Vatican II: Gaudium et Spes

Critical Comments Selected by Gerald Darring

Charles Davis. Tablet (8 January 1966) 34. "When one considers the difficulties of the enterprise, the constitution must be judged a remarkable achievement. It has a warmth unusual in such a document and conveys well the sincere and humble desire of the Church to help men. Its length may hamper its effectiveness, and an impression of wordiness is not entirely avoided. This is not just a fault of style. There is a tendency to escape into generalizations and abstractions. But the task of getting to grip with the complexities of the concrete belongs primarily to Catholics, particularly lay people working in their individual situations. The Council has provided a text, full of good things, to help them. And--more important in the long run--it has established a new attitude to the modern world. The Council has initiated that dialogue with all men which the conclusion of the constitution envisages."

Sign (February 1966) 33. "In the past, when the church spoke to the world, it was often in tones of warning and even condemnation. Some previous papal documents were so negative in approach that the Catholic Christian was often afraid to mingle too deeply in movements of social and political reform. There were Council members who asked for condemnations.... These were minority voices, and they did not prevail. Instead, we have a warm, friendly, outgoing document, breathing the anxious concern of the church for suffering mankind. The church seeks to help, not condemn, the poor, the alienated, the forgotten ones of many nations and continents. It is a servant church at the disposal of all men."

William Purdy. Dublin Review (Spring 1966) 29-30. The Pastoral Constitution "might be thought of in one sense as the last will and testament of Vatican II. It set out in the first place to establish the basis of a dialog with the world of today. This was a very novel enterprise for a general Council.... If it raises as many questions as it settles this is the function of a program for dialog. Denisons of programs for councils have at other times in history set out with the illusion that they could settle everything."

Thomas M. Finn, C.S.P. Catholic World (August 1966) 270-71. "The Council was concerned first and foremost to present a pastoral theology of peace. The document is not intended to provide anyone with a moral theology of war. Some guidelines about war, yes, but not a theology. The publicity which these guidelines has received entirely missed this point--and much of the discussion at the Council missed this point. In any case, the Constitution is intended to help one form a peace-conscience, not a war-conscience."

Charles Moeller. Lumen Vitae (September 1966) 297. The Council outlines the activity of people in the world at large, working for what it calls "a new earth and a new heaven.' "It is the first time that an ecumenical council has been so explicit on this point. Never again will it be possible to say that in the twentieth century the church has preached, in the name of Christianity, any kind of 'philosophy of escape.'"

Albert C. Outler. Catholic World (September 1966) 358-59. "The greatest weaknesses of the document, I think, lie in the fact that on a great many questions, the solution of which depend so much upon experts of many different sorts, the chief reliance of the drafting commission was upon ecclesiastical scholars, clerical or lay. This document was written to a large extent by professional theologians. There are many places where experts in economics, sociology, politics and demography will probably be led to conclude that this constitution is more of a 'churchy' document about the Church in today's world than a document which is fully aware of the radical complexity of a great number of questions being confronted by modern science, modern technology and modern culture."

George G. Higgins. "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World" (1967) 268. "The tone of the entire Constitution derives from this purpose, namely, to enter into a dialogue with the modern world, which is quite a different thing from telling the modern world how to 'solve' all of the specific problems with which it is confronted. Faithful to the spirit of Pope John XXIII, the document refrains from sterile criticism of individuals and institutions and concentrates singlemindedly on its pastoral task of encouraging and motivating men of good will to move not from A to Z but from A to B to C."

John R. H. Moorman. Vatican Observed: An Anglican Impression of Vatican II (1967) 171-72. This "is a very long document of 35,000 words--i.e. half the length of this book. Some of it is, to the experienced reader, a bit pedestrian and banal.... The whole of the first part, which attempts to describe the conditions in which modern man lives, inevitably falls a bit flat. It has all been said so many times before. When I first read the Schema I expressed my feelings of disappointment to one of the periti. His reply was rather surprising: 'Of course it is disappointing to you,' he said, 'because Anglicans have been interested in Christian Sociology for years, at any rate since the days of Frederick Denison Maurice and the Christian Socialists; but you must remember that all this sort of thing is totally new to large numbers of Catholic bishops, especially from some of the more reactionary countries.' That is true; and it was, no doubt, necessary to teach them in fairly simple language what they were being asked to vote on."

