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In 1965, the Second Vatican Council adopted Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. With this document, the Church sought to address “the whole of humanity.” In a way, this aspiration was not surprising. Christian doctrine holds that Christ died for the sins of the entire human race, and the gospel message is to be proclaimed to the ends of the earth. But Gaudium et Spes introduced a different kind of universalism, one that is eager to speak to the world on its own terms.

This turn reflects a development in the Church’s self-understanding after World War II. In the aftermath of the clerical sex-abuse scandals, it’s difficult for us to appreciate the great moral prestige the Catholic Church enjoyed in the decades after the war. In the late 1940s and 1950s, Catholic figures played crucial roles in rebuilding the moral and political cultures of Germany and Italy. During the same decades, the United Nations had not yet shown itself to be the useless charade that it now plainly is. Many in the West invested great hopes in that international body.

Thus, the mid-century Church tended strongly toward internationalism, as it was then called. Church leaders were keen to buttress the authority of the ­United Nations and other international agencies. Gaudium et Spes champions these causes and goes so far as to call for a “universal public authority” that will “completely outlaw” war. (John Paul II and Benedict XVI reiterated this aspiration on various occasions.)

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