Commentary on Gaudium et Spes: Part II

Daniel J. Castellano


Preface [of Document] (1-3)
Introductory Statement: The Situation of Men in the Modern World (4-10)
Part I: The Church and Man's Calling (11-45)
  Chapter I: The Dignity of the Human Person (12-22)
  Chapter II: The Community of Mankind (23-32)
  Chapter III: Man's Activity throughout the World (33-39)
  Chapter IV: The Role of the Church in the Modern World (40-45)
Part II: Some Problems of Special Urgency (46-93)
  Chapter I: Fostering the Nobility of Marriage and the Family (47-52)
  Chapter II: The Proper Development of Culture (53-62)
  Chapter III: Economic and Social Life (63-72)
  Chapter IV: The Life of the Political Community (73-76)
  Chapter V: The Fostering of Peace and the Promotion of a Community of Nations (77-93)

Part II: Some Problems of Special Urgency

In the constitution’s second part, the Council addresses some concrete social, economic and political issues, as they relate to the moral values of human dignity discussed in Part I. Although the bishops offer proposals in apparently temporal matters, they are not acting outside their jurisdiction, for it is the duty of the Church to interpret the signs of the times, evaluate them in light of revelation, and guide men to shape society in accord with divine law. It is the duty of the Magisterium in particular to give authentic interpretation of divine revelation. While the concrete proposals offered by the Fathers have no guarantee of infallibility, they do reflect authentic Catholic social doctrine. Even non-infallible teachings of the universal Magisterium demand the assent of obedience from Catholics. Resistance to the proposals in Gaudium et Spes is usually motivated by extrinsic ideological commitments, on the left and on the right. Yet it is the duty of every Catholic to see that his political and economic doctrines are in conformity with the divine law as interpreted by the Church. He cannot simply receive such ideologies as the world presents them, but is bound to purify them and infuse them with the light of Christian truth.

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Chapter I: Fostering the Nobility of Marriage and the Family

Grounded in a sound anthropology, the Council’s social program begins not with politics or culture, but with that most natural of societies upon which all others are based: the family, which has its source in the institution of marriage.

…the excellence of this institution is not everywhere reflected with equal brilliance, since polygamy, the plague of divorce, so-called free love and other disfigurements have an obscuring effect. In addition, married love is too often profaned by excessive self-love, the worship of pleasure and illicit practices against human generation. (GS, 47)

These distortions of marriage, found even in ancient societies, obscure its essential charitable qualities of fidelity and fecundity. Modern social, economic, and political demands may create further difficulties for fostering traditional family relations.

Yet, the power and strength of the institution of marriage and family can also be seen in the fact that time and again, despite the difficulties produced, the profound changes in modern society reveal the true character of this institution in one way or another. (GS, 47)

This may be seen, for example, in the modern emphasis on free personal consent by both parties in marriage, and in the increased orientation of parenthood toward the good of the child.

The Council teaches that marriage is a divine institution, whose essential root is a “conjugal covenant of irrevocable personal consent.” (GS, 48) This irrevocability is essential to the character of assent to marriage. Indeed, even those who eventually divorce have no such intention when they commit to marry, or they could hardly be said to marry at all. Although marriage is contracted by personal consent, it is not a mere human institution, for its benefits and purposes are endowed by God. (GS, 48) These are intelligible under natural law, which is the divine law written in nature.

By their very nature, the institution of matrimony itself and conjugal love are ordained for the procreation and education of children, and find in them their ultimate crown.… As a mutual gift of two persons, this intimate union and the good of the children impose total fidelity on the spouses and argue for an unbreakable oneness between them. (GS, 48)

The above applies to marriage in general. Christian marriage has a further, sacramental character:

Authentic married love is caught up into divine love and is governed and enriched by Christ’s redeeming power and the saving activity of the Church… For this reason Christian spouses have a special sacrament by which they are fortified and receive a kind of consecration in the duties and dignity of their state. (GS, 48)

The sanctifying mission of the Church applies not only to individuals, but also to societies. The sacrament of marriage brings this sanctifying activity into the family, the building block of society.

The Council confirms the social priority of the family by declaring that parents, rather than the state, have primary responsibility for the education, especially religious education, of children. (GS, 48)

“Widowhood, accepted bravely as a continuation of the marriage vocation, should be esteemed by all.” (GS, 48) Refusing to remarry is not obligatory, but it is nonetheless esteemed, since it shows fidelity to the original marital bond even after the death of a spouse.

Spouses, and even the betrothed, should nourish their relationship “by pure conjugal love and undivided affection.” (GS, 49) Conjugal love is not a euphemism for erotic gratification, as that is forbidden to the merely betrothed. Rather, “it is directed from one person to another through an affection of the will; it involves the good of the whole person, and therefore can enrich the expressions of body and mind with a unique dignity, ennobling these expressions as special ingredients and signs of the friendship distinctive of marriage.” (GS, 49) That is to say, physical actions are not conjugal love, but they can be expressive of such love. Conjugal love is an affectionate concern for the good of the whole person. When actions of the body and mind are informed by this noble love, the actions themselves are ennobled. It may sound strange in English to speak of marriage as a type of “friendship,” but in the Latin amicitia it is more obvious that friendship is a relation of love (amor).

Conjugal love so defined is “worthy of special gifts… of grace and of charity. Such love, merging the human with the divine, leads the spouses to a free and mutual gift of themselves… such love pervades the whole of their lives… Therefore it far excels mere erotic inclination, which, selfishly pursued, soon enough fades wretchedly away.” (GS, 49) Clearly, conjugal love is neither erotic gratification nor the desire for such. Eroticism tends to be oriented to one’s own pleasure, regarding the other as a mere object of pleasure. Even if one unselfishly devotes oneself to the bodily pleasure of the other, this still falls far short of conjugal love, as it is not oriented toward the good of the whole person. Further, erotic attraction is a poor foundation for marriage, for physical beauty and infatuation fade with time.

[The love in Christian marriage] will never be profaned by adultery or divorce. Firmly established by the Lord, the unity of marriage will radiate from the equal personal dignity of wife and husband, a dignity acknowledged by mutual and total love. (GS, 49)

Christian marriage requires a special commitment to pure conjugal love. The spouses’ total regard for each other’s good precludes any exceptions to the divine law against divorce and remarriage. Divorce arises when at least one spouse prefers some selfish interest, such as physical pleasure or professional ambition, over the good of the other. In antiquity, it was usually the man who divorced the wife, because she failed to please him with her beauty or her domestic service, or she was no longer able to bear children. This is why the Christian injunction against divorce is linked to the “equal personal dignity of wife and husband.” Neither spouse is to be a mere object of use for the other, for this is contrary to their basic human dignity as children of God. This does not mean that there should be no leadership in the government of the household. Rather, such leadership should be exercised for the good of others, instead of the good of the leader. Christian charity and respect for human dignity are incompatible with the Roman notion of familia, a collection of servants (famuli) to the head.

Human behaviors are learned by instruction rather than instinct, though they are not unnatural on that account. Although the duties of marriage and conjugal love are proper to human nature, we need instruction in order to direct our capacities to suitable ends. Thus young people need to be “instructed in the dignity, duty and work of married love.” It is by “the cultivation of chastity,” that they will be able to enter marriage “after an honorable courtship.” (GS, 49)

Contrary to the teaching of the world, which would let the young try to figure things out for themselves, the Church calls for specific instruction on the purpose and duties of marriage, and to cultivate chastity in courtships. Absent such guidance, the young are apt to confusedly pursue their instinctive erotic inclinations, with little sense of how marriage ought to be oriented toward specific duties and informed by pure conjugal love. It is a mistake to regard raw eroticism as “natural” and the purposes of marriage as “artificial” or “conventional.” Language is a natural capacity of man, yet he needs to be instructed in it. The same is true of conjugal love and indeed any virtuous behavior. To deny that true conjugal love is natural or essential to marriage is to deny the reality of human dignity, and to allow that humans, like brute beasts, may be licitly used as mere objects of utility.

Teaching chastity to the young helps them not only to develop a discipline of self-control, but also to have due regard for the person they love, so that their love is not contingent upon physical gratification. The purpose is not so much to teach them ascetic discipline, but to help them cultivate a pure conjugal love that regards the moral and spiritual well-being of the other. This love will serve them well through the trials and difficulties of married life.

Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children. …while not making the other purposes of matrimony of less account, the true practice of conjugal love, and the whole meaning of the family life which results from it, have this aim: that the couple be ready with stout hearts to cooperate with the love of the Creator and the Savior. Who through them will enlarge and enrich His own family day by day. (GS, 50)

Conjugal love is not just a deep charitable love between persons (as in some postmodern confusions about “marriage” and “feeling married”), but it is a love specific to that between a man and a woman, ordered “to the begetting and educating of children.” This indeed is the fundamental anthropological purpose of all marriage, found in every primitive culture: a man chooses a woman whom he wishes to bear children that he will accept as his own. The exact division of labor in the upbringing of children varies by culture, but this responsibility is always assumed at least in part by the parents. It is not enough to bear children, but they must be raised and cultivated.

This goal of begetting and raising children is not a purely biological impulse, any more than man himself is purely biological. Since he has a divinely endowed dignity, there is necessarily something sacred about bringing forth and cultivating human beings. This activity is a cooperation with the saving activity of God who is building up a family of His children with a heavenly destiny.

Spouses alone have the final say regarding when they should attempt to bear children and how they should be educated, though they may take various external factors into consideration. This right of decision is not absolute, “but must always be governed according to a conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law itself, and should be submissive toward the Church’s teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel.” (GS, 50)

While recognizing that family size should be governed by prudence, the Church still esteems those generous souls “who with a gallant heart and with wise and common deliberation, undertake to bring up suitably even a relatively large family.” (GS, 50)

Marriage to be sure is not instituted solely for procreation; rather, its very nature as an unbreakable compact between persons, and the welfare of the children, both demand that the mutual love of the spouses be embodied in a rightly ordered manner, that it grow and ripen. Therefore, marriage persists as a whole manner and communion of life, and maintains its value and indissolubility, even when despite the often intense desire of the couple, offspring are lacking. (GS, 50)

Marriage endures even after the age of fertility has passed, since it is also ordered for the good of children, and because of the irrevocable nature of the act of self-giving. These other aspects of marriage, no less essential than procreation, though subordinate to it in purpose, require the continued cultivation of love between the spouses. For this reason, marriage persists even if there are no children born, since the duty of conjugal love remains.

The validity of childless marriage might be construed as implying that the intent to procreate is not essential to marriage, but this does not follow. The initiation of marriage between persons past the age of childbearing has been discouraged and even prohibited in many societies, for there cannot be any intention to bear and raise children, and thus no real intention to contract marriage, in its basic anthropological definition. What is essential to contracting marriage validly is intention, and this is why the Council mentions “the often intense desire” of the childless couple for offspring. Here we are considering a couple that fully intended to bear and raise children, but were unable to do so on account of unanticipated circumstances. In previous eras, many societies, including not a few Christians, allowed that infertility should be grounds for divorce or annulment. The Church, however, does not permit this, unless the impotence was certainly existent beforehand. (CIC 1917, c. 1068) Otherwise, the irrevocable act of self-giving was made with right intent, and the marriage cannot be dissolved on account of its sterility.

A childless marriage still has value as a marriage by virtue of the conjugal love that is oriented toward procreation. It may seem strange that such love can be cultivated without an actual child. The Council does not explain how this can be so, though childless couples may look for other ways to manifest the vocations of motherhood and fatherhood, through adoption or spiritual guidance.

Modern couples may “find themselves in circumstances where at least temporarily the size of their families should not be increased,” yet prolonged abstinence may jeopardize the fidelity and fecundity of marriage. This difficulty does not justify the “dishonorable solutions” offered by the world, which include “even the taking of life.” (GS, 51) Those who advocate such solutions wrongly suppose that the demands of conjugal love may override those of procreation, as if the two divinely ordained ends of marriage could be at odds with each other. The Church, by contrast, teaches “that a true contradiction cannot exist between the divine laws pertaining to the transmission of life and those pertaining to authentic conjugal love.” (GS, 51)

For God, the Lord of life, has conferred on men the surpassing ministry of safeguarding life in a manner which is worthy of man. Therefore from conception life must be guarded with the greatest care, while abortion and infanticide are heinous crimes.

The sexual characteristics of man and the human faculty of reproduction wonderfully exceed the dispositions of lower forms of life. Hence the acts themselves which are proper to conjugal love and which are exercised in accord with genuine human dignity must be honored with great reverence. Hence when there is question of harmonizing conjugal love with the responsible transmission of life, the moral aspects of any procedure do not depend solely on sincere intentions or on an evaluation of motives, but must be determined by objective standards. These, based on the nature of the human person and his acts, preserve the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love. Such a goal cannot be achieved unless the virtue of conjugal chastity is sincerely practiced. Relying on these principles, sons of the Church may not undertake methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the Magisterium in its unfolding of the divine law. (GS, 51)

On account of the dignity of man, human conjugal acts cannot be judged by the same criteria as those of lower animals. (This is where the modern secular world goes wrong in its evaluation of sexuality.) It is not enough to appeal to subjective intentions or motives, but we must rely on objective standards, since human dignity and purpose are objective realities. (Denial that any such standards exist implicitly denies that human dignity is objectively real.) Only these objective standards preserve the true meaning of conjugal and procreative love. The sense of this love is preserved only through “conjugal chastity,” which does not mean continence, but a subordination of conjugal affection to the selfless aims of procreation and love of the other spouse’s whole person. It is for the Magisterium to decide what the divine law concretely demands of Christians, so that their exercise of conjugal acts is in accord with the aims of marriage.