Eduard Schillebeeckx. The Real Achievement of Vatican II (1967) 47-51. What is new in this document? --"Its spirit is new.... except in direct religious affirmations, the constitution no longer strikes a haughty and authoritative tone, as if everything patently derived directly from the natural law. The tone is less pretentious." --"New also is the fact that Christian anthropology is no longer built on abstract 'human nature' but rather considered vocationally; in the sense that man's existence is a vocation and a mission." --"For the first time the church declares that it not only has something to give the world but has herself much to receive from it." --"The idea of 'Christian secularism' was finally accepted; so, therefore, was the autonomy of secularism on its own ground; as well as the fact that on every Christian rests the duty as a Christian to exert himself for the regulation of secular life as part of his religious practice, so that there is no breach between his life and his religion."

John Joseph Murphy. The Church in the World (1967) 99. "An evaluation of the importance of the socioeconomic pronouncements of the Second Vatican Council produces something of a paradox. On the one hand, they are primarily reiterations of positions already put forth in the great social encyclicals, especially those of Pope John XXIII. On the other hand, inasmuch as no previous council saw fit to address itself to such 'mundane' issues, the Second Vatican Council, in just repeating the Church's socioeconomic positions, gives to these teachings a universal measure of importance that no one can now deny. Thus, while offering nothing truly new in doctrine, the socioeconomic pronouncements of Vatican II, especially those contained in the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, offer something truly new in emphasis."

J. Scarisbrick. Dublin Review (1968) 126. "The Church of the Renewal (comes to the world) as servant and yet as sign of contradiction; to build and to judge, and to bring it that unity, peace and justice which the world cannot give itself.... The clear understanding of that mission is something which has emerged since the Council. Interestingly enough, though it clearly owes much to the Council, it was apparently not at the center of most of the Fathers' minds at the time. After all, the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World had to struggle to achieve promulgation and was regarded by some as almost a peripheral document."

Thomas F. O'Dea. The Catholic Crisis (1968) 206. "The Constitution is admittedly a long and at times even wordy document, and much more of a beginning than a definitive document. It shows a new desire to learn from the world and takes a new positive attitude toward the world. It seeks to understand what man is doing in the world and starts the process of relating Catholic ideas and values to man's life on earth in a way that breaks with the semi-sectarian otherworldliness of the past. In what it said and what is left unsaid, it shows a new openness and a new wish to shed outmoded attitudes and positions, to evolve a new kind of presence in the world."

Oscar Cullmann. Vatican Council II: The New Direction. New York: Harper and Row, 1968, p. 94. "It must be said about the Constitution concerning the Church in the world that it is not sufficiently grounded in the specifically Christian revelation, in spite of all good intentions. In many cases that is due to the design which, according to the traditional Catholic schema of the scholastics, places the rational arguments before the foundation of revelation."

Oswald von Nell-Breuning. In Vorgrimler, ed. Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II (1969) 5:311-312. The agrarian feudalism of many Catholic countries is a great scandal. The Council's proposed solutions are neither new nor interesting. "The Council's merit does not consist in the wise balance of these proposals, but in the courage it shows in addressing these extremely urgent demands for social reform to those concerned, i.e. the powerful Catholic upper class on which the Church of these countries knows it is in many respects dependent, economically, socially, politically." Courageous reform-minded bishops now have the support of the bishops of the whole world. "Whether this will be sufficient or whether only the brutal violence of a revolutionary upheaval will succeed in bringing a change, will be of decisive importance" for both Church and world. "The Council has played its part."

