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The End of Gaudium et Spes?

A strained optimism — possibly a product of the era in the Second Vatican Council met — thwarts realistic attempts to address the crisis in Catholicism today.

By James Hitchcock  (May 2003)

Historical events can never be understood fully by those immersed in them, since larger patterns only become apparent with time. But only those who live through events can understand the force of that elusive reality which later historians can never fully recover: the "spirit of the times." The Second Vatican Council has been endlessly studied and debated, in terms of its decrees and their implementation. But its profound impact on the Church can never be understood apart from the mood of the age in which the Council took place.

Pope Pius XII, who died in l958, epitomized the traditional papacy. His was the last pontificate in which it could be said that the occupant of the papal throne actually ruled--his authority both respected and feared, his decrees obeyed. The Church in the l950s was a cohesive institution whose members showed a high degree of commitment. But there was a certain fragility about that cohesiveness, a sometimes excessive reliance on rules and safeguards, a pervasive suspicion of the world, an apparent apprehension (which turned out to be accurate) that letting down the guard in small ways might lead to large disasters.

If Pope John XXIII was intended by the cardinals who elected him to be a "transitional pope," he was far from an inactive one. If only because his reign was so brief, he left few concrete achievements, apart from the summoning of the Council itself. But he was pope long enough to effect a kind of revolution in the concept of the papal office and of the Church. By his very personality, apart from anything he said or did, he effected a profound change in the popular image of the papacy, a transition from the pope as ruler to the pope as kindly pastor. Thus he traveled into the city of which he was the bishop, and even to a few places outside Rome, beginning the tradition of papal journeys which would culminate with Pope John Paul II, who has become by far the most widely traveled pope in all of history. John XXIII's willingness to leave the confines of the Vatican was also seen as a metaphor for a spiritual journey. He visited a jail and made himself available to all kinds of people -- for example, the son-in-law of the Soviet premier Nikita Krushchev. These public gestures, however modest in themselves, had an emotionally "liberating" effect on Catholics which cannot be appreciated by those who did not experience them, an effect which was continued and heightened by the reports later coming out of the Second Vatican Council.

Why Pope John summoned the Council remains even today somewhat mysterious. The Pope spoke of a "new Pentecost" and indicated that, since the teachings of the Church were firm and beyond doubt, the Council would not concern itself with doctrine but would be primarily a "pastoral" council. In all likelihood John XXIII's great dream was that, since the Church was generally in a healthy state, the time had come to put aside the defensiveness which had characterized the conduct of Church policy for over 400 years, and to begin reaching out to the world, bringing Christ to the nations and preparing for the world's conversion. The goals of the Council would be "the renewal of the spirit of the Gospel in the hearts of people everywhere and the adjustment of Christian discipline to modern-day living."

This outlook was made possible by the apparently flourishing state of the Church during Pope John's pontificate. While not without problems, the Church was freer than she had been earlier in the modern period and, in contrast with what would come later, her members were unusually serious, devout, and moral. Such a Church could be criticized mainly as fostering routine formalism and an overly narrow piety, and it is likely that Pope John thought that a new Pentecost could build on this foundation to reach a higher level of apostolic zeal, spiritual depth, and social concern.

The summons of the Council also came amidst Pope John's forthright bid, through his encyclical Pacem in Terris ("Peace on Earth"), to make the papal office a major force for peace and justice in the world.           


In his opening address to the Council, the Pope affirmed the perduring infallibility of the Church and called on the Council fathers to take account of the "errors, requirements, and opportunities" of the age. He regretted that some Catholics -- "prophets of gloom" -- seemed unable to see any good in the modern world and regarded it as the worst of all historical periods. The general mood of society around l960 also underlay this optimism. Despite the shadow of the Cold War, it was a hopeful time. An evil regime had been vanquished, family life appeared quite stable, the newly independent "Third World" countries seemed to have a bright future, there was increasing prosperity, and modern technology promised a better life for everyone. This optimistic spirit was summed up in the US with the presidency of John F. Kennedy, the living embodiment of the belief that competence and good will could solve all the worlds problems.

