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Dialogue and the spirit of Vatican II: reading Gaudium et spes fifty years later.

It is November of 2014, and I just attended a panel discussion at the Church of St. Francis Xavier in New York City. The subject was the synod of bishops that was held in Rome in October, 2014, to reflect on "the family." Ordinarily, the thought of yet another such gathering of celibate men in the Catholic Church to discuss things such as marriage and sexuality would make me cringe. Throughout the years of the papacies 1 knew as an adult (John Paul II and Benedict XVI), Church pronouncements on these topics seemed consistently regressive. As someone who has long been involved in the Church-reform movement and who has dedicated much of my academic work to the struggles of gay Catholics, I was leery whenever Church leaders issued statements about family life. It would inevitably demonstrate the ever-widening gap between the bishops' views and what was going on with families in the "real" world, but some notable differences were apparent this time around. First, we have in charge Pope Francis, who seems to have a more progressive point of view than his predecessors (a low bar to surmount, I realize); second, the bishops asked for input from lay Catholics beforehand. Granted, this was not carried out in any consistent way globally, but it was a nice gesture toward listening to what everyday Catholics have to say; third, and perhaps most astonishingly, the final document was issued with transparency about how the bishops voted on each of the paragraphs. So, even though progressive content welcoming gay Catholics and reconsidering the treatment of those who are divorced and remarried was ultimately defeated, it remained in the released text so that we could all know what was discussed--and that many bishops favor change in these areas.

There is still a great deal to criticize about this synod and the way the Church does its business. One need only observe the usual problem that there were no women in the synod to realize that we still have a long way to go. I am also not holding my breath for any substantive changes in the near future. But, I want to use this event as the starting point for thinking about the possibility of recovering some of the positive energy of the Second Vatican Council, which both John Paul II and Benedict XVI tried so hard to suppress. We are celebrating the fiftieth year of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies at the same time that we are marking fifty years since the closing of Vatican II. What an exciting moment in time to be celebrating the work and legacy of Leonard Swidler, who has been a champion of keeping the spirit of Vatican II alive! Indeed, his work in ecumenism and interreligious dialogue is an outgrowth of the Church's engagement with the modern world at Vatican II. In light of this convergence, I thought it would be helpful to return to the final document of the council, Gaudium et spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), to reflect upon what it has to say and how it speaks to us fifty years after its first appearance.

Promulgated at the very end of the council, Gaudium et spes is perhaps the most intriguing and significant of its documents. One of only four constitutions drafted during the council, such a treatise was not even part of the initial agenda of possible topics and concerns. As the bishops consulted with one another, they gradually realized the need to look beyond the Church itself and theologically to address the world or, as they put it, "the whole of humanity." As such, it was entirely the product of conciliar reflection and debate, and it became the symbol of modern Catholicism's desire to be in dialogue with the world. It represents better than any other document the council's spirit of optimism and dialogue in the face of the many challenges confronting modern society.

Pope John XXIII had set the tone in his address at the opening of the council when he warned against listening to the "prophets of doom, who are always announcing some ominous event, almost as if the end of the world were upon us." Instead, he suggested the need for the Church to discern the "signs of the times" and to overcome "through fitting measures of renewal" the tendency to see in the modern era "nothing but transgression and disaster."' The bishops took his words to heart and found the courage to move the Church from a defensive posture against the modern world to one of engagement and dialogue. The very title of Gaudium et spes, taken from the opening of the preface, reinforces this approach: "The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the [people] of this age ... are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ." The first paragraph closes with the recognition that the Church community is "truly linked with [humankind and its history by the deepest of bonds" (GS, no. I). (2)