The Council did not define precisely which forms of modern birth control are forbidden to Catholics, but left that determination to Pope Paul VI in a future encyclical, which was Humanae Vitae (1968). Still, it noted this general norm:

…human life and the task of transmitting it are not realities bound up with this world alone. Hence they cannot be measured or perceived only in terms of it, but always have a bearing on the eternal destiny of men. (GS, 51)

All who recognize a transcendent dignity in man should understand that issues of transmitting human life have more than mere earthly implications. We cannot evaluate these issues according to purely temporal criteria, such as economic needs, psychological pressures, and political rights. Those who attempt to treat matters of human procreation solely by these criteria effectively deny that there is anything sacred about human life, but regard it only as one among many competing values.

The active presence of the father is highly beneficial to [children’s] formation. The children, especially the younger among them, need the care of their mother at home. This domestic role of hers must be safely preserved, though the legitimate social progress of women should not be underrated on that account. (GS, 52)

Young children need a maternal presence at home, for which a father is no substitute, notwithstanding the postmodern fiction of the interchangeability of the sexes. This practical necessity would seem to limit the amount of time a married woman may devote to her professional and cultural development. The Council, nonetheless, holds that these aims are not completely incompatible. Instead of destroying family life in the name of a fictitious equality of roles, society may learn to accommodate the special needs of mothers to spend time with their children, and adapt its institutions (businesses, social services, etc.) accordingly.

Parents or guardians should by prudent advice provide guidance to their young with respect to founding a family, and the young ought to listen gladly. At the same time no pressure, direct or indirect, should be put on the young to make them enter marriage or choose a specific partner. (GS, 52)

This emphasis on the free voluntary choice of marriage partners has always been Christian teaching, but only now is society sufficiently adjusted to receive this rule perfectly. It should be noted, however, that parental pressures do not invalidate a marriage unless they amount to overt coercion.

Marriage and the family are realities prior to the state. The state, far from having the power to abolish or redefine these institutions, is duty-bound to preserve marriage and the family:

Public authority should regard it as a sacred duty to recognize, protect and promote their authentic nature, to shield public morality and to favor the prosperity of home life. The right of parents to beget and educate their children in the bosom of the family must be safeguarded. Children too who unhappily lack the blessing of a family should be protected by prudent legislation and various undertakings and assisted by the help they need. (GS, 52)

The role of the state with respect to the family is to defend and preserve its authentic nature, and to guarantee that its natural rights are not denied. Marriage and the family are pre-existing realities which the state may acknowledge, but has no power to alter. The Council has repeatedly rejected the notion that marriage and the family are merely cultural conventions (though many of their concrete aspects may be), rather than natural institutions. Much less can their character be subject to the deliberative or legislative powers of the state. All that the state may do is recognize the fact of their existence, then take measures to defend and preserve their natural rights. Notably, the Council singles out the right of parents to educate their children, denying those forms of liberalism and socialism that would give this right primarily to the state, to shape and mold youth according to its ideology and values.

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Chapter II: The Proper Development of Culture

Section 2.1: The Circumstances of Culture in the World Today
Section 2.2: Some Principles for the Proper Development of Culture
Section 2.3: Some More Urgent Duties of Christians in Regard to Culture

Although the family is the only form of society ordained by nature, man is not complete without culture, which is “the cultivation of the goods and values of nature.” (GS, 53)

The word “culture” in its general sense indicates everything whereby man develops and perfects his many bodily and spiritual qualities. He strives by his knowledge and his labor to bring the world itself under his control. He renders social life more human both in the family and the civic community, through improvement of customs and institutions. Throughout the course of time he expresses, communicates and conserves in his works, great spiritual experiences and desires, that they might be of advantage to the progress of many, even of the whole human family. (GS, 53)

In Latin, cultura is a noun form of colere, “to cultivate,” making the identity of “culture” with “cultivation” more obvious. Through culture, man improves the earth and its creatures, so they are more fruitful and useful to him. Further, man may cultivate himself, both in his individual qualities and in his social relations. Cultural improvements help man to pursue temporal or eternal goods. These advances may be preserved for future generations in written works, artistic representations, manufacturing techniques, or juridical institutions. When a collection of cultural advances is preserved among a group of people, we may speak of their style of life as “a culture”.

…the word “culture” also often assumes a sociological and ethnological sense. According to this sense we speak of a plurality of cultures. Different styles of life and multiple scales of values arise from the diverse manner of using things, of laboring, of expressing oneself, of practicing religion, of forming customs, of establishing laws and juridic institutions, of cultivating the sciences, the arts and beauty. Thus the customs handed down to it form the patrimony proper to each human community. (GS, 53)

The diversity of cultures does not imply moral relativism, but only that different groups of people have made different advances, and may have chosen to manifest their acquired wisdom in different styles or manners.

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Section 2.1: The Circumstances of Culture in the World Today

…the culture of today possesses particular characteristics: sciences which are called exact greatly develop critical judgment; the more recent psychological studies more profoundly explain human activity; historical studies make it much easier to see things in their mutable and evolutionary aspects, customs and usages are becoming more and more uniform; industrialization, urbanization, and other causes which promote community living create a mass-culture from which are born new ways of thinking, acting and making use of leisure. The increase of commerce between the various nations and human groups opens more widely to all the treasures of different civilizations and thus little by little, there develops a more universal form of human culture, which better promotes and expresses the unity of the human race to the degree that it preserves the particular aspects of the different civilizations. (GS, 54)

As the Council begins to articulate its detailed assessment of modern culture, it emphasizes the tendency toward human unity, as this coincides with the mission of the Church. Just as the Church has expressed her own unity through a diversity of functions and vocations among members, so is the human race united to the degree that it preserves various cultures. Just as the body is held together intimately by the very diversity of its organs, so should the human race be united by embracing such differentiation, while yet holding to a common good. Global assent to a set of basic universal values does not imply that culture should become homogenized.

…there is an increase in the number of men and women who are conscious that they themselves are the authors and the artisans of the culture of their community. Throughout the whole world there is a mounting increase in the sense of autonomy as well as of responsibility. This is of paramount importance for the spiritual and moral maturity of the human race. This becomes more clear if we consider the unification of the world and the duty which is imposed upon us, that we build a better world based upon truth and justice. Thus we are witnesses of the birth of a new humanism, one in which man is defined first of all by this responsibility to his brothers and to history. (GS, 55)

Allowing wider participation in politics and civil society means more people can contribute creatively to culture. This autonomy comes with responsibility, however, since culture is oriented toward the moral improvement of man. The highest responsibility, in this regard, is the duty to build a world based on truth and justice. This is a clear appeal to objective norms, not mere technical improvement.

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Section 2.2: Some Principles for the Proper Development of Culture

When man develops the earth… that it might bear fruit and become a dwelling worthy of the whole human family and when he consciously takes part in the life of social groups, he carries out the design of God… that he should subdue the earth, perfect creation and develop himself. At the same time he obeys the commandment of Christ that he place himself at the service of his brethren.

Furthermore, when man gives himself to the various disciplines of philosophy, history and of mathematical and natural science, and when he cultivates the arts, he can do very much to elevate the human family to a more sublime understanding of truth, goodness, and beauty, and to the formation of considered opinions which have universal value.…

In this way, the human spirit, being less subjected to material things, can be more easily drawn to the worship and contemplation of the Creator. (GS, 57)

Cultural development is consonant with divine teaching when it makes the earth fruitful and suitable for human life, when it places man at the service of his brethren, and when it elevates him to the contemplation of truth, goodness and beauty. However, some cultural developments can distract from the latter aims:

Indeed today’s progress in science and technology can foster a certain exclusive emphasis on observable data, and an agnosticism about everything else. For the methods of investigation which these sciences use can be wrongly considered as the supreme rule of seeking the whole truth. By virtue of their methods these sciences cannot penetrate to the intimate notion of things. Indeed the danger is present that man, confiding too much in the discoveries of today, may think that he is sufficient unto himself and no longer seek the higher things. (GS, 57)

The error that empiricism is the only valid epistemology leads to a degradation of theology, metaphysics, and ethics. Still, the Council takes a balanced view of modernity:

Those unfortunate results, however, do not necessarily follow from the culture of today, nor should they lead us into the temptation of not acknowledging its positive values. Among these values are included: scientific study and fidelity toward truth in scientific inquiries, the necessity of working together with others in technical groups, a sense of international solidarity, a clearer awareness of the responsibility of experts to aid and even to protect men, the desire to make the conditions of life more favorable for all… All of these provide some preparation for the acceptance of the message of the Gospel… (GS, 57)

Scientific devotion to truth as a supreme value may help men become more receptive to the Gospel, as does recognition of a universal brotherhood of man.

…the Church, living in various circumstances in the course of time, has used the discoveries of different cultures so that in her preaching she might spread and explain the message of Christ to all nations, that she might examine it and more deeply understand it, that she might give it better expression in liturgical celebration…

But at the same time, the Church, sent to all peoples of every time and place, is not bound exclusively and indissolubly to any race or nation, any particular way of life or any customary way of life recent or ancient.… (GS, 58)

The Church’s use of various cultural modes of expression, such as Greek philosophy, Latin liturgy, or Gothic architecture, does not commit her to identify with any particular nationality or culture.

The Gospel of Christ constantly renews the life and culture of fallen man, it combats and removes the errors and evils resulting from the permanent allurement of sin. It never ceases to purify and elevate the morality of peoples. By riches coming from above, it makes fruitful, as it were from within, the spiritual qualities and traditions of every people of every age. (GS, 58)

The Gospel is essential to protecting culture from its tendency to corruption and sin. When one pretends to develop culture without Christianity, there is a danger of losing sight of man’s heavenly dignity, and subsequently of the spiritual and moral values informed by that dignity which make human culture something more than mere economic activity. Human culture is distinct from animal societies in that it is concerned with more than physical survival and health.

…culture is to be subordinated to the integral perfection of the human person, to the good of the community and of the whole society. Therefore it is necessary to develop the human faculties in such a way that there results a growth of the faculty of admiration, of intuition, of contemplation, of making personal judgment, of developing a religious, moral and social sense. (GS, 59)

The spiritual dimension of man is essential to culture, for without it, there could be no appreciation of beauty in art, love of truth in science, or any moral refinement in our relations with others.

Culture, because it flows immediately from the spiritual and social character of man, has constant need of a just liberty in order to develop; it needs also the legitimate possibility of exercising its autonomy according to its own principles. It therefore rightly demands respect and enjoys a certain inviolability within the limits of the common good, as long, of course, as it preserves the rights of the individual and the community, whether particular or universal. (GS, 59)

The dignified source of culture demands that there be some liberty in the development of arts, sciences and social customs, though this is not an absolute freedom. Since culture is ordained to the good of man individually and collectively, we cannot appeal to artistic or academic freedom as grounds for violating individual rights or the common good.

This Sacred Synod, therefore, recalling the teaching of the first Vatican Council, declares that there are “two orders of knowledge” which are distinct, namely faith and reason; and that the Church does not forbid that “the human arts and disciplines use their own principles and their proper method, each in its own domain”; therefore “acknowledging this just liberty,” this Sacred Synod affirms the legitimate autonomy of human culture and especially of the sciences.

All this supposes that, within the limits of morality and the common utility, man can freely search for the truth, express his opinion and publish it; that he can practice any art he chooses; that finally, he can avail himself of true information concerning events of a public nature. (GS, 59)

The Council does not define the moral limits of these freedoms, but its reference to the First Vatican Council’s teaching on faith and reason gives us one such norm: “If anyone says that human studies are to be treated with such a degree of liberty that their assertions may be maintained as true even when they are opposed to divine revelation, and that they may not be forbidden by the Church: let him be anathema.” (Canon 4.2)

As for public authority, it is not its function to determine the character of the civilization, but rather to establish the conditions and to use the means which are capable of fostering the life of culture among all even within the minorities of a nation. It is necessary to do everything possible to prevent culture from being turned away from its proper end and made to serve as an instrument of political or economic power. (GS, 59)

Here the Fathers probably had in mind the socialist and liberal statist regimes that pretended to shape culture overtly through coercion and propaganda. The state should instead try to foster a life of culture, without trying to specify its character. Here a delicate middle path must be found. On the one hand, culture is not to be dictated by political power, yet if the government has a completely hands-off policy toward culture, this can lead to political amoralism, reducing the state to an economic manager.

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Section 2.3: Some More Urgent Duties of Christians in Regard to Culture

It is now possible to free most of humanity from the misery of ignorance. Therefore the duty most consonant with our times, especially for Christians, is that of working diligently for fundamental decisions to be taken in economic and political affairs, both on the national and international level, which will everywhere recognize and satisfy the right of all to a human and social culture in conformity with the dignity of the human person without any discrimination of race, sex, nation, religion or social condition. Therefore it is necessary to provide all with a sufficient quantity of cultural benefits, especially of those which constitute the so-called fundamental culture, lest very many be prevented from cooperating in the promotion of the common good in a truly human manner because of illiteracy and a lack of responsible activity. (GS, 60)

Although the right to education is not absolute, the modern capacity to provide universal education creates a duty to extend this benefit as far as possible. Education is a human right because it is unjust to deny someone the opportunity to cultivate himself, and also because such cultivation makes it possible for the educated to better fulfill their duty to promote the common good. Again, right is linked to duty. Since this right flows from human dignity, it is not to be denied on the discriminatory grounds mentioned. This does not preclude discrimination on grounds of relative aptitude.

