VATICAN CITY — For many Catholics, Gaudium et Spes, Latin for Joy and Hope, epitomized the Second Vatican Council.
Completed in 1965 and otherwise known as the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the document launched the faithful into a new, confident and expansive dialogue with the contemporary world at a time of great optimism and change.
Pope John Paul II made an important contribution to the document during its creation, and has throughout his pontificate been profoundly influenced by its pastoral purpose. In particular, John Paul has often referred to Gaudium et Spes Nos. 22 and 24, which stress the anthropocentric nature of the Gospel and the meaning of redemption.
Now, 40 years later, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (set up on account of the Pastoral Constitution) hosted a large Vatican seminar from March 16-18, entitled “The Call to Justice: The Legacy of Gaudium et Spes 40 Years Later.”
In his address to conference participants, the Holy Father noted that the issue of justice is often overlooked in the contemporary world. “The huge advances in science and technology can result in the fundamental questions of justice being forgotten, despite a shared aspiration for greater solidarity between peoples and for a more human structuring of social relationships,” he wrote in a message delivered by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s Secretary of State.
The Pope drew attention to armed conflicts and violence in the world which, he wrote, are proof of the inseparability of justice and peace, as underlined in Gaudium et Spes. “Peace is the work of justice,” John Paul explained. “True peace on earth means the firm determination to respect others in their dignity, both individuals and peoples, and the constant will to increase fraternity among the members of the human family.”
He concluded by calling on Catholics never to forget the “virtue of love,” which animates Christian commitment in favor of justice.
A keynote speaker at the conference was Cardinal Claudio Hummes, Archbishop of Sao Paulo, Brazil. The cardinal, who addressed the theological and ecclesial foundations of Gaudium et Spes, called on the Church to constantly and courageously exercise “open, frank, sensible and humble” dialogue with the “the whole of society and its segments.” Gaudium et Spes, he added, emphasizes that the Church be “at the service of the human person and all human beings.”
Noting that the Church “does not seek to dominate humanity,” he pointed out that a “serving Church must have solidarity with the poor as her priority.” Furthermore, Gaudium et Spes foresaw globalization, he said, recognizing the Church’s duty to be “at the service of this unity.”
Quoting extensively from the Vatican II document, Cardinal Hummes, a Franciscan, noted that it expressed an optimistic reading of the world that affirmed “the autonomy of earthly affairs.” He called that recognition “a great step of the council, and one that synthesized it with modernity.”
Another speaker, Helen Alvare of The Catholic University of America, praised Gaudium et Spes for its continuing relevance to families and especially its prophetic nature concerning the attacks upon the family which are now taking place.
However, some scholars regard Gaudium et Spes as a child of its times, born during the “Swinging Sixties” when society was looking upon the world with determined hope after two world wars and difficult post-war years. They say it was overly optimistic in its anthropological view as a result. One prominent Catholic professor has said that it foolishly assumed modern errors to be mostly the “result of misplaced goodwill,” overcome by patient effort.
“You can say that it was of its time, but I don’t think it let itself down,” said Father Terence Kennedy, a moral theologian at Rome’s Alphonsian Academy. “You don’t expect a formal document of the Church to go wrong on formal principles — it just doesn’t happen.”
Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, also denied Gaudium et Spes was overly optimistic, but emphasized that it was rightly idealistic. “Of course, we have to act on the ideals,” he said. “We have to require the best in order to produce the good.”
Yet some conference participants remained dissatisfied with the document’s seeming lack of emphasis on hard realities that, they say, has meant the Church is out of step with certain social realities. Does the Church, for example, idealize family life while ignoring its challenges? Most believed the answer was No, but admitted that there is still plenty of work to be done.
“There’s always this tension of having an ideal, having something that people hope for and at the same time being realistic and getting the balance right,” said Sister Helen Alford, professor of social science at the Pontifical Angelicum University in Rome. “Sometimes we go a little too far one way or the other, and maybe in Gaudium et Spes there was a little too much on the idealistic side so, rightly, people are trying to add a bit more realism.”
But Sister Alford and other participants see Gaudium et Spes’ most beneficial role as laying the groundwork for greater engagement of the Church in society, leading to increased openness in both the ecclesial and secular realm. And it provides guidance at a time, they say, in which a growing number of people are searching for meaning in their lives.
Participants hoped that the March 16-18 conference would end up encouraging that search. “I’m sure this meeting won’t start a new era,” said Cardinal Martino. “But by having intellectuals, university professors and others here, it will have a multiplying effect.”
Edward Pentin writes