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Gaudium et Spes 40 years old and more relevant than ever for marriage and family

Gaudium et Spes – Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World – was the final document of The Second Vatican Council and was produced on 7 December 1965, the last day of the assembly.

It is one of the longest and most complex documents of the council and is different from other documents in that it was produced from among the council members themselves rather than being produced and introduced to the council by the Roman Curia. This is in itself I think an interesting fact and could have indicated that the theme of this document – the church in the world – found a place in the hearts and minds of the council members who wanted to discuss, debate and produce it themselves. The document’s contents and focus were hotly debated through its various drafts until this final draft which we have today 40 years later.

The opening words of this document set the tone:

‘The joy and the hope, the grief and anguish of the people of our times, especially those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and the hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well.’ (P 1) It was addressed to all people and placed the church and its people within the context of the world – the human family.

On reading this document again I am struck by its challenge to ‘read the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the gospel’. (c4)

As People of God we are today still being challenged to face our deepest life questions about the meaning of life and about perennial issues such as human relationships, war, peace, poverty, justice and human rights and to do so within a gospel values framework.

One of the chapters (Part II C.I) of the document that caused prolonged and intensive discussion was the chapter on marriage – what would be included and how was marriage to be written about and understood. What was being debated was the meaning and purpose of marriage.

A dual purpose for marriage

What was being proposed was that marriage has two purposes that each have equal validity and importance and that come from the essential nature of the marriage relationship itself: the mutual love of the couple themselves – conjugal love; and the upbringing of children. This radical step was a departure from earlier church teaching about ‘primary’ and ‘secondary ends’ of marriage namely the raising of children (primary) and conjugal love (secondary).

The document talks about these two purposes of marriage with no mention of primary or secondary ends. Perhaps the council members did not want to continue with what could be seen to be misleading for married people, for those considering marriage and for those engaged in educating people about marriage.

The document states: ‘Marriage is intended for the procreation and bringing up of children.’ and adds: ‘Procreation, however, is by no means the only purpose of marriage.’ (a50) Many married people do not have children. Their ongoing and committed relationship with each other is at the heart of marriage and gives it meaning and purpose. ‘And so – even when there are no children – who are often greatly desired – marriage endures as a lifelong companionship and keeps its value’. (a 50) A childless marriage and a marriage with children are both worthy and valid marriages.

This document is seminal because in proposing two equally valid purposes of marriage: conjugal love – the couple’s relationship, and the having and bringing up of children – it suggests there is a more dynamic relationship between the purposes of marriage than it was possible to conceive of with the concept of primary and secondary ends. This complimentary relationship of the purposes of marriage could still today be the basis of worthwhile and ongoing discussion, especially so when we are faced with relationship situations and childbearing and rearing issues that challenge our understanding of what it means to be married. Not to ask questions that arise out of the context of our lives and to seek answers through reflecting on our lived experience in the light of the gospel could mean we are missing the opportunity to understand more fully what it means to be married.

What is also significant in this document is its focus on the importance of married love.

‘The love of husband and wife … is eminently human since it is personal and willed. It involves the good of the whole person.’ (c49)

This is a refreshing change from the centuries held dualism of the body and the soul where the body is seen as lesser than the soul and sinful. It suggests that the body is holy; that body and soul are an integral part of being human; and that married life and love including sexual love is the way of holiness for millions of people all over the world.

It speaks of the reality of and invites further reflection on married sexuality and spirituality. The love made visible through the love of husband and wife is a symbol of the love of God who is love. ‘Christ blesses this love (and) filled with the Spirit of Christ they (husband and wife) grow in holiness’. (c48)

It is interesting to read that initially the council was asked to leave the question of birth control out of the document because of the intention to have a papal commission which would address the matter more fully at a later date.

However, when asked later to include the topic the document writers proposed that couples plan their family in relation to their lives and their circumstances – responsible family planning. This was a change from the previous idea that seemed prevalent that the larger the family the more pleasing to God!

Perhaps this change reflects the document’s corresponding proposal about seeing the two purposes of marriage as equally valid.

Accordingly the wellbeing of the couple as well as consideration of their ability to provide for their children are to be taken into account when the couple is considering having a (another) child. ‘They should carefully consider their situation. Ultimately parents must make this judgment for themselves in the sight of God (and) always be(ing) guided by their conscience.’ (c50)

Birth control

The document also speaks about methods of birth control that are acceptable according to church teaching and those that are not. (c51) This seems to foreshadow the approach of the later document on the regulation of birth, Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968) in which the pope rejected the findings of the papal commission and seemed to go against the opinion of many people in condemning the use of artificial contraceptives.

Even today this matter is one that has a difference of viewpoints among people. Ongoing discussion and dialogue among people about this marital matter can, I think, only lead to greater understanding and consequent development.

Gaudium et Spes has opened the way for a fuller understanding of the totality of marriage both as a covenant relationship of love between a man and woman and also as a family unit of parents and children. The document sees marriage and family as a unit; the good of marriage and family is tied up with the good of society. ‘The family is the basis of society. The civil power and all who influence society and social groups, should further the welfare of the family.’ (c52)

Another point that the document makes is about the freedom that marriage requires. ‘Parents should give advice to their young people on this matter but they should put no pressure on them either to marry or to choose a particular partner’ (c52) for conjugal love is not only personal; it is also ‘willed’ (c49) by the two people who are choosing to enter into this covenant relationship of love.

Looking back from a vantage point of 40 years, this document has proved to be critical in the development of a fuller understanding of marriage and family life.

It has shown some new ways of understanding marriage. It can be seen as a precursor to John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation – Familiaris Consortio: The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World (1982) and also to his development of the Theology of the Body.

Gaudium et Spes with its chapter on marriage is a springboard for ongoing discussion among those who are interested in further developing their understanding of marriage and family life. It’s up to us to take this opportunity.