Oswald von Nell-Breuning. In Vorgrimler, ed. Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II (1969) 5:327. The church must be free "to pass moral judgment on political affairs, at least when this seems necessary for the defense of human rights or the salvation of souls. Today the church knows what harm was done by its close links with the upper classes of society and particularly with the State (alliance of Throne and Altar) to its credibility in the eyes of the broad masses of the population, the less fortunate, the oppressed and the exploited. Much too late, only after the Church had long lost the greater part of the workers, has this realization prevailed; everything will depend now on translating it into practice. The Council has drawn a check; it must be honored."

Gustavo Gutierrez. A Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1973, 34. "Gaudium et Spes in general offers a rather irenic description of the human situation; it touches up the uneven spots, smoothes the rough edges, avoids the more conflictual aspects, and stays away from the sharper confrontations among social classes and countries."

Gary MacEoin. Cross Currents (1975) 190. "Vatican Council II, in Gaudium et Spes, abdicated the role previously exercised by the church of external and ahistorical judge of human events, opting instead for the more modest function of servant and supporter of man in his God-inspired drive to build a world worthy of the divine plan."

Jim Douglass. National Catholic Reporter (1982) 26. "Thanks to Vatican II, we would never have a 'theology of total war,' blessed by word or omission in Catholic teaching. In the days when Father John Courtney Murray's teaching of 'limited nuclear war' was already an unquestioned axiom among U.S. Catholic theologians, the church came very close to that next step into apocalypse. Vatican II's statement squelched a total war theology. But it was equivocal on nuclear deterrence and on the nonviolence of the cross."

Peter Hebblethwaite. Religion and America (1983) 271. "This was the deeper meaning--now largely forgotten--of the magnificent opening chord of Gaudium et Spes.... The Kingdom, or better, the Reign of God, that horizon toward which Christians consciously move, was to be discovered in solidarity with others, not in separation from them. Normally it would be unnecessary to congratulate a human grouping on discovering that it belonged to the human race; but in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, which, especially with its Catholic social doctrine, had talked at people rather than with them, it was an important shift of attitude."

Donal Dorr. Option for the Poor (1983) 120. "Gaudium et Spes represents a considerable advance on earlier Church documents--even those of John XXIII--in so far as it begins to recognize more clearly that Third World countries have their own history, traditions, and social structures, as well as their own problems; and that none of these are to be treated as though they were no more than adjuncts to those of the West."

Dean C. Curry. "The Origins and Relevance of the Bishops' Pastoral Letter" (1984) 6. "Vatican II stands as a watershed in the history of Catholic teaching on war and peace not because it rejected the morality of the just-war doctrine but because, like Pacem in Terris, it moved the Church further away from an unquestioning endorsement of warfare in a nuclear age. The Catholic Church was not transformed into a pacifist church by Vatican II. However, the door was opened so that those who were inclined to a traditional pacifism or a newer nuclear pacifism could enter and find support for their views as well as the necessary authority to move the Church in the direction in which they perceived it was inexorably moving."

Stephen Duffy. "Catholicism's Search for a New Self-Understanding" (1984). 10-11. The primary move in the Council was in ecclesiology, the theology of church. In the Constitution on the Church, the Decree on Ecumenism, and the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, "the ecclesiology of the Council engages in four basic shifts in focus that together constitute a program of decentralization or de-Romanization, and de-Westernization. These four shifts are from the papacy to the episcopal college, from the hierarchy to the laity, from Roman Catholic Christianity to the other christian churches, and from the christian church to the world."

Ron Darwen, S.J. Month (1985) 390-91. The Christian community must adopt a radical, prophetic stance: "rooted in a Gospel that is not free floating, but in a Gospel that is inculturated in the world, that looks to the world in order to read the signs of the times so that the Church can bring the redemptive light of Christ to shine on its difficulties and problems." The bishops of Vatican II "were not a bunch of naive optimists" and "they were aware of sin.... But there was little of the prophetic and radical stance; that at least, is the way it looks today, some 20 years on."