We must strive to provide for those men who are gifted the possibility of pursuing higher studies; and in such a way that, as far as possible, they may occupy in society those duties, offices and services which are in harmony with their natural aptitude and the competence they have acquired. … Everything must be done to make everyone conscious of the right to culture and the duty he has of developing himself culturally and of helping others. (GS, 60)

Lack of desire for education should not be mistaken for lack of aptitude:

Sometimes there exist conditions of life and of work which impede the cultural striving of men and destroy in them the eagerness for culture. This is especially true of farmers and workers. It is necessary to provide for them those working conditions which will not impede their human culture but rather favor it. (GS, 60)

The same might be said of women. Although their duties to their children often prevent them from pursuing higher education or cultivation, this does not imply a lack of aptitude. Modern society has already done much to create conditions favoring the cultivation of women:

Women now work in almost all spheres. It is fitting that they are able to assume their proper role in accordance with their own nature. It will belong to all to acknowledge and favor the proper and necessary participation of women in the cultural life. (DS, 60)

The Council does not deny that women are naturally different from men, or that this difference has real implications for their role in society. Still, this difference is not of such a character that women are to be excluded from cultural life.

Today it is more difficult to form a synthesis of the various disciplines of knowledge and the arts than it was formerly. For while the mass and the diversity of cultural factors are increasing, there is a decrease in each man’s faculty of perceiving and unifying these things, so that the image of “universal man” is being lost sight of more and more. Nevertheless it remains each man’s duty to retain an understanding of the whole human person in which the values of intellect, will, conscience and fraternity are preeminent. These values are all rooted in God the Creator and have been wonderfully restored and elevated in Christ. (GS, 61)

Specialization has hurt our ability to take a “big picture” view of reality, as evidenced by the neglect of philosophy and theology. Yet man’s dignity is visible only when we make such an effort to comprehend meaning and purpose in the world. If we limit ourselves to a myopic examination of diverse physical mechanisms, we can never arrive at the human values essential to our cultivation.

With the more or less generalized reduction of working hours, the leisure time of most men has increased…

All these leisure activities however are not able to bring man to a full cultural development unless there is at the same time a profound inquiry into the meaning of culture and science for the human person. (GS, 61)

It is not enough to read, travel, or participate in sports and other activities. If we do not inquire into the meaning of culture and science, it is all just empty activity, not real cultural development.

Although the Church has contributed much to the development of culture, experience shows that, for circumstantial reasons, it is sometimes difficult to harmonize culture with Christian teaching. These difficulties do not necessarily harm the life of faith, rather they can stimulate the mind to a deeper and more accurate understanding of the faith. The recent studies and findings of science, history and philosophy raise new questions which affect life and which demand new theological investigations. Furthermore, theologians, within the requirements and methods proper to theology, are invited to seek continually for more suitable ways of communicating doctrine to the men of their times; for the deposit of Faith or the truths are one thing and the manner in which they are enunciated, in the same meaning and understanding, is another. In pastoral care, sufficient use must be made not only of theological principles, but also of the findings of the secular sciences, especially of psychology and sociology, so that the faithful may be brought to a more adequate and mature life of faith. (GS, 62)

Although the document includes the proper caveats about the scope of theological inquiry (cf Pascendi Dominici Gregis; Lamentabili Sane), it is perhaps unfortunate that it calls for the inclusion of secular psychology and sociology in pastoral care. Psychology and sociology are among the most ideologically laden, non-rigorous sciences, and this was especially the case in 1965. Calling for their inclusion is practically inviting anti-religious ideology into Christian education, though this surely was not the Council’s intent.

Literature and the arts are also, in their own way, of great importance to the life of the Church. They strive to make known the proper nature of man, his problems and his experiences in trying to know and perfect both himself and the world…

Efforts must be made so that those who foster these arts feel that the Church recognizes their activity and so that, enjoying orderly liberty, they may initiate more friendly relations with the Christian community. The Church acknowledges also new forms of art which are adapted to our age and are in keeping with the characteristics of various nations and regions. They may be brought into the sanctuary since they raise the mind to God, once the manner of expression is adapted and they are conformed to liturgical requirements.…

May the faithful, therefore, live in very close union (coniunctissime) with the other men of their time and may they strive to understand perfectly their way of thinking and judging, as expressed in their culture. Let them blend new sciences and theories and the understanding of the most recent discoveries with Christian morality and the teaching of Christian doctrine, so that their religious culture and morality may keep pace with scientific knowledge and with the constantly progressing technology. (GS, 62)

This is in keeping with the Council’s general aim to end the cultural isolation of the Church. Yet what has become of the need (as taught by the Magisterium since the time of the Apostles) to avoid those with bad ideas? The present call for close union seems to naively assume that there is nothing especially harmful from such exposure, or that modern arts and sciences are not frequently informed by anti-Christian ideas. This presumes a fairly optimistic view of Western European society. On the other hand, with modern media, cultural isolation is practically impossible, so Catholic efforts might be better spent engaging and informing the universal culture.

Let those who teach theology in seminaries and universities strive to collaborate with men versed in the other sciences… to help these men skilled in various disciplines to attain to a better understanding of the faith. This common effort will greatly aid the formation of priests, who will be able to present to our contemporaries the doctrine of the Church concerning God, man and the world, in a manner more adapted to them so that they may receive it more willingly. Furthermore, it is to be hoped that many of the laity will receive a sufficient formation in the sacred sciences and that some will dedicate themselves professionally to these studies… let it be recognized that all the faithful, whether clerics or laity, possess a lawful freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought and of expressing their mind (iusta libertas inquirendi, cogitandi, necnon mentem suam) with humility and fortitude in those matters on which they enjoy competence. (GS, 62)

Libertas inquirendi is not a modern invention, but is found among the Oxford Scholastics, and in St. Albertus Magnus. It refers to the freedom to pursue cultural matters that arises once we have satisfied the necessities of survival. Freedom of thought (libertas cogitandi) follows from the right of power over one’s own mind, which flows from human dignity. These freedoms are lawful only insofar as they are just (iusta). When such freedom is not circumscribed by justice, humility and fortitude, the results can be disastrous, leading to the loss of truth rather than its discovery.

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Chapter III: Socio-Economic Life

Section 3.1: Economic Development
Section 3.2: Certain Principles Governing Socio-Economic Life as a Whole

In socio-economic life (vita oeconomica-sociali), too, the dignity and complete vocation of the human person and the welfare of society as a whole are to be respected and promoted. For man is the author, center, and end of all socio-economic life. (GS, 63)

This section of the document deals with “social economy” (Italian: economica sociale), which means economic development oriented toward social ends, meeting the needs of all. It is distinct from a pure free market economy in that we do not regard general economic prosperity or “growth” as an end in itself, but may make interventions to guarantee that human rights are not neglected, including the rights of all to pursue gainful employment and partake of the earth’s temporal goods. No private property claim is so absolute as to warrant neglect of these rights. The Council accordingly reminds us that economic activity is not an end in itself, but is oriented toward the individual and collective good of human persons.

The identification of man as the “author, center, and end of all socio-economic life” is not a denial that God is the ultimate origin and end of everything, for we are speaking only in terms of the proximate origins and ends of the pursuit of temporal well-being. Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI, in Caritas in veritate, reminds us that “everything has its origin in God's love, everything is shaped by it, everything is directed towards it” (CV, 2), and that this very dynamic of charity informs the Church’s social teaching. (CV, 5-6) Thus it is without contradiction that, in the same encyclical, the Pope approvingly quotes Gaudium et Spes, explaining that “the primary capital value, which is to be safeguarded and valued is man, to be wholly claimed: ‘For man is the author, center, and end of all socio-economic life.’” (CV, 25)

The Council notes that modern developments have brought about greatly improved methods of production and exchange, as well as greatly increased human interdependence and state intervention in economic affairs.

Reasons for anxiety, however, are not lacking. Many people, especially in economically advanced areas, seem, as it were, to be ruled by economics, so that almost their entire personal and social life is permeated with a certain economic way of thinking. Such is true both of nations that favor a collective economy and of others. At the very time when the development of economic life could mitigate social inequalities (provided that it be guided and coordinated in a reasonable and human way), it is often made to embitter them; or, in some places, it even results in a decline of the social status of the underprivileged and in contempt for the poor. While an immense number of people still lack the absolute necessities of life, some, even in less advanced areas, live in luxury or squander wealth. Extravagance and wretchedness exist side by side. While a few enjoy very great power of choice, the majority are deprived of almost all possibility of acting on their own initiative and responsibility, and often subsist in living and working conditions unworthy of the human person. (GS, 63)

The Council rightly notes that both capitalist and Communist nations have been guilty of subordinating society to the imperatives of economic growth, losing sight of the purpose of economic activity. This creates the perverse result of poverty amidst plenty, and even the economic regress of certain classes or groups during periods of industrial growth. The Council is not calling for economic egalitarianism, but is pointing to the abuse where some people are denied even the means of subsistence. It has always been a tenet of Catholic social teaching that all who are willing to work have a right to subsistence, and that the institution of private property is subordinate to the aim of making the means of subsistence generally available to all. When property claims and relations of production result in the denial of basic material needs to many in the midst of general prosperity, then economic activity is no longer fully in accord with its fundamental purpose. The Church has not hesitated to call for public interventions to remedy this kind of inequity, for access to the means of subsistence is a matter of strict justice, not gratuitous charity. Still, it is the spirit of charity that reminds us of the fraternity of all men, so that we may never turn away the poor as someone else’s problem.

A similar lack of economic and social balance is to be noticed between agriculture, industry, and the services, and also between different parts of one and the same country. The contrast between the economically more advanced countries and other countries is becoming more serious day by day, and the very peace of the world can be jeopardized thereby. (GS, 63)

It is manifestly unjust that agricultural workers, who provide the absolute necessities of sustenance to the rest of society, should themselves be denied the means of sustenance on account of modern changes in industrial relations and monetary valuation. Our industrial and financial institutions should be designed so that they remain subordinate to the aim of increased prosperity for all.

Failure to address gross inequities among classes, regions, or nations is especially dangerous, as this can lead to civil war or revolution. Such conflicts took on even greater peril in the context of Cold War competition over the Third World, which at times raised the spectre of nuclear war.

…the Church down through the centuries and in the light of the Gospel has worked out the principles of justice and equity demanded by right reason both for individual and social life and for international life, and she has proclaimed them especially in recent times. (GS, 63)

Natural justice and equity must take heed not only of individual rights, but also of man in society, and in international relations. Social and international relations are not to be left to the so-called “law of markets,” which is really just unchecked avarice. Although the Church’s social teaching was most forcefully articulated by Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI, there had been Catholic moral restraints on economic activities, justified both by revelation and natural law, for centuries. This teaching had been well elaborated, for example, in medieval manuals of confession, which devoted many more pages to economic morality than to the sexual morality that preoccupies modern scholars.

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Section 3.1: Economic Development

The fundamental finality of [economic] production is not the mere increase of products nor profit or control but rather the service of man… with regard for the full range of his material needs and the demands of his intellectual, moral, spiritual, and religious life; this applies to every man whatsoever… Consequently, economic activity is to be carried on according to its own methods and laws within the limits of the moral order, so that God’s plan for mankind may be realized. (GS, 64)

Man may cooperate in the realization of God’s plan by bringing economic activity in line with the natural moral order. Yet to do this, he requires that moral and spiritual improvement which comes from divine grace, not unaided human effort. (See GS, 17, 22, 25, 30, 32, 34, 37)

Economic development must remain under man's determination and must not be left to the judgment of a few men or groups possessing too much economic power or of the political community alone or of certain more powerful nations. It is necessary, on the contrary, that at every level the largest possible number of people and, when it is a question of international relations, all nations have an active share in directing that development. There is need as well of the coordination… of the spontaneous efforts of individuals and of free groups with the undertakings of public authorities. (GS, 65)

The Council opposes both plutocratic capitalism and centrally planned statist economies, which would concentrate all meaningful economic decisions into the hands of a few. Economic life flows from human dignity and is an essential aspect of each man’s moral activity, so it is not licit to take away economic decisions from the mass of humanity, as we might do with governmental or military decisions.

In the emphasized text, the Council is not requiring an international economic regulatory body, but only that, when an economic issue falls under international relations, all nations should have an active share in the discussion, instead of the strong nations dominating the weak.

In general, economics is not to be dominated by any compact elite. This is not a rejection of political monarchy or aristocracy; rather, it is a denial that any state, however constituted, should have the right to dominate economic life.

Growth is not to be left solely to a kind of mechanical course of the economic activity of individuals, nor to the authority of government. For this reason, doctrines which obstruct the necessary reforms under the guise of a false liberty, and those which subordinate the basic rights of individual persons and groups to the collective organization of production must be shown to be erroneous. (GS, 65)

The Council at once condemns both laissez-faire capitalism and statist collectivism. They are equally incompatible with human dignity, which requires that all citizens be allowed to contribute to economic development and make economic decisions. Even free peasants have had this right.

Especially in underdeveloped areas, where all resources must urgently be employed, those who hold back their unproductive resources or who deprive their community of the material or spiritual aid that it needs—saving the personal right of migration—gravely endanger the common good. (GS, 65)

There is to be no hoarding of resources, e.g., through ownership of land or mineral rights.

