Vatican II – Forty Years On
GAUDIUM ET SPES: THE CHURCH IN THE MODERN WORLD
Speaking Notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin, Primate of Ireland
Mater Dei Lecture Series, 29th November 2005
It is said that you will never get a committee to write a good document. Gaudium et Spes, unlike most other Conciliar documents, was singularly favoured perhaps because it was not written by a Commission, but by two Commissions.
The Pastoral Constitution on the Church is the Modern World is a document which for many is emblematic of what Vatican II was about and about a new style for the life of the Church that it envisaged. And yet in another sense it is untypical of the Vatican II.
It was not envisaged in the preparatory period for the Council to have a document on the Church in the Modern World. Gaudium et Spes did not grow out of a preparatory document as was the case with the other major Conciliar documents. It took up some of the themes of early drafts on social action and Christian moral order, but is quite different to them. It was written, as I said, by two Commissions: those on Theology and on the Apostolate of the Laity.
The tone of the document was new and striking. It did not wish to talk about the Church and the Modern World or the Church speaking to the Modern Word, but about the Church in the Modern World. It was even less a document about the Church against the Modern World. In the colourful phrase of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger Gaudium et Spes was “a kind of counter Syllabus”.
To achieve its task Gaudium et Spes had to use a language that was different to that of traditional ecclesiastical documents, the language of dialogue.
While I think that we can say that it was quite successful in that use of a language of dialogue, it was not able to pass that style on to the mainstream of successive Vatican document-writers. I would dare say that one exception to that rule is the series of Messages for the World Day of Peace. I can say as an insider that this was not always easy. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace was responsible for presenting each year to the Pope the theme for the World Day of Peace and suggesting the outline for a text. We had to fight constantly to maintain the originality which Paul VI had wanted to give that celebration and which Pope John Paul II wished to maintain.
Paul VI chose the 1st January for the World Day of Peace because it was not particularly a religious feast, but a day on which many people around the world naturally looked towards a future of new hope. He wished that the Message be a Message addressed to people beyond the boundaries of the Church but in a language which unmistakably sprung from the Christian religious heritage. In many ways this was the spirit of Gaudium et Spes.
Gaudium et Spes was an untypical document of Vatican II and it used a language all its own. Yet it is not just an appendix to the Vatican Council. It belongs fully within the overall theological understanding of Church which inspired the documents of the Council. Suffice it to recall the opening paragraph of the Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium: “Christ is the light of humanity and it is the heartfelt desire of the Council to bring to all humanity the light of Christ”. The Church is portrayed as being “in Christ, in the nature of a sacrament – a sign and instrument – of communion with God and of unity among all”. Constantly Gaudium et Spes stresses the unity of this dual ministry of the Church: that of “spreading the light of the Gospel throughout the world and uniting all people of whatever nation, race or culture in one spirit” (#92). And it recalls that “the conditions of the modern world lend greater urgency to this duty of the Church of bringing all humankind to fuller union in Christ”, “for, while people of our present day are drawn more closely together by social, technological and cultural bonds, it still remains for them to achieve full unity in Christ”.
The Second Vatican Council understands the church as “the universal sacrament of salvation”. The Church has through God’s grace the dual task of working for the realization of its own full unity and thus becoming a more effective sign of the unity of a fragmented humanity.
Gaudium et Spes also makes more explicit and concrete the eschatological nature of the Church, stressed in Lumen Gentium. The Church is God’s pilgrim people on the way towards the final realization of God’s kingdom, when the human race as well as all of creation, will be perfectly re-established in Christ. God is preparing a new dwelling and a new earth, but as Gaudium et Spes stresses:”far from diminishing our concerns to develop this earth… the expectancy of a new earth should spur us on” (#39).