Charles E. Curran. Directions in Catholic Social Ethics (1985) 49. "Gaudium et Spes and the work of Vatican II have brought about a very important shift in methodology in social ethics. The separation between the natural and the supernatural, between daily life and the gospel, has been overcome in recent documents of Catholic social teaching. In many ways this change responds to the negative criticisms that had been raised especially in the Protestant tradition against the Catholic natural-law approach."

John T. Pawlikowski, O.S.M. "Modern Catholic Teaching on the Economy" (1986) 14. "The Council Fathers failed to reaffirm any direct link between private property and the natural law. This is significant, for it opened the door for Catholic participation in more socialistic models of government."

Gordon C. Zahn. "The Church's 'New Attitude toward War'" (1986) 213. "Gaudium et Spes took up the challenge presented by Pacem in Terris" of evaluating war with an entirely new attitude. "If it failed to meet the challenge completely, it is because its response was an attitude that was not entirely 'new.' Instead, by holding on to the 'just war' tradition ... the Council Fathers effectively blocked any serious consideration of what should have been seen as a possible alternative, the return to the absolute commitment to the pacifism and nonviolence that characterized the earliest Christian centuries."

Judith A. Dwyer, S.S.J. "Questions of Special Urgency" (1986) 221-24. Vatican II clarifies and advances church teaching on the morality of modern warfare in these ways: 1) it continues to recognize the legitimacy of certain types of warfare while cautiously distinguishing just defense from the desire to subjugate other nations and recognizing that not every military or political use of war potential is lawful; 2) the just war tradition permeates the document; 3) it refrains from an outright proscription against the use of nuclear weapons; 4) it at least attempts to address the problem of deterrence and does so by situating the debate; 5) it denounces the arms race; 6) it calls for the establishment of some "universal, public authority," acknowledged by all as such and endowed with effective power; 7) it calls for a program that would dismantle armaments bilaterally; 8) it recognizes the need to undertake an evaluation of war with "an entirely new attitude."

Ronald G. Musto. The Catholic Peace Tradition (1986) 193. "Vatican II and its Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes set off a revolution in the church that has not yet ended or even fully been felt in much of the world. By opening itself to all the peoples of the world, believers and nonbelievers, by addressing the problems of the entire world as the province of the church, it placed the church back into the history of the world, not outside or above it. At the same time it divorced itself from any one social, political, or economic system. Vatican II thus ended the church's alliance with European civilization, an alliance that had existed since the age of Constantine and that had produced a complete theory of Christendom. The council thus marked the end of the church's ambition to secular power and reaffirmed its biblical mission to the poor and the oppressed."

John Langan, S.J. "Political Tasks, Political Hopes" (1986) 99. "What is most remarkable about this document and its subsequent influence on Catholic social teaching and political action is the way it expresses a moment of hope and desire, a moment that nearly all those bishops, theologians, religious leaders, and activists who shaped the conciliar age in Roman Catholicism lived through a time of supreme fulfillment and aspiration. But it was equally a moment that spoke to millions of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world as they witnessed the extraordinary revitalization of an institution long perceived as obdurate in its rejection of the central features of modern culture and in its continuing embrace of antiquated notions in theology, in philosophy, in the social sciences, and in political action."

Manuel Velasquez. "'Gaudium et Spes' and the Development of Catholic Social-Economic Teaching" (1986) 187. "The most significant contribution of Gaudium et Spes was the impetus it gave to the liberationist themes that emerged in church documents during the late sixties and early seventies. Although Gaudium et Spes itself cannot be classified as liberationist, it nevertheless contained the foundations for the liberationist themes that emerged in the encyclicals of Pope Paul VI, in the so-called 'Medellin' documents of the Latin American bishops, and in the document Justice in the World, issued by the 1971 Synod of Bishops."

