Pronounce it as you dare, “aggiornamento” – Italian for “(bringing) up-to-date” – as applied to the way we do church, has yielded, to say the least, mixed results. Blessed Pope John XXIII famously used the term when calling for an update of the Codex Iuris Canonici, the official compendium – or “Code” – of Canon (Church). That was in 1959, the eve of Vatican II.
As it turned out, far more than the Code would see revision in post-conciliar years. As reforms developed, the appeal of a newly outward-looking Church in dialog with a rapidly changing modern world became the larger context of the aggiornamento.
Some critics, advancing the notion of a Church not only as teacher but also learner, even encouraged the Church to adapt or modernize its teachings to remain relevant to the shifting cultural currents. Ironically, so-called progressive churches that have followed this direction tend to be in decline. Churches remaining true to traditional Christian doctrine are more likely to be thriving.
Other metaphors suggested by John XXIII, such as “opening a window” and being attentive to the “signs of the times,” were readily welcomed by many people within and beyond the Church communion as indicators of an awakening to the need to address new questions raised by rapid changes in a society increasingly turning to science, technology and secular means of advancing the well-being of the human race.
To the extent that Christians live the Gospel – if the example and experience of Jesus is any prognosticator – they will come into conflict with the world’s values and premises. Christ’s life and teachings challenge fundamental attitudes toward material wealth, worldly power and sensuality, including practices regarding sexuality, marriage, politics and economics. It should not surprise any of the disciples of Christ that they will be opposed in all times and places along the march of history because of their beliefs, which are derived not from what is popular but from what Christ teaches and our true humanity discloses.
How commonly we hear “the Church says, but I think” as if the Church were something different from the Body of Christ himself: We as members united in Communion with our Risen Lord. The genius of the Church throughout the centuries, as theologian Father Robert Barron has often pointed out, is her ability to transform the culture in which she lives. Whatever developments in culture and science that enhance human development, we embrace and support with open arms.
At the same time, any use of power, wealth or technology to destroy the dignity of human life at any stage or in any form is not the kind of progress that enhances our humanity.
A culture that, effectively, cannibalizes its children by denying them the right be born or so restricts the growth of its families that its social safety nets become unsustainable for its aging and most vulnerable due to the negative birth rate – is a society yearning to be evangelized or, as in the case of Europe and, increasingly, the United States, re-evangelized.
Or shall we bend to the superstitions and barbarities which were once thought to have been left in the dark ages of pagandom?