Why Third Millennium?

“In every time the duty is incumbent on the Church of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in light of the Gospel” (Gaudium et Spes, #4). Like the rest of humanity Catholics must live in the time which Divine Providence has assigned us. But unlike the rest of the human race, we have the weighty duty, as members of the Catholic Church, Christ’s Mystical Body, of striving to understand the conditions of our age in order the better to communicate the saving truths of the Gospel. Thus the importance of the words of Vatican II quoted above, for if we misunderstand or misread those times, we will be hindered in our efforts to reach our contemporaries with the message of the Gospel.

One of the most contested questions for understanding our age is the question of modernity. Although it is debated if modernity still persists, or whether we have passed to postmodernity or even something beyond, the editors of Third Millennium believe that the fundamental change in the social order of the West was the destruction of a public order that recognized the truth of the Catholic faith – or for that matter, that had any explicit concern for religious truth. This transformation began at the end of the Middle Ages and in certain respects was not completed until the second half of the nineteenth century. Christian social orders which had existed for a millennium or more were overturned and the basis for civilization radically altered by a removal of religious truth from public life, and we believe that this is the fundamental feature of the new social order that resulted and hence the defining note of modernity. Therefore whatever the changes from modernity to postmodernity, they both share the basic feature that religious truth is no longer a matter of public or political interest.

If this understanding is correct, what kind of a response on the part of the Church is appropriate? It is often asserted that the Church had no effective response to modernity before the 1960s, but we deny that this is the case. In fact, almost immediately after the turmoil of the French Revolution, Catholics began to consider what was the proper way to respond to the changes in society. After a halting start, the pontificate of Leo XIII (1878-1903) not only solidified many of these early efforts, but inaugurated a new era of a confident Catholic response to the changed political and social conditions. Leo seemed to be one of those popes, such as Gregory the Great or Leo IX or Paul III whose grasp of their situation and whose reading of the signs of the times could set the tone of the Church’s response for centuries. Leo XIII’s program included a revival of Thomistic thought as a basis for the Church’s own intellectual endeavors and a restatement of the essentials of Catholic teaching on the political and social order, including a radical evaluation of the capitalist economic order and its effects on the poor and on workers. Leo, we believe, correctly grasped the essentials of this new era, and his successors for some time largely built upon and developed Leo’s work. In response to this effort of the hierarchy, the Catholic intellectual revival that had begun even before Leo’s pontificate, received new energy and direction, and especially in the first half of the twentieth century the Church produced and attracted numerous brilliant writers who addressed the conditions of the modern world and the essential situation of humanity.

During and after the Second Vatican Council, however, many Catholics began to see Leo’s program as superseded and as no longer answering the needs of mankind. It is our conviction, however, that that program, as developed by him and his successors, is still the best way for the Church to respond to modernity, to communicate the Gospel to our contemporaries, and that her apostolate will be most fruitful when it is consciously connected to the Leonine program.

Today, clearly, Catholics are bitterly divided. Speaking only of the United States, most active Catholics seem to find their identity in one of the two secular political-cultural blocs that divide our society, conservative or liberal, the right and the left. But neither of these terms has any theological bearing. We believe that Catholics who accept such designations are, knowingly or not, placing their fundamental identify outside the Church and Catholic thought. Both conservatives and liberals, whether Catholic or not, accept the basic postulates of the new society that has privatized religion and sees the social order not as a hierarchy under God, but as a grab bag of competing interests, and both in their own way accept human liberation, economic or personal, as the summum bonum of individual and social life. But although the editors of Third Millennium are deeply committed to the tradition of the Church and of Catholic thought, we do not locate our fundamental intellectual commitment in tradition, as such. We wish to put forward a positive program, a program that recognizes the needs and wishes of people of this age and which offers them in turn the fullness of the Gospel as defined and taught by the Magisterium of the Church, but also necessarily as mediated by two millennia of Catholic thought and work. Even more, we wish to recall Catholics to their heritage in order that their communication of the Gospel in these times will be faithful to the entire patrimony of Christ’s Church.

We intend to explore and expound Catholic thought and tradition in such areas as the relations of the Faith with the political order, with human cultures, the social doctrine of the Church, particularly its expression in distributism, Catholic thinking on the environment and nature, as well as efforts to understand our contemporaries and the best means of communicating the Gospel to them.

We hope to stimulate discussion beyond the usual bounds and parties which populate the Church in the United States. Our intention is to publish two to four articles a week, including reprints of previously published material. We welcome appropriate submissions and hope that you will join us as regular readers and make our efforts known to others.

The Editors