Gaudium et Spes  (Joy and Hope), the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, was the decree at the heart of the Second Vatican Council's message, its tone differing from many earlier Church documents in that it did not warn or condemn, but expressed sympathy and understanding for the world. Humanity was credited with good intentions, with a longing for truth and justice which the Church was eager to assist. The document contained orthodox statements about sin and evil, but any such negative statement was very much a minor theme in the overall document. In important ways Gaudium et Spes was also "triumphalistic," asserting the Church’s superiority over the culture -- the gist of its message being that, so long as human beings rely merely on their own resources to achieve good, they will always be disappointed. Only when they recognize their need for the saving Gospel of Christ will they achieve fulfillment, with the Church as a loving parent -- sympathetic, yet always providing the world with firm guidance.           

Thus all of the positive forces in the modern world -- the desire for meaning, the thirst for justice, the demands for honesty and authenticity -- were treated by the Council as semi-inchoate cries for help, manifesting an underlying wisdom and goodness in modern man and at same time revealing that modern man is of himself unable to achieve what he longs for. The highest aspirations of modern culture are thus continually thwarted.

The Council also acknowledged that the Church could learn from the world. The key was "reading the signs of the times," discerning the hand of God in the movement of history. The Church no longer merely condemned secular culture but searched for what was positive in it in order to build upon it. Liberals in the Church and the world immediately embraced Gaudium et Spes as a charter in which the Church admitted past errors and recognized the essential goodness of secular culture.


In many ways the promise of the Council has not been fulfilled, as the immediate effect of the Council -- still powerful after four decades -- was to plunge the Church into an internal crisis more severe than any in her history. The crisis was provoked by the fact that, almost immediately at the Council’s end, there occurred the world-wide cultural phenomenon now popularly known as "the Sixties," amounting to nothing less than a frontal assault on all forms of authority. The cultural map itself changed rapidly, so that many of the assumptions found in the conciliar decrees were soon rendered obsolete. The Council fathers apparently had no inkling of that coming crisis; the task of "reading the signs of the times" was apparently far more difficult than was imagined in the euphoric days of the early l960s.

The conciliar decrees built upon that euphoria and in effect imposed a compulsory optimism on Catholics. Although Pope Paul VI famously spoke of the "smoke of Satan" as having entered the Church, it has generally been the custom of Vatican officials and diocesan bishops, in the years since the Council, to minimize the problems of the post-conciliar period and to speak of "renewal" as a stunning success. Insofar as Gaudium et Spes was revolutionary, it was in its failure to acknowledge the full power of evil in the world, particularly the reality of evil motives in human affairs. In talking about "human aspirations," the Council implied that even error springs from good intentions and can be corrected by deeper understanding. It took little notice of a human reality often proclaimed in Scripture: hatred of truth and goodness, love of evil for its own sake.

The pervasive good will expressed in Gaudium et Spes unintentionally helped to erode the crucial distinction between hope and optimism, which in Christian terms are often polar opposites. Genuine hope, as a theological virtue, believes in the redemption, in the ultimate triumph of good over evil. It is a theological virtue precisely because historical experience, more often than not, shows evil triumphing over good. Conflating hope with optimism actually denies hope by minimizing the power of evil and insisting that good is triumphing despite all evidence to the contrary. The Council documents themselves not only failed to foresee the coming crisis, they assumed by their silence that it could not occur. While certain errors were pointed out in the documents, the governing assumption was that, as Catholics were encouraged to take new responsibility for living their faith, a dramatic new Spring would break out. The documents themselves provided little help in understanding how that renewal could have gone awry, bringing about the disasters that we now see around us: the loss of missionary zeal, the collapse of religious life, the sacrilegious liturgies, the general public acceptance of the sexual revolution.

The Council understood modernity primarily as scientific and technological change, without an equivalent spiritual development -- a perspective which had the effect of deflecting attention away from the spiritual roots of modernity, which in their extreme are a kind of willful metaphysical nihilism only obliquely related to science and technology. Concentrating on science and technology, with the implication that their deficiencies could be overcome by good will, enabled the Council to sustain its optimistic view of the modern world, ignoring the question whether modernity is at its heart a denial of even the possibility of eternal truth.

