, in which humankind dwells as in a womb. Thus, everything else in visible creation pertains to human beings, and their salvation would be incomplete were not all things brought back to God in Jesus.

John Paul II’s statement also indicates the precise way in which the Church’s mission includes all these dimensions of persons. The Church becomes concerned with all the elements of the temporal order, which have their own value as created goods, insofar as they pertain to the fulfillment of human persons, and so are destined for a place in the kingdom, where all goods will be restored to God in Jesus (see GS 39, AA 7).

29. José Capmany, “La persona y el amor de Jesús en la ordenación social,” Scripta theologica 14 (1982): 449–518, shows how the Church’s increasing understanding of the integral sense of Jesus’ saving work has affected her social teaching.

30. See Germain Grisez, “Practical Reason and Faith,” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 58 (1984): 9–12.

31. See John Paul II, Address to the Bishops of Latin America, 4–5, AAS 71 (1979) 190–92, OR, 5 Feb. 1979, 2. Also: Oscar Cullmann, “Did Jesus Have Plans of Political Reform?” OR, 23 Feb. 1978, 6–7; 9 Mar. 1978, 6–8; Ernst Bammel and C. F. D. Moule, Jesus and the Politics of His Day (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984). One way of misunderstanding the New Testament is to read into it the Old Testament’s theocratic politics; for a powerful theological critique of this mistake, see Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Considérations sur l’histoire du salut,” Nouvelle revue théologique 99 (1977): 518–31.

32. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, 57, AAS 79 (1987) 578, OR, 14 Apr. 1986, 5. Also, John Paul II, Discourse to the Bishops of India, 3, Inseg. 9.1 (1986) 260–61, OR, 10 Feb. 1986, 1, teaches: “Over and over again the Church proclaims her conviction that the core of the Gospel is fraternal love springing from love of God. The proclamation of the new commandment of love can never be separated from efforts to promote the integral advancement of man in justice and peace.”

33. John XXIII, Mater et magistra, AAS 53 (1961) 402, PE, 267.4, affirms that the Church’s concern is not limited to the sanctification of souls but extends to the needs of daily life, and John justifies this concern by Jesus’ example, for although “it was doubtless man’s eternal salvation that was uppermost in his mind . . . he showed his concern for the material welfare of his people . . . as when he miraculously multiplied bread to alleviate the hunger of the crowds.” Also see Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, 67, AAS 79 (1987) 583, OR, 14 Apr. 1986, 6, which argues from Jesus’ example that Christians cannot ignore the poor who lack the necessities of life, and concludes: “This poverty is the result and consequence of people’s sin and natural frailty, and it is an evil from which human beings must be freed as completely as possible.”

34. GS 42 and its n. 11 (Abbott n. 132), which incorporates teaching of Pius XII, says that Jesus assigns the Church a “strictly religious” end. But GS 76, at the end, includes in the Church’s mission the uncovering, cherishing, and ennobling of everything true, good, and beautiful in the human community. The apparent contradiction dissolves if one takes into account that God’s kingdom and righteousness—the strictly religious object of hope—includes the renewal of the entire fallen world, which embraces not only religion itself but every human good (see CMP, 25.B, 34.D–G).

35. For further substantiation of the account provided here of the Council’s teaching on the Church’s mission: Avery Dulles, S.J., “Vatican II and the Church’s Purpose,” Theology Digest 32 (1985): 341–52.

36. John Paul II, Discourse to the Cardinals (21 Dec. 1984), 9, AAS 77 (1985) 510–11, OR, 21 Jan. 1985, 7–8, cites LG 8, affirms that the preferential option for the poor always has been the Church’s policy, and stresses that it cannot be exclusive since the message of salvation is addressed to every human being. He says that the option must be based on the gospel, not on alien ideologies, and warns that poverty of spiritual goods (under such an ideology) is even worse than material poverty. On the preferential option, also see Synod of Bishops, Second Extraordinary Assembly (1985), Final “Relatio”, 2.D.6, EV 9 (1983–85) 1778–79, OR, 16 Dec. 1985, 9; Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, 68, AAS 79 (1987) 583–84, OR, 14 Apr. 1986, 6.

37. Injustice, however, inevitably leads to social conflicts, and Christians, taking a decisive stand on the side of justice, should cooperate in struggling for it: John Paul II, Centesimus annus, 14, AAS 83 (1991) 810–11, OR, 6 May 1991, 7.

38. Peruvian Episcopal Conference, Document on the Theology of Liberation, 52, OR, 4 Feb. 1985, 7: “An immanentistic messianism cannot but lead to the bitterest disappointments, but to renounce, from now on, any hope of improving this world means to deny the Lord’s salvific power. The struggle against evil in this world is a human responsibility, helped by grace, but the definitive victory over evil and death is a gift from God for which we hope. It is reserved to him to put an end to history, just as it was he who began it.” Also see Paul VI, Evangelii nuntiandi, 34–39, AAS 68 (1976) 28–30, Flannery, 2:725–27; Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Certain Aspects of “Theology of Liberation”, 11.11, AAS 76 (1984) 906, OR, 10 Sept. 1984, 4.

39. A useful history and analysis of magisterial teaching from Vatican II through Evangelii nuntiandi concerning the relationship between eschatological Christian salvation and human temporal progress: Bonaventure Kloppenburg, O.F.M., Christian Salvation and Human Temporal Progress, trans. Paul Burns (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1979). Also see: “Human Development and Christian Salvation (1976),” in International Theological Commission, Texts and Documents: 1969–1985, ed. Michael Sharkey (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 145–61.

40. Synod of Bishops, Second General Assembly (1971), Justice in the World, EV 4 (1971–73) 802–3, Flannery, 2:696. A helpful study of the meaning of this statement: Charles M. Murphy, “Action for Justice as Constitutive of the Preaching of the Gospel: What Did the 1971 Synod Mean?” Theological Studies 44 (1983): 298–311. Synod of Bishops, Second Extraordinary Assembly (1985), Final “Relatio”, 2.D.6, EV 9 (1983–85) 1778–79, OR, 16 Dec. 1985, 9, states the complexity; sets aside “false and useless oppositions between, for example, the Church’s spiritual mission and the ‘diaconia’ for the world”; and affirms: “The salvific mission of the Church in relation to the world must be understood as an integral whole. Though it is spiritual, the mission of the Church involves human promotion even in its temporal aspects.” But the document does not explain how these concerns are united.

41. Paul VI, Evangelii nuntiandi, 34, AAS 68 (1976) 28, Flannery, 2:725.

42. John Paul II, Redemptor hominis, 13, AAS 71 (1979) 282, PE, 278.37.

43. John Paul II, Address to the Bishops of Latin America, 2, AAS 71 (1979) 199, OR, 5 Feb. 1979, 4. Cf. John Paul II, Redemptor hominis, 15, AAS 71 (1979) 289, PE, 278.48; Leo XIII, Rerum novarum, ASS 23 (1890–91) 654–55, PE, 115.28–29.