The Church's Mission in a Globalizing World


An airplane flies over post-World War I Europe, from the Bruce M. Mohler papers

Although the Church primarily extended its aid to European refugees and DPs who were also Catholic, in accord with the US government’s plan that ethnic and religious groups each help their own, these documents often speak of the plight of refugees in more general humanitarian terms. Ultimately, the bishops and other authors of these documents suggest, the refugees deserved US Catholics’ help not only because they were their fellow believers, but because the sight of human need and suffering should appeal to the charitable impulses present in every conscience. We even see the idea, in documents such as Bishop O’Grady’s speech “The Challenge of Displaced Persons to the People of the United States”, that the Church has the mission of making the refugees’ desperate situation known to the world. The Church is envisioned, in these documents, as an advocate for people who cannot speak for themselves.

The fact that the Church’s attention in the years before, during and after World War II turned outward towards the world, as well as inward towards theological details and infighting among the different bishops, marked an important change in its self-definition. For almost two hundred years after the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, the Church had frequently adopted a very closed-off attitude towards the world. Catholic priests and bishops focused their attention on the education of their own flock and on strengthening the Church’s inner structures, while they seemed to dismiss the modern, secular world as hopelessly corrupt and too far gone to save. In this self-definition of the Church, theological precision was often valued more than attention to issues of social justice.

  • Today, do you see the emphasis of the Church’s teaching as being more on theological issues, or more on issues of social justice? Do you think that this emphasis will shift again in the future?
  • What do you see as the Church’s mission in the modern world? Do statements like O’Grady’s sound similar to or different from more recent pronouncements by the US bishops on the Church’s role?
  • Do you think the US bishops would have helped more non-Catholics as well as Catholics after World War II, if given the chance?



An immigrant family views the Statue of Liberty from their ship as it sails into New York harbor; Bruce M. Mohler papers

Around the time when these documents were written, we begin to see a transformation in the Church’s own sense of its mission in the world. At the same time as globalization and new transnational organizations such as the United Nations were working to make the borders and barriers between different nations less rigid, a new wave of Catholic writers and intellectuals were working to make the barriers between the Church and the world less absolute. 

For example, Catholic University theologian Fr. John A. Ryan taught that the principles of individual freedom and self-determination, as embraced by Western democracies, were not hostile to but compatible with Church teachings. Fr. Ryan also taught that Catholics were called to correct social problems and injustices, as well as theological errors.

This conception of the Church as having a mission to work with and in, rather than against the world, eventually found expression in the documents of Vatican II, particularly Gaudium et Spes, which sees the Church as having a particularly active calling in modern times. We can also see echoes of this mentality in the pronouncements of more recent Popes, particularly John Paul II, who saw Catholicism as affirming the intrinsic worth of the individual person, in the face of a world which often sought to degrade or enslave the individual.

  • From these documents, does it seem that the US bishops see themselves as fulfilling the same kind of role among the world’s unfortunates as the UN? What advantages do the US bishops see the Church as having, in its charitable efforts, over secular organizations?
  • What are some of the greatest threats to individual freedom as described in these documents? What do the US bishops think of totalitarian systems that deprive the individual of religious or other freedoms?
  • How do the US bishops describe Communism and its effects? For what reasons, according to the authors of these documents, do Communists and Fascists attack Christianity?