The Council identified atheism as one of the most fundamental problems of the modern world. But the irenic spirit was manifest in the fact that the Council did not condemn atheism outright but offered sympathetic guidance to the atheist, acknowledging that at times atheism has been fostered by the failings of Christians themselves. Here and elsewhere, the implication of Gaudium et Spes was that modern errors are mostly the result of misplaced good will and can be overcome by patient effort.


John Paul II was a member of the commission that drafted Gaudium et Spes, and upon his election as Pope his first words to the world were, "Be not afraid." Although liberal Catholics, with the eager cooperation of the media, have tagged him as a "reactionary" who seeks to roll back the effects of the Council, John Paul II obviously regards himself as a man of the Council to the very core of his being, someone who truly understands the message of that Council. He is perhaps best described as an orthodox optimist, one who boldly affirms all Catholic teaching but seems almost to consider the spirit of Gaudium et Spes to be obligatory on believers.

Pope John Paul may be the most accomplished theologian ever to occupy the papal throne, possibly the most important Catholic thinker of the past century, above all the man who has articulated, once and for all, the most sublime Catholic understanding of human sexuality. It is thus bitterly ironic that his pontificate has been marked by systematic attacks on Catholic sexual morality in all areas, much of it mounted by priests and religious, even by bishops. It is particularly ironic that his pontificate will be remembered for, among other things, the most sordid kind of sexual scandals among the clergy.

The popular image of John Paul II as a reactionary is inaccurate particularly in that he is loath to exercise his disciplinary powers, despite persistent evidence of serious dereliction of responsibility on the part of bishops whom he has appointed -- of which the sex-abuse scandals are merely the most conspicuous example. Informed sources report that Vatican officials, including the Pope, have not been deeply shocked by the sex-abuse scandals and see no need for an agonizing reappraisal of clerical discipline. (The scandals are a particularly grim result of misplaced post-conciliar optimism. Strict rules about clerical behavior were generally rescinded after the Council, on the grounds that priests could be trusted to act in appropriate ways.)

In the journalistic interview published in book form as Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul, when asked about the post-conciliar crisis, made the distinction between "qualitative" and "quantitative" renewal, indicating that the Church’s loss of members is not as significant as the genuine spiritual renewal which has taken place. This is perhaps the only possible way of minimizing the post-conciliar disasters. But there are no doctrinal grounds for dismissing the seriousness of mass apostasy. And by measurable standards of behavior -- birth control, abortion, divorce, homosexuality -- it is hard to make the case that practicing Catholics today are living their faith more fully than their ancestors did. Pope John Paul's approach to human sexuality is perhaps the best index to the guiding spirit of his pontificate. He unambiguously affirms Church teaching, while at the same time endeavoring to take it to a higher level by synthesizing it with the best of modern thought and presenting it in a highly positive, even inspirational, way. The author of far more public documents than any other pope in history, he seems to believe that repeated positive exhortations, ever deeper expositions of Catholic belief, will overcome dissent and bring all right-minded people to the truth.

The unprecedented papal travel during this pontificate fits this pattern. Everywhere the Pope goes, he is greeted by wildly enthusiastic crowds who cheer his message -- a phenomenon which cannot help but support a buoyant euphoria about the state of the Church. Seldom asked, however, is what happens when those who attend such gatherings, especially young people, return home, where the local Church often propagandizes them with ideas that directly undermine the papal message.


The Council condemned no person or movement by name and, while pointing out the errors of Marxism, said nothing explicit about Communism, a remarkable gesture in a world where Christians were under severe persecution by totalitarian atheist regimes. The unexpected fall of Communism in Europe, a quarter of a century after the Council, might be seen as vindication of the bishops' optimism, and it is perhaps a major factor reinforcing Pope John Paul's own optimism. However, whatever caused the demise of Communism (presumably some combination of political and economic forces), it was not the open-minded dialogue which the Council seemed to recommend. In the end it was no longer deniable that Communism was exactly the evil phenomenon condemned as such by earlier Church leaders.

