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The Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes moved Catholics to look at the world outside of the Church. This two-part document develops teachings about the vocation of human beings and focuses on questions and problems of special importance in today’s world.

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Our Church:
Called to be a Sign of Joy and Hope

by Father William H. Shannon

On December 7, 1965, the Second Vatican Council, in its final session, adopted the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Its tone and direction differed significantly from the other major documents of Vatican II. In them, the Church had turned inward to shed the light of the gospel on itself to see what God willed it to be. In this new document, the Church looked outward to discover its role in today’s world: a world of which it is, after all, a part, but a world that in many ways had ceased to take it seriously.

Partnering with the world

The Church not only looked outward; it did so in a way that no previous Church council had ever done. It looked at the world and smiled, just as God must have smiled when he gazed on the world he had created and saw that it was very good. By contrast, other Church councils had looked at the world and ignored it or deplored it, seeing it as a place of sin and corruption that they felt compelled to condemn.

Vatican II abandoned this negative mentality about the world outside of the Church: It took the world to its heart in a spirit of concern and compassion. It would partner with the world in discerning “the true signs of God’s presence and purpose in the events, needs and the desires which it shares with the rest of humanity today” (#11).

A persistently positive attitude toward that world and an earnest desire to enter into dialogue with it make this document unique in the history of council documents. Its title, “Joy and Hope” (in Latin, Gaudium et Spes), and its opening sentence give definite expression to the direction it took and the tone it adopted: “The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts” (#1).

Witnessing in the here and now

To identify what is “genuinely human” in today’s world and to discern the Church’s role in supporting it are tasks that are essentially incarnational. The Incarnation means that Christ did not redeem the world from afar, but by involving himself in the human situation and becoming one of us. This incarnational principle was embraced at the Council and gave birth to a new understanding of the Church’s mission.

Before the Council, its mission focused almost exclusively on the "other world" and on assisting individuals to attain eternal salvation. Gaudium et Spes moved Catholics toward a new way of thinking that saw the Church’s mission as witnessing also to the love and compassion of God in the here and now. Divine love and compassion call us to work for justice, peace and healing in our globalized world.

The Church has a message for the modern world, but also a listening ear and a cooperating heart. It seeks to keep abreast of the changes that are taking place so rapidly in today’s world as the human race moves from a more static view of reality to a more dynamic and evolutionary one (#5).


Embracing our dignity

Gaudium et Spes, the Council’s longest document, is in two parts. The first develops its teaching about the vocation of human beings, the world in which they carry it out and the Church’s role in helping people live it in today’s world. Its four chapters deal with our dignity as human persons, the human community, humanity’s activity in the universe and the role of the Church in the modern world.

The second part focuses on questions and problems of special importance in today’s world. Its five chapters deal with the dignity of marriage and the family; the development of culture; economic and social life; the political community; and fostering peace and establishing a community of nations.

Our dignity as humans flows from our creation in the image of God and our call to nothing less than communion with God. The human response to God’s call, though personal, is not solitary. Never before in history has it been more urgent to recognize the interdependence of the peoples of the world. Astounding advances in the empirical sciences, in technology and in the liberal arts have accumulated a vast fund of knowledge.

Seeking wisdom

The Council reminds us that the present age, more than any other, requires wisdom that can process knowledge and enable us to see that there are radical realities and deep human values that go beyond the immediate, the passing, the superficial. Wisdom helps us to grasp God’s providence at work in human history, guiding that history to a fulfillment beyond mere human efforts.

The world’s future depends on people endowed with such wisdom. In a significant contrast between the nations of wealth and power and the developing nations, the document states: “It should be pointed out that many nations which are poorer as far as material goods are concerned, yet richer in wisdom, can be of the greatest advantage to others” (#15).

At the same time, the Council makes clear its belief in the goodness of human activity in the world. “Far from thinking that what human enterprise and ability have achieved is opposed to God’s power as if the rational creature is a rival of the creator, Christians are convinced that the achievements of the human race are a sign of God’s greatness and the fulfillment of his mysterious design” (#34).

Great progress requires great vigilance. As our power increases, so does our responsibility as individuals and as members of the human community. It should be clear, therefore, that the gospel does not inhibit us from doing all we can for the genuine progress of the human race. On the contrary, it obliges us more strictly to work for everything that contributes in an authentic way to the greater good of humanity.