It is appropriate that we should be remembering Gaudium et Spes during Advent. Advent is a time is a time which recalls for the Christian the mission to renew the creation. It is the season of Christian hope. Pope Benedict XVI in his Angelus Messages last Sunday recalls precisely how Gaudium et Spes “interprets every aspect and every element of human life and society: the family, culture, political and in international community in the light of Christ”.
The foundation of the church’s role in the world is theological and Christological. In the Old Testament, God’s intervention in history is perceived against the background of God being the creator and lord of all things. In the New Testament, especially in the writings of Saint Paul, sovereignty is attributed to Christ who is the head of the church and of all things.
The foundation of the restoration of all things has been laid in Christ. We must pray and wait for God to transform the world. Our Advent “be awake”, “be alert” means that Christians are called to cooperate concretely, impatiently, restlessly in God’s work of transforming the world. Christians have the duty and responsibility to establish a world order in conformity to God’s gift of truth and grace received in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Just as Jesus is sent by the Father “to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free and to proclaim the lord’s year of favour”, so Christians generation after generation are called to listen to the word of God in fresh ways in order to contribute through the instrumentality of the church towards the realization of the kingdom in our time.
Gaudium et Spes reminds us however that we must distinguish earthly progress clearly from the progress of the kingdom. This means that the dialogue between Church and world must be a dialogue of discernment.
How de we evaluate then Gaudium et Spes forty years on. What have been the fruits of this dialogue for the Church and for society? What is the future direction of such a dialogue?
There are some who would say that the “shelf life” of Gaudium et Spes was by its nature short-lived or tentative and limited by the change in the world situations. Others would say that through its own affirmation of “the rightful autonomy of earthly things” the further evaluation of the Pastoral Constitution would be determined by developments in the social and economic sciences just as much as by theological or pastoral interpretations.
The Special Session of the Synod of Bishops in 1985, on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the Vatican Council looked at the ways in which Gaudium et Spes had been interpreted over theose years. In 1985, some felt that Pope John Paul II had called the Synod to launch a programme of going back on the Council. Quite to the contrary, the 1985 Synod clearly reaffirmed the Pastoral Constitution and its value, but qualified some questions regarding the context out of which Gaudium et Spes arouse.
The final document of that Special Session of the Synod noted with clarity: “The Church as communion is a sacrament for the salvation of the world… In this context we affirm the great importance and timeliness of the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes“. The document then adds: “At the same time, however, we perceive that the signs of our time are in part different from the time of the Council, with greater problems and anguish… This requires a new and more profound theological reflection in order to interpret these signs in the light of the Gospel”.
Whether one agrees with its particular diagnose or not, the 1985 Synod did however clearly recognised the particular genius of Gaudium et Spes, namely, that of fostering an ongoing process of dialogue between the Gospel message and the signs of the times, as an interaction in which the Church turns to the Gospel to help discern the signs of the times as each generation passes.
The verification, forty years after Vatican II, of the application of Gaudium et Spes and of what form of aggiornamento it has brought to the Church is more difficult, then, than with other Council documents. It can only be done within the context of developments in both Church and contemporary society and of their interaction.
The process of evaluation must take into account also the fact that the pace of social change in these forty years has been way beyond anything that the authors of the document could have foreseen.
Gaudium et Spes (#5) speaks about the “upheavals” which society at the time had to address. It noted that society was moving from a “static to a dynamic and evolutionary conception of things”. But it still looked at the development of an industrial society and it was impossible at the time even to imagine what a post-industrial world would look like or the effects that an information revolution and a global knowledge-based economy would have on our society.
If the document underestimated the pace of change in the society, it probably underestimated even more the changes that would take place in the Church, many of which Gaudium et Spes itself provoked.
The world and the Church of today have changed so much since the 1960’s. Gaudium et Spes predates 1968! And by 1968 I think both of the student revolt and of the publication of Humanae Vitae. It predates the fall of the Central and Eastern European communist regimes. It predates the era of globalization. The question inevitably arises as to whether Gaudium et Spes is as relevant to today’s world as it was at the time of its publication.
