In his 1994 book “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” St. John Paul II comments: “It is difficult to say something new about the Second Vatican Council. At the same time, we must always refer back to the Council, which is a duty and a challenge for the Church and for the world. We feel the need to speak about the Council in order to interpret it correctly and defend it from tendentious interpretation” (page 157).
No better words can be quoted as we consider the last of the 16 documents of the Second Vatican Council. The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, (Gaudium et Spes, which means “joy and hope”), is the official Latin title taken from the opening words of this document. Promulgated on Dec. 7, 1965, this lengthy constitution (about 107 pages) is an overview of the Church’s teaching on the relationship between the human person and human society to economics, poverty, social justice, culture, as well as, other matters pertaining to faith and reason.
In previous columns we considered the Vatican II “dogmatic” constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, which focuses on the nature, role, and guidelines of the Church, and the decree on the Mission Activity of the Church; Ad Gentes, that centers on the New Testament imperative “to proclaim the gospel to all nations” (cf. Mt 28:19) and the Church “as the universal sacrament of salvation” (Ad Gentes, 1). This pastoral constitution, Gaudium et Spes, provides direction for the Church in the context of the modern world. Therefore, as St. John Paul correctly observes above, this document is “a challenge for the Church and for the world.”
Addressing itself to the worldwide Catholic community, as well as to all Christians and to all of humanity, Gaudium et Spes expresses concern about the current unfolding of human history with rapid changes that need careful consideration and reflection. Unlike the other 15 Council documents, the preface and introduction to Gaudium et Spes is significant, taking up several pages before the first chapter even begins. Curiously, all the footnotes here are from Scripture, solidifying the truth that the human person, made “in the image and likeness of God,” (cf. Gn 1:27) finds its affirmation in the written Word of God.
In the preface, which comprises the first three articles of Gaudium et Spes, we are told that “this Second Vatican Council … addresses itself without hesitation … to the whole of humanity (in order to) explain to everyone how it conceives of the presence and activity of the Church in the world of today” (GS. 2). Accordingly, “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties (of contemporary humanity) especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted” (GS. 2) is the Church’s prime concern.
In the midst of new discoveries and anxious questions “about the place and role of the human person in the universe … and about the ultimate destiny of reality and of humanity,” the Church asserts that “the human person deserves to be preserved” (whole and entire, body and soul, heart and conscience, mind and will) and “human society deserves to be renewed” (GS. 3).
The official introduction to Gaudium et Spes begins with article 4 invoking the familiar and commonly quoted verse about “the signs of the times” (GS.4). What is often left unmentioned when referencing this passage is the full context of this statement which reads: “the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” (GS. 4).
What follows are several contrasting realities involving the matter of “human liberty” on one hand, and a continuation of “political, social, economic, racial and ideological disputes” (GS. 4) on the other. Clearly shocking is the paradox, hidden as it were in in plain sight, that this Church constitution asserts: “never has the human race enjoyed such an abundance of wealth, resources and economic power, and yet a huge proportion of the world’s citizens are still tormented by hunger and poverty … (and) countless numbers suffer from total illiteracy” (GS. 4). This is unacceptable for all who would identify themselves as “civilized human beings,” and most especially for those who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ.
Noteworthy is that 49 years, four popes, nine American presidents and a new century later, this shocking paradox continues. It is as if Pope Francis had this passage from Gaudium et Spes foremost in mind as he wrote his apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium) on Nov. 24, 2013.
“The Joy of the Gospel” reminds us that over the course of almost half a century, as the world has changed and people of all ages and all nationalities now communicate across international borders using computer-generated tools like Facebook and Twitter, there exists the tendency to be less joyful. Why? Because, while creating personal and professional associations unimaginable in the not-so-distant past, such instantaneous communication has ironically tended to sever authentic relationships rather than secure them. In fact, in such associations, people have shown themselves to be callous and inattentive to the most basic, yet real needs of fellow human beings. In this regard, there exists a striking similarity to the earlier response of people to Gaudium et Spes, which was written in the pre-computer age. No wonder the demands of our present pope, whether real or perceived, seem objectionable to even the most faithful Catholics. Similar challenges put forth by the Church in the Vatican II pastoral constitution that resemble those of Pope Francis in his 2013 apostolic exhortation fell on deaf ears in the 1960’s. Why would they be more palatable now if they were not so back then, especially with the greater tendency among people nowadays to be less relational and more peripheral in dealing with others?
Both documents highlight economic inequality as the common issue among nations and businesses needing careful attention with regard to the dignity of the individual, i.e. the materially poor. While Gaudium et Spes indicates its concern for “the poor and afflicted” in the very first sentence of the document, Evangelii Gaudium reminds us in its second paragraph that there exists “no place for the poor” whenever one’s “interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns” as a result of the “feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures.”
Perhaps the only way that the world will overcome this problem of economic inequality among the poor and disadvantaged will be by first settling the greater human problem identified in Gaudium et Spes as the “corresponding spiritual advancement” to the constant pursuit of “a better material world” (GS. 4). This might be the reason Pope Francis included the word “joy” (Gaudium) in the title of his apostolic exhortation. Not only does he remind us that there should never be a reason for a follower of Christ to be without joy (and hope), but he literally shakes us up and wants us to be shaken out of our complacency, placing before us, in a fresh way, the challenges set forth in this final constitution of the Second Vatican Council.
Until we recognize the need to pursue greater spiritual heights as earnestly as we pursue the worldly advantages, true joy and hope shall evade us and the joy of the Gospel shall remain elusive. Our constant challenge, according to the 1965 Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, (Gaudium et Spes), is to navigate this life of contrasts, contradictions and chaos, beneath which exists the unchanging and loving God of Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today and forever.
Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D. serves as Assistant Chancellor to the Bishop. To read his previous columns on Vatican II please visit