'Tis the Season for Wishful Thinking?

This Christmas marks the 39th anniversary of one of the most controversial documents decreed by the Second Vatican Council: Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope).

It dealt with the Church's role in the modern world. At first glance, many admire its positive tone toward secular culture. It recognizes modern man's search for truth and wisdom and his need for the Gospel. It shows the Church's desire to engage secular culture in seeking true and just solutions to the world's problems.

Gaudium et Spes possesses an optimistic message of hope for the modern world. Good will overcome evil. The Church's mission involves guiding secular culture toward renewal in Christ. Sounds good.

So where's the controversy?

Some Catholic thinkers believe Gaudium et Spes pushed the Church into a kind of dream-like optimism. They say it's an optimism that fosters complacency in the face of serious problems plaguing the Church and the world. Its message: “Be optimistic even if experience tells you otherwise, and hope in the Lord.” They say it encourages wishful thinking rather than reform.

Critics of Gaudium et Spes charge the document appears unrealistic because it doesn't emphasize enough the power of evil in the world. It pre-sumes too much good will on behalf of man and secular culture. Human experience proves hatred of truth and goodness does exist.

What is the most serious consequence charged against Gaudium et Spes' unrealistic optimism? Detractors would say it's the bishops' optimistic style of governance void of discipline. They note that Pope John Paul II, as a young bishop, was a key member of the commission that drafted Gaudium et Spes. When he become Pope, his first message to the world was, “Be not afraid.”

Yet many people are afraid that, given the current state of the Church, things are not rosy. When the Pope is questioned about the declining number of Christians worldwide in the book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, he makes the distinction between “qualitative” and “quantitative” reform. Many critics find this nuance disturbing since it downplays the reality of Christians falling away from the faith.

A problem cannot be solved without knowing its cause.

Some Catholic scholars argue the primary problem with the good will coming out of Gaudium et Spes stems from confusing hope with optimism. They hold that the theological virtue of hope refers to the final victory of good over evil. This will occur with God's final intervention in history. On the other hand, optimism refers to a positive vision of life based on empirical data. Optimism is not faith. Optimism comes from constructive tangible events.

A friend of mine who serves as a priest in Bridgeport, Conn., asked me what I thought of this critique of Gaudium et Spes. He seemed convinced by it.

I'm not.

The reason is simple. This critique employs a very narrow and misleading understanding of Christian hope and optimism to Gaudium et Spes.

On one level, Christian hope does look forward to the definitive victory of good over evil when Christ will come again at the end of time. On an another level, hope, as a theological virtue, not only refers to setting our desires on our reward in the next life. Christian hope deals with the here and now as well. Far from encouraging a mere passive waiting for Christ's definitive coming, authentic hope obliges Christians to make God's goodness a reality in the Church and the world.

Christian hope understood in this sense imbues a Christian with genuine optimism. Some might be tempted to dismiss this understanding of hope as sheer theological speculation.

However, sacred Scripture describes and supports the notion of Christian hope as an active expectation of future blessings based on faith and love. For instance, St. Paul exhorts the first Christians with these words to this type of hope: “Never give in then, my dear brothers, never admit defeat; keep on working at the Lord's work always, knowing that, in the Lord, you cannot be laboring in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Note that Paul tells them to keep working while remaining focused on the Lord's promises. The Old Testament bears witness to an active and optimistic hope in God's promises. A classic example is the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. God promised them a land flowing with milk and honey. Yet they had to wander and work in the desert 40 years before they got it.

Gaudium et Spes adopts this insightful biblical understanding of hope in its thinking. Here's just one text of many that demonstrates this point well: The Church “further teaches that hope in a life to come does not take away from the importance of the duties of this life on earth but rather adds to it by giving new motives for fulfilling those duties” (No. 21). In other words, Christian hope should move us to work to hasten God's goodness in the Church and the world. For this reason, I don't think it's fair to accuse Gaudium et Spes of naïve optimism.

It wouldn't be a bad idea for us to read Gaudium et Spes during the Christmas holidays. It would remind us that Christ is our joy and hope.

Legionary Father Andrew McNair teaches at Mater Ecclesiae International Center of Studies in Greenville, Rhode Island.