Retrieving Gaudium et Spes

Editorial FAITH Magazine November – December 2012

'No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment" Mt 9:16

During this Year of Faith, 50 years on from the beginning of the Second Vatican Council, the Church is calling us to recover the texts of that ecumenical council as "normative" for the 21st century. The Council's fourth and last "constitution" - published on the last working day of the four-year Council, 7 December 1965 - is known by its opening words Gaudium et Spes, although its proper title is "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World". It is, in effect, a new plan of action, or at least a statement of strategy for the whole Church in the face of a rapidly changing world. At this providential moment the actual text of the Pastoral Constitution remains profoundly applicable and prophetic. Yet its key themes are still either widely ignored or woefullymisrepresented.

Central to its message is the call for a comprehensive development in Catholic thinking and the presentation of magisterial doctrine to the modern world. At the same time, that continuity with Tradition, which is an essential mark of authentic and integral Christianity, is clearly emphasised. The fact that the Constitution bears the tag "pastoral" is sometimes taken to mean that it has no dogmatic force. However, its authoritative power as a solemn magisterial document does not lie in anathemas, but in its repeated insistence on the urgency of a new evangelical imperative which is laid on the Church in these intellectually, socially and spiritually turbulent times.


The word "urgent" is prominent in the text, and its sense of urgency has lost none of its impact over the intervening decades. It is now just over 100 years since Blessed John Henry Newman's introduction to his Development of Christian Doctrine spoke of "waking up with a new world to conquer without the tools to do it". That idea was regarded as dangerously progressive and uncalled for by the English ecclesial establishment of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In our own day the prevailing ultra-conservatism, which failed to address the need for authentic development before the Council, contributed in no small measure to the doctrinal and pastoral crisis which has followed it.

The Council called for a development of doctrine but the documents gave only a few pointers to specific developments. Cardinal Newman's words have proved all too prophetic. In the years following the Council the very idea of "development" was hijacked by influential voices of anti-doctrinal dissent and anti-magisterial rebellion. The actual texts of the constitutions were all too often ignored in favour of vague and spurious invocations of "the spirit of the Council", or else they were superficially raided for selective and misleading quotations.

Theological schools and pastoral initiatives came to dominate which, either in principle or in practice, downplayed the transcendent divinity and the incarnate authority of Christ as literal Godhead made Man living in his Church as the source of truth and life for humanity. Throughout the 1970s and 80s Faith magazine often protested against these betrayals of Catholic truth and of God's people, all the while calling for and offering the outlines of a development of doctrine which is faithful to the teaching of Gaudium et Spes and the tradition. Through it the re-evangelisation envisaged by the Council might be achieved.

More recently, we have seen a welcome rediscovery of the treasures of Catholic truth and tradition, especially among the young. However, a certain neoconservative reaction has also arisen which, in some quarters, recklessly criticises Gaudium et Spes in particular, even dismissing some of its contents as heterodox. Quite often these reactions reveal a failure to understand the implications - both positive and negative - of modern culture for the presentation of the Gospel. Thus, while rightly stressing the necessary continuity of Church teaching, they fail to grasp the concomitant need for development - a development that is now long overdue.

Polarisation and failure

Ignorance and misunderstanding of what Gaudium et Spes really says and calls for have done the Church and the world a tragic disservice. It is nothing less than a failure to implement the full teaching of Second Vatican Council, which is indeed an authentic council of the Church in continuity with all her other ecumenical councils. Invoking Gaudium et Spes to suggest that binding Church teachings can be "transcended", modified out of all recognition or simply set aside in the name of modernity is an abuse of both the letter and the spirit of the Pastoral Constitution. Equally, to suggest that it is enough merely to reassert Catholic teaching in the language and the manner of the recent past is to ignore the core message of the Magisterium outlined in Gaudium et Spes.

Key themes of the Pastoral Constitution

The main themes of the document can be summed up in the following nine points:

1. Humanity has entered a "new stage of history".

2. Science has had a major impact on contemporary thought, life and culture.

3. There are significant dangers for humanity in this.

4. There is also sincerity and insight outside the Church, which could be harnessed to good effect.

5. Humanity clearly needs a new vision of its place in the cosmos.

6. The Church has a key role in providing this crucial development in a manner which avoids the dangers.

7. It is necessary to present again the saving truths of revelation to the modern world.

8. Acknowledging Jesus Christ as the recapitulation of history and creation is at the heart of this vision and its production.

9. We should expect God to provide the grace to respond to the challenge.

The discursive, exploratory nature of the text interweaves these key themes throughout, reinforcing and developing them as the document progresses. To show this, we have produced an overview of each theme, with appropriate extracts, in the editorial article that follows.

It is difficult to deny that many of the potential dangers for humanity in the development of a scientific but secular culture outlined by Gaudium et Spes have now become a reality. The document did not simply call for the Church to "open itself to the world" in an uncritical and imprudent way. Where that approach has been taken it has proved a recipe for the secularisation of the Church rather than for the re-evangelisation of society. However, just as the early missionaries to England were instructed by the Pope who sent them not to destroy but to build on whatever elements of truth and goodness they found in pagan culture, so too Gaudium et Spes pointed out that elements of modern secular culture contain genuine insights into the cosmos and human nature, and that authentic movementstowards the global integration of the human family - as well as much good will and sincerity of heart - can be found outside the visible boundaries of the Church. All of which can and should be harnessed for the glory of God and for the salvation of the nations.

When we speak of a "new synthesis of science and religion", what we mean is shedding the full light of revelation on that unified and dynamic vision of the cosmos which has been uncovered by modern research so that we can present to the world again the orthodox Catholic vision of Man and of all Creation in Christ in a powerful and convincing way. This is what Gaudium et Spes also called for. Yet in our opinion, apart from Edward Holloway, founder of Faith magazine, only Stanley Jaki and the British analytical philosopher John Haldane among prominent Catholic thinkers have taken seriously what that constitution describes as the "passing from a rather static concept of the order of things to a more dynamic, evolutionary one" in a way that maintains continuity with defined Catholicdogma.

The French philosopher Etienne Gilson did attempt to address the impact of science while remaining faithful to the tradition, and his book From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality (1972) is still influential among some neo-scholastics. Yet, through the claim that scientific methodology rigorously excludes final causality he sought to prevent scientific discovery having any metaphysical implications. Ultimately such a philosophy remains closed within a Kantian realm of a priori ideas, untouched by and unable to communicate with the discoveries of the telescope and the microscope. In this issue Leonard Ares sketches the Cartesian foundation to this approach to science. It is hard to square it with the teaching of Gaudium et Spes.

The constitution has been described as encouraging a shift from deductive to inductive methodology, in other words one based upon a developing understanding and observation of human nature. To that extent it represents a return to the original Aristotelian tradition that recognised the need to develop metaphysics out of observation of the physical. Even Stanley Jaki's grand attempts to develop a Christian account of the origins of science ultimately find that metaphysical hurdle difficult to jump.

On the other hand, the so called Transcendentalist school of thought - in its broadest sense including Karl Rahner, Bernard Lonergan and Henri de Lubac - has attempted to develop a synthetic world view for modernity. However, in our opinion, and here we would include Hans Urs von Balthasar, these thinkers bear too much of a Hegelian flavour to be truly consistent with Catholic tradition -notwithstanding de Lubac's outstanding contributions to the nature-grace debate. Gaudium et Spes calls for a development in our concept of human nature (paras 44 & 61, and cf. 22), made up as we are of physical body and spiritual soul (14 & 41, and cf. 29). In this magazine we have often argued the failure of the Transcendentalist tradition to do this in a way that clearly supports Catholicrealism and Christology.

In Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians (2007) the British Dominican Fergus Kerr has shown how the often-insightful developments of the Nouvelle Theologie stepped too easily beyond some of the careful and necessary metaphysical and epistemological distinctions worked out by the older scholasticism. In his review of this book R R Reno, who has since become editor of First Things, went further in his appeal for more careful development, stating: "The collapse of neo-scholasticism has not led to the new and fuller vision sought by [these thinkers]. It has created a vacuum filled with simple-minded shibboleths" (from his article "Theology after the Revolution", First Things, May 2007).
The French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is widely known for his efforts to develop a Christ-centred vision of cosmic evolution. Unfortunately, because he makes matter and spirit twin aspects of one essential energy, the outcome of his thought tends to collapse the infinite distinction between God and creation, with Jesus Christ becoming the final flowering of an emergent godhead. In our view, the delegates who dominated the first Vatican-sponsored conference on evolution, in 2009, as well as members of the American Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, have been all too inclined to support this kind of thinking.

In his article "Rescuing Gaudium et Spes: The New Humanism of John Paul II" (Nova et Vetera, 2010) George Weigel has tried to show some of the depth of theology in the Pastoral Constitution and its connection to the work of Blessed John Paul II, who was instrumental in its composition. He brings out the document's "prescient" focus on "the anthropological question" (the account of human nature and identity) in the modern world. John Paul IPs own writings did much to develop a new "personalist" vision of Catholic moral, spiritual and social teaching, although not perhaps a clear anthropology or philosophy of human nature as body and soul.

However, Weigel gives too little emphasis to the equally prescient emphasis in Gaudium et Spes on the dynamic world view ushered in by science, nor to its vision of the Christ as the recapitulation of all creation and history. This latter theme was prominent in John Paul II’s papal writings, especially in Tertio Millennio Adveniente (Apostolic Letter, 1994) and Incarnationis Mysterium (Jubilee Year Bull, 1998) cf.

Pope Benedict emphasised the same theme in his post-Synodal Exhortation Verbum Domini (2010; see Canon Ruscillo's articles in our last two issues). More recently, at the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, the Holy Father said that the aim of Vatican II was to revive a living and personal faith in Jesus Christ in individual hearts and minds. He suggested that this aim has been largely unrealised and that the real fruits of the Council are as yet undeveloped. In many ways - although not completely, nor without controversy - the other constitutions of the Council have been implemented, but Gaudium et Spes in its core message remains the forgotten constitution. The failure to connect Christ, man and creation in a single, coherent and orthodox vision, for the age of science, is a vital missinglink in the Church's efforts to preach "the Word who is Life" to our post-Christian world.

For Jesus Christ to be seen and accepted as Lord of individual hearts and minds, he must also be acknowledged as the Lord of history and of the whole of creation, which from its very beginning was centred and predestined upon his coming in the flesh. We must reclaim all truth and the whole of reality as coming from the Eternal Logos and finding their fulfilment in the Logos Incarnate. Christ the Lord is the meaning and fulfilment both of matter and of spirit, and he is the answer to the enigma that is man, in whom both orders of creation are united.

"The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. It is not surprising, then, that in Him all the aforementioned truths find their root and attain their crown." (GS 22)

Only he can heal our wounded nature and unite our troubled world in the wisdom and peace that comes uniquely from the mind and heart of God.


The Second Vatican Council, through its Pastoral Constitution, called for an intellectual development that synthesises science, personalism and other aspects of modern culture with Church teaching, in a spirit of respectful but evangelical openness towards those outside the Church. Reviving the vision of the Greek Fathers it saw Jesus Christ as the recapitulation of the whole of history, but it did not offer much specific development of philosophy or theology to underpin a new apologetic able to inform a fruitful dialogue with modernity and a new call to faith. Pope Benedict has called for a Year of Faith in which we are to return to our own foundations -spiritual and doctrinal, especially as outlined in Vatican II - so that we can take up the task of re-evangelising our scientificallysophisticated yet now largely faithless culture.

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