Joseph Gremillion. "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes (7 December 1965)" (1986). "Before the Council, to be a Catholic might have invoked a definition which had to do with one's place in the Church structure, the reception of the sacraments, adhering to a code of personal morality, participating in devotions, and earning one's salvation. To be a Catholic in the context of Vatican II and the Pastoral Constitution refocuses those demands. It calls for an acute awareness of married life, culture, socio-economic life, politics, peace and war. It calls for a struggle against social sins generated in these areas and hindering men and women from coming to God." There is also a "qualitative redefinition of what it is to be Church in the modern world. The question becomes not whether outside the Church there is salvation; rather it is whether outside of justice, evangelization, and spirituality there is Church or salvation."

Ernest Bartell, C.S.C. "Private Goods, Public Goods and the Common Good" (1987) 188. "For the first time in a major social document bearing a papal name, the right of public ownership is explicitly affirmed in the name of the common good along with the right of public authority to intervene against the use of private property that is detrimental to the common good."

Karl Rahner. Vatican II: The Unfinished Agenda--A Look at the Future (1987) 13. "In Gaudium et Spes, in an action of the entire Church as such, the Church as a totality becomes conscious of its responsibility for the dawning history of humanity. Much of the Constitution may be conceived in a European way, as far as details go, but the Third World is truly present as part of the Church and as object of its responsibility. The sensitization of the European Church to its world responsibility may move ahead only with painstaking slowness. But this responsibility, our political theology, can no longer be excluded from the consciousness of a world Church."

George Weigel. Tranquillitas Ordinis (1987) 103. "Gaudium et Spes was, in many ways, a remarkable and wonderful document. Its opening sentences are as fine a statement of Christian humanism as can be found in the modern history of the Church. But the ambiguities and weaknesses of 'The Church in the Modern World' are also apparent. The document's welcome evocation of the evangelical call to peacemaking was issued at the expense of a failure to develop and extend the Catholic tradition of moderate realism, of peace as tranquillitas ordinis. The bishops' admirable intention to read the signs of the times was not combined with reflection on an adequate moral and political hermeneutic for that necessary process. Other spirits, less intelligent, less measured, less noble than those of the fathers of Vatican II would, with both good and ill will, turn these weaknesses to ends that it is difficult to imagine the Council would have endorsed. Gaudium et Spes stands, then, as both a high moment in Catholic internationalism according to the moderate-realist tradition, and as the key transitional document in what would be, over the next generation, a process of abandoning that heritage."

Dennis P. McCann. Oliver F. Williams, Frank K. Reilly and John W. Houck, eds., Ethics and the Investment Industry, Savage, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1989, p. 133. "Ever faithful to the traditional pattern of Catholic social teaching, Gaudium et Spes addresses the investment industry out of a sense of solidarity with the apparent victims of modern capitalist development. Neither here, nor anywhere else in the tradition, is there an attempt to understand money, banking and financial markets on a systematic basis."

Kenneth R. Himes, O.F.M. New Theological Review (1990) 10. "In 1965 the church was aware that traditional ways of relating to the world were not working. Older approaches no longer were adequate.... It was the aim of the council to develop a realistic alternative to the outmoded models of church-world engagement. The Pastoral Constitution presents a different style of the church's relating to the world. That new style can be summed up in two words--service and dialogue.... The twin elements of service and dialogue disavow any attempts to re-establish a triumphalistic institution exercising hegemony over an entire culture. Instead, the image put forth of the church is one of an institution which respects the independence of other social actors and pledges cooperation and honest effort in addressing the problems of modern life. Christendom is dead and the bishops at Vatican II do not mourn its end."

Bruce F. Duncan. Lutheran Theological Journal (August 1991) 116-17. In Gaudium et Spes "much of what had been regarded as part of Catholic social teaching was abandoned: Leo's teaching on church and state, his preference for a quasi-medieval hierarchical social structure, and his suspicion of lay independence in the Christian Democratic movements; as well as Pius XI's puzzling rejection of all forms of moderate socialism, his leaning to authoritarian forms of government, and his proposals for a Catholic corporatism as an alternative to both socialism and capitalism."