To satisfy the demands of justice and equity, strenuous efforts must be made, without disregarding the rights of persons or the natural qualities of each country, to remove as quickly as possible the immense economic inequalities… which are connected with individual and social discrimination. Likewise, in many areas, in view of the special difficulties of agriculture relative to the raising and selling of produce, country people must be helped both to increase and to market what they produce, and to introduce the necessary development and renewal and also obtain a fair income. Otherwise, as too often happens, they will remain in the condition of lower-class citizens. Let farmers themselves, especially young ones, apply themselves to perfecting their professional skill, for without it, there can be no agricultural progress. (GS, 66)

It is not inequality as such that is unjust or inequitable, but only those gross economic inequalities connected to individual and social discrimination. An example of social discrimination is a devaluation of agricultural products, so that farmers cannot earn a decent income, even though they provide an indispensable need. They are exploited by market circumstances and relations of production, while commercial middle men reap huge profits. This is why the Council suggests that farmers be aided in marketing their produce, so that others do not reap the lion’s share from their work, while they are left as paupers.

As things have worked out, only large agribusiness companies have the capacity to market their own products effectively, squeezing the small farmers further. Thus we have been able to achieve “agricultural progress” even without improving the lot of small farmers. In the U.S., farmers receive what is essentially welfare, rather than a capacity to capitalize and market their products.

Justice and equity likewise require that the mobility which is necessary in a developing economy be regulated in such a way as to keep the life of individuals and their families from becoming insecure and precarious. When workers come from another country or district and contribute to the economic advancement of a nation or region by their labor, all discrimination as regards wages and working conditions must be carefully avoided. All the people, moreover, above all the public authorities, must treat them not as mere tools of production but as persons, and must help them to bring their families to live with them and to provide themselves with a decent dwelling; they must also see to it that these workers are incorporated into the social life of the country or region that receives them. Employment opportunities, however, should be created in their own areas as far as possible. (GS, 66)

The Council calls for equal treatment of immigrants in terms of wages and working conditions, and even to facilitate their being joined by their families and being integrated into the society of their new country. This is not motivated by any gratuitous soft-heartedness, but is just compensation for immigrant labor, which builds up the host country’s economy. Still, the need for immigration ought to be minimized by creating employment opportunities in one’s homeland.

The Council does not explicitly address the issue of illegal immigration, but we may gather that even illegal immigrants are entitled to similar compensation and social benefits for their labor, since this right flows from human dignity. If the host country does not wish to incur these costs, then neither should it accept the benefits of illegal immigrant labor.

In economic affairs which today are subject to change, as in the new forms of industrial society in which automation, for example, is advancing, care must be taken that sufficient and suitable work and the possibility of the appropriate technical and professional formation are furnished. The livelihood and the human dignity especially of those who are in very difficult conditions because of illness or old age must be guaranteed. (GS, 66)

State intervention may be necessary to help technologically displaced workers find employment. Those unable to work because of infirmity or advanced age must also be provided material conditions suitable to human dignity. It is not enough to simply accept free market socio-economic outcomes. Since the economy is made for man, we are duty-bound to make those adjustments and interventions necessary to secure sustenance and dignified life for all.

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Section 3.2: Certain Principles Governing Socio-Economic Life as a Whole

Human labor which is expended in the production and exchange of goods or in the performance of economic services is superior to the other elements of economic life, for the latter have only the nature of tools. (GS, 67)

The Council forcefully affirms the priority of labor in economic life. The rights of capital and non-capital property must never take priority over the rights of labor, since capital, real and personal property, securities and other financial instruments are only tools, completely worthless without productive labor. The possessors of these tools are not entitled to the same rights as one who gives of his sweat and his time, that is, a part of his very life, through labor.

This labor, whether it is engaged in independently or hired by someone else, comes immediately from the person, who as it were stamps the things of nature with his seal and subdues them to his will. By his labor a man ordinarily supports himself and his family, is joined to his fellow men and serves them, and can exercise genuine charity and be a partner in the work of bringing divine creation to perfection. Indeed, we hold that through labor offered to God man is associated with the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, Who conferred an eminent dignity on labor when at Nazareth He worked with His own hands. From this there follows for every man the duty of working faithfully and also the right to work. It is the duty of society, moreover, according to the circumstances prevailing in it, and in keeping with its role, to help the citizens to find sufficient employment. Finally, remuneration for labor is to be such that man may be furnished the means to cultivate worthily his own material, social, cultural, and spiritual life and that of his dependents, in view of the function and productiveness of each one, the conditions of the factory or workshop, and the common good.(GS, 67) [Emphasis added]

This duty to help citizens find employment admits a wide latitude in specific implementation. Society should help people find employment as it is able, but without exceeding its bounds (e.g., forcing someone to hire you). Remuneration should be according to one’s productivity (therefore unequal), yet checked by considerations of the common good (i.e., help the rest of society through taxes).

It happens too often, however, even in our days, that workers are reduced to the level of being slaves to their own work. This is by no means justified by the so-called economic laws. The entire process of productive work, therefore, must be adapted to the needs of the person and to his way of life, above all to his domestic life, especially in respect to mothers of families, always with due regard for sex and age. The opportunity, moreover, should be granted to workers to unfold their own abilities and personality through the performance of their work. Applying their time and strength to their employment with a due sense of responsibility, they should also all enjoy sufficient rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social and religious life. They should also have the opportunity freely to develop the energies and potentialities which perhaps they cannot bring to much fruition in their professional work. (GS, 67)

The Council rejects the classical liberal economists’ claim that the “natural wage” for unskilled labor is the bare subsistence wage toward which unfettered markets tend. There is no natural economic law that requires capital to reap all the profit, leaving the laborer with none. So-called economic laws presuppose a certain state of society, where some behaviors are permitted and others forbidden. It is the duty of all men to ensure that society is ordered in a way compatible with the dignity that all share. Accordingly, a laissez-faire economy is impermissible, if this entails that the most indispensable element of productivity, namely labor, should be altogether shut out of reaping the rewards of increased production.

The laborer is not merely a tool like a machine, but is a person entitled to a certain dignity. Thus work conditions should be adapted to his personal needs, according to age, sex, and family status. It is inconsonant with human dignity, and a real slavery, to expect workers to subordinate or even sacrifice their family life to the needs of their job. Economic productivity is supposed to benefit man, so there is a clearly unjust distribution of rewards if modern industrial laborers can afford less family life and recreational time than what exists in pre-industrial societies.

In economic enterprises it is persons who are joined together, that is, free and independent human beings created to the image of God. Therefore, with attention to the functions of each—owners or employers, management or labor—and without doing harm to the necessary unity of management, the active sharing of all in the administration and profits of these enterprises in ways to be properly determined is to be promoted. (GS, 68)

This does not necessarily require an overt profit-sharing system (i.e., ownership of a fixed share of revenue or equity), but remuneration that is equitable considering that everyone, from the owner to the lowest laborer, contributes to the great profits of the company. It cannot be that only the capitalist gets all the profits, while labor gets a bare subsistence wage. This inequitable arrangement is inconsistent with the notion that economic enterprises are associations of free persons.

Since more often, however, decisions concerning economic and social conditions, on which the future lot of the workers and of their children depends, are made not within the business itself but by institutions on a higher level, the workers themselves should have a share also in determining these conditions—in person or through freely elected delegates. (GS, 68)

The interests of labor should be represented in trade organizations and government agencies affecting entire industries, so that they are not shut out of decision-making processes that affect their lives. The workers in a given industry are no less representative of the industry’s interests than the capitalists.

Among the basic rights of the human person is to be numbered the right of freely founding unions for working people.… Included is the right of freely taking part in the activity of these unions without risk of reprisal.…

Although recourse must always be had first to a sincere dialogue between the parties, a strike, nevertheless, can remain… a necessary, though ultimate, aid for the defense of the workers’ own rights and the fulfillment of their just desires. As soon as possible, however, ways should be sought to resume negotiation and the discussion of reconciliation. (GS, 68)

The Church had long acknowledged the right to form associations of craftsmen called guilds. In the nineteenth century, as modern industry created a new kind of work force, liberal governments resisted the formation of industrial workers’ unions, in contradiction of the supposed right of freedom of association. This resistance, often backed by brutal military suppression in the United States, was motivated in part by fears that such unions would lead to socialism, and indeed many workers’ leaders were socialists or anarchists. Catholics were likewise leery of such unions, as their leadership often promoted an atheistic agenda. In Rerum Novarum, however, Pope Leo XIII encouraged Catholics to form their own labor unions, and defended this form of association as a natural right, which the Council reaffirms.

While stopping short of asserting a “right to strike,” the Council allows that a strike may be a justified necessity of last resort. Even then, every effort must be made to restart negotiations, rather than use the destructive effects of a prolonged strike as a sort of extortion.

God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples. Thus, under the leadership of justice and in the company of charity, created goods should be in abundance for all in like manner. Whatever the forms of property may be, as adapted to the legitimate institutions of peoples, according to diverse and changeable circumstances, attention must always be paid to this universal destination of earthly goods. In using them, therefore, man should regard the external things that he legitimately possesses not only as his own but also as common in the sense that they should be able to benefit not only him but also others. On the other hand, the right of having a share of earthly goods sufficient for oneself and one's family belongs to everyone. (GS, 69) [Emphasis added]

This is consistent with perennial Catholic teaching. The right of private property does not abolish the moral obligation, under justice and charity, to use goods for the benefit of all when possible, after meeting one’s own subsistence needs.

The Fathers and Doctors of the Church held this opinion, teaching that men are obliged to come to the relief of the poor and to do so not merely out of their superfluous goods. If one is in extreme necessity, he has the right to procure for himself what he needs out of the riches of others. Since there are so many people prostrate with hunger in the world, this sacred council urges all, both individuals and governments, to remember the aphorism of the Fathers, “Feed the man dying of hunger, because if you have not fed him, you have killed him,” and really to share and employ their earthly goods, according to the ability of each, especially by supporting individuals or peoples with the aid by which they may be able to help and develop themselves. (GS, 69)

It is not theft for a starving man to take food from one’s private property. (Summa Theol. II-ii, 66, 7) Indeed, we are thieves and murderers if we deny him that. This applies only to bare subsistence needs, which are owed to all men. Thus we are obligated by natural justice to help the poor; such aid is not just out of our largesse. While we should not shrink from providing food and other consumables, the best help of all is to help the poor develop themselves.

Changing economic conditions might require changes in the customary distribution of goods in order to maintain equity:

An effort must be made, however, to avoid regarding certain customs as altogether unchangeable, if they no longer answer the new needs of this age. On the other hand, imprudent action should not be taken against respectable customs which, provided they are suitably adapted to present-day circumstances, do not cease to be very useful. Similarly, in highly developed nations a body of social institutions dealing with protection and security can, for its own part, bring to reality the common destination of earthly goods. Family and social services, especially those that provide for culture and education, should be further promoted. When all these things are being organized, vigilance is necessary to present the citizens from being led into a certain inactivity vis-à-vis society or from rejecting the burden of taking up office or from refusing to serve. (GS, 69)

Here the Council acknowledges the practical need to create social welfare institutions. Yet these social guarantees or safety nets should not be organized in a way that encourages indolence.

Investments, for their part, must be directed toward procuring employment and sufficient income for the people both now and in the future. Whoever makes decisions concerning these investments and the planning of the economy—whether they be individuals or groups of public authorities—are bound to keep these objectives in mind and to recognize their serious obligation of watching, on the one hand, that provision be made for the necessities required for a decent life both of individuals and of the whole community and, on the other, of looking out for the future and of establishing a right balance between the needs of present-day consumption, both individual and collective, and the demands of investing for the generation to come. They should also always bear in mind the urgent needs of underdeveloped countries or regions. (GS, 70)

The socio-economic purpose of investment is securing employment and sufficient income for people. It is not solely the profit of the investor. Investment, like other forms of private property, has to be ordered to the common good. A socially responsible person does not invest in an enterprise simply to make money, but also because he believes that enterprise will create some good for people. Socially responsible investment does not necessarily result in job creation, but it might instead result in some labor-saving device or process that allows people more time for recreation. There should be a balance between present consumption needs and those of the future, so we should not over-exploit natural resources.

In monetary matters they should beware of hurting the welfare of their own country or of other countries. Care should also be taken lest the economically weak countries unjustly suffer any loss from a change in the value of money. (GS, 70)

Investment in currencies should not sabotage the welfare of countries. Here the Council denounces self-interested speculation that has no regard for the common welfare.

Is it realistic to expect investors to behave in a socially conscientious way? After all, one invests with the expectation of some return or gain. Still, there are abundant profits to be had without investing in companies that are parasitic or deleterious to society. The same conscientiousness that has caused capitalists to outlaw racketeering might also persuade them to refrain from legal, though hardly less dishonorable, enterprises.

Since property and other forms of private ownership of external goods contribute to the expression of the personality, and since, moreover, they furnish one an occasion to exercise his function in society and in the economy, it is very important that the access of both individuals and communities to some ownership of external goods be fostered.

