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by James Hitchcock

Gaudium et Spes, usually rendered as “the Church in the Modern World,” is in many ways the crucial document of the Second Vatican Council, precisely because it is outward-looking instead of focused on the internal affairs of the Church, such as the liturgy and religious life. It was precisely some such movement towards the world which Pope John XXIII probably had in mind when he summoned the Council and expressed his fervent hope for a “new Pentecost.”

His motives for doing so have always been somewhat mysterious, given the fact that ecumenical councils have usually been summoned when the Church faces some great crisis, yet no such crisis was visible in l960. On the contrary, the Church at that date was probably as healthy and vigorous as it had been at any time during the whole post-Reformation period.

The Pope indicated that Vatican II would not be a doctrinal council, since the basic teachings of the Church were “known by all.” It would instead be a “pastoral” council in that it would consider how modern Catholics should live their faith and make it effective in the world.

It was of course impossible to do this without paying some attention to internal Church matters, but nowhere was the promise of the Council more fundamentally misunderstood than in the tendency, beginning even before the sessions came to an end, to focus obsessively on internal matters. Thus, for better or for worse, the Council began a battle, whose end is still nowhere in sight, over the celebration of the liturgy, the renewal of religious life, the true nature of the Church, and many other things which were probably not paramount in the mind of the Pope when the Council was first summoned.

This does not of course mean that Gaudium et Spes has been ignored. On the contrary, progressives from the beginning hailed it as the most important of all the conciliar decrees.

The Vatican practice of titling official documents with the first few Latin words of their texts had an unfortunate effect in this case, since the opening words (“joy and hope”) make it seem, to those who read no further but simply “know” what it contains, like an unabashed celebration of the modern world. Asked to summarize the message of the decree, most Catholics who have heard of it would probably say, “We’re supposed to get over our suspicions of the world, recognize how much we have to learn from the world, and get busy catching up with all the things we have missed because of our fortress mentality.”

From this misimpression emanated all the post-conciliar love affairs -- with Marxism, feminism, the sexual revolution, therapeutics, and many other things which have subverted the Council’s promise.

But immediately following “joy and hope” the document speaks of “grief and anguish,” showing that it is by no means an unabashed affirmation of optimism but rather a balanced survey of the modern world in all its fullness, both its triumphs and its failures.

The spirit of the decree differed from what Catholics for four hundred years had been accustomed to hearing, because it was not primarily condemnatory. Instead of merely identifying false ideas and pronouncing “anathema sit,” the Council tried to understand the roots of those false ideas and whatever laudable concerns might lie behind them. But the Council also never hesitated, over and over again, to point out the inadequacies of those same ideas.

Indeed Gaudium et Spes sketches in outline a kind of modern apologetics which has very ancient roots, all the way to St. Paul’s visit to Athens and his sermon on the “unknown God.” The essence of this apologetics is the recognition that the human race yearns for truth and justice, and has made many laudable efforts to achieve those goods. But in the end it cannot realize them without the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Thus the Church speaks to the modern world not in timid ways, asking for guidance, but boldly, proclaiming “The Church alone has the key to the happiness you seek.” Read carefully, Gaudium et Spes deserves the familiar liberal jibe of being “triumphalistic.” It clearly sets the Church above the world in the role of teacher, albeit it presents itself as offering a guiding hand and words of encouragement rather than mere condemnation.

It is perhaps the strangest irony of the Council that, extravagantly praised though it has often been, Gaudium et Spes remains in a way one of the most ignored of the conciliar decrees. Preoccupied since l962 with internal “reform,” neither the Church as a whole nor its individual members have any vision for the evangelization of the world.

James Hitchcock is professor of history at Saint Louis University. This column originally appeared in Catholic Dossier, July/August 2000.

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.

E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

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