The document is divided into two parts, and the terminology of "Pastoral Constitution" is explained immediately in a footnote. It is "pastoral," the bishops explained, because "while resting on doctrinal principles, it seeks to express the relation of the Church to the world and modern [hu]mankind." (3) They say the first part has a pastoral slant because it is concerned with the teaching on the human person, the world in which that person lives, and people's relationships with each other. It is actually a theologically-well-developed Christian anthropology. The second part addresses special questions and problems they considered of "greater urgency" at that time. Consequently, part two feels equally theological and sociological. Interestingly, the bishops acknowledged in the first footnote that some elements of part two have a "permanent value; others, only a transitory one." Thus, they urged interpreters to "bear in mind ... the changeable circumstances which the subject matter, by its very nature, involves." (4)

I will have more to say about the second part below, but I want to say a word here about interpreting such a document as this. There has been much debate lately about whether Vatican II should be understood more as a disruption or as a continuity. In other words, did Vatican II say something radically new, or did it just express the constant teachings of the Catholic tradition in the words of its time? I would say that such questions set up a false dichotomy that goes against the grain of Catholicism, which has always taken a "both-and" approach. Consider that ours is a tradition of faith and reason, scripture and tradition, grace and works. Why should we view Vatican II any differently? Strictly calling it a "disruption" risks glossing over the fact that change (slow as it may be) is part and parcel of the tradition; but, strictly calling it a "continuity" is patently disingenuous, given the council's radical affirmation of ideas that had previously been deemed heretical. To deny such revolutionary developments is to deny the ability of the Holy Spirit to exercise change in the Church. As such, I want to focus on the council's innovations. I should mention that I learned this approach to the texts of Vatican II as a student of Swidler. Hermeneutically, it makes sense to me because there would be nothing significant if the council had just reiterated old formulas. It is in the "new" that we are challenged to change. Without innovation, Catholicism risks becoming an artifact, a relic of a worldview that the rest of the world long ago abandoned. We need to focus on what is new in the council documents so that we do not slip into old ways of seeing things when God is demanding a fresh perspective.

Gaudium et spes is filled with the "new" and is most representative of what made Vatican II so significant. Swidler says that, with Vatican II, the Catholic Church made a "Copemican Turn" in its approach to the modern world. It moved away from blanket condemnations reflecting a fortress mentality and turned toward a more optimistic approach reflecting the need to dialogue. (5) The document is permeated with the recognition that neither the Church nor the world has all the answers to the problems of modernity; rather, the Church and the world need each other and, echoing St. Augustine, ultimately work together for the glory of God because both are part of God's creation. "That the earthly and the heavenly city penetrate each other is a fact accessible to faith alone; it remains a mystery of human history" (GS, no. 40). The document further explains, "The Church and the political community in their own fields are autonomous and independent from each other. Yet both, under different titles, are devoted to the personal and social vocation of the same [people]" (GS, no. 76). This is a far cry from the Church of a few decades earlier that positioned itself as a bulwark against modernity and issued lists of errors in the world that it roundly condemned. That many of these condemnations were officially overturned with Vatican II is a testament to the fact that the council was indeed saying something new.

Gaudium et spes begins with a sweeping preface and introduction and the recognition that the Church carries the responsibility of reading "the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel" (GS, no. 4). This is indicative of the inductive approach the document takes, beginning not with abstract principles but with the lived experience of the people it is addressing, which would also become a hallmark of Catholic theology after Vatican II. In its assessment of the "signs of the times," it reflects the mixture of progress and angst that marked the 1960's: "Today, the human race is involved in a new stage of history. Profound and rapid changes are spreading by degrees around the whole world" (GS, no. 4). The bishops noted the irony of intransigent hunger and poverty in a world of unprecedented wealth and resources. Because "the human race has passed from a rather static concept of reality to a more dynamic, evolutionary one" (GS, no. 5), people are increasingly questioning long-accepted values. On the one hand, the bishops observed, this can positively purify religion of its superstitious elements; on the other hand, people are now more likely to abandon religion. Their words are prophetic today, when a 2012 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that twenty percent of Americans are religiously unaffiliated. (6) This makes the Church's engagement with the world all the more necessary, so that it can be part of the solution rather than be perceived as part of the problem, and so that it projects an attitude of humility and relevance rather than triumphalism. Indeed, Pope John XXIII stressed the difference between the deposit of faith itself and the way it is presented. In Gaudium et spes, the bishops believed that the "proper presentation of the Church's teaching" (GS, no. 21) is the best remedy for atheism.

