Another Look at Gaudium et Spes (by Margaret Lee)

Nov 20, 2013 | 2 comments

Gaudium et Spes – The Church in the Modern World 
(read it here …..)

A Catholic magazine, published in Spain, recently judged that the greatest scandal of Catholicism is that we are not a church of the poor.  The election of Pope Francis might help us to redress this failing but it is possible that we would not have needed the election of a new Pope to put us back on track, if we had taken seriously the final document of the Second Vatican Council, “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”, usually referred to as “Gaudium et Spes”.  It’s very first sentence tells us that, as followers of Christ, we must have a special concern for the grief and anguish of the poor and the afflicted. 

Earlier this year I took on the task of making this document accessible in the local parish newsletter.  With apologies to the late Fr. Austin Flannery, I set about putting the text into the everyday language.  I thought that I had done a good job until one day I met a neighbour who asked “Is that stuff for real or is it pie in the sky?”  He was referring to the chasm between what is in the document and our present reality, the current state of the people of God.  We cannot deny that much of what is contained in this document had not been to the forefront of church teaching in the last fifty years, but I was struck by the relevance that it still has for us half a century after it was first issued.   As someone who came of age the year it was published, I have some appreciation of the sea change it marked in the general tone and culture of Catholic teaching.    

Guadium et Spes clearly states the task of Christians—to save this world by following the teachings of Christ. But it acknowledges our weak human nature and recognizes that we will never do this perfectly, that we are a pilgrim people who will have many stumbles on our way to achieving the perfection of our world.  In my view the most profound change signalled in this document is that it is more concerned with our life and conditions in this world rather than in the next.  This is a major change from the tenor of Catholic Ireland in the fifties and early sixties.  In that era vocations to priesthood and religious life peaked, though it could be said that for many entering religious life was a flight from the world which was viewed as a dangerous place, a place where the salvation of one’s soul could be very easily compromised.  Dancing, going to the theatre, reading certain books were all fraught with possibilities for sin.  But by 1965 the Vatican Council was calling on all Christians to turn toward this world, to see it as created by God, redeemed by Christ and, therefore, fundamentally good. In dialogue with the world we should learn from the signs of the times, and see how the Gospel can speak to our generation. In the great encyclicals, Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno, the Church had a strong social message, and the Council told us to have confidence in addressing this message to all people, not just members of the Catholic Church. A confident, outward-looking Church was to be the way of the future.   

This new view of the world did not make Christian living easier, since we were now called to live as one family and to treat all people as brothers and sisters. The fundamental commandment, love of God and our fellow humans, was now more relevant than ever in a world where we are increasingly dependent on each other.  Against this background Part 1 of Gaudium et Spes addresses the following broad themes:  (1) the dignity of each human person; (2) the common good; (3) the meaning of life. 

The Dignity of the Human Person

 Gaudium et Spes reminds us of the fundamental Christian teaching that we are made in the image and likeness of God, and as such that human beings are good.  We have been created as males and females and the communion between men and women forms the first cell in the human community.  This recognises the intrinsic value of our sexuality.  We are marked out from the rest of God’s creatures by the gifts of intellect, self awareness and free will.  Free will enables us to make decisions which must be guided by the law written in our hearts, namely our conscience. As a consequence we must also respect other people’s conscientious decisions.  But conscience can become inured to what is right and wrong if we habitually choose to act against God’s plan for us, so we must be responsible in our decision making, always guided by the commandment of love of God and of neighbour.

This marked a big change in Church teaching. The innate goodness of the human person, body and soul, is in sharp contrast to the traditional emphasis on bodily purity, the subjection of women to churching following the birth of their children, defining “bad thoughts” as exclusively concerning sex rather than thinking ill of others.  The primacy of conscience put an end to a system that controlled every detail of the person’s spiritual journey.       

The document is realistic about our humanity and our sinfulness.    When Christ became human He ennobled our human nature and raised it to great heights but this same human nature is still darkened by sin. Our actions often cause disorder in our own lives, in our relationships with others and in the wider society. 

Common Good

Gaudium et Spes, having assured us of our dignity as humans, calls us to live by moral principles based on the good of the community, loving others and being committed to social justice. This morality makes sense in a world that is constantly shrinking, so that events that happen at the other side of the globe have consequences for all.  It is worth remembering that when this was written climate change was a concept foreign to most of us. 

Gaudium et Spes constantly emphasises the interdependence of the individual and the social environment.  If we improve ourselves we improve the world around us and, conversely, a proper social order leads to better individuals.  It further states that all institutions must be organised to meet the needs of the people; the person must be at the centre of all our agencies.  If we could build a society based on these principles we would surely have a very different health service, education system and social welfare sector. 

The document tells us that, in all our actions and decisions, we have to take the legitimate aspirations of others into account and these “others” are the entire human family.  We have a duty to respect the universal and inviolable rights of everyone;  the right to food, clothing, adequate housing, freedom in choosing a state in life and setting up a family, education, work, a good name, proper knowledge, following the dictates of one’s conscience, privacy and religious freedom.  These rights are frequently violated in Irish society as evidenced, for example, by the homeless, the unemployed and the extent to which the media make incursions into people’s privacy and, in the process, often destroy their good name. 

