Review: "The Church in the Modern World: Gaudium et Spes, Then and Now"

by Michael Sean Winters

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This year is the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. So, just in time, three professors at Creighton University – Michael Lawler, Todd Salzman and Ellen Burke-Sullivan – have produced a book that looks at this vital, and in some ways seminal, text from Vatican II. The Church in the Modern World: Gaudium te Spes Then and Now is an important book, and accessible for a general readership, but it is also an uneven book and one with an evident bias.

The book begins with a look at the history of the text. They cite the French theologian Marie-Dominique Chenu, O.P., who wrote, “Since Christianity draws its reality from history and not from some metaphysics, the theologian must have as his primary concern…to know this history and to train himself in it.” This quote not only serves to explain why they began their examination by recounting how the document came to be, but also introduces one of the key shifts Gaudium et Spes represents, away from a stale and ahistorical treatment of revelation and towards a more historically conscious approach to the mysteries of the faith.

For those unfamiliar with the history of the Second Vatican Council, the tales of cardinals debating back and forth, the occasional interventions of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, the work of the theologians between sessions, drafting and re-drafting texts, all is critical not only to understanding what happened then, but in understanding why some people were horrified by the proceedings of last year’s Synod on the Family and others were equally delighted. Then, as now, there are those who feel sufficiently in possession of the truth that they find any re-examination irksome or worse. And there are those whose minds are restless, and who encounter new situations for which old solutions seem ill-suited or inadequate. Then and now, both temperaments are needed as the Church balances the task of remaining true to its tradition and true to the needs of the moment.

The authors note that not all the early divisions were between “conservatives” and “progressives.” They call attention to important differences among those advocating for renewed theology, for example, Yves Congar advocated for a “theology of history” so that the Council Fathers could be understood by non-Catholics, but Karl Rahner argued that such an approach “risked undervaluing some important theological problems, particularly those of the relationship between nature and grace and of the presence of sin in the world, on which he had written extensively.”  Any attempt to see the conciliar debates in a caricatured “good guys vs. bad guys” manner is simply wrong.

The authors then turn to the “ecclesiological focus” of Gaudium et Spes.  This text was considered and adopted after Lumen Gentium, the Constitution on the Church, and it reflects the different ecclesiological approach of that prior text. Lumen Gentium had not abandoned earlier twentieth conceptions of the Church as the mystical body of Christ, but it had recovered more ancient understandings of the Church too, most especially the “pilgrim people of God” and the Church as “communion.” (The Church as a “perfect society” was abandoned as a principle for understanding the Church.) Both of these latter concepts are obviously more historically embedded, more in touch with the current moment, less prone to the abstract, metaphysical ruminations that had dominated ecclesiology before the Council. This increased awareness of the historicity of the Church’s life, and of its understanding of revelation, was also a key theme in the development of another critical document from Vatican II, Dei Verbum, the Constitution on Divine Revelation. And, so, it only made sense that the Council Fathers would consider not only past history but the current moment of history in evaluating the situation of the Church today. The “signs of the times” found their place in the hermeneutic of the Church.

Gaudium et Spes looked outward. The authors explain the text’s orientation to mission. They write, “It follows that since the Church is participating in, and a sacrament of, Christ’s mission of proclaiming, and effecting, the reign of God, the new creation, and eternal life, then the Church has a responsibility to all of humankind – a service to render in God’s name through the power of the Holy Spirit and in the manner of Jesus himself….If the Church is to be a servant to the world in carrying out its mission, then the means and the message itself must be carried out in terms the world understands. To do this the mission of the Church must be continually discerned, in every generation and culture, according to Gaudium et Spes, by reading the ‘signs of the times.’” I read those words and think of Pope Francis’ awareness of, and canny ability to display, the power of gestures, and we can see the possibility of this text in action.

This outward look required more than effective gestures for a conciliar text. It required many theological balancing acts. Again the authors neatly summarize one such act in discussing the new understanding of “the world” that emerged in Gaudium et Spes. Recognizing the dominant dualism of Christian spiritual history, which saw the world as bad or at least tainted and the Church as holy and undefiled, they Council Fathers could not turn their back on that history, but they needed to expand it. The authors write: “The dualistic opposition to the world, the patronizing diminishment of those who are called to marriage and family life, and the disparagement of those who serve in politics, art, education, technology, etc. (the works of the world), must be set aside as Church leaders seek to understand that God dwells precisely within the world both through the Church and in the creation itself. Service to the world is the mission of God for which Jesus was sent, and for which the Church was called and developed.” This expanded understanding of the theological significance of “the world” does not mean we cannot all recognize, and recoil from, a “worldly” cleric, nor get nervous when some neo-Gnostic confuses the natural and supernatural realms. But, this expanded understanding of the world mirrored the expanded ecclesiology of the Council, recognizing that it is baptism, not only ordination, that confers upon all the faithful, most of whom work in the world, the tasks the Jesus entrusted to the Church.

Another key ingredient in the shift at Vatican II was the re-awakening of pneumatology, the study of the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. One of the problems with arguments that start with the phrase, “As the Church has always taught…” is that such arguments tend to box out the on-going work of the Spirit. If the Spirit’s presence had not been vouchsafed to the Church, attending to the “signs of the times” would not really be any kind of discernment. And, as the authors demonstrate, the Council clearly affirmed the need for dialogue in achieving discernment. Here, too, they discover, but oddly do not comment upon, a conundrum for the Catholic Left. They quote the historian John O’Malley, S.J. on the importance of dialogue: “Dialogue manifests a radical shift from the prophetic I-say-unto-you style that earlier prevailed and indicates something other than unilateral decision making.” Of course, in the wake of the Council, in the “now” of the title’s “then and now,” it has been the Catholic Left that has claimed the mantle of prophetic utterance. A delicious complication, one the authors should have explored.

Monday, I shall conclude this book review.




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