The most important change in contemporary society since the publication of Gaudium et Spes, and the one which requires most attention, regards anthropology, the vision of the human person that is the driving force of contemporary reflection.
At the time of the publication of Gaudium et Spes there was a certain optimism in the air about the possibility of creating a better future. The Council itself and the miracle that Pope John XXXIII seemed to have achieved in ecumenical dialogue contributed to this optimism and it was in tune with this broader cultural optimism. This optimism was marked by more sustained economic recovery after the trials of the Second World War. It was the time of a baby boom. It was the time of decolonisation and the emergence of new States in Africa and around the world. It was the Kennedy era!
There has been a good deal of discussion in more recent times about the overall thrust of Gaudium et Spes regarding the fundamental goodness or frailty of human nature itself. Many would say today that Gaudium et Spes was overoptimistic about the human project or the capacity of humankind to ensure that the good would prevail. Others would say that it was society that was over-optimistic and that Gaudium et Spes does indeed contain many caveats about the ambiguities of society and about the clash between good and evil.
The anthropology of Gaudium et Spes is a Christocentric anthropology. The dialogue with contemporary culture must be one in which the message of Jesus Christ appears as the unique corner stone. The Church continues in its desire to understand and even learn from modern culture. Only the redeeming power of Jesus however is capable of overcoming the presence of sin and evil in the world.
The 1985 Synod addressed this question in terms of the Mystery of the Cross: “It seems to us that in the present-day difficulties God wishes to teach us more deeply the value, the importance and the centrality of the cross of Jesus Christ. Therefore the relationship between human history and salvation is to be explained in the light of the paschal mystery. Certainly the theology of the cross does not at all exclude the theology of the creation and incarnation, but, as is clear, it presupposes it. When we Christians speak of the cross, we do not deserve to be labeled pessimists, but rather found ourselves upon the realism of Christian hope”.
Gaudium et Spes was however a careful document. For the Council the human condition always remains “enigma” (#18). The document contains many of the caveats that some of its critics seem to have ignored. The optimism of Gaudium et Spes is certainly captivating. Its cautionary tones were often however played down. I think of the many bishops who have taken Gaudium et Spes as their motto but I have yet to meet one which has taken as his motto the second phrase of the opening sentence of the Pastoral Constitution: Luctus et Angor,: “Grief and Anxiety”.
Gaudium et Spes itself is more realistic than some of its interpreters or interpretations. In many ways this was due to correctives introduced during the writing of the document, especially by Bishops from the German-speaking lands, who had experienced how human nature and the minds of people could be deviated into the most extraordinary of evil enterprises, such as was that of the holocaust. Gaudium et Spes, indeed, from its first paragraph onwards draws attention to the ambivalence of human history, “enslaved to sin” and marked by both the “triumphs and disaster” of the enterprise of humankind.. It takes up the famous words of the Letter to the Romans: “Man weak and sinful often does what he would prefer not to do and fails to do what he would he like” (#10).
Forty years onwards, where do we stand. These forty years have seen enormous scientific progress. But war has continued, we still have large nuclear arsenals, we have had the Rwandan genocide, a brutal war in the heart of Europe in the Balkans, we have had continuous wars right across Africa, brutal forms of terrorism and hostage-taking have exploded on the world scene, economic, social and sexual exploitation have continued, hunger and malnutrition are still the order of the day, international law is under threat, the dominant place of the person in the world economy is challenged in new ways.
Christians should be in the forefront in the working for a better world in these new circumstances. They should work with all those who share the same concern. But they must be careful to avoid the superficial and the clichéd. Their commitment must be coherent. It must not be limited to the occasional outburst of global solidarity such as that on the occasion of the Tsunami or the more militant enthusiasm engendered around meetings of the G8 meeting, the UN General Assembly or the WTO Ministerial Conferences. For the Christian, solidarity should be the stuff of everyday. The anthropology of Gaudium et Spes is one which demands solidarity as an imperative and not an option, a daily imperative and not an occasional awakening of conscience.