If the Church had taken the teaching of Gaudium et Spes seriously we would not be accused of failing the poor.  We would treat our neighbour as “another self”, constantly considering the right and means of the other to live life in a dignified way.  It makes special mention of the aged who may be abandoned, the foreign worker who may be despised without reason, the refugee, the child born outside of marriage and the starving.  Crimes that poison civilization, and that stem from disregard for the dignity of the person, are listed.  The list is as relevant today as when it was compiled; murder, euthanasia, abortion, genocide, wilful suicide, all violations of the dignity and integrity of the human person—mutilation, physical and mental torture, subhuman living conditions, deportation, slavery, arbitrary imprisonment, prostitution, trafficking of women and children, degrading working conditions where the person is seen just as a tool for profit.  This list brings to mind current issues like Guantanamo Bay, the sex trade in our own country, the sweat shop conditions of many workers in the clothing trade, the clamour amongst some for much more liberal abortion laws, our treatment of asylum seekers. The Council teaching is clearly still relevant today. 

Implementing Vatican 2 cannot happen without accepting the principles of social justice.   Gaudium et Spes calls for recognition of the basic equality of all people and states that any discrimination on the basis of race, culture, social conditions or gender must be eradicated.  Given that the document acknowledges that our earthly world, when its laws are based on the common good, is in harmony with God’s plan, it is logical that it sees social justice as necessary in a world progressively more interdependent.  We must go outside of ourselves in service to others, and all our dealings must be marked by truth and love. 

The emphasis on the common good and acting justly means that religious practice cannot be compartmentalised but must influence all aspects of our lives.  We cannot take a holiday from our Christianity.   Our faith must permeate the daily living of our lives and this can be quite ordinary.  When we pay our taxes, observe the speed limits and uphold our public hygiene regulations we are participating in God’s plan for the world because we are taking the needs of others into account.  Acting justly is not always about heroics.

 The Meaning of Life

Gaudium et Spes provides a manual for spirituality. It recognises our mortality and our natural fear of death—our fear of ceasing to exist, but reminds us that we owe our fragile human existence to the creative love of God who keeps us in being.  The yearnings of the human heart are accepted and we are reminded that only God, not material things, can fulfil these longings.  The material world is given to us by God and we must use its resources for the benefit of the human family.  In writing this, the bishops were aware of the growing economic and social tensions as people struggled to gain greater access to a limited supply of material benefits, but asserted that if we follow the Council’s teaching, we will be content to have enough and in this detachment we will best achieve our human potential. 

But living in harmony with others doesn’t come easily to us and we are often in conflict with our neighbours.  We often want what others have whether it’s material possessions, power or status.  Gaudium et Spes has advice on dealing with people who think differently from us, whose values we do not espouse and its counsel can hold its own with any model of conflict resolution.  We are urged to understand the viewpoint of those who disagree with us and dialogue with them in a spirit of kindness.  Our respect for the opinions of others need not cloud our own sense of what is right or wrong but we are warned against making judgements because it is only God who knows what is in the human heart.  If this framework was adopted in our families, local organisations, political parties and media debates, our discussions might be more fruitful. 

The meaning of our lives is bound up with our daily work.  The Council sees work as a means of providing for our families and serving our communities—not as a means of amassing private wealth.  The goal of our activity on this earth is to create a world that is in harmony with the interests of the universal human family.  In work we transform the world that comes from God and depends on God. It would be interesting to see what would happen if these values were to underpin the career guidance offered in our Catholic schools.  The thrust of Gaudium et Spes is that every aspect of our lives is connected with the lives of others and, if we are to be Christian we have to overcome what the Council calls individualistic morality.  We don’t save our souls in isolation from other people.   

Pie in the Sky

So why did my neighbour dismiss my synopsis of Gaudium et Spes as pie in the sky?  As a keen observer of the internal workings of the institutional church he could not accept that the church is devoid of earthly ambition.  It would be difficult to deny his scepticism, given the materialistic trappings of Vatican state, its obsession with titles, its hierarchical structure.  The censuring of some priests in Ireland seems to violate the right to follow the dictates of one’s conscience.  The ban on the ordination of women to priesthood reeks of the discrimination that Gaudium et Spes condemns, and while the document calls for dialogue with the world, ordinary Catholics have not been given much opportunity to express their views.  The authors of Humanae Vitae did not conduct any conversations with the married people for whom they were prescribing.

One of the problems with spreading the message of this rich document is that many people in today’s church know nothing about it.  Following my contributions to the parish newsletter, one woman expressed real regret about the missed opportunities of fifty years ago—an opportunity to introduce us to the communal nature of our faith, to our social obligations.  Is it too late to disseminate the message of this Council document?  The document calls for education on the principle of the common good.   Maybe it is not too late for parishes to embark on such an education programme, but it will have to be an education that is based on dialogue and that recognises the wisdom of God’s people, that recognises the capacity of the human heart to seek God. 

We continue to have “spes”, because the underlying belief of the document is that Christ rose from the dead and this gives us the constant hope that good will triumph over evil, or in this case, indifference.

by Margaret Lee, (Reality Magazine, Nov 2013, with kind permission)

Gaudium et Spes – The Church in the Modern World  (read it here …..)



  1. Mary O Vallely

    Grateful thanks to Margaret Lee for explaining Gaudium et Spes in such clear, concise language and for gifting us with an insight into a document with which so many of us were not acquainted and which contains so much of what we need to help us be better neighbours to each other. This is wonderful stuff. Let us not think of 50 years lost but of new opportunities to put the teaching of this document into practice. 🙂

  2. MartinM

    Wonderful synopsis Margaret. Thanks. I felt the energy rise in me as I read it. A church with this as its mission statement is a church I would be happy to be part of.

    “while the document calls for dialogue with the world, ordinary Catholics have not been given much opportunity to express their views.”

    I’m glad the ACI website is now in place to allow this dialogue to begin to take place.

    “Gaudium et Spes constantly emphasises the interdependence of the individual and the social environment(the common good).”

    reminded me of this:-



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