the world around us. That began to change as we approached Vatican Council II. We heard words like “ecumenism,” “social justice” and “liturgical renewal.” There was even a daring concept of celebrating the Mass in the vernacular, the language commonly spoken in the location of the Mass.
As the council unfolded, laypersons were invited to take on new roles in the Church, both liturgical roles and in various ministries in the Church. Both men and women could now serve in the sanctuary as lectors and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. Mass could be celebrated with the priest facing the people instead of with his back to the congregation.
After Vatican II, we saw the Church engaging the world around us in a completely different way.
We recognized the need to enter into dialogue with other Christian denominations to explore the possibility of reunification of Christianity. We began to hear about topics like racism, discrimination and social justice. The Church was more open in its criticism of injustice in society.
Topics like war, disparate treatment of minorities by the criminal justice system, treatment of undocumented immigrants, the natural environment and a living wage became topics addressed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and local bishops.
Yet within the Church, we saw dissent emerge. Some sought to radically change certain moral teachings on issues of sexuality, contraception and abortion. With Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, “Humanae Vitae” (“Of Human Life”), Catholic understanding of sexuality and the teaching on contraception were beautifully affirmed. Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, “Evangelium Vitae” (“Gospel of Life”) again affirmed those teachings and emphasized that moral law given by God cannot change.
Human life issues (abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia and capital punishment) continued to receive prominent attention from the bishops and Catholic laity in local and political arenas.
The Church needs to engage society on both human life issues and issues of social justice; it is not one or the other.
Catholics know from scripture that the human person is created in the image and likeness of God. Hence, all human beings have an inherent dignity: There is something about each person that is a reflection of God to those around them.
Catholics must hold in their heart two great commandments: Love of God above all else and love our neighbors as ourselves. The Church must continue to proclaim that message not merely as an abstract concept, but in concrete terms: Life is sacred. Human beings are to be treated as a precious image and likeness of God; they are to be accorded full human dignity, and this includes just treatment in all particulars of their existence in a just society.
As members of the Church and followers of Jesus Christ, we must act to further those teachings and to incorporate them into our own attitudes and behaviors.
Deacon Pete Gummere, director of the Permanent Diaconate for the Diocese of Burlington, serves at Corpus Christi Parish, St. Johnsbury. He is a bioethicist and an adjunct faculty member at Josephinum Diaconate Institute where he teaches courses in medical morality and moral theology.