Vatican II: Gaudium et Spes

A Summary Article by Gerald Darring

The Council expresses a desire to engage in conversation with the entire human family (a. 3) so that the Church can help shed light on the human mystery and cooperate in solving contemporary problems (a. 10). It addresses this Constitution to Catholics, to all Christians, and to the whole of humanity (a. 2).

The Church has the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel (a. 4), and in line with this the Council expresses its own view of contemporary society. It says that we are in a new age of human history, since the social and cultural circumstances of life have profoundly changed (a. 54). The human race has passed from a rather static concept of reality to a more dynamic, evolutionary one (a. 5). We are undergoing a cultural and social transformation (a. 4) resulting in rapid changes in industrialization, urbanization, communication, and socialization (a. 6) as well as changes in attitudes, values, and norms of behavior (a. 7). We are witnessing a healthy evolution toward unity and a process of wholesome socialization (a. 42). Increasing socialization can cause problems but it also offers opportunities for the positive development of the human person (a. 25). Modern technical advances are promoting a growing interdependence among people (a. 23), which tightens and spreads by degrees over the whole world (a. 26).

We are on the road to a more thorough development of human personality and to a growing discovery and vindication of our rights (a. 41). There is growing awareness of human dignity, of rights and duties that belong to everyone and cannot be taken away (a. 26). People are claiming the rights deprived them through injustice or unequal distribution (a. 9); they thirst for a full and free life worthy of humans (a. 9). A keener sense of human dignity is leading to a political environment more protective of human rights (a. 73).

There is a mounting increase in the sense of autonomy as well as of responsibility: we are witnessing the birth of a new humanism in which humanity is defined in terms of social and historical responsibility (a. 55). Under these circumstances it is now possible to free most of humanity from the misery of ignorance (a. 60).

These positive signs noted by the Council are countered by several negative signs. Splits have developed within individuals, families, races, and nations (a. 8). Many find it difficult to identify permanent values and apply them to changing circumstances (a. 4), and one of the more serious errors of our age is the split between people's faith and their daily lives (a. 43).

Social disturbances take place, resulting in part from natural economic, political and social tensions, but at a deeper level they result from pride and selfishness (a. 25). The magnified power of humanity threatens to destroy the race itself (a. 37). Wars continue their devastation, and the fierce character of warfare threatens to result in unsurpassed savagery (a. 79). Even when no war is being waged, the world is constantly beset by strife and violence (a. 83).

The Council concludes that the modern world shows itself at once powerful and weak, capable of the noblest deeds or the foulest; before it lies the path to freedom or to slavery, to progress or retreat, to community or hatred (a. 9).

The Council sets out to establish a working relationship with the world in which it finds itself, for the Church goes forward together with humanity and experiences the same earthly lot which the world does (a. 40). The followers of Christ share the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of today's people, especially those who are poor (a. 1), and Christians are joined with the rest of society in the search for truth (a. 16).

The People of God and the human race render service to each other (a. 11). The Church serves as a leaven and as a kind of soul for human society (a. 40). It can contribute to making people and history more human (a. 40), opening up to people the meaning of their own existence (a. 41). The Church can inject into modern society the force of its faith and love put into vital practice (a. 42). The universality of the Church enables it to serve as a bond between diverse human communities (a. 42). The Church respects all the true, good, and just elements found in human institutions (a. 42), and Christians living and working in the world are bound to penetrate the world with a Christian spirit (a. 43). The Church can and ought to be enriched by the development of human social life, and indeed the Church has profited richly by the history and development of humanity (a. 44). Whoever works to better the world contributes to the Church as well (a. 44).

While defining the Church's relationship to the world, the Council restates as well the mission of the church. The Church has a saving and an eschatological purpose which can be fully attained only in the future world (a. 40). The Church's mission is religious and not in the political, economic or social order, but this religious mission can help the human community structure itself properly (a. 42).

