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Gaudium et Spes 40 years on – as relevant today as ever

Msgr John Broadbent

Of the 16 major documents of Vatican II Gaudium et Spes was the only one that arose from the floor of the council. The others had been drafted before the council or in its early stages. It was unique in that unlike all the documents, certainly in the last few centuries of church history, it praised many of the good things in the world outside and called them the ‘signs of the times’.

Even though Vatican II’s contemporary documents on ecumenism and non-Christian religions praise good things in religion, Gaudium et Spes praises good things in contemporary society that do not have a religious tag.

While it did not endorse bad things going on outside the Church, it praised good things occurring such as the fight against discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, colour, social condition, language or religion, as well as those who fostered married love and parenthood.

It noted that throughout the world there was a mounting increase in the sense of autonomy as well as of responsibility. This was of paramount importance for the spiritual and moral maturity of the human race. The Church should link up with those good people and strive for justice and equity, avoidance of war, cooperating in establishing international order collaborating with all Christians for the service of all.

The document ends by stating: ‘Christians cannot yearn for anything more ardently than to serve the men (sic) of the modern world ever more generously and effectively.’

Curial papers rejected

Historians of the council note two major breakthroughs in the first session of Vatican II in 1962. The first was on 14 November when one after the other, many of the leading cardinals and bishops began rejecting the documents prepared by the curia and asserted their control over the general council which was their prerogative in communion with the Bishop of Rome.

The second breakthrough occurred when one of the leading cardinals, Suenens of Belgium [1904-1996], rose to address the council on 4 December on the church as the real light of the nations.

The Church must speak on social justice. The moralists have written volume after volume on the sixth commandment but they have been practically silent when it comes to determining the social responsibility of private ownership. What is the theological and practical duty of rich nations towards the Third World or the nations who suffer from hunger? The Church must speak about bringing the Gospel to the poor and about some of the conditions the Church must meet to make that Gospel relevant to them. The Church must speak about international peace and war in a way that can help enlighten the world.

(Kaiser: Inside the Council p218)

In other words the Church must connect with the good in the world outside it, not just gaze internally. His words stirred many.

Pope approves

In his private apartment, Bd (Blessed) John XXIII with only a few months to live, sat watching the council’s proceedings on closed-circuit television.

‘At last, the fathers are beginning to understand what this council is for,’ he said. A subsequent speaker to Cardinal Suenens, Cardinal Montini of Milan (later Pope Paul VI) confirmed Cardinal Suenens was echoing the mind of Bd John XXIII.

A commission was set up to draw up the document Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World. Gaudium is latin for joy and spes hope. They epitomise the meaning of the document: we greet the good in the modern world with joy and the collaboration we strive for will give hope for the future.

When I studied in Louvain, Belgium, some 10 years later, I had to hand in an assignment to Fr Louis Janssens, one of the great moral theologians of the 20th century. Over a cup of coffee he pointed to the corner of his sitting room: ‘Over there,’ he said ‘Fr Philips, the rector of the university, and I knelt on the floor and drafted on butcher’s paper Gaudium et Spes for Cardinal Suenens when he returned from Vatican II.’ I felt I was on the holy ground of history.

Heavily criticised

There was continuing criticism of the draft from the floor of the council – it was over-optimistic, it was playing into the hands of the ‘world’ and the devil, and so on. But it kept its poise as it neared the end and was debated, with the documents on ecumenism, non-Christian religions (and the Jews) and passed by a large majority, being promulgated by the pope (Paul VI) on 8 December 1965, the day the council ended.

Throughout its 40 years the document has had a mixed reception with some people still complaining it is over-optimistic, typical of the age of Aquarius, the world is a darker place now and it no longer applies. These enemies seem to forget it was one of the Second Vatican Council’s most powerful documents and promulgated by a general council.

In a recent tribute, an editorial in the London Tablet said:

…because [the genius of] Gaudium et Spes was to describe a process, not a result. It set forth a method of searching, and only ‘through a glass darkly…this is a necessary corrective to the growing temptation even among the Catholic Church’s senior leadership, with important exceptions, to reduce Catholicism to a series of pat answers and correct rituals, conformity with which is demanded as the price of membership.’

These same voices describe it as

dated, impossibly optimistic, fashionably liberal, pelagian and nothing more than the council’s unthinking afterthought.

(London Tablet 9 July 2005 p2)

A serious study of this valuable document would give us an invaluable view of the Church’s mission to the world.