Private property or some ownership of external goods confers on everyone a sphere wholly necessary for the autonomy of the person and the family, and it should be regarded as an extension of human freedom. Lastly, since it adds incentives for carrying on one's function and charge, it constitutes one of the conditions for civil liberties. (GS, 71)

Private property is upheld as a basic human right, being an extension of human liberty. Yet the universality of this right entails that no property claim should result in others being without any property. Further, ownership should be available to communities no less than individuals, as the fullness of human liberty entails the ability to act collectively.

The right of private ownership, however, is not opposed to the right inherent in various forms of public property. Goods can be transferred to the public domain only by the competent authority, according to the demands and within the limits of the common good, and with fair compensation. Furthermore, it is the right of public authority to prevent anyone from abusing his private property to the detriment of the common good.

By its very nature private property has a social quality which is based on the law of the common destination of earthly goods. If this social quality is overlooked, property often becomes an occasion of passionate desires for wealth and serious disturbances, so that a pretext is given to the attackers for calling the right itself into question. (GS, 71)

The public may also acquire property, as demanded by the common good, though giving fair compensation. Since the institution of private property is subordinate to the law of common destination of temporal goods, the state is well within its rights to prevent abuses of private property. Those laissez-faire ideologues who would make private owners unanswerable to society’s demands, far from upholding the right of private property, bring it into discredit and make socialism seem appealing.

In many underdeveloped regions there are large or even extensive rural estates which are only slightly cultivated or lie completely idle for the sake of profit, while the majority of the people either are without land or have only very small fields… Not infrequently those who are hired to work for the landowners or who till a portion of the land as tenants receive a wage or income unworthy of a human being, lack decent housing and are exploited by middlemen. Deprived of all security, they live under such personal servitude that almost every opportunity of acting on their own initiative and responsibility is denied to them… According to the different cases, therefore, reforms are necessary: that income may grow, working conditions should be improved, security in employment increased, and an incentive to working on one’s own initiative given. Indeed, insufficiently cultivated estates should be distributed to those who can make these lands fruitful… Whenever, nevertheless, the common good requires expropriation, compensation must be reckoned in equity… (GS, 71)

The Council gives some concrete examples of how the abuse or disuse of private property causes grave harm to the common good. When ownership of land and capital is concentrated in the hands of a few, the vast majority are compelled to sell their labor for a pittance, without hope of ever acquiring any land or capital for themselves. The Council explicitly calls for land reforms that promote employment and ownership opportunities for all. Uncultivated estates may even be confiscated by the state, for a fair price, and sold to those who will put the land to better use. Private property is always subordinate to the universal destination of temporal goods, since private property itself was instituted to improve everyone’s access to the goods of the earth.

There is much in this section that will be objectionable to self-styled “conservative” Catholics, especially in the United States, who have internalized laissez-faire capitalist ideology as a “traditional” or “conservative” value, when in fact it is nineteenth-century classical liberalism. The Council Fathers, in their explicit rejection of laissez-faire principles, were not indulging in any private opinions, nor were they merely following the current culture of European social democracy. Rather, they were articulating Catholic principles of moral economy that can be found in various Patristic and Scholastic authors, and indeed in the millennial practice of the Church and Catholic countries. Laissez-faire capitalism has always been foreign to the Catholic tradition, being grounded in an individualistic, anti-communitarian concept of rights. The teaching of the popes from Leo XIII onward leave no doubt to any dispassionate reader that Catholic social teaching is incompatible with the dogma that socio-economic outcomes should be entrusted solely to market forces.

While the Church rejects socialist claims that private property should be abolished, and insists that the state must act within the bounds of justice when limiting or acquiring property, she nonetheless strenuously asserts, as a fundamental moral principle, that the universal destination of temporal goods takes priority over any particular private property claim. The economy must be ordered for the good of all, not just for some or even a majority. No supposed law of markets can be invoked as a justification for ignoring our duty to the poor, which is a matter of justice, not a gratuity. Any Catholic who takes his commitment to the Church seriously should set aside any attempt to dismiss Catholic social teaching as non-binding, as though the Magisterium had no authority or duty to interpret natural law, much less should he heed those would pretend to reduce Catholic social teaching to mere endorsement of American “conservatism,” i.e., classical economic liberalism.

[For further study of Catholic teaching on moral economy, see: “Thomas Aquinas on Property”; Summa Theologica, II, ii, 66; Aristotle's Politics II, v; St. Thomas' Commentary on Book V of the Nicomachean Ethics; various quotations on Patristic solidarism in AH Chroust and RJ Affeld, “The Problem of Private Property According to St. Thomas Aquinas,” Marquette Law Review, Vol. 34 (3), Winter 1950-51, pp. 151-182; Rerum Novarum; Quadragesimo Anno; Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church, ch. iv, vi, vii.]

[U.S. readers may find interest in Theodore Roosevelt’s Autobiography, which describes laissez-faire critically yet sympathetically at the end of Chapter I, “Boyhood and Youth,” and outlines his own views in Chapter XIII, “Social and Industrial Justice.”]

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Chapter IV: The Life of the Political Community

The present keener sense of human dignity has given rise… to attempts to bring about a politico-juridical order which will give better protection to the rights of the person in public life. These include the right freely to meet and form associations, the right to express one’s own opinion and to profess one’s religion both publicly and privately. The protection of the rights of a person is indeed a necessary condition so that citizens, individually or collectively, can take an active part in the life and government of the state. (GS, 73)

The right to express one’s opinions and religious beliefs is not absolute, but as stated in Dignitatis Humanae, this freedom is limited by “the just demands of public order.” (DH, 3) Likewise, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church refers to “limits imposed by the common good and public order.” (Comp., 200)

However, those political systems, prevailing in some parts of the world, are to be reproved which hamper civic or religious freedom, victimize large numbers through avarice and political crimes, and divert the exercise of authority from the service of the common good to the interests of one or another faction or of the rulers themselves.…

There is no better way to establish political life on a truly human basis than by fostering an inward sense of justice and kindliness, and of service to the common good… (GS, 73)

The remainder of the chapter will focus on the development of this moral sense, a topic that is certainly within the competence of the Magisterium.

Men, families and the various groups which make up the civil community are aware that they cannot achieve a truly human life by their own unaided efforts. They see the need for a wider community, within which each one makes his specific contribution every day toward an ever broader realization of the common good. For this purpose they set up a political community according to various forms. The political community exists, consequently, for the sake of the common good, in which it finds its full justification and significance, and the source of its inherent legitimacy. (GS, 74)

The source of political legitimacy is the ordering of the political community toward the common good. This differs from Locke’s view that political authority is derived from the sovereignty of the individuals forming the polity.

Yet the people who come together in the political community are many and diverse, and they have every right to prefer divergent solutions. If the political community is not to be torn apart while everyone follows his own opinion, there must be an authority to direct the energies of all citizens toward the common good, not in a mechanical or despotic fashion, but by acting above all as a moral force which appeals to each one's freedom and sense of responsibility. (GS, 74)

Political authority has the character of moral suasion, not mere physical coercion. No despotism could last long by physical coercion alone.

It is clear, therefore, that the political community and public authority are founded on human nature and hence belong to the order designed by God, even though the choice of a political regime and the appointment of rulers are left to the free will of citizens. (GS, 74)

The polity and its authority are natural in the sense that they meet a natural human need, not that there have always been polities or that any determinate form of government is natural. Man has natural potentialities, which he may actualize in various determinate ways.

It follows also that political authority, both in the community as such and in the representative bodies of the state, must always be exercised within the limits of the moral order and directed toward the common good—with a dynamic concept of that good—according to the juridical order legitimately established or due to be established. When authority is so exercised, citizens are bound in conscience to obey. Accordingly, the responsibility, dignity and importance of leaders are indeed clear. (GS, 74)

As long as authority is exercised within proper limits, citizens are morally bound to obey. This authentically Catholic deference to authority differs from Locke’s idea that authority derives from consent of the governed, and Rousseau’s notion of a social contract. Note also that the community as such, not just the state, is morally limited in its power. “The people” are not absolute sovereigns, and their will must yield to the moral order.

But where citizens are oppressed by a public authority overstepping its competence, they should not protest against those things which are objectively required for the common good; but it is legitimate for them to defend their own rights and the rights of their fellow citizens against the abuse of this authority, while keeping within those limits drawn by the natural law and the Gospels. (GS, 74)

Even when the government oversteps its bounds, we should not protest unless our rights are infringed in a way that is not required by the common good. The Council is reluctant to declare any right of rebellion; instead we find only a limited right of protest. The Catechism of the Catholic Church does allow that armed resistance can be legitimate, but only if five strict criteria are met. (CCC, 2243)

According to the character of different peoples and their historic development, the political community can, however, adopt a variety of concrete solutions in its structures and the organization of public authority. (GS, 74)

Catholic teaching does not prefer any specific form of government. Yet the Council does state:

It is in full conformity with human nature that there should be juridico-political structures providing all citizens in an ever better fashion and without any discrimination the practical possibility of freely and actively taking part in the establishment of the juridical foundations of the political community and in the direction of public affairs, in fixing the terms of reference of the various public bodies and in the election of political leaders. All citizens, therefore, should be mindful of the right and also the duty to use their free vote to further the common good. (GS, 75)

This does not assert a preference for republican government, but only its conformity with human nature. On account of this conformity, the Council reasserts the teaching of modern popes that Catholics in democratic republics are duty-bound to exercise their right to vote.

If the citizens’ responsible cooperation is to produce the good results which may be expected in the normal course of political life, there must be a statute of positive law providing for a suitable division of the functions and bodies of authority and an efficient and independent system for the protection of rights. (GS, 75)

This requirement applies only to republics, which have the aim of broadening citizen participation in legislation and government. Note that the specific division of powers is a matter of positive law; there is no optimal constitution suitable for all peoples.

The rights of all persons, families and groups, and their practical application, must be recognized, respected and furthered, together with the duties binding on all citizens. Among the latter, it will be well to recall the duty of rendering the political community such material and personal service as are required by the common good. (GS, 75)

These principles are more general, and may be applied even in monarchies and aristocracies.

Rulers must be careful not to hamper the development of family, social or cultural groups, nor that of intermediate bodies or organizations, and not to deprive them of opportunities for legitimate and constructive activity; they should willingly seek rather to promote the orderly pursuit of such activity. Citizens, for their part, either individually or collectively, must be careful not to attribute excessive power to public authority, not to make exaggerated and untimely demands upon it in their own interests, lessening in this way the responsible role of persons, families and social groups. (GS, 75)

Again, this can be applied to all forms of government. The Church, throughout her history, has upheld the rights of other public institutions besides the state, which are sometimes known as “civil society.” This is in stark opposition with those forms of fascism, socialism and liberalism which would vest all power for collective action in the state.

The complex circumstances of our day make it necessary for public authority to intervene more often in social, economic and cultural matters in order to bring about favorable conditions’ The relations, however, between socialization and the autonomy and development of the person can be understood in different ways according to various regions and the evolution of peoples. But when the exercise of rights is restricted temporarily for the common good, freedom should be restored immediately upon change of circumstances. (GS, 75)

The Council recognizes that modern circumstances make necessary a higher degree of state interventionism. Without proposing a single balance between state and private action for all nations, the Council insists that restrictions of private rights be limited to times of real necessity.

Citizens must cultivate a generous and loyal spirit of patriotism, but without being narrow-minded. This means that they will always direct their attention to the good of the whole human family’ (GS, 75)

Love of country does not entail indifference to the plight of foreign nations. Just as citizens have regard for the common good of their nation, so should peoples of each nation have regard for the common good of humanity.

Christians are called “to give an example by their sense of responsibility and their service of the common good,” and they thereby demonstrate…

…how authority can be compatible with freedom, personal initiative with the solidarity of the whole social organism, and the advantages of unity with fruitful diversity. They must recognize the legitimacy of different opinions with regard to temporal solutions, and respect citizens, who, even as a group, defend their points of view by honest methods. (GS, 75)

Christians should inform political discourse with the balanced social teaching of the Church, against ideologies that overemphasize one or another value. Catholic social teaching allows for difference in opinion regarding specific policies, as long as the options considered are in accord with its norms.

Political parties, for their part, must promote those things which in their judgement are required for the common good; it is never allowable to give their interests priority over the common good. (GS, 75)

Naturally, political parties are apt to equate the success of their party with the common good. Still, they should not, for example, sabotage beneficial legislation merely to hurt the existing government’s chances of re-election, unless their opposition to the measure is sincere.

It is very important, especially where a pluralistic society prevails, that there be a correct notion of the relationship between the political community and the Church, and a clear distinction between the tasks which Christians undertake, individually or as a group, on their own responsibility as citizens guided by the dictates of a Christian conscience, and the activities which, in union with their pastors, they carry out in the name of the Church. The Church, by reason of her role and competence, is not identified in any way with the political community nor bound to any political system. She is at once a sign and a safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person. (GS, 76)

The Church is not bound to any political system, democratic or otherwise, nor is she to be identified with any state. The distinction between Church and State is a specifically Christian development, replacing the Roman model where the emperor was also pontifex maximus. Even when the state had a sacral character and was officially Christian in its religion and purpose, canon law and civil law remained distinct, though they might sometimes have overlapping jurisdiction. The distinction between Church and State does not imply separation or non-interaction, but it does mean that no state can claim to be acting as the Church. Thus adherence to any particular regime or political system can never be a condition of Catholic identity, notwithstanding the pretensions of some modern dictators.