The mission of the Church includes these religious and less specifically religious goals: to reveal the mystery of God (a. 41); to make God present and in a sense visible (a. 21); to communicate God's life to people and cast the reflected light of that life over the entire earth (a. 40); to carry forward the work of Christ under the lead of the Spirit (a. 3); to preach the Gospel to everyone and dispense the treasures of grace (a. 89); to guard the heritage of God's Word and draw from it moral and religious principles (a. 33); to work that God's Kingdom may come, and that the salvation of the whole human race may come to pass (a. 45); to scrutinize the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the Gospel (a. 4); to hear, distinguish and interpret the many voices of our age, and judge them in the light of God's Word (a. 44); to promote unity (a. 42); to stimulate and advance human and civic culture (a. 58); to foster and elevate all that is found to be true, good and beautiful in the human community (a. 76); to shed on the whole world the radiance of the Gospel message, and to unify under one Spirit all people of whatever nation, race or culture (a. 92).

Asserting that the Church can open up to people the meaning of their own existence (a. 41), the Council addresses the human person and human activity and experience. It says that people are more precious for what they are than for what they have (a. 35). The dignity of the human person applies to the human body, good and honorable, which God created and will raise up on the last day (a. 14); the human intellect, which shares in the light of the divine mind (a. 15); and the human conscience, the most secret core and sanctuary of a person where one is alone with God (a. 16). Human dignity demands the freedom to direct oneself toward goodness (a. 17).

Human work constitutes an unfolding of God's creation, and human accomplishments are a sign of God's grace (a. 34). Human progress is good, but it tempts us to seek our own interests and not those of others (a. 37). We find ourselves fully only in giving ourselves sincerely to others (a. 24)

Human experience includes both the call to grandeur and the depths of misery (a. 13). All human activity is threatened by pride and must be purified by the power of Christ's cross and resurrection (a. 37). The human mystery takes on light only in the mystery of the Word made flesh, whose Spirit offers to every person the possibility of being associated with the saving events of Jesus (a. 22). The riddle of human existence grows most acute in the face of death, yet revelation tells us that God created us for life beyond death and Christ has freed us from death (a. 18).

The Council acknowledges that people want to know the meaning of life and death, and they can never be altogether indifferent to the problems of religion (a. 41). The recognition of God is not hostile to human dignity (a. 21), and indeed the basic source of human dignity lies in our call to communion with God (a. 19). There is not a mutual opposition between faith and science (a. 36), nor is there an opposition between professional and social activities on the one hand, and religious life on the other (a. 43). Religion is being purified of superstition at the same time that growing numbers of people are abandoning religion in practice (a. 7).

The Council argues against a concept of religion which includes only worship and moral living: it asserts that religion also includes involvement in earthly affairs (a. 43). It also argues against discriminatory attitudes involving religion. All discrimination based on religion is contrary to God's intent and must be overcome and eradicated (a. 29), and we ought to respect and love those who think or act differently from us in religious matters (a. 28).

Noting with approval that there is a steadily growing respect for people of other religions (a. 73), the Council attempts to conduct a respectful dialogue with atheists. Atheism is one of the most serious problems of our age (a. 19). The word atheism is used to cover a number of different attitudes and approaches (a. 19). Atheism arises from different causes, and believers themselves frequently bear some responsibility for the atheism of others, concealing rather than revealing the authentic face of God (a. 19). Atheism often reflects a desire to be totally independent of God, so that humans can be an end unto themselves (a. 20). Atheism can also result from the anticipation of human liberation solely through economic and social efforts, while viewing religion as an obstacle because it arouses hope for a deceptive future life (a. 20). Atheism raises weighty questions, which should be examined seriously (a. 21). The remedy to atheism is a proper presentation and living out of our faith (a. 21). There must be dialogue so that believers and unbelievers can work together for a better world (a. 21).

In line with the mission of the Church to guard the heritage of God's Word and draw from it moral and religious principles (a. 33), the Constitution includes some general moral statements which the Council wants us to reflect on before proceeding on to the concrete problems of today's world: --All human activity must harmonize with the genuine good of the human race (a. 35); --We cannot, through laziness or lack of concern, be satisfied with a merely individualistic morality (a. 30), for God created us not for life in isolation but for the formation of social unity (a. 32); --Serving and living and working with others strengthens our freedom (a. 31); --Only in freedom can we direct ourselves toward goodness (a. 17); --One must obey one's conscience, for according to it one will be judged (a. 16); --An improper hierarchy of values results in self-centeredness (a. 37); --The acknowledgment of personal rights does not imply exemption from every requirement of divine law (a. 41); --What divine revelation makes known to us conforms with experience (a. 13); --We often experience an imbalance between a concern for practicality and efficiency, and the demands of moral conscience (a. 8); --We can love and respect others who think or act differently from us without becoming indifferent to truth or goodness (a. 28); --We must distinguish between error and the person in error: the error must always be rejected while the person never loses the dignity of being a human person (a. 28).

In addition to these general moral statements, the Council also offers a number of guidelines for social justice intended to help humanity establish a political, social and economic order which will serve people and affirm and develop their dignity (a. 9).

The Council promotes respect for both individuals and the community. It asserts that the beginning, the subject and the goal of all social institutions is and must be the human person (a. 25). Respect for human dignity means that everyone must have what they need to lead a truly human life: food, clothing, shelter, the freedom to choose a state of life and found a family, the right to education, employment, a good reputation, respect, appropriate information, action in good conscience, protection of privacy, and religious freedom (a. 26). God made us into one family, and we should treat one another in a spirit of community (a. 24). Every social group must respect the needs and aspirations of other groups as well as the general welfare of the entire human family (a. 26). We must make ourselves the neighbor of every person without exception, and each of us must consider every neighbor without exception as another self (a. 27).

The dignity of the individual and the community demands respect for life: whatever is opposed to life poisons human society, harms its practitioner, and dishonors the Creator (a. 27). It also demands respect and love for those who think or act differently from us in social, political, and religious matters (a. 28). We must recognize the basic equality of all people: all discrimination is contrary to God's intent and must be overcome and eradicated (a. 29).

Both the individual and the community have obligations to each other: human institutions must work to safeguard basic human rights (a. 29), while at the same time each person must contribute to the common good and must support the private and public institutions which work for a better world, and one of our primary duties is the observance of social laws and precepts (a. 30)

The Council teaches that we have a mandate to govern the world with justice and holiness (a. 34), so that we have a duty imposed upon us to build a better world based upon truth and justice (a. 55). Believers and unbelievers alike must work for a better world (a. 21); we must work together without violence and deceit to build up the world in genuine peace (a. 92). This task demands that we recognize that technical advances are worth less than the work we do for justice, community, and social order (a. 35), and that the effort to establish a universal community is not a hopeless one (a. 38).

The Council has some messages directed primarily to members of the Church. It says that our hope related to the end of time does not diminish in any way our duty to address contemporary problems (a. 21); the expectation of a new earth must not weaken but rather stimulate our concern for cultivating this one (a. 39). Christians should seek and think of those things which are above, but this duty should increase their obligation to work with others for a better world (a. 57) and those Christians are mistaken who think they can shirk their earthly responsibilities just because we seek a life to come (a. 43). The Christian message holds us bound to build up the world and be concerned for the welfare of others (a. 34), and the teaching of Christ requires that we forgive injuries and love our enemies (a. 28). We must foster within the Church itself mutual esteem, reverence and harmony, through the full recognition of lawful diversity (a. 92).

After laying out its theoretical program, the Council turns its attention to several problems which it says are of special urgency (a. 46). The first topic is marriage and family. The companionship of male and female produces the primary form of interpersonal communion (a. 12). The Council notes that modern economic conditions are causing serious disturbances in families (a. 47), and this is important because the condition of families has a decisive bearing on the dignity, stability, peace and prosperity of human society as a whole (a. 48). Everyone should work for the welfare of marriage and the family: parents, children, those who exercise influence in society, Christians, researchers, pastors, and various organizations (a. 52).

The second topic taken up in the Constitution is culture. People arrive at full humanity only through culture, those things by which people develop and perfect their bodily and spiritual qualities (a. 53). A more universal form of human culture is developing, one which promotes and expresses the unity of the human race (a. 54). For the first time in human history all people are convinced that the benefits of culture ought to be and actually can be extended to everyone (a. 9).

The Church is not bound to any particular form of human culture (a. 42), to any particular way of life or any customary pattern of life (a. 58). Because there are many ties between the message of salvation and human culture (a. 58), the Church is involved in a living exchange with diverse cultures of people (a. 44), although sometimes it is difficult to harmonize culture with Christian teaching (a. 62).

The Council lays down the following guidelines for evaluating the role of culture in society.

Culture needs freedom and autonomy, and it demands respect (a. 59). We ought to respect and love those who think or act differently from us in social, political, and religious matters (a. 28).

Culture should be subordinated to the integral perfection of the human person and the common good of society (a. 59).

Individuals should be educated to a higher degree of culture (a. 31).

All cultural discrimination is contrary to God's intent and must be overcome and eradicated (a. 29). There should be no discrimination in the satisfaction of the right to culture because everyone has the right to culture and the duty to develop themselves culturally (a. 60).

Women must be affirmed as participants in cultural life (a. 60), and they ought not to be denied the right to cultural benefits equal to those recognized for men (a. 29).

Increased exchanges among cultures cannot be allowed to disturb the life of communities or destroy ancestral wisdom and the peculiar character of each people (a. 56).

The refinement of the culturally competent cannot stand in the way of others' participating in the cultural values of the world (a. 56).

The recognition of the autonomy of culture cannot give rise to an a-religious or anti-religious humanism (a. 56).

The arts and disciplines should be free to use their own principles and methodologies, and people must be free to search for the truth, express opinions, and practice art (a. 59).

Culture cannot be made to serve as an instrument of political or economic power (a. 59).

The third topic taken up by the Council is socio-economic life. It teaches that people are the source, center, and purpose of all economic and social life (a. 63), and that the purpose of economic production is to serve people in their material needs as well as in the demands of their intellectual, moral, spiritual, and religious lives (a. 64). The Church is not bound to any particular economic system (a. 42), but it is critical of the excessive economic and social differences among people or groups of people which violate social justice, equity, human dignity, and social and international peace (29). It is also critical of the dangerous lack of balance between developed and other countries, and also between agriculture, industry, and the services (a. 63).

Of special concern to the Church is poverty and the poor. The followers of Christ share the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of all people, but especially of those who are poor (a. 1). The Council notes with sadness that even with unprecedented wealth, resources and economic power, we are still tormented by hunger and poverty (a. 4); the greater part of the world is still suffering from so much poverty that it is as if Christ himself were crying out in these poor to beg the charity of the disciples (a. 88).

Subhuman living conditions are opposed to life, thereby poisoning human society and dishonoring God (a. 27). Moreover, human freedom is often crippled when a person encounters extreme poverty (a. 31). Economic development sometimes results in contempt for the poor (a. 63), but the Council calls on us to react differently: love of neighbor means that we cannot imitate the rich man who had no concern for the poor man Lazarus (a. 27). People must help the poor, and not merely out of their superfluous goods (a. 68). At the same time, those in extreme necessity have the right to procure what they need from the riches of others (a. 68). The Council condemns the arms race, which it says ensnares the poor to an intolerable degree (a. 81), and it proposes the establishment of an organism of the universal Church which would be set up to cultivate both the justice and love of Christ toward the poor (a. 90).

The Council offers a vision of a just socio-economic order. This vision is based on the principle that the right to have a sufficient share of earthly goods belongs to everyone (a. 68). Based on this principle, the Council asserts that everyone has the right to work and the duty to work faithfully (a. 67), and that wages should be such that people and their dependents can live worthy lives (a. 67). Workers have the right to form unions and to take part in them without fear of reprisal (a. 68). Disputes should be settled by negotiation, but if necessary by strikes (a. 68).

Private property is an extension of human freedom, and access to ownership should be fostered, keeping mind the social obligations attached to private ownership (a. 71). Investments should be based on concern for the common good (a. 70). Everyone involved in an economic enterprise should share in its administration and profits (a. 68), and the largest possible number of people and nations must have an active share in directing economic development (a. 65).

Economic growth cannot be controlled exclusively by market forces or government authority (a. 65). Special attention must be given farmers, immigrants, the sick and the elderly (a. 66). All discrimination based on social condition is contrary to God's intent and must be overcome and eradicated (a. 29).

