Joy and Hope in this Modern World
Gaudium et Spes is Our Touchstone Moving Forward
During the past month I have authored a pair of Missio Dei reflections that focused on some of the most important and seminal documents produced by Vatican II. The first reflection, entitled Understanding and Celebrating Vatican II in the Midst of Liturgical Debate, was published on February 28, 2022 and centered on Sacrosanctum Concilium, this Sacred Council, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy promulgated by Vatican II. The second reflection, entitled Light of the Nations!, was published on March 7, 2022 and examined Lumen Gentium, Light of the Nations, described at the time as “the keystone” of the Council’s magisterium. I would like to focus this reflection on another key development the Church gained for the world as a result of Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, on the Church in the Modern World; literally joy and hope! For a summary of Vatican II more generally I invite you to go back and read and reflect on the first two Missio Dei reflections I authored noted above (if you click on their titles earlier in this paragraph you will be magically taken to those two preceding published Missio Dei reflections).
Gaudium et Spes was promulgated by Pope Saint Paul VI on December 7, 1965 as Vatican II came to a close. It is no stretch of the imagination to say that the foundations of Catholic theology go back millennia — to Sacred Scripture which predates the Incarnation of the Lord — continuing through the earthly mission, passion, death and resurrection of the Savior, as well as through the apostolic, post-apostolic, and patristic periods all the way to the twentieth century when Vatican II came together as a council. This penultimate century in human recorded history, plagued by international conflict never before seen in centuries past, served as the backdrop in which Vatican II sought to clarify and expand upon the role of the worldwide Church by reflecting upon modern issues, teachings and problems in context of Church tradition over these centuries, going back to Sacred Scripture itself.
Borrowing from Shakespeare’s The Tempest in this reflection, Gaudium et Spes in a Catholic context is an example of past being prologue – in essence, understanding the current human condition, with all its social and technological complexities, by appealing to the solid foundation of Church theological and dogmatic tradition, going back to Sacred Scripture itself, and the work of the Church Fathers. Or as it was stated in the ecumenical document itself:
The Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other.We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its expectations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics...The Church believes that Christ, who died and was raised up for all, can through His Spirit offer man the light and the strength to measure up to his supreme destiny. Nor has any other name under heaven been given to man by which it is fitting for him to be saved. She likewise holds that in her most benign Lord and Master can be found the key, the focal point, and the goal of all human history...The Church also maintains that beneath all changes there are many realities which do not change and which have their ultimate foundation in Christ, who is the same yesterday and today, yesterday and forever. Hence in the light of Christ, the image of the unseen God, the firstborn of every creature, the Council wishes to speak to all men in order to illuminate the mystery of man and to cooperate in finding the solution to the outstanding problems of our time.
For what in essence is Catholic theology? Nichols references theology as “the highest of the habits of mind that a Christian man or woman can acquire.” Put more directly (and in Nichols’s own words), the task of theology is the “disciplined exploration of what is contained in revelation,” and the discipline itself a “ministry carried out in the service of revelation.” It is therefore through Sacred Scripture and Church tradition (including its ordinary magisterium), based upon faith — and the tools of exegetical analysis — that we come to understand revelation, God revealing Himself in our human history.
These foundational elements of Catholic theology, Catholic dogma, the teaching office of the Church through the magisterium, do not have an “expiration date” dependent upon time, technology, circumstance or disagreements. Rather, it is the immutable nature of divine revelation, the Incarnation of the Lord, which encompasses all times, places, and circumstances; as Christ is the Alpha and the Omega (Rev. 22:13). This to me is the central theme of Gaudium et Spes — it is the reaffirmation of Catholic theology in modern times, for modern circumstances, based upon the long, deep, and meaningful traditions of the Church over millennia. As such, modern challenges do not dispense with or radically change what has come before in matters of doctrine and the faith. Rather, we become renewed in the spirit through our constant encounters with divine revelation as expounded by the Catholic Church.
Further, the breadth of issues addressed by this seminal document of Vatican II speaks to the Church’s ongoing commitment to spread the light of Christ to the world. As noted more recently: “[Gaudium et Spes] is about engagement of the world in the sense that the mission of the Church is promoting the Kingdom of God and the Church is a servant of that...It is a community of faith that acknowledges the Lordship of Jesus and what that means in our day. It is a realization that the mission of the Church, in light of the changes in society, really needs to be identified...The mission of the Church is very much like what Pope Francis is calling for as a “Church of encounter with the world, one that seeks to be a Church of inclusion and reconciliation.”
I think that Pope Francis in his various statements and writings has shown himself to be inspired by this very approach centered in Gaudium et Spes. Moving forward, Gaudium Spes, joy and hope, forms a touchstone in understanding our Church moving forward in time in this new century of Catholicism for the world.
Abbott, W.M. (1966). The documents of Vatican II with notes and comments by Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox authorities. America Press, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Nichols, A. (1991). The shape of Catholic theology. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “The theological vision of Sacrosanctum Concilium and the Roman Missal.” Retrieved March 5, 2022 from: http://usccb.org/prayer-and- worship/the-mass/roman-missal/theological-vision-of-sacrosanctum-concilium-and-the-roman-missal.cfm.
All of Dr. Plaud’s Missio Dei writings and reflections can be accessed here.