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 men. The more that both foster sounder cooperation between themselves with due consideration for the circumstances of time and place, the more effective will their service be exercised for the good of all. For man’s horizons are not limited only to the temporal order; while living in the context of human history, he preserves intact his eternal vocation. The Church, for her part, founded on the love of the Redeemer, contributes toward the reign of justice and charity within the borders of a nation and between nations. By preaching the truths of the Gospel, and bringing to bear on all fields of human endeavor the light of her doctrine and of a Christian witness, she respects and fosters the political freedom and responsibility of citizens. (GS, 76)

The juridical independence of Church and state does not imply that the two should not cooperate. In fact, both are concerned with the moral development of man. Though the state is concerned with the temporal order and the Church with man’s eternal destiny, these two orders do not exist in isolation. Man is concerned with his eternal destiny even in this life, and seeks to bring his temporal affairs in line with religious principles. It is only rational that Christian citizens should seek to order society in a way that facilitates living their religious vocation. Conversely, Christian teaching helps make people better citizens. The Council reaffirms traditional teaching about Church-State cooperation not as wishful thinking, but as an assertion of the real coincidence of aims that makes such cooperation naturally desirable and beneficial to both institutions.

The Church herself makes use of temporal things insofar as her own mission requires it. She, for her part, does not place her trust in the privileges offered by civil authority. She will even give up the exercise of certain rights which have been legitimately acquired, if it becomes clear that their use will cast doubt on the sincerity of her witness or that new ways of life demand new methods. (GS, 76)

As suggested in the Commentary on Dignitatis Humanae, this accounts for why the Church has abandoned the use of the “temporal sword,” without denying that her predecessors used it legitimately.

It is only right, however, that at all times and in all places, the Church should have true freedom to preach the faith, to teach her social doctrine, to exercise her role freely among men, and also to pass moral judgment in those matters which regard public order when the fundamental rights of a person or the salvation of souls require it. In this, she should make use of all the means—but only those—which accord with the Gospel and which correspond to the general good according to the diversity of times and circumstances. (GS, 76)

It is always timely for the Church to proclaim the faith and her social teaching, so it should never be said that prudence requires the suppression of one or another doctrine. Thus no one should pretend that any element of the Church’s moral or social teaching should be ignored on account of the political climate of a nation. Still, the means by which the Church promotes her teaching may vary according to time and circumstance. This is why, for example, she no longer uses punishments and other forms of discipline that could be used in past ages without giving scandal.

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Chapter V: The Fostering of Peace and the Promotion of a Community of Nations

Section 5.1: The Avoidance of War
Section 5.2: Setting Up An International Community

The twentieth century endured the most horrific wars in human history, followed by a prolonged threat of nuclear annihilation. With good reason, the Council warned that “the whole human family faces an hour of supreme crisis in its advance toward maturity.” (GS, 77) The project of developing a “more genuinely human” world could not succeed without a strong commitment to the cause of peace.

Peace is not merely the absence of war; nor can it be reduced solely to the maintenance of a balance of power between enemies; nor is it brought about by dictatorship. Instead, it is rightly and appropriately called an enterprise of justice. Peace results from that order structured into human society by its divine Founder, and actualized by men as they thirst after ever greater justice. The common good of humanity finds its ultimate meaning in the eternal law. But since the concrete demands of this common good are constantly changing as time goes on, peace is never attained once and for all, but must be built up ceaselessly. Moreover, since the human will is unsteady and wounded by sin, the achievement of peace requires a constant mastering of passions and the vigilance of lawful authority. (GS, 78)

Peace is not a utopian demand for paradise on earth, but a requirement of justice. War occurs because of perceived injustice, and it is no solution to abstain from war while allowing injustice between nations to endure. Even if some day war were abolished, it would still require constant vigilance to maintain the justice among nations essential to true peace. This vigilance entails an unceasing moral struggle, due to the sinful inclination of wounded human nature.

But this is not enough. This peace on earth cannot be obtained unless personal well-being is safeguarded and men freely and trustingly share with one another the riches of their inner spirits and their talents. A firm determination to respect other men and peoples and their dignity, as well as the studied practice of brotherhood are absolutely necessary for the establishment of peace. Hence peace is likewise the fruit of love, which goes beyond what justice can provide. (GS, 78)

Justice alone cannot guarantee peace. We also need a genuine love and regard for people of other nations. Without such love and a sense of fraternity, there cannot be true peace, but only a cold, placid isolation among the nations.

That earthly peace which arises from love of neighbor symbolizes and results from the peace of Christ which radiates from God the Father. For by the cross the incarnate Son, the prince of peace reconciled all men with God. By thus restoring all men to the unity of one people and one body, He slew hatred in His own flesh; and, after being lifted on high by His resurrection, He poured forth the spirit of love into the hearts of men. (GS, 78)

The reconciliation accomplished by Christ made it possible for all men to be of one body. Thus the love of neighbor and human solidarity essential to earthly peace come from the peace of Christ.

Insofar as men are sinful, the threat of war hangs over them, and hang over them it will until the return of Christ. But insofar as men vanquish sin by a union of love, they will vanquish violence as well and make these words come true: “They shall turn their swords into plough-shares, and their spears into sickles. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4). (GS, 78)

The Council does not pretend that we will ever abolish the threat of war in this life, as if messianic prophecy could be fulfilled by purely human efforts. Still, by building up relations of justice and fraternity among all men, we can minimize the necessity of war, and help realize the reign of Christ’s peace on earth, albeit imperfectly, and never without the aid of divine grace.

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Section 5.1: The Avoidance of War

Even though recent wars have wrought physical and moral havoc on our world, the devastation of battle still goes on day by day in some part of the world. Indeed, now that every kind of weapon produced by modern science is used in war, the fierce character of warfare threatens to lead the combatants to a savagery far surpassing that of the past. Furthermore, the complexity of the modern world and the intricacy of international relations allow guerrilla warfare to be drawn out by new methods of deceit and subversion. In many causes the use of terrorism is regarded as a new way to wage war. (GS, 79)

The Council Fathers were by no means innocent about war. They had endured the devastation of Europe and Asia in the Second World War, witnessed the terrifying inauguration of the atomic age, and watched with apprehension as Cold War paranoia brought the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust, while Africans and Latin Americans were decimated in brutal guerrilla wars, often serving as proxies for the capitalist and Communist power blocs. Instead of bringing about a paradise, human science, when divorced from moral considerations, could facilitate any cruelty, even the devastation of the world. In 1965, the Council Fathers already considered terrorism to be among the greatest threats to world peace, and rightly considered that its practitioners used it as a means of waging war.

Contemplating this melancholy state of humanity, the council wishes, above all things else, to recall the permanent binding force of universal natural law and its all-embracing principles. Man's conscience itself gives ever more emphatic voice to these principles. Therefore, actions which deliberately conflict with these same principles, as well as orders commanding such actions are criminal, and blind obedience cannot excuse those who yield to them. The most infamous among these are actions designed for the methodical extermination of an entire people, nation or ethnic minority. Such actions must be vehemently condemned as horrendous crimes. The courage of those who fearlessly and openly resist those who issue such commands merits supreme commendation. (GS, 79)

War and the self-interest of nations can never suspend the natural moral law. The secular world had recently recognized this fact when prosecuting war crimes at Nuremburg. Although there had been no previously established positive law against genocide, no one could plead ignorance of the natural duties of man to man, or of the basic requirements of human dignity. Nor could obedience to any human authority excuse anyone from violating the natural law. Although the various peoples of the world rationalized these principles differently, there emerged a surprisingly universal consensus as to the content of the natural rights of man, expressed in the UN Declaration on Human Rights.

On the subject of war, quite a large number of nations have subscribed to international agreements aimed at making military activity and its consequences less inhuman. Their stipulations deal with such matters as the treatment of wounded soldiers and prisoners. Agreements of this sort must be honored. Indeed they should be improved upon so that the frightfulness of war can be better and more workably held in check. All men, especially government officials and experts in these matters, are bound to do everything they can to effect these improvements. Moreover, it seems right that laws make humane provisions for the case of those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms, provided however, that they agree to serve the human community in some other way. (GS, 79)

Even before the Second World War, the Geneva Conventions imposed humanitarian limits on the conduct of war and treatment of prisoners. This was in keeping with a long tradition among Christian nations of recognizing certain rules of war. Even the pagans of antiquity recognized that not everything is licit in war. Safe passage for ambassadors, sparing the vanquished, and distinguishing soldiers from non-combatants are all norms that have been recognized throughout the history of civilization. The broad appeal of these norms attests that they are in accord with what is best for human nature.

Certainly, war has not been rooted out of human affairs. As long as the danger of war remains and there is no competent and sufficiently powerful authority at the international level, governments cannot be denied the right to legitimate defense once every means of peaceful settlement has been exhausted. (GS, 79)

The Council does not say that such an international authority necessarily should exist. Further, such an authority need not be a world government, but could instead be some deliberative body that provides a means for resolving disputes through arbitration. This would do for nations what courts have done for individuals, namely eliminate the need to resolve our quarrels with violence.

But it is one thing to undertake military action for the just defense of the people, and something else again to seek the subjugation of other nations. Nor, by the same token, does the mere fact that war has unhappily begun mean that all is fair between the warring parties. (GS, 79)

The Council maintains the traditional distinction between jus ad bellum and jus in bello. Even if a war is justified in its origin, it does not follow that the aggrieved nation can wage war as ruthlessly as it pleases, without regard for the severity of the offense. Much less may it use a just war as an excuse for the conquest or subjugation of other nations, if this is beyond all proportion to the threat or offense justifying the war.

Those too who devote themselves to the military service of their country should regard themselves as the agents of security and freedom of peoples. As long as they fulfill this role properly, they are making a genuine contribution to the establishment of peace. (GS, 79)

This upholds the traditional view that a just war is in the service of lasting peace.

The horror and perversity of war is immensely magnified by the addition of scientific weapons. For acts of war involving these weapons can inflict massive and indiscriminate destruction, thus going far beyond the bounds of legitimate defense. Indeed, if the kind of instruments which can now be found in the armories of the great nations were to be employed to their fullest, an almost total and altogether reciprocal slaughter of each side by the other would follow, not to mention the many devastations (multis vastationibus) that would take place in the world and the deadly after effects that would be spawned by the use of weapons of this kind. All these considerations compel us to undertake an evaluation of war with an entirely new attitude. (GS, 80)

The Council says “many devastations” rather than total destruction, for man cannot cause the end of the world. Still, the sheer scale and quality of destruction caused by modern weapons forces the Fathers to evaluate “total war” differently. No right of self-defense can ever justify this kind of devastation.

Recent popes had condemned the received worldly wisdom about the practical necessity of preparations for “total war.” In his 1954 Christmas address, Pope Pius XII recalled how in 1939 the war was taken as a given, not considered as a moral fact binding the conscience. He condemned a similarly callous pragmatism that had emerged in the postwar decade, pursuing a “cold peace” based on mutual threats by counterbalancing destructive powers, which is nothing like the true peace or tranquillitas ordinis expounded by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. In particular, he rejected the notion that war should be a means of obtaining political objectives, to attack those who have the “wrong” political system. [Pope Pius XII, AAS 47 (1955), pp. 15-28.]

Pope John XXIII, in Pacem in Terris (1963), noted that the nuclear arms race put all of humanity in peril of devastating violence, as “the conflagration can be set off by some unexpected and unpremeditated act,” and “the mere continuance of nuclear tests, undertaken with war in mind, can seriously jeopardize various kinds of life on earth.” (Pacem in Terris, 111) Accordingly, he inferred:

Justice, then, right reason and consideration for human dignity and life urgently demand that the arms race should cease; that the stockpiles which exist in various countries should be reduced equally and simultaneously by the parties concerned; that nuclear weapons should be banned; and finally that all come to an agreement on a fitting program of disarmament, employing mutual and effective controls. In the words of Pius XII, our Predecessor of happy memory: “The calamity of a world war, with the economic and social ruin and the moral excesses and dissolution that accompany it, must not be permitted to envelop the human race for a third time.” (Pacem in Terris, 112)

Since the mere existence of nuclear weapons creates the threat of total war, which is itself a moral excess that cannot be justified by self-defense, it is right that they should be banned. Naturally, this is to be achieved by mutual consent, in order to guarantee that no nation attains a position of dominance. Following the thought of Pope Pius, what ought to be defended and promoted is the life of the nation, not nationalist politics. It is hardly legitimate, then, to invoke the right of national self-defense in order to protect the nationalist State, or to promote a particular form of the state that would supposedly create a paradise on earth. [Pope Pius XII AAS 47 (1955), pp. 15-28]

With these truths in mind, this most holy synod makes its own the condemnations of total war already pronounced by recent popes, and issues the following declaration.

Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation. (GS, 80)

By this standard, the systematic firebombing of Dresden and numerous other cities in Germany and Japan, no less than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were crimes against God and man. The supposed military justification (i.e., ending the war more quickly) is irrelevant, since a good end cannot justify an evil means, when the means is objectively a grave crime. There is no question that the destruction was indiscriminate (i.e., made no attempt to distinguish military and civilian targets); in fact, the United States and United Kingdom opposed an attempt to prohibit the deliberate mass bombing of civilians under the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949), recognizing that they had targeted civilians as a punitive measure. Accustomed as we are to weapons that can incinerate, dismember, and pulverize humans en masse, we may lose sight of how historically recent this development is, and fail to appreciate how monstrous it must have seemed to men of the mid-twentieth century.

