‘Gaudium et Spes’: A Challenge for Our Time

COMMENTARY: Second Vatican Council Symposium


Gaudium et Spes

Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World

Promulgated by Pope Paul VI on Dec. 7, 1965


Is the Second Vatican Council, and specifically its “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes) still relevant today, 50 years after the Council closed on Dec. 8, 1965?

After all, Church councils do address issues of a particular time, and it would seem that a document designated as “pastoral” and not “dogmatic” would be even more “time-bound.”

Our last two popes were convinced that Vatican II remains important and relevant to the present era. Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his 2001 apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte that the documents of Vatican II remain a “sure compass” to guide the Church as it sets out on the “vast ocean” of the third millennium. He himself was on the committee that produced Gaudium et Spes, and it was, along with Lumen Gentium, the Council document that he quoted most frequently in his pontificate. Specifically, his two favorite quotes were the first line of Gaudium et Spes, 22: “… it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear,” and the last line of GS, 24: “… man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself.”

These passages mark a key concept in his “theology of the body” and reveal the ultimate source of the dignity and inestimable value of the human person, which is a foundational principle of Gaudium et Spes and of St. John Paul’s moral and social teaching.

Pope Benedict XVI echoed his predecessor’s evaluation of the continuing importance of Vatican II when he said in his first papal homily (April 20, 2005): “With the passing of time, the conciliar [i.e., Vatican II] documents have lost nothing of their timeliness; their teachings have shown themselves to be especially pertinent to the new exigencies of the Church and the present globalized society.”

Indeed, it is rightly said that with Vatican II the Catholic Church showed herself truly to be a “world church,” not just in membership or geographic extent, but in outlook. And no document of Vatican II engaged the issues of the modern world as directly as Gaudium et Spes.

Some have accused Vatican II, and Gaudium et Spes in particular, of being somewhat naïve about the dangers and evils still present in the world, or overly optimistic about the prospect of Christians “building a better world” through dialogue and cooperation with our contemporaries. A close and objective reading of the introduction of Gaudium et Spes should dispel this notion. It indicates that the direction of the world, either for good or evil, is in our hands; that humankind has the potential, especially by virtue of our technological advances, for producing great good or great evil. It also states that the root of this struggle is to be found within man, in the human heart. The deepest and ultimate answer to this struggle and the challenges of our time is Jesus Christ. He is the source, not of a naïve optimism, but of true and real hope. His teaching and example, adapted to our time and circumstances, are the source and foundation of what the Church has to contribute to the modern world and its challenges.

A practical key to how Catholics are to view the world is summarized in Gaudium et Spes, 4: “… reading the signs of the times and interpreting them in light of the Gospel.” The world is different in 2015 than it was in 1965, but Gaudium et Spes provides a timeless principle by which we can address new situations. Pope Francis has done this recently in his encyclical letter on the environment, Laudato Si. He also, in convening two synods on the family, is addressing issues that are found in the first chapter of Part II of Gaudium et Spes that prophetically addresses marriage and the family as the first topic of “more urgent problems deeply affecting the human race at the present day” (46). This short chapter is a must-read for intelligent engagement in current discussions on marriage and family life. (Other topics in Part II are culture, economics, the political order and the challenge of peace.) This practical key is not just for popes and Church documents: Each Catholic should seek to understand what is going on in the world and our appropriate response and action, in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Gaudium et Spes proposes two principles that are central for the world of our time. The first is the dignity of the human person and, hence, the responsibility of each Catholic (and of civil society) for protecting and promoting the dignity and inviolable rights of each human person. The document vigorously condemns specific violations of human rights and dignity and calls for action on the part of Christians and all people of goodwill to oppose them. (See GS, 27 and 51.)

Secondly, Gaudium et Spes stresses a greater awareness of the social responsibilities of Catholics, from obeying just laws to engaging in political and social action and/or charitable works. There is no opposition or division between one’s “religious life” and life in the world. The document even states, “The Christian who shirks his temporal duties … endangers his eternal salvation” (43) because he neglects his duty both to God and neighbor. Pope Francis has affirmed this in calling all people to seek out and aid those on the margins of society, especially the poor.

Finally, it should be noted that another Vatican II document, the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem), is an important “companion document” to Gaudium et Spes. Why? Because it is particularly the laity’s responsibility to carry out this constitution’s teaching, since the “field” of their apostolic action is, precisely, the world.

Alan Schreck, Ph.D.,

is a professor of theology

at Franciscan University

of Steubenville.