In its first chapter, the document takes up some very deep questions about the nature of what it means to be fully human. For me, this is one of the most noteworthy aspects of the whole pastoral constitution, for it lays the groundwork for all that follows and calls all Catholics to a mature level of responsibility. It expresses a positive view of human nature but also recognizes the need for God's wisdom to purify our intellectual knowledge. It is at this point that the bishops made their famous remarks on conscience: "In the depths of his conscience, man [sic] detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience ... For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged.... In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor" (GS, no. 16). It is significant that the bishops associate each person's final judgment not with Church precepts per se but, rather, with following our hearts in love. They even went so far as to say, "Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity" (GS, no. 16). This distinction between error and the one who errs was a theological innovation. It recognizes that human dignity and freedom are inextricably linked; with human freedom comes human error, but to coerce truth is a violation of human dignity. In fact, they assert that there should be no distinction between believers and unbelievers with regard to the fundamental rights of the human person. (7)

This is fleshed out even more in the next chapter concerning the human community. The bishops noted that respect and love must "be extended ... to those who think or act differently than we do in social, political and even religious matters" (GS, no. 28). Here again, they distinguished between error and the person in error, who never loses his or her dignity: "God alone is the judge and searcher of hearts, for that reason He forbids us to make judgments about the internal guilt of anyone" (GS, no. 28). So serious were the bishops about this that they pushed this into the realm of policy: "[W]ith respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God's intent" (GS, no. 29). They urged us to move beyond an individualistic morality toward solidarity with one another and a genuine concern for the common good. These are inspiring words and cautionary in today's political climate whenever the Church feels tempted to impose its moral teachings on everyone in society (which sadly happens far too frequently). The freedom of one's well-formed conscience is fundamental to human dignity. Again, this stands in stark contrast to condemnations of religious liberty made less than a century earlier.

Chapters three and four are concerned with the roles human beings play in the modern world, both within and outside of the Church, but it is misleading to overdraw this boundary because, as Christians, we inhabit both the earthly and the heavenly cities: "Therefore, let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other" (GS, no. 43). This has important implications for how we understand the Church itself. Recognizing that Church authorities throughout the centuries have not always been faithful to the Spirit of God, the bishops advise lay people to embrace their distinctive role in spreading the gospel: "Let the layman [sic] not imagine that his pastors are always such experts, that to every problem which arises, however complicated, they can readily give him a concrete solution, or even that such is their mission (GS, no. 43). Yet, they also wisely recognize that sincere and faithful Christians will often disagree with each other on a given matter. Hence, no Church member, lay or ordained, is allowed "to appropriate the Church's authority for his [or her] opinion' (GS, no. 43). These, too, are cautionary words in today's context in which even bishops disagree among themselves on questions of public policy.

Following chapter four is the second part of the document, regarding "Some Problems of Special Urgency." It deals with a wide range of topics, from marriage and family to culture, economics, politics, war and peace, and the fostering of a community of nations. While it is well worth reading, this section is, as Giuseppe Alberigo noted, marked by "long and context-dependent considerations of social philosophy." (8) There are, however, two significant points worth mentioning because they have lasting ramifications. First, the section on marriage and family doctrinally defines as equal both the unitive and procreative ends of sexuality in marriage, without prioritizing one over the other. (9) Second, the section on war and peace, while still allowing for "just war," explicitly and unequivocally condemns acts of genocide and mass destruction. (10) Keep in mind that the bishops were writing all of this in the context of civil-rights movements, second-wave feminism, the nuclear-arms race, and the Vietnam War. Some observers hoped they would make even bolder statements. The bishops themselves struggled to achieve a consensus regarding what to say about such contentious, globally contingent issues. Ultimately, they were able to pass this constitution through their assembly with ninety-seven percent in favor, so we can safely assume it is representative of their combined wisdom and perspectives. These and similar topics still generate a great deal of debate within both the Church and society at large, so it is helpful that Gaudium et spes provides a model of how to approach these issues pastorally, with an eye toward dialogue and unity in diversity.