The unique hazard of modern warfare consists in this: it provides those who possess modern scientific weapons with a kind of occasion for perpetrating just such abominations; moreover, through a certain inexorable chain of events, it can catapult men into the most atrocious decisions. That such may never truly happen in the future, the bishops of the whole world gathered together, beg all men, especially government officials and military leaders, to give unremitting thought to their gigantic responsibility before God and the entire human race. (GS, 80)

Again we face the paradox that science makes possible unprecedented barbarity. With the memories of World War II still fresh in most of the Fathers’ minds, they consider it imperative that there should be no occasion for this to be repeated. Thus the new weapons, which are a temptation to unspeakable cruelty, must be curtailed or abolished.

To be sure, scientific weapons are not amassed solely for use in war. Since the defensive strength of any nation is considered to be dependent upon its capacity for immediate retaliation, this accumulation of arms, which increases each year, likewise serves, in a way heretofore unknown, as deterrent to possible enemy attack. Many regard this procedure as the most effective way by which peace of a sort can be maintained between nations at the present time. (GS, 81)

The Council does not address whether this policy of deterrence or “mutually assured destruction” is effective, but instead observes:

Whatever be the facts about this method of deterrence, men should be convinced that the arms race in which an already considerable number of countries are engaged is not a safe way to preserve a steady peace, nor is the so-called balance resulting from this race a sure and authentic peace. Rather than being eliminated thereby, the causes of war are in danger of being gradually aggravated. While extravagant sums are being spent for the furnishing of ever new weapons, an adequate remedy cannot be provided for the multiple miseries afflicting the whole modern world. Disagreements between nations are not really and radically healed; on the contrary, they spread the infection to other parts of the earth. (GS, 81)

These assertions are well-substantiated, as the Cold War, far from securing peace, facilitated dozens of proxy wars throughout the Third World. Domestic and regional conflicts took on heightened peril due to involvement by the superpowers, which provided finance, armaments, intelligence, and even soldiers. Even after the Cold War, the United States and Russia benefit from a lucrative arms industry that supplies nearly all the armies and paramilitary groups of the developing world.

New approaches based on reformed attitudes must be taken to remove this trap and to emancipate the world from its crushing anxiety through the restoration of genuine peace.

Therefore, we say it again: the arms race is an utterly treacherous trap for humanity, and one which ensnares the poor to an intolerable degree. It is much to be feared that if this race persists, it will eventually spawn all the lethal ruin whose path it is now making ready. (GS, 81)

The arms race ensnares the poor not only by diverting national resources to armaments in a permanent war economy, but also by facilitating prolonged conflicts in poor countries, as the great powers try to manipulate political outcomes to their liking.

Divine Providence urgently demands of us that we free ourselves from the age-old slavery of war. If we refuse to make this effort, we do not know where we will be led by the evil road we have set upon. (GS, 81)

Although the Council, in keeping with traditional teaching, has acknowledged that there can be legitimate, just wars, there is now a practical need to abandon war and find some other means of resolving conflicts. Modern warfare is far too destructive.

It is our clear duty, therefore, to strain every muscle in working for the time when all war can be completely outlawed by international consent. This goal undoubtedly requires the establishment of some universal public authority acknowledged as such by all and endowed with the power to safeguard on the behalf of all, security, regard for justice, and respect for rights. But before this hoped for authority can be set up, the highest existing international centers must devote themselves vigorously to the pursuit of better means for obtaining common security. (GS, 81)

The proposed universal authority is no affront to national rights, for it requires the consent of all nations, and serves only to prevent occasions of war. This is accomplished by safeguarding the security, justice, and rights of nations. ‘Security’ need not imply a global army; rather, nations are made secure by the fact that they need not fear invasion from other countries, as the incentives for war have been eradicated. In fact, a global army would be antithetical to the goal of abolishing the violence of war. The entire point of the international authority is to resolve disputes by non-violent means.

We are already moving in this direction, as greater economic interdependence has made it unconscionable for the developed countries to attack each other. Instead, our “wars” are in the realm of economic competition or trade disputes, increasingly arbitrated by international bodies. These conflicts are so civil that developed nations are reluctant to impose punitive trade sanctions even when a ruling is in their favor, as such sanctions tend to hurt both parties comparably.

The alternative to such an international authority is far more injurious to the sovereignty of nations, for then the many must obey the few with nuclear weapons:

Since peace must be born of mutual trust between nations and not be imposed on them through a fear of the available weapons, everyone must labor to put an end at last to the arms race, and to make a true beginning of disarmament, not unilaterally indeed, but proceeding at an equal pace according to agreement, and backed up by true and workable safeguards. (GS, 81)

In the decades since the Council, there has been significant bilateral disarmament of the U.S. and Soviet nuclear stockpiles, but the logic of nuclear deterrence has not been renounced. Accordingly, “rogue nations,” fearful of superpower aggression, continue to see nuclear weapons as a necessary means of self-preservation. Chemical and biological weapons, by contrast, have been completely renounced by international agreement, and they are illicit even as a deterrent.

It is useless to entrust all peacemaking responsibility to political leaders, for their action is limited by public opinion. Diplomatic efforts cannot succeed as long as racial and ideological animosity remain deeply rooted in the general public. Therefore a real moral effort needs to be made by all people, rather than rely on purely political solutions to the problem of war. (GS, 82)

But we should not let false hope deceive us. For unless enmities and hatred are put away and firm, honest agreements concerning world peace are reached in the future, humanity, which already is in the middle of a grave crisis, even though it is endowed with remarkable knowledge, will perhaps be brought to that dismal hour in which it will experience no peace other than the dreadful peace of death. But, while we say this, the Church of Christ, present in the midst of the anxiety of this age, does not cease to hope most firmly. She intends to propose to our age over and over again, in season and out of season, this apostolic message: “Behold, now is the acceptable time for a change of heart; behold! now is the day of salvation.” (GS, 82)

It can be difficult to appreciate today the gravity of Cold War antagonisms, but in 1965 the world was in real danger of meeting the “peace of death” as a result of ideological conflict. This is why the Fathers considered it urgent to abolish war and create an international community.

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Section 5.2: Setting Up An International Community

An international community does not mean an outright world government, but a commonwealth of nations, built in stages by mutual consent. This community must address the sources of conflict between nations, much as a polity does for individuals.

In order to build up peace above all the causes of discord among men, especially injustice, which foment wars must be rooted out. Not a few of these causes come from excessive economic inequalities and from putting off the steps needed to remedy them. Other causes of discord, however, have their source in the desire to dominate and in a contempt for persons. And, if we look for deeper causes, we find them in human envy, distrust, pride, and other egotistical passions. (GS, 83)

Obviously, no international commonwealth can abolish sin, but it may at least strive to reduce the injustices in international relations that give rise to wars.

In view of the increasingly close ties of mutual dependence today between all the inhabitants and peoples of the earth, the apt pursuit and efficacious attainment of the universal common good now require of the community of nations that it organize itself in a manner suited to its present responsibilities, especially toward the many parts of the world which are still suffering from unbearable want.

To reach this goal, organizations of the international community, for their part, must make provision for men's different needs, both in the fields of social life—such as food supplies, health, education, labor and also in certain special circumstances which can crop up here and there, e.g., the need to promote the general improvement of developing countries, or to alleviate the distressing conditions in which refugees dispersed throughout the world find themselves, or also to assist migrants and their families. (GS, 84)

The existing relations of economic interdependence among nations create a moral obligation to promote the development of poor nations. We cannot say that the poor nations are not our problem, since we are bound to them in a global economy, where the actions of one nation affect the welfare of others. Just as it would be wrong for a nation to develop its cities while letting the countryside starve, so must the community of nations ensure that global industrial development does not result in the pauperization of some.

Already existing international and regional organizations are certainly well-deserving of the human race. These are the first efforts at laying the foundations on an international level for a community of all men to work for the solution to the serious problems of our times, to encourage progress everywhere, and to obviate wars of whatever kind. In all of these activities the Church takes joy in the spirit of true brotherhood flourishing between Christians and non-Christians as it strives to make ever more strenuous efforts to relieve abundant misery. (GS, 84)

In 1965, there already existed the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and the Red Cross, just to name the more prominent organizations favoring the aid and development of impoverished nations. Shortly after the Council, the United Nations Development Programme was created, in order to facilitate technical and political development, thereby reducing the occasions for armed conflict in the Third World. All of these agencies, like any human institution, are susceptible to abuse by political, bureaucratic or financial oligarchs, yet the great good they have accomplished meets an indispensable human need.

The present solidarity of mankind also calls for a revival of greater international cooperation in the economic field… The citizens of each country must be prepared by education and professional training to discharge the various tasks of economic and social life. But this in turn requires the aid of foreign specialists who, when they give aid, will not act as overlords, but as helpers and fellow-workers. Developing nations will not be able to procure material assistance unless radical changes are made in the established procedures of modern world commerce. Other aid should be provided as well by advanced nations in the form of gifts, loans or financial investments. Such help should be accorded with generosity and without greed on the one side, and received with complete honesty on the other side. (GS, 85) [Emphasis added]

The Council recognized that existing rules of commerce allowed for the exploitation of poor countries in the name of development. The solidarity of mankind requires that foreign investment and aid should be oriented toward the benefit of the recipient no less than the contributor. It is no help to “develop” a country by investments that deprive it of all ownership of its natural resources, or prevent it from acquiring its own industrial capital. Financial aid is no help if loan terms are so burdensome that governments cannot provide essential social services.

If an authentic economic order is to be established on a world-wide basis, an end will have to be put to profiteering, to national ambitions, to the appetite for political supremacy, to militaristic calculations, and to machinations for the sake of spreading and imposing ideologies. (GS, 85)

Opposing economic justice is the idea that one nation or political ideology ought to have global supremacy. This egoistic ambition is inconsistent with universal human dignity, as it subordinates the good of other nations to the aims of the superpower or empire. Just as a good citizen does not try to enslave or lord over his fellows, neither should a member of the commonwealth of nations subject others to its own ambitions. The dignity of nations demands that each should be able to retain its own form of government, and that its economy should satisfy the needs of its people before the demands of foreign capital.

The following norms seem useful for such cooperation:

a) Developing nations… should bear in mind that progress… has to be based, not only on foreign aid, but especially on the full utilization of their own resources, and on the development of their own culture and traditions. …

b) On the other hand, it is a very important duty of the advanced nations to help the developing nations in discharging their above-mentioned responsibilities.… Consequently, in business dealings with weaker and poorer nations, they should be careful to respect their profit, for these countries need the income they receive on the sale of their homemade products to support themselves.

c) It is the role of the international community to coordinate and promote development, but in such a way that the resources earmarked for this purpose will be allocated as effectively as possible, and with complete equity. It is likewise this community's duty, with due regard for the principle of subsidiarity, so to regulate economic relations throughout the world that these will be carried out in accordance with the norms of justice. (GS, 86)

Applying the principle of subsidiarity, a global authority should not take on tasks that are adequately handled by national or local authority. It is no violation of this principle for a global authority to regulate international economic relations, since there is otherwise only anarchy and coercion in such relations between strong and weak countries.

Suitable organizations should be set up to foster and regulate international business affairs, particularly with the underdeveloped countries, and to compensate for losses resulting from an excessive inequality of power among the various nations. This type of organization, in unison with technical cultural and financial aid, should provide the help which developing nations need so that they can advantageously pursue their own economic advancement. (GS, 86)

It is no wonder that so-called “conservatives” in the U.S. hate this document. Here we find a direct attack on the dogma of “free trade,” recognizing that there can be no real freedom in an agreement made between the weak and the strong with no higher authority. The Council actually demands that the poorer countries be compensated for losses resulting from this inequality of power. The mention of “compensation” implies that this not a matter of charity, but of justice.

d) In many cases there is an urgent need to revamp economic and social structures. But one must guard against proposals of technical solutions that are untimely. This is particularly true of those solutions providing man with material conveniences, but nevertheless contrary to man's spiritual nature and advancement. For “not by bread alone does man live, but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). Every sector of the family of man carries within itself and in its best traditions some portion of the spiritual treasure entrusted by God to humanity, even though many may not be aware of the source from which it comes. (GS, 86)

Although the Fathers call for an international regulatory body, they do not adopt the view that nations must always be socially engineered by bureaucratic policies. Local cultural traditions are to be favored over uniform technical solutions whenever possible. Economic efficiency is not the sole, or even the highest, aim of human society, so it is not licit to destroy or suppress cultural traditions solely for the sake of material convenience.

Since the nations of the world are economically interrelated, the questions of global food supply and population are of common interest:

There is an urgent need to explore, with the full and intense cooperation of all, and especially of the wealthier nations, ways whereby the human necessities of food and a suitable education can be furnished and shared with the entire human community. But some peoples could greatly improve upon the conditions of their life if they would change over from antiquated methods of farming to the new technical methods, applying them with needed prudence according to their own circumstances. Their life would likewise be improved by the establishment of a better social order and by a fairer system for the distribution of land ownership. (GS, 87)

Feeding the poor is not simply a question of the rich countries providing aid, but also of the poor countries reforming their agricultural methods, while at the same time distributing ownership so that all may benefit. Modernizing agriculture solely for the profits of agribusiness will leave the poor no better off. Socio-economic reform is also needed to guarantee that the benefits of technical progress are distributed equitably.

