Vatican II was a major event in the life of the Catholic Church. It took place at a time of rapid social and economic change. Former colonies were gaining independence. New technologies promised material progress but also held dangers. It was a time of tension between communism and the West. Gaudium et Spes, Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, appeared in 1965. Its presentation of the role of the Church in the world marked a major development in the understanding of the place of work for justice in the mission of the Church.
The opening paragraph of Gaudium et Spes is one of the most often quoted passages from a Catholic Social Teaching document:
“The joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ for theirs is a community composed of men [sic] and nothing human can fail to raise an echo in their hearts …” (GS, n 1)
The document sketches some of the main social and cultural transformations of the time, including:
– unprecedented wealth and continuing hunger and illiteracy
– a vivid sense of unity and interdependence along with continuing political, social, economic, racial and ideological conflict leading to the peril of war
– advances in science and technology
– and a neglect of the spirit (n 4-5).
Turning to the role of the Church, it stressed that the mission of the Church is to act as a leaven transforming the world. Rather than seeing spiritual matters as separate from the world, the Church should engage in building a more human world that embodies the values of the Gospel. It highlighted the:
– Christian duty to work for peace and the avoidance of war (n 77 -82)
– need for international efforts for social and economic development in poor countries (n 65 – 66, 85 – 90)
– duty of richer countries to assist the development of poorer countries (n 9)
– Church’s support for human rights (n 41)
– need for a more equitable distribution of wealth within and between countries (n 66, 69).
The teachings of Vatican II mark a shift in theological and ethical methodology compared with the early modern teachings. The notion that social issues belong to the natural world and are distinct from the supernatural is abandoned. Grace, faith, the Gospel, Jesus and the Spirit are now seen as influencing life in this world. The ethical methodology shifts towards historical consciousness. For example, detailed consideration of issues concerning marriage and the family, the proper development of culture, socioeconomic life, and the political community begin, rather than ending, by examining the signs of the times, whether positive or negative.
Contribution to Catholic Social Teaching
Gaudium et Spes carries a lot of formal authority. In fact, as a teaching of the Pope in Council, it is the most formally authoritative Catholic Social Teaching document to date. Its major contribution is a new understanding of the nature and role of the Church in the modern world that rejects a split between faith and daily life. It makes social justice a key criterion for Christian living and affirms the theological method of reading the signs of the times.