Even though it has been criticized by some for a naive faith in progress, Gaudium et spes is a touchstone for understanding the vibrancy and diversity of Catholicism today. More than that, ever since the Haec Sancta decree at the 1415 Council of Constance, conciliar decisions have been considered the highest teaching of the Church. Thus, Vatican II documents such as Gaudium et spes are normative for all members of the Church, from the pope to the laity. To follow the teachings of Vatican II, with all of its innovations and possibilities, is to be a truly "orthodox" Catholic. That is why it is so distressing when so-called "conservative" Catholics disparage change, which leads us back to the present moment in time with which I began this essay. Vatican II had recommended regular synods in the years following, but this generally has not been carried out. John Paul II and Benedict XVI wanted to convey the sense that Catholic teachings on contentious issues were settled and that dialogue and dissent were problematic, so they appointed bishops who would toe this line. So many of the current bishops were shaped by that mindset that they have collectively lost the radical thrust of Vatican II. The present synod, however, is calling them to think outside the box. In the words of Thomas Reese, "Now Francis is saying let's go in a different direction and let's have a discussion. The last two pontificates, there was no room for discussion, and this makes them nervous and confused." (11)

There is no reason for Catholics to feel nervous about discussion--quite the contrary. Swidler has been tireless in his efforts to demonstrate that dialogue is really the only way forward in a pluralistic world that takes religious freedom seriously. The challenge, as he has reminded us, is that genuine dialogue means listening carefully to our dialogue partners and then being willing to revise our positions in light of what we have heard. At Vatican II, the Church officially initiated a dialogue with the modern world, but fear of change has inhibited the conversation. Progressive Catholics have hung in there despite the paralysis. We may loudly voice our dissent, but most of us feel connected to a long tradition and understand that the Catholic Church is much bigger than the politicized arguments of the day.

Following the 2014 synod, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat penned an editorial urging conservative Catholics to be wary of Francis, suggesting that changes in Church teachings on marriage and the family could lead to a schism in the Church. (12) Shame on him! Conservative Catholics (inasmuch as any of these kinds of categories can be referenced monolithically) have long insisted that being Catholic means being loyal to the pope, so this loyalty should not depend on who holds the office. Beyond that glaring inconsistency, Douthat and his ilk should be welcoming the dialogue. Gaudium et spes gives us the blueprint. The synod, with all of its messiness and problems, represents a chance to recover some of the spirit of Vatican II. We all need to be part of the dialogue and to allow the Holy Spirit to change the Church accordingly, not according to our preconceived notions of what is revisable and what is not. We can achieve this only through genuine dialogue: "With the help of the Holy Spirit, it is the task of the entire People of God, especially pastors and theologians, to hear, distinguish and interpret the many voices of our age, and to judge them in the light of the divine word, so that revealed truth can always be more deeply penetrated, better understood and set forth to greater advantage" (GS, no. 44).

(1) Quoted in Giuseppe Alberigo, A Brief History of Vatican II (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006), p. 22.

(2) The document is available at ments/vat-ii_cons_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html, my emphasis.

(3) GS, Preface, n. 1.

(4) Ibid.

(5) See Leonard Swidler, Toward a Catholic Constitution (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1996).

(6) The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, '"Nones' on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation," October 9, 2012; available at

(7) See GS, no. 21.

(8) Alberigo, A Brief History, p. 115.

(9) See GS, no. 50.

(10) See GS, no. 80.

(11) Quoted in Laurie Goodstein, "U.S. Bishops Struggle to Follow Lead of Francis," New York Times, November 12, 2014.

(12) Ross Douthat, "The Pope and the Precipice," New York Times, October 26, 2014.
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Author:McGinley, Dugan
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EXVA
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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