Governments undoubtedly have rights and duties, within the limits of their proper competency, regarding the population problem in their respective countries, for instance, in the line of social and family life legislation, or regarding the migration of country-dwellers to the cities, or with respect to information concerning the condition and needs of the country. Since men today are giving thought to this problem and are so greatly disturbed over it, it is desirable in addition that Catholic specialists, especially in the universities, skillfully pursue and develop studies and projects on all these matters. (GS, 87)

Recall that governments do not have the right to tell parents when and how often they may beget children. Still, they may work through moral suasion or moderate financial incentives to induce people to have responsibly sized families. They may also regulate internal migration to address local overpopulation or depopulation. As these issues have a moral dimension, it is imperative that Catholic academics should present the Church’s insights into natural law and apply them to modern problems.

But there are many today who maintain that the increase in world population, or at least the population increase in some countries, must be radically curbed by every means possible and by any kind of intervention on the part of public authority. In view of this contention, the council urges everyone to guard against solutions, whether publicly or privately supported, or at times even imposed, which are contrary to the moral law. For in keeping with man's inalienable right to marry and generate children, a decision concerning the number of children they will have depends on the right judgment of the parents and it cannot in any way be left to the judgment of public authority.

But since the judgment of the parents presupposes a rightly formed conscience, it is of the utmost importance that the way be open for everyone to develop a correct and genuinely human responsibility which respects the divine law and takes into consideration the circumstances of the situation and the time. But sometimes this requires an improvement in educational and social conditions, and, above all, formation in religion or at least a complete moral training. Men should discreetly be informed, furthermore, of scientific advances in exploring methods whereby spouses can be helped in regulating the number of their children and whose safeness has been well proven and whose harmony with the moral order has been ascertained. (GS, 87)

The Council does not specify what these permissible scientific advances are, leaving this judgment to the Pope. In his encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968), Pope Paul VI reasserted the traditional Catholic injunction against artificial contraception, expressed previously by Pope Pius XI in Casti Connubii (1931) with characteristic clarity: “any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.” (Casti Connubii, 56) By this standard, the only permissible scientific means for preventing birth would be enhanced knowledge of the times of fertility and infertility. Use of such knowledge does not incur the guilt of contraception, since this does not frustrate the natural power of the act. In the decades before and after Humanae Vitae, methods for predicting periods of fertility have become more sophisticated than the simple “rhythm method” of counting days. Two of the more notable and well validated techniques are the Billings ovulation method and the Creighton Model.

Christians should cooperate willingly and wholeheartedly in establishing an international order that includes a genuine respect for all freedoms and amicable brotherhood between all. This is all the more pressing since the greater part of the world is still suffering from so much poverty that it is as if Christ Himself were crying out in these poor to beg the charity of the disciples. Do not let men, then, be scandalized because some countries with a majority of citizens who are counted as Christians have an abundance of wealth, whereas others are deprived of the necessities of life and are tormented with hunger, disease, and every kind of misery. The spirit of poverty and charity are the glory and witness of the Church of Christ. (GS, 88)

By “international order,” the Council is speaking not of a global government, but of a moral and social order whereby those of the wealthy countries are aware of their fraternity with the poor and take positive action, individually and collectively, to provide succor. The Council does not pretend that poverty will be abolished or that there should be an equality of wealth. On the contrary, the spirit of Christ is found both in poverty and in charity.

Those Christians are to be praised and supported, therefore, who volunteer their services to help other men and nations. Indeed, it is the duty of the whole People of God, following the word and example of the bishops, to alleviate as far as they are able the sufferings of the modern age. They should do this too, as was the ancient custom in the Church, out of the substance of their goods, and not only out of what is superfluous. (GS, 88)

Giving out of the substance of our goods means giving to the point that we deprive ourselves of some material convenience we might otherwise have enjoyed. This is contrasted with giving out of what is superfluous, that is, from what we would not have spent on ourselves anyway. Since Patristic times, the Church has taught that it is a moral obligation for Christians to give of their substance to the poor. It is because of our solidarity with and duty toward our poorer brethren that we must give even when we have no excess wealth. This does not obligate, however, those who only have enough to meet their own bare subsistence needs.

…it is very much to be desired that Catholics, in order to fulfill their role properly in the international community, will seek to cooperate actively and in a positive manner both with their separated brothers who together with them profess the Gospel of charity and with all men thirsting for true peace.

The council, considering the immensity of the hardships which still afflict the greater part of mankind today, regards it as most opportune that an organism of the universal Church be set up in order that both the justice and love of Christ toward the poor might be developed everywhere. The role of such an organism would be to stimulate the Catholic community to promote progress in needy regions and international social justice. (GS, 90)

In 1967, Pope Paul VI established the Pontifical Commission “Iustitia et Pax in his motu proprio Catholicam Christi Ecclesiam. In 1988, Pope John Paul II renamed it a Pontifical Council.

Drawn from the treasures of Church teaching, the proposals of this sacred synod look to the assistance of every man of our time, whether he believes in God, or does not explicitly recognize Him. If adopted, they will promote among men a sharper insight into their full destiny, and thereby lead them to fashion the world more to man’s surpassing dignity… (GS, 91)

Anyone who recognizes a distinction between objective good and evil implicitly recognizes God. The truly godless are those who deny such a distinction.

Undeniably this conciliar program is but a general one in several of its parts; and deliberately so, given the immense variety of situations and forms of human culture in the world. Indeed while it presents teaching already accepted in the Church, the program will have to be followed up and amplified since it sometimes deals with matters in a constant state of development. Still, we have relied on the word of God and the spirit of the Gospel. Hence we entertain the hope that many of our proposals will prove to be of substantial benefit to everyone, especially after they have been adapted to individual nations and mentalities by the faithful, under the guidance of their pastors. (GS, 91)

The Council’s program is deliberately vague, to allow for changing circumstances. No new teaching is declared in this program. Still, what it presents is consistent with the Gospel, so many of its proposals should be beneficial. Gaudium et Spes is truly a pastoral constitution because it is putting forth practical proposals for the lay world instead of declaring dogmatic teachings.

The document concludes with a summary of the Church’s relation to the modern world:

By virtue of her mission to shed on the whole world the radiance of the Gospel message, and to unify under one Spirit all men of whatever nation, race or culture, the Church stands forth as a sign of that brotherhood which allows honest dialogue and gives it vigor. (GS, 92)

The Church’s mission of preaching the Gospel through suasion rather than coercion provides a model of honest dialogue, while the universality of her mission is a sign of human fraternity.

Such a mission requires in the first place that we foster within the Church herself mutual esteem, reverence and harmony, through the full recognition of lawful diversity. Thus all those who compose the one People of God, both pastors and the general faithful, can engage in dialogue with ever abounding fruitfulness. For the bonds which unite the faithful are mightier than anything dividing them. Hence, let there be unity in what is necessary; freedom in what is unsettled, and charity in any case. (GS, 92)

Respect for human dignity within the Church entails that all opinions consistent with the faith should be tolerated, and even errors should be corrected charitably.

Our hearts embrace also those brothers and communities not yet living with us in full communion; to them we are linked nonetheless by our profession of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and by the bond of charity. We do not forget that the unity of Christians is today awaited and desired by many, too, who do not believe in Christ; for the farther it advances toward truth and love under the powerful impulse of the Holy Spirit, the more this unity will be a harbinger of unity and peace for the world at large. (GS, 92)

The spirit of fraternity extends beyond the visible Catholic Church to all Christians. The unity of Christians is a benefit even to non-Christians, for it gives hope for a more global unity and peace. Gaudium et spes credits the Holy Spirit for this impulse toward unity, in consonance with Yves Congar’s more developed pneumatology. In adopting this language, the Council does not ratify Congar’s theological opinions, except to say that the Holy Spirit guides Christians toward unity in truth and love.

…let us take pains to pattern ourselves after the Gospel more exactly every day, and thus work as brothers in rendering service to the human family. For, in Christ Jesus this family is called to the family of the sons of God. (GS, 92)

Christians are called to the service of all mankind, for all men are called to be sons of God, and thus should be regarded as potential brethren in Christ.

We think cordially too of all who acknowledge God, and who preserve in their traditions precious elements of religion and humanity. We want frank conversation to compel us all to receive the impulses of the Spirit faithfully and to act on them energetically. For our part, the desire for such dialogue, which can lead to truth through love alone, excludes no one, though an appropriate measure of prudence must undoubtedly be exercised. We include those who cultivate outstanding qualities of the human spirit, but do not yet acknowledge the Source of these qualities. We include those who oppress the Church and harass her in manifold ways. Since God the Father is the origin and purpose of all men, we are all called to be brothers. Therefore, if we have been summoned to the same destiny, human and divine, we can and we should work together without violence and deceit in order to build up the world in genuine peace. (GS, 92)

The Council calls for dialogue even with those who oppress the Church, showing that dialogue does not indicate approval of the other party’s deeds or beliefs. The Council Fathers seek dialogue, because the alternatives of violence and deceit are unworthy of human dignity. In view of the grave threats to peace faced by the modern world, a martial attitude toward disagreements seems intolerably dangerous.

Mindful of the Lord's saying: “by this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35), Christians cannot yearn for anything more ardently than to serve the men of the modern world with mounting generosity and success. Therefore, by holding faithfully to the Gospel and benefiting from its resources, by joining with every man who loves and practices justice, Christians have shouldered a gigantic task for fulfillment in this world, a task concerning which they must give a reckoning to Him who will judge every man on the last of days. (GS, 93)

Here we find the constitution’s central concept of the Church in service to the world. This does not mean confirming the world in its errors, or subordinating supernatural ends to material goals. Rather, by remaining faithful to the Gospel, Christians may seek to practice justice and charity in this world, and join forces with those of like aim. Recalling that we are judged according to our deeds, Christians should not shrink from the difficulty of this task.

Not everyone who cries, “Lord, Lord,” will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the Father’s will by taking a strong grip on the work at hand. Now, the Father wills that in all men we recognize Christ our brother and love Him effectively, in word and in deed. By thus giving witness to the truth, we will share with others the mystery of the heavenly Father’s love. As a consequence, men throughout the world will be aroused to a lively hope—the gift of the Holy Spirit—that some day at last they will be caught up in peace and utter happiness in that fatherland radiant with the glory of the Lord.

Now to Him who is able to accomplish all things in a measure far beyond what we ask or conceive, in keeping with the power that is at work in us—to Him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus, down through all the ages of time without end. Amen. (Eph. 3:20-21). (GS, 93)

Gaudium et Spes does not adopt the error of universal salvation; indeed, even professing Christians will not enter the kingdom of heaven if they do not do the Father’s will. Through acts of Christian witness, others may learn of the Father’s love and, by the Holy Spirit, might attain the hope of heavenly glory. Here the Council speaks only of the hope of salvation, not its realization, as the document steers clear of theological controversies. In conclusion, the Council emphasizes that all our good works are accomplished by the power of God, and so our trust should be in Him rather than our own strength.

Concluding Remarks

Having gone through Gaudium et Spes in detail, we find that the constitution does not at all resemble the common characterizations made of it, whether in criticism or in praise. There is nothing naive or Pollyannish about its view of the modern world. There is nothing Pelagian in its outlook; indeed it explicitly refutes Pelagianism on at least eight occasions. (GS, 17, 22, 25, 30, 32, 34, 37, 78) Much less can it be considered secularist in its emphasis, as it repeatedly stresses the importance of bringing Christian insights to bear on the question of human justice, and grounds human dignity in our supernatural destiny.

Apart from the Cold War references, not much of the Council’s social program has become dated. The problems of predatory capitalism and concomitant inequity have become acute again in our day. The threat of nuclear holocaust still looms, though in a different form, and the document's mention of terrorism now seems prescient.

American conservatives have been hostile to the second part of Gaudium et Spes, since it attacks the dogma of laissez-faire, and calls for an international order instead of endless superpower dominance. Yet every single point in the Council’s proposals is grounded in authentically Catholic moral teaching, dating back to the Patristic era. The militarism and economic libertarianism that frequently characterize American conservatism are incompatible with Catholic ethics. As long as Catholic conservatives place their political ideology above their obedience to the Church, they will find themselves defending military actions that are not remotely compatible with just war criteria, and upholding property rights with an absoluteness that trumps human values. By taking these positions, they expose themselves to accusations of hypocrisy from those on the Left, who rightly point out that such values are diametrically opposed to Christ’s love of the poor and message of peace.

The constitution is authentically Catholic even in its praise of representative government and civil liberties. The Council does not adopt a Lockean notion of rights as individual entitlements, but considers them as entailing social duty. The authority of the state is not derived from the consent of the governed, but from its exercise in accordance with objective moral norms for the benefit of the commonwealth and its members. Even in democratic states, the people cannot legislate arbitrarily, but are bound to observe natural law. The idolatrous principle of vox populi, vox dei is rejected.

Aside from some oblique references to the work of the Holy Spirit, there is hardly anything of Yves Congar’s peculiar theology or pneumatology in the final document. Nouvelle Theologie is present only in the sense of using new modes of expression, not in the assertion of any new dogmatic content. We find that any apparent theological errors are attributable either to the poor English translation or the rhetorical context. It is no wonder that the document attained near-unanimous approval, which would not have been the case had it contained any controversial doctrine.

In sum, Gaudium et Spes is not at all as it is portrayed by Catholics of the Left or the Right. Quite the contrary, it urges Christians to bring Gospel values into temporal affairs. Those who are most scandalized by the document have unwittingly adopted the opposite dynamic, allowing political ideologies to shape their understanding of Catholic faith and morals.

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© 2013 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved.