October 28, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

20th-century Church: ‘Gaudium et Spes’ summed up Vatican II

John F. Fink(Fourteenth in a series of columns)

“Gaudium et Spes,” (“Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”) was the last document promulgated by the Second Vatican Council. It gave notice that the Church no longer intended to focus just on itself as it had been doing, but was going to engage with the modern world.

The document had two parts. The first was a description of the conditions of contemporary humanity. The second presented some concrete issues and the Church’s teachings on those issues.

The Church embraced secular and scientific endeavors. It said, “Methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of this world and the things of faith derive from the same God” (#39).

The openness of the Catholic Church to other religions, not a mark of the Church prior to the council, was affirmed in this document. It said, “The Catholic Church gladly values what other Christian Churches and ecclesial communities have contributed and are contributing” (#40).

The second part of “Gaudium et Spes,” with comments on practical problems, gave top priority to problems encountered by families in the modern world. It began with the Church’s teachings about the holiness of marriage and the family, the nature of married love, and the intended fruitfulness of the marital contract.

But it also said this, which was not emphasized as clearly in Church teaching before the 1960s: “Marriage is not merely for the procreation of children: its nature as an indissoluble compact between two people and the good of children demand that the mutual love of the partners be shown, that it should grow and mature” (#50).

Naturally, as one would expect, “Gaudium et Spes” included a section on the dignity of human life, saying, “Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception” (#51). The crimes against the human person enumerated in the document included murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, suicide, mutilation, physical and mental torture, undue psychological pressures, subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, and degrading working conditions where men are treated as mere tools for profit rather than free and responsible persons.

The economics section stressed both that “every man has the right to possess a sufficient amount of the Earth’s goods,” and that “men are bound to come to the aid of the poor and to do so not merely out of their superfluous goods” (#69).

The section on politics said that the political community and the Church are autonomous and independent of each other. But then it qualified that statement by saying: “Nevertheless, there are close links between the things of Earth and those things in man’s condition which transcend the world, and the Church utilizes temporal realities as her mission requires it” (#76).

The document also had a lot to say about world peace.

So the council, the most important event for the Catholic Church during the 20th century, was over. Its effects would be seen for a long time. †

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