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Commentary on Gaudium et Spes

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)

Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, is exceptional among Vatican II documents, not only for its great length (over 35,000 words), but also for its origin and genre. It is the only document that was not preceded by any preparatory schema, but instead resulted from an intervention by Cardinals Suenens and Montini (soon to be Pope Paul VI) in the first session (1962), calling for a statement on the relationship of the Church with the world around it. This emphasis on the Church looking outward to the rest of the world is consistent with Pope John XXIII’s vision of “opening the windows,” and with Pope Francis’ recent admonition that the Church must not become “self-referential,” but should instead reach out to those on her periphery and beyond.

Bishop Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, called for the inclusion of issues of poverty, war and totalitarianism, so that the document would end up presenting a fairly comprehensive overview of the Church’s social teaching, as applied to modern circumstances. The document was considered a “constitution,” the most solemn pronouncement of the Church’s teaching or legislation, yet there was no dogma or canon articulated here. Instead, it was filled with proposals for the improvement of the secular world, and exhortations for Catholics to cooperate with others in promoting this improvement. It could not, therefore, be called a dogmatic constitution, so Wojtyla instead proposed the unprecedented moniker of “pastoral” constitution, as the document was an expression of pastoral concern for the world.

Although the document is not dogmatic, and therefore not irreformable, it is nonetheless a solemn constitution of an ecumenical council, passed by a resounding majority of 2,307 to 75. Its teachings, therefore, should not be set aside lightly by Catholics, and it is hardly tenable that it should contain any heresy or error in faith. Nonetheless, many “conservative” and “traditionalist” Catholics have judged Gaudium et Spes to be full of doctrinal ambiguities if not outright errors, more so than any other Council document. Much of this criticism is motivated by antagonism toward the Nouvelle Theologie of Yves Congar and other French prelates who took a leading role in the development of the text. Yet there is hardly any new theological content to be found in the final text; it is “new” only in the sense of Congar’s program of explicating traditional doctrines in terms of modern concepts and phraseology. The document scrupulously avoids making new dogmatic statements, and repeatedly appeals to traditional doctrines and teachings.

Another criticism sometimes advanced against Gaudium et Spes is that it represents a capitulation to democratic liberalism and other modern ideologies. The reality is more subtle, as recognized by Cardinal Ratzinger, who noted that liberalism in Central Europe had changed considerably since 1789. It is owing to this change in relations between the Church and democratic states that a less adversarial stance could now be adopted, and in this sense Gaudium et Spes is a sort of “counter-Syllabus” to that of Pius IX. While the late nineteenth century popes, in their condemnations of a militantly irreligious modernism, clearly defined those aspects of liberalism that are incompatible with Catholic teaching, Gaudium et Spes gives us the other half of the picture, defining the extent to which modern ideas can be accepted and even embraced by the Church as consonant with her own teaching. The Council is not naive on this point, as Gaudium et Spes contains numerous admonitions against modern liberal errors, based on distorted ideas about human freedom.

This brings us to another line of critique, which says that the constitution, though perhaps orthodox, was nonetheless naive in its optimism regarding the rest of the world. This criticism, like the others, must rest on an incomplete or superficial reading of the document, as we find numerous expressions of caution, concern, and acute awareness of the sinfulness of man and animosity toward revealed religion. The only appropriate remedy for such misunderstanding is to explore the document in some depth.

Though the message of Gaudium et Spes is sometimes obscured by its onerous length, which begs for editing, there is a surprising amount of substantive content in its proposals and exhortations, most of which is relevant even today. In this last of the Council documents, the Fathers set forth some definitive norms for a program of engagement with the world. Without denying the Church’s fundamentally supernatural mission, they made clear that the Church also has much to offer the temporal world, and that Catholics share certain moral aspirations in common with other men of good will.

In particular, Catholics can embrace the heightened concept of human dignity perceived by modern men, and the extension of that concept to all humans. Concomitant with recognition of this dignity is the development of political, economic, and social means whereby all citizens can freely exercise those rights which enable them to perform their duties to aid their fellows. Rights and duties are repeatedly intertwined in the document’s teaching. We do not have rights as self-gratifying autonomous individuals, but so that we may help each other. Yet the Council at the same time teaches that we are to value individuals for their own sake, rather than subordinate them to a collective. This double rejection of the extremes of collectivism and individualism contains something to rankle modern men of all political stripes, which is why most readings of Gaudium et Spes are highly selective. In the following discussion, we will bring to light the balanced teaching of the constitution, which follows a distinctively Catholic intellectual tradition.

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The joy and hope, grief and anxiety (Gaudium et spes, luctus et angor) of the men of this time, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, are also the joy and hope, grief and anxiety of the disciples of Christ. (GS, 1)

From its opening words, the Council sets a tone of balance between positive and negative aspects of modernity, which might be obscured by the partial title Gaudium et spes (“Joy and hope”). Indeed, the original title was Gaudium et luctus, spes et angor (“Joy and grief, hope and anxiety”). Here we find no naive or Pollyannish optimism, as the Council’s purpose is not to praise modernity, but to convey a sense of solidarity between the Church and the rest of mankind, through good and ill. The Church naturally sympathizes with the rest of mankind, since she herself is composed of human beings who share in these feelings.

Hence this Second Vatican Council, having probed more profoundly into the mystery of the Church, now addresses itself without hesitation, not only to the sons of the Church and to all who invoke the name of Christ, but to the whole of humanity. For the council yearns to explain to everyone how it conceives of the presence and activity of the Church in the world of today. (GS, 2)

Building on Lumen Gentium, the Council now looks outward to the rest of humanity, to describe the Church’s presence and activity in the secular world.

The council brings to mankind light kindled from the Gospel, and puts at its disposal those saving resources which the Church herself, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, receives from her Founder. For the human person is to be saved and human society is to be renewed. Hence the focal point of our total presentation will be man himself, whole and entire, body and soul, heart and conscience, mind and will. (GS, 3)

Most English translations render the Latin inaccurately, saying that the human person “deserves to be preserved” and that human society “deserves to be renewed.” The first phrase smacks of Pelagianism and the second is unintelligible. Neither appears in the Latin text, which alone is legally binding. Throughout the text, I have modified the translation in places to follow the Latin more literally.

Therefore, this Sacred Synod, proclaiming the highest calling of