Christian comment on and commitment within society must be rooted in a truly Christian understanding of the human person which includes the reality of human sinfulness and therefore of the redeeming message of Jesus. Today so many people do not feel the need for redemption. The Christian believer must be fully present in the human enterprise, bringing to it that special discernment which springs from the irreplaceable light of Christ. Being present within the human enterprise is part of the calling to be a Christian.
In the aftermath of Gaudium et Spes a new type of “anonymous Christianity” appeared. It was not the theological anonymous Christianity of the non-Christian who espouses but not explicitly the values of the kingdom. It was an “anonymous Christianity” among Christians, whose presence in social life was constructed deliberately without any specific reference to the Christian roots of his or her presence.
On the other hand we have seen new forms of Christian fundamentalist presence in society and politics, which seem to say that our faith gives us a direct answer to every contemporary challenge. I believe that Catholics are under-represented in the religious right in the United States because of the effects of the teaching of Gaudium et Spes, which recognises that the Word of God has to be mediated within the realities of the world through human reflection and the human sciences.
This does not mean that the individual Christian – or Church organization for that matter – should be involved in the work of human advancement just alongside others, especially where there is no common anthropology or indeed there is hostility to Christian anthropology.
The anthropology of Gaudium et Spes is a theological anthropology. “The human person is the only creature that God willed for its own sake” (#24), notes the Pastoral Constitution, using the single Council phrase most quoted by Pope John Paul II. It is that vision of human dignity rooted in a relationship with God, so beautifully stressed by Pope Benedict XVI in his inaugural address in Saint Peter’s Square: “Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary”.
In the intervening years since Gaudium et Spes dialogue between Church and the World has in many areas become more difficult with an ever increasing secularisation. The future presence of the Christian in society, will be a presence in a more and more a pluralist society, at times less sympathetic to the role of religion. As opposed to the cultural climate at the time of the publication of Gaudium et Spes there are many who no longer find it necessary to resort to religious principles to foster an ethic of solidarity. Many feel satisfied with a secularist understanding of what a more just world order offers them, without having recourse to the absolutes of religious belief.
What is important is for all of us to keep dialogue and healthy debate within a mature, informed and non–ideological framework. The ability of Church and society to achieve such a framework and climate is an indication of the maturity of each.
The drop, finally, in religious practice in Western societies and the weakening among many young people of a real sense of religious culture means that many Christians no longer possess the theological and spiritual background necessary for a true discernment of the realities of the time. I will come back briefly to the question of formation for Christian social engagement.
A huge challenge in this dialogue around anthropology is the relationship between the individual human person and that of the human family, of humankind. The great temptation today is to read the concept of human person in terms of current day individualism, with all its ramifications, especially in terms of individual rights, individual attainment, and individual fulfilment. Gaudium et Spes attempts to show the interrelationship between the individual and his or her responsibilities in and for society. The danger is that the reader today is unconsciously applying different interpretations of those terms than the Council itself would have done.
This challenge is most acute today, forty years after the publication of Gaudium et Spes, in the area of marriage and the family. The dominant individualistic trends in philosophy and in popular culture go so far as to make it very difficult for many to fully comprehend the vision of marriage and the family that is to be found in the council document. The Church needs urgently to address the question of an anthropology of human sexuality and marriage, the “first form of personal communion” (#12).
The economic realities of our time are very different to those at the time of the publication of Gaudium et Spes. There has been a move away from a stress on the role of the State to one in which the positive aspects of the market and of human economic initiative are stressed, albeit with due reservations regarding the limits of the market. Once again anthropological issues are often at the heart of the debate. Pope John Paul II’s stressed the concept of a right to economic activity. This springs from his view of the creativity and subjectivity which is present in the human person which gives rise also to a subjectivity of society. In a knowledge-based society the human person, human initiative and human creativity are the driving force of economic development.
Such a vision of economic development requires a new understanding of investing in human capacity. Poverty is the inability to realise God-given potential. Fighting poverty is above all about investing in people. It is about finding the ways – financial and technical – to ensure that people can realise their talents and improve their capacity. Perhaps the Church had not got it so wrong in the past when so much of its development work was in the field of education.
A challenge for the future is to develop a new vision of the preferential option for the poor. This means not just having general programmes for human advancement but ways in which those who are on the margins are brought as protagonists into the virtual circle of inclusion. The role of the Church in this situation is less that of wanting to be the voice of the poor and more that of ensuring that the poor have voice. This means improving human capacity, but also broadening the appreciation of what it is to be human and moving away from a dominantly economic vision of society into one where a broader understanding of human purpose and hope can prosper.
The principle of Gaudium et Spes concerning the universal destiny of the earth’s resources is as important today as ever, especially in our analysis of the phenomenon of globalization. Any form of globalization which only increases exclusion has no title to call itself global. The goods of the earth today are not just land and capital, but knowledge and the fruits of human genius. We need to develop the fundamentals for a new era of solidarity within a knowledge-based society. We still have not been able to place the fruits of science fully at the service of the human community.
Gaudium et Spes really never developed any reflections on the integrity of creation. This has been made up to some extent now by the rich teaching of Pope John Paul II. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church has brought together much of the biblical and magisterial teaching on this area. There is no necessary contradiction between a person-centered reflection on human realities and an ecological one. What is needed is to develop a vision which enhances, at one and the same time, the dignity of each human person, the unity of the human family and the integrity of creation. The ability to address and balance each of these three imperatives will be the true key to economic and human development in the years to come.
One of the most difficult discussions during the drafting of Gaudium et Spes was on the theme of war. When I arrived as the Holy See’s representative in Geneva, I presented my credentials to the then Head of the UN Office there, a wise and wily former Soviet civil servant who has spent most of his time in disarmament work. He was regarded as belonging to the best of the old school, prudent and cautious yet aware of the realities of international insecurity.
I remember well that after a minimum of formalities we sat down and got straight into discussions on disarmament. He reminded me that he was personally involved in the negotiations of the principal International disarmament or arms control documents. And he said: “let us be clear these are all cold war documents, and they are becoming less and less adequate to the international situation today. But we have a potential disaster scenario before us. There is an inability or unwillingness to work towards new arms-control frameworks and at the same time the edifice of existing documents is beginning to collapse”. There was both truth and wisdom in the insight of the old disarmament practitioner.
The number of nuclear weapons in today’s world is fewer but the number of countries possessing or interested in having nuclear weapons is high. Yet at the recent UN Summit it was impossible to come to agreement on evening mentioning proliferations issues.
That said, most people killed in wars after the Second World War have been killed with conventional weapons, either high-tech conventional weapons or indeed very low-tech, but reliable and sturdy weapons. Very little progress has been made in introducing sharper control of the movement of conventional weapons and indeed sales of such arms are considered in many cases an important factor in national economic interest.
Church peace movements had perhaps become too focussed with the nuclear issue and as the Soviet-American ideological conflict abated somewhat and as people felt that a nuclear conflagration war no longer imminent, then the interest in peace questions became less. It is easy to be against nuclear catastrophe, but to engage with the complex mechanisms of arms production and sales is not so easy. We need a strong peace movement within the Church, not just the witness of the pacifist, but also the mediation of those who can elaborate and evaluate an ethical framework for arms control and reduction.
Pope John Paul took the teaching on the uselessness of war and therefore of the inappropriateness of war as an instrument of resolving international tensions far further than any of his predecessors. He was unafraid to say this to the world and to individual world leaders. It would be important that this anti-war legacy of Pope John Paul be developed in the ever more complex systems of today.
This brings me to the question of the international community, which was treated in the final pages of Gaudium et Spes. I suppose that I have spent a great deal of my life working in what is called the “international community”, but I have always affirmed that the international community does not exist, or that it exists only in a very embryonic state. States still make up the backbone of international relations. International Organizations are made up of member states who act normally on the on the basis of the primacy of national interest. Even within the most evolved form of international cooperation ever known, namely the European Union, national interest can still be a major driving force for its members. International Conventions are ratified by States. They relinquish voluntarily their own sovereignty – but in most cases not definitively and more and more often States are prepared to ignore obligations assumed or defy internationally recognised norms.
Global realities and interests exist today more than ever. But we do not have adequate governance structures, to cope with the political and economic interests involved. International norms, like any other system of norms and laws, are there primarily to protect the weak and to curb the arrogance of the powerful.
There has been progress towards the elaboration of certain norms which constitute international law, but there are few sanctions available to apply to those who do not respect that law, especially if the non-respect if by a powerful nations (and, let me be clear, I am not speaking of the United States alone). In this context, the World Trade Organization- despite all its imperfections – is perhaps one of the most advanced Organizations in this area in that it has shown that it can tackle large as well as small offenders.
How can the Church renew today the process which Gaudium et Spes set in action, a renewal in the application of gospel principles to a reading of the signs of the times?
One way is that of renewing the social teaching of the Church and the recent publication of a Compendium of the Doctrine of The Church is an important sign. But it is important to remember that the social teaching of the Church is not a catalogue of readymade answers to the problems of our times. Paradoxically, the concept of the social teaching in the Church seemed to enter into crisis in the years immediately after Vatican II. Many were unhappy with the term doctrine, preferring social teaching or social reflection or social thought. There were clashes with different visions of social teaching. The cold war inevitably led to a polarization of ideologies in social and economic reflection of all types. Certain trends of Liberation theology had assumed a methodology which was flawed by elements of Marxist analysis. In other cases there was confusion between social teaching and outright political manifestoes.
The Compendium sets out to offer a theological reading of the signs of the times. It examines the evolution of the revelation of God’s love in the history of salvation, especially the revelation of God’s Trinitarian love.
It presents a unified corpus of principles and criteria which draw their origin from the gospels and which are applied to the realities of the times in order to form Christians to make their own personal responsible judgments on the best manner to stimulate the ideals proposed by the Gospel in contemporary culture. It aims to foster a dialogue with the social sciences and to bring the social thought of the scriptures into conversation with the dynamics of contemporary social life and culture.
At the same time the term “doctrine” draws attention to the fact that the Christian cannot simply decide that “anything goes” in terms of social conscience. It serves to remind all of us that certain underlying principles of the social doctrine, especially those closest to the kernel of the Church’s teaching, have binding character in their own right. This principle should influence Christian legislators in the way they make laws. It should influence Christian citizens in the way they vote.
The Social Doctrine of the Church is above all an instrument to guide the formation of the consciences of Christian especially Christian lay persons. Even though the Compendium is addressed first of all to Bishops, I would venture to say that the success of the renewal of the social teaching of the Church in the years to come is not to be measured in the number of Episcopal statements on social issues – many of which of course may indeed be opportune – but in the maturity of the commitment and responsibility by which lay Christians involve themselves in the realization of a more just and loving society, coherent with Gospel principles.
For me, perhaps the principal challenge we have to face if we want to renew the spirit of Gaudium et Spes in the Church of tomorrow is that of fostering the specific vocation of lay Christians in the secular sphere, of people who enter public life and service out of a spirit of dedication to the community and the common good. We need a new generation of articulate lay Christians, who are prepared to take the dialogue initiated at Vatican II into a new and changing world, and to engage every aspect of the culture of that world, economic, political and social. Mater Dei, I believe, is an institution which can play an important role in that process of formation.