Dear Brothers in Christ,
Thank you for the invitation to address your annual conference. You have invited me to reflect on one of the most important documents of the Second Vatican Council – Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World as it nears its “golden jubilee” this December. In an attempt to diminish or dismiss the great significance of this core document of the Council, many have tried to classify Vatican II as a “pastoral council” that did not address dogmatic issues. At the beginning of this presentation, let me offer this fundamental principle: the Second Vatican Council offered a new model of merging between so-called pastoral and doctrinal councils. The standard refrain that Vatican II was a pastoral council and therefore did not propose new doctrines of the church is incorrect. Vatican II was a pastoral council by its teachings, i.e., its doctrines. The Council was therefore pastoral by being doctrinal.
Fifty years after its promulgation, who of us cannot still be moved by the opening words of that landmark conciliar document?
The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds.
There is an interesting history to the birth of this Pastoral Constitution. Such a document was not planned from the outset of the Council. It was toward the close of the first session of the Council, on December 4, 1962, that Belgian Cardinal Leo Suenens spoke of the need for the Church to address the world and not just to be occupied with internal Church matters. The very next day, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini of Milan (who was to become Paul VI by the next session) seconded Suenens' proposal. And then, on December 6, Cardinal Lercaro of Bologna echoed the views of Montini and Suenens. So, thanks to the support of three of the most influential and respected Council fathers, a statement on church and world became a topic for the next session of the Council!
The final result was the longest document of the Council, indeed the longest document ever produced by any of the 21 ecumenical Councils in a 2,000 year history: Gaudium et Spes,the Pastoral Constitution on The Church in the Modern World. The document is divided into two parts. The first part lays out theological and pastoral perspectives and principles about the Church in the world. The second part addresses five areas of what it calls "special urgency."
Once the basic anthropology of Christian humanism is presented in chapters one through three, the fourth chapter moves to a reflection on how the mission of the Church must be redefined. This method of re-conceptualizing the mission of the Church is already hinted at in the oft-quoted paragraph four of the introduction to the Constitution: "To carry out such a task, the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. . . . We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its expectations, its longings, its often dramatic characteristics."
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council were men who had experienced two world wars, the horror of the Holocaust, the onset of the nuclear weaponry, the hostility of communism, the awesome and only partially understood impact of science and technology all these elements of their lived experience forced them to a non-internal definition of the Church. The Church had to be understood in its relationship to the world they knew. The message of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World is in many ways the hope that the Council wished to offer the world.
The Pastoral Constitution encouraged a new model of church/world engagement. Previous models were no longer adequate: the minority sect within the Roman empire, the alliance of Church and Constantinian state, the medieval institution of Christendom, the battered and battering Church of post-Reformation Europe, the established Church of the ancien regime, and the isolated and triumphalistic Church of the 19th century.
Gaudium et Spes suggested a Church with a new strategy for the Church's presence in the world, one which emphasized neither withdrawal, triumphalism, nor assimilation, but critical conversation (listening and speaking) along with principled cooperation with other social institutions and communities of people. The mission of the Church needed to be expressed in social categories and had, therefore, to take seriously the realities of secularization and pluralism.
In the two thousand year history of the Church, it had never happened that an ecumenical Council would focus with such profound pastoral involvement on the temporal events of humanity. The Council Fathers confronted theologically the fundamental questions that have always plagued the human heart: "What is man? What is the meaning of suffering, of evil, of death, that notwithstanding any kind of progress, continue to exist?" (GS, 10). Sounding out the "mystery of man" by the light of the Word of God, the Council Fathers also strongly committed the Christian community, which was called to offer a specific contribution to "render more human the entire family of men” (GS, 40).
One of the great gifts of Gaudium et Spes was its appeal for the personal witness and “illuminating” initiatives of lay people- encouraging them to assume greater roles in the life of the Church and the world. (cf. GS, 43). This still remains one of the great urgencies and hopes of the Church of our times.
Above all, Gaudium et Spes presents Jesus Christ as the Light of the world, the “lumen gentium” who illuminates the mystery of man, not only for Christians, but also for the entire human family; he reveals man to himself; he calls everyone to the same identical destiny, and, through the Holy Spirit, "offers to everyone the possibility to come into contact" with his definitive victory over death (GS, 22). We could sum up the entire document with these five points:
1. The Church works to build a world that acknowledges and promotes the dignity, life and freedom of each human person.
2. The Church works to create conditions of justice and peace in which individuals and communities and can truly flourish.
3. The Church is present in the activity of the international community.
4. The Church’s universal religious mission does not allow her to be identified with any particular political, economic or social system.
5. The Church contributes to the establishment and consolidation of peace within the human community in accordance with God’s law, a peace that is the fruit of the work of true justice.
When Gaudium et Spes was promulgated, many Catholics wondered why the church wanted to engage the world and whether the church had any business being concerned with political and economic issues and peacemaking. The council's intention was to come in contact with people of all walks of life as sign of respect for their dignity. The council was very clear that it presents this teaching for no other reason than to evangelize. This means to share the good news. It is not so much to present a parallel government, a parallel economic system. It presents valuable insight coming from revelation and presents modest contribution to humanity as it searches for a better life, a better world.
When the Church commits herself to works of justice on a human level (and there are few institutions in the world which accomplish what the Catholic Church accomplishes for the poor and disadvantaged), the world praises the Church. But when the Church's work for justice touches on issues and problems which the world no longer sees as bound up with human dignity, like protecting the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death, or when the Church confesses that justice also includes our responsibilities toward God himself, then the world often rejects our message.