Even the "reactionary" Pius XII strongly supported the United Nations at its inception, and the Council spoke with warm approval of agencies of international cooperation which it hoped would be the instruments of world peace and justice. Nowhere, however, is the contrast between compulsory optimism and historical reality more pronounced than here. At best the United Nations has repeatedly failed to achieve its stated goals. At worst, it has increasingly become an institution through which the enemies of religion seek to implement an agenda that the Holy See, with very limited success, must fight to forestall -- an agenda that prominently features the promotion of "sexual freedom," including legalized abortion, as a basic human right. Some groups have even proposed using the International Criminal Court, a UN creation, to prosecute the Pope for "crimes against humanity" because of his failure to approve the distribution of condoms. Still the Vatican continues to offer enthusiastic support for the UN. The Holy See thus affirms with idealistic rhetoric enterprises which often work mischief.


Faith has to do with "things unseen." However, the Catholic faith has never required that believers deny what human experience has found to be true. Now, however, the compulsory optimism of Gaudium et Spes seems more and more to require precisely that: that Catholics ignore what history has taught them and that they continue to affirm an optimism which history seems to belie. 

Pope John Paul now makes prudential judgments about particular historical situations which seem at least open to discussion: that capital punishment no longer serves a legitimate social purpose, for example, or that war accomplishes no good. As a number of people have noted, the Pope, while not explicitly declaring his opposition to all war to be the official teaching of the Church, sometimes seems to imply precisely that, and Archbishop Renato Martino, head of the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice, has made that explicit, arguing that the just-war tradition is no longer relevant.

At least since the 19th-century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, the roots of terrorism have been recognized as primarily spiritual -- a nihilistic hatred, an urge to destroy -- for which proclaimed political and economic grievances are merely a rationale. Religious leaders would seem to be especially qualified to understand this phenomenon, and Pope John Paul particularly so, because of his profound knowledge of modern philosophy. At present, however, the Holy See does not seem to recognize terrorism as that kind of phenomenon, and the Pope has defined its "root causes" as poverty and the denial of human rights, a diagnosis which goes no farther than secular liberalism is able to go.

Some Islamic societies (Sudan) seek now to exterminate Christianity, and the Islamification of Europe within the course of the coming century is now a quite realistic prospect. The worst terrorism today is the work of Muslims who see themselves as locked in a life-and-death struggle with the "Great Satan" of the West, including the world of Christianity. There is little evidence, however, that the Holy See recognizes this reality, as it continues to approach Islam in conventionally "ecumenical" ways.

As the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out near the beginning of World War II, a high-minded idealism about international peace and justice often does not the serve the purpose for which it is intended but the opposite, allowing evil to flourish unhindered. Pope John Paul II has proclaimed that war has been repudiated by "the conscience of the majority of humanity," a prudential judgment of immense historical importance but one which seems to lack empirical evidence and which, if it turns out to be erroneous, would make war more likely rather than less.

It is highly inappropriate that religious leaders should be "bloody-minded," urging people toward war and group hostility; and it is thus appropriate that the Holy See should seek always to be a voice for peace and international cooperation. In the past, however, this was never thought to mean that Catholics, including Church leaders, could not be political realists, in the sense of recognizing that the use of force, legitimately or illegitimately, will always be a part of human affairs and that Christians can and ought to act on that reality. (In one passage Gaudium et Spes condemned Naziism, although not by name, while in another place it spoke of the "havoc" of "recent wars," without noting that war was the only means by which the evils of Naziism could have been defeated.)

A common way of trivializing religious faith is precisely to make it into a kind of dreamy optimism, where the task of religion becomes that of fostering a wishfulness at odds with historical reality, an optimism which is finally heretical because it cannot acknowledge sin. John Paul II himself would never make such a mistake, but recently a Catholic writer lauded the Pope’s "faith" in the possibility of a peaceful solution for international quarrels -- a sentimental reduction of "faith" to wishful thinking, a reduction which is characteristic of modern religious liberalism.

The title of Gaudium et Spes, taken from the first three Latin words of the text, accurately expresses the dominant spirit of the document. But the Council fathers did recognize that the world groans under the burden of sin and alienation. Perhaps the time has now come for the Church to move beyond the opening words of the decree and attend to the next phrase in the document, luctus et angor -- recognizing that the world is also afflicted by grief and anguish.

James Hitchcock is professor of history at St. Louis University and a founder of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. This essay first appeared in Catholic

James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. Dr. Hitchcock's The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life, Vol. 1 The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses and Vol. II From 'Higher Law' to 'Sectarian Scruples', were released by Princeton University Press September 2, 2004.

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