Secondly, there was strong sentiment that the Church owed something to the world, that Christ had established the Church “not to be served but to serve,” and that a statement of intention—along with ways and means—was an act of faith in the Church and the world at large. Good will alone, of course, would not complete the task, though the shift in attitude itself, after centuries of a siege mentality in the post-Reformation Catholic Church, would become one of GS’s endearing legacies.
Practically speaking, this schema would truly go where no church had gone before, into an active engagement with the world and its perplexing problems. The Council would define a philosophical/theological Christian anthropology of the nature of man, draw from its treasury of history and experience, and address the opportunities of a better world by following the lights of mankind’s better angels. One of the major criticisms of GS was its over-optimism, but in truth the Church had never attempted anything like this before. I have no idea if the current pop music hit of the day, “All You Need Is Love,” by the Beatles, was played for the patrons of the smoky Bar Jonah, but good bishops are not immune to the pulse of the times.
Given its unique nature as a worldwide exhortation, the schema of Gaudium et Spes and the finished product would be written in a universal language, French. The Curia’s Archbishop Felici, who opposed the project from the beginning, would later tell anyone who would listen that the only official text was the Latin one. During the writing phase, though, Felici did raise pertinent questions on both the authority of the document and its uses. As to its dignity and authority, GS would eventually be defined as a Constitution or highest rank—along with the Constitutions on the Liturgy and the Church already passed. (As a rule of thumb, “constitutions” address matters of faith, while “decrees” address matters of practice.) Xavier Rynne quotes Paul VI’s declaration that the finished document would become “the crown of the Council’s work.”
GS was an enormously ambitious document, touching upon the very nature of man to an analysis of society, freedom, human dignity, the need to eliminate all forms of discrimination, the importance of scientific research and admission of the Church’s previously poor attitude toward its findings and practitioners. Theologically speaking, GS stressed the goodness of creation and the central role of Christ in this connection. It defined the Church as the sacrament of unity of all mankind and Jesus Christ, whom Paul VI referred to as “the focal point of the desires of history and civilization.” As Rynne put it, “Mankind was destined to reform the world. Therefore, the Church…must “historicize itself,” insert itself in history, in order to promote the renewal of the world for which it exists.” (467)
The floor discussion is intriguing. While the reaction in general was highly favorable, the concerns have considerable merit. I noted the “overly optimistic” criticism earlier, but there was good historical precedent for this concern. Many segments of nineteenth century Protestant thought had tended toward a theology of Christ without the Cross, the age of “Jesus the Social Worker.” This naïve and optimistic theology had buttressed colonialism and a paternal attitude toward native subjects. Social Gospel Protestantism crashed and burned with the writings of Albert Schweitzer, new forms of Biblical research, and most of all World War I. It was replaced by the radical evangelical theology we are familiar with today, propounded majestically by the twentieth century minister and theologian Karl Barth.
Other bishops expressed concern that the document was trying to do too much and risked becoming “a panacea” for all the world’s ills. (468) If I may digress here for a moment, Pope Francis’ Laudato Si, whatever one thinks of the document, is focused upon one major problem—global weather change--which has been identified in similar ways by most of the scientific community, the United States CIA and the insurance industries around the world. Our present day pope is observing the principles of openness to competent modern day science, as spelled out in GS.
Another objection—very much to the point—was the document’s frequent use of the term “Modern World.” Bishops from three continents were quick to point out that GS was a “western oriented” document where the term modern might have some significance, but for much of the planet, where drinking water and other basics were daily concerns, the term “modern” was an almost cruel ignorance of actual suffering. Another point of concern was the perception that in a subtle way the Church was telling the world what it should do, and was very nebulous about what the Church itself planned to change and/or inaugurate to address the planet’s ills.
Rynne notes that American participation in the discussion was almost nil. He speculates that the reluctance in part may have been due to strong anti-communist groups in the United States allied to the Catholic Right, which would have constitutionally opposed worldwide collusion of action. I myself suspect that in matters of world justice, the American Bishops were finding themselves in a growing moral quandary over the Viet Nam War; the Gulf of Tonkin resolution enlarging the American war effort had been passed in Congress just a year before.
Within Gaudium et Spes are three paragraphs (48-50) that would have profound impact upon we seminarians, our professors, and our priestly ministries. I will discuss some very practical and personal experiences of Gaudium et Spes on Monday.