More international cooperation is needed in the economic field (a. 84). The international economy demands an end to profiteering, national ambition, appetite for political supremacy, militarism, and ideological propaganda (a. 85).

The next topic taken up by the Council is political life. Political community exists for the common good--the sum of social conditions within which people attain their perfection (a. 74). The Council welcomes the fact that more and more people are becoming politically active (a. 73), and it teaches that the Church is not bound to any particular political system (a. 42, 76), and can work under any kind of government which recognizes basic human rights, the demands of the common good, and the freedom of the Church to exercise its own mission (a. 42).

People should be free to choose their political system and their rulers (a. 74). Political authority must be based on appeals to people's freedom and sense of responsibility. It must always be exercised within the limits of the moral order and directed towards the common good (a. 74). It can never be based on dictatorial systems or totalitarian methods which violate human rights (a. 75). Political systems should not hamper civic or religious freedom, victimize people through avarice and political crimes, or serve special interests (a. 73). People have the right to defend human rights from abuse by public authority (a. 74).

Citizens and governments have duties to each other which must be carried out for the common good. People have the right and the duty to use their free vote to further the common good. Political parties can never give their interests priority over the common good (a. 75). We ought to respect and love those who think or act differently from us in political matters (a. 28).

The final topic taken up by the Council is peace. Peace is an enterprise of justice and the fruit of love: it is not merely the absence of war, or the maintenance of a balance of power, or the calm enforced by dictatorship (a. 78). It must be born of mutual trust among nations and not be imposed through fear of available weapons (a. 82). Excessive economic and social differences among people or groups of people violate social and international peace (29), and building up peace involves rooting out the causes of discord, especially injustice (a. 83).

Governments have the right to legitimate defense when peaceful means of settlement have been exhausted. Those in military service who fulfill this role properly contribute to the establishment of peace, but conscientious objectors should be protected by law. Orders should not be obeyed which are immoral, such as those designed for the methodical extermination of an entire people (a. 79).

The new circumstances surrounding war force us to evaluate war with an entirely new attitude (a. 80). In its own evaluation of war, the Council declares that any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of cities and populations merits condemnation (a. 80). It teaches that the arms race is not a safe way to preserve peace, and may even aggravate the causes of war. It is a trap for humanity, ensnaring the poor to an intolerable degree (a. 81). Our goal should be a time when all war is outlawed by international consent (a. 82). Christians should work with all true peacemakers, and especially praiseworthy are those who renounce the use of violence in the vindication of their rights (a. 78).

Throughout its Pastoral Constitution, the Council returns time and again to Christ because, it says, God provides a full answer to human questions in Christ, so that whoever follows after Christ, the perfect human, becomes more human (a. 41). Christ is the model and guide for all that we seek in social justice. He is the perfect human being, providing us with an example for our imitation (a. 22). He taught us by his example to share in human community, revealing the human vocation in terms of the most common of social realities (a. 32).

Christ entered the world to rescue and not to sit in judgment, to serve and not to be served (a. 3). Christ through his Spirit can offer us the light and the strength to measure up to our supreme destiny (a. 10). The Father wants everyone to recognize Christ our brother and love him in word and deed (a. 93). Marriage is a reflection of the loving covenant uniting Christ with the Church, manifesting to everyone Christ's living presence in the world (a. 48)

The Council bases its hopeful perspective on the saving acts of Christ. Christ won the victory for humans when he rose to life, for by his death he freed us from death (a. 18). People are equal because they have all been redeemed by Christ (a. 29). All human activity is threatened by pride and must be purified by the power of Christ's cross and resurrection (a. 37). Christ is now at work in human hearts through the energy of his Spirit (a. 38).

Christ is himself the cause of the justice and peace we seek. He is the author of peace, the Prince of Peace reconciling all people with God (a. 78). In Christ can be found the key, the focal point and the goal of humanity and of all human history (a. 10); he is the goal of human history, the focal point of the longings of history and of civilization, the center of the human race, the joy of every heart and the answer to all its yearnings (a. 45). Only in Christ can the human mystery take on light (a. 22). He entered the world's history as a perfect human, taking that history up into himself and summarizing it (a. 38).