Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church

Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World

By Norman Tanner

Of all Vatican II's decrees, Gaudium et Spes addresses the situation in the world most directly. Its subtitle, 'The Church in the World of Today', states this intention clearly. The decree also makes a sustained attempt both to dialogue with the 'world' and to open up further opportunities for such dialogue in the future. Yet, as I write these lines, in the autumn of 2004, the prospects look bleak regarding both the situation in the world and the possibility of dialogue.

The attack on the twin towers in New York on September 11, 2001—the most publicized event of the new millennium so far—has set in train an escalation of violence in many parts of the world that may well move still further out of control in the future. Alongside the violence, bad enough in itself, a whole range of other injurious forces have been set in motion or accelerated. Christian cohabitation and dialogue with Muslims, who form almost one in seven of the world's population, has been the most obvious casualty. The gap in wealth between the west and the rest of the world appears ever more glaring. Time, money, and attention that might be directed to building a better and more equitable world are spent rather on defence of the status quo.  

The wave of immigrants seeking entry into Europe, as well as the marked decline in the birthrate in many parts of this continent, furnish obvious parallels with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries CE. The civilization of Europe, which was the heartland of the Catholic Church for many centuries, and which bears much of the responsibility for Gaudium et Spes, is undergoing rapid and marked change and this looks set to continue into the future.

There are also the divisions within the Christian community. In this respect, Gaudium et Spes is closely linked to Unitatis Redintegratio and various other decrees of Vatican II in terms of implementation and future influence. Despite much progress in its relations with most other Christian churches since the council, and almost a revolution in basic attitudes, the Catholic Church has not seen the reunions with these churches that many hoped for then and for some time afterwards. Indeed the last twenty years or so have seen, in many ways, a hardening of attitudes on both sides with regard to the possibility of such reunion. Relations with the Orthodox and Anglican churches provide two examples of these difficulties. Among a variety of issues, papal authority has continued to prove a stumbling block for both churches, and the ordination of women to the priesthood within the Anglican communion has raised new obstacles to reunion. As a result of these differences, Christians have been unable to speak with a united voice and appear unlikely to do so in the future.

The continuing divisions among Christians, however, have affected the influence of Gaudium et Spes less than might be expected. The divisions have mainly concerned doctrinal matters, those concerning authority in the churches, and missionary activity. The chief focus of Gaudium et Spes was on social teaching, and what might be called theology 'from below' and the decree has proved to be, rather, a unifying voice and to have revealed a surprising amount of common ground among Christians, more particularly regarding most of the areas covered in Part 2 of the decree.

There are, too, the limitations within the Catholic Church. John-Paul II has provided a powerful voice in support of many of the concerns of Gaudium et Spes. What the next papacy holds lies in the future. Although the teaching of Gaudium et Spes has been generally well-received, the voice of the Catholic Church has been weakened in various ways. The recent scandals involving the sexual abuse of minors, and the negligence of bishops and other church authorities in dealing with the cases, have detracted from the credibility of the Church well beyond these issues. Secularization has taken its toll on the Catholic community, especially in the more traditionally Catholic countries. While the number of Christians continues to grow in many parts of the world, notably in Africa and Asia, the church remains in many of these regions relatively young and even fragile. Among Catholics, too, there is a much greater variety of opinions, indeed polarization, now than at the time of the council. This diversity looks set to continue and probably to grow during the coming century, though it is, of course, to some extent a sign of health and creativity, not just of weakness and division.

It may well be, indeed, that the Catholic Church in the twenty-first century is heading toward another Babylonian captivity. Diminished and shackled in Europe, its principal home for many centuries, it may live as an exile in much of the rest of the world, harassed and threatened.

The Babylonian captivity of the Jewish people in the sixth century BCE produced some of the finest and most prophetic literature of the Old Testament. From this exile came Deutero-Isaiah with its four Songs of the Suffering Servant. If the comparison is allowed, maybe Gaudium et Spes will come to be seen as prophetic and comforting for the church of the coming century. Certainly with its move away from the ideal of a fully Catholic society, toward a more individual approach and one that encourages Catholics to work together with others, the decree provides Christians with a framework that appears relevant to the diverse and often secular situations in which many of them are likely to find themselves for the foreseeable future.

In this respect the overall tone and approach of Gaudium et Spes is as important as the details of what it says. The details have been discussed at some length in the last chapter [1], particularly regarding the five areas covered in Part 2 of the decree: marriage and the family, culture, socio-economic life, the political community, peace and the international community. Despite the richness of the teaching on these topics, we have seen that this could not and was never intended to be comprehensive for the time and still less into the indefinite future. The decree itself recognized that it was treating of issues that change and develop in all sorts of ways and that, correspondingly, an ongoing discernment on the part of Christians is required. New issues, too, or at least new approaches and understandings, have emerged since the council and others will surely surface during the century to come. The roles of women both inside and beyond the church, the many facets of globalization, ecology, the rights of people to migrate from one country to another, are among the issues that are pressing today and in forms that were only partly envisaged by Gaudium et Spes.

The greatest strength of the decree, for the twenty-first century, is that it faced squarely the issues of its day and did so in a way that was faithful to the gospel and the Christian tradition. Its prophetic role for the future lies very much in its historicity. It is a treasure that can be returned to and drawn upon partly because of its contents, but even more importantly because it gives Christians confidence and encouragement to attempt the same kind of exploration in their own day. In these ways it can provide a comfort and support for the future.

A second strength is that the decree was debated at length and approved by much the largest and most international council in the history of Christianity. Despite unease about its imperfections and omissions, in the end it was approved by the overwhelming majority at the council, indeed enthusiastically so by the large majority, it seems. Other official documents of the church, including notably papal encyclicals, remain important. But it seems likely that Gaudium et Spes will remain the more important charter because of the breadth of support for it at the council itself and during the subsequent reception of the council by the Christian community, and because of the wide range of issues it tackled. Gaudium et Spes produced a happy marriage of papal and conciliar teaching.

These points may seem obvious, almost trite. Yet in terms of the church's councils, and of its history more generally, Gaudium et Spes is somewhat unique. The decree represents the first time that the church, represented in such numbers from all around the globe, sought to enter in detail into such a wide range of issues affecting people in their everyday lives. For this reason above all, it seems likely to remain a point of reference for many years to come.


[1]  of The Church and the Modern World: Gaudium et Spes, Inter Mirifica, Norman Tanner