Responding to freedom

Human freedom is a wonderful manifestation of the divine image. Gaudium et Spes, in its remarkable tribute to human freedom (#17), offers a vision unmatched by any previous council. Yet it does not ignore the fact that humans are wounded by sin and need God’s grace to orient their freedom toward God.

One of the graces God gives us to guide our freedom is conscience. Conscience, we are told, is “the most secret core and sanctuary of the human person. There they are alone with God whose voice echoes in their depths. By conscience, in a wonderful way, that law is made known which is fulfilled in the love of God and of one’s neighbor” (#16). Our responsibility to form a correct conscience is something we can hardly achieve without the help of God’s grace.

In discussing the existence of atheism in today’s world, Gaudium et Spes shows a sympathetic understanding of people who espouse it, even suggesting that religious people bear some responsibility for its existence. Poorly instructed Christians may give false impressions of what Christian faith actually teaches about God. The god atheists reject may well be a god that a properly educated Christian would also reject. Likewise, the failure of Christians to live what they say they believe can quickly dry up any interest an atheist might have in learning about the God whom Christians say they worship, but whom they belie by their actions (#19).

Sharing gifts

The laity, as citizens of the world, are especially empowered to bring the Christian message into the marketplace. As an earlier document, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, said, the laity have the right—even at times the duty—to make known, in areas of their own competence, their opinions on matters which concern the good of the Church.

Part two of Gaudium et Spes begins with a section on marriage and the family. Avoiding older terminology that spoke of the primary and secondary purposes of marriage, it insists on the importance of conjugal love. "By its very nature the institution of marriage and married love are ordered to the procreation and education of the offspring and it is in them that it finds its crowning glory" (#48). While avoiding the issue of contraception (reserved by Pope Paul VI to a special commission outside the Council), the Council spoke of the importance of responsible parenthood as a decision that married couples—with a properly formed conscience and with due attention to the teaching of the Church—must make in terms of their own good and that of their children (#50).

The articles on socioeconomic life echo and develop many of the themes contained in the social encyclicals of the popes from Leo XIII to Paul VI. While space prohibits detailed discussion, one overarching theme is clear: the growing concern about the inequalities between the advanced nations and the developing ones (#63).

Several articles are devoted to the promotion of peace and the elimination, or at least the controlling, of the ravages of war. Peace is not just the absence of war: It is the work of justice. The proliferation of terribly destructive weaponry forces us “to undertake a completely fresh appraisal of war” (#80).

The Council adopted the teaching of recent popes in condemning total war and the arms race, though allowing for limited wars of defense, as long as there is no competent international authority with appropriate powers to safeguard peace. It defends the right of conscientious objection to war and praises those who commit themselves to nonviolence. It calls us to join with all peace-loving people in pleading for peace and trying to achieve it (#78).

Standing as a beacon of light

Gaudium et Spes concludes with a stirring call to all people who love the truth, whatever their culture, race or religion, to join together “to fashion a world better suited to the surpassing dignity of humanity, to strive for a more deeply rooted sense of universal sisterhood and brotherhood, and to meet the pressing appeals of our times with a generous and common effort of love” (#91).

Gaudium et Spes was written at the time when the world’s peace and security were threatened by the Cold War. Our world today must deal with a deadly terrorism that is often faceless and that may strike anywhere at any time. In such a situation, the gospel message impels us to put forth every effort to work with people of good will to eliminate conditions that make for terrorism and to work for peace based on justice and freedom.

The Church—confident in the assurance of the Lord Jesus to be with us at all times, even the darkest and seemingly hopeless times—stands as a beacon of light and hope in an otherwise darkening world. Gaudium et Spes supports that beacon of light. Its hopes are rooted in the goodness of God, surely, but also in the radical goodness of humanity.

Question Box:

• In what practical ways is the Catholic Church a sign of joy and hope in the world today?

• Is your parish living out its mission to be a beacon of light and hope for its members? for citizens of the larger community? What more can be done?

• How well does the positive attitude toward the world so prevalent in Gaudium et Spes match your own? What fears or prejudices do you still need to dispel?


NEXT: Sharing Our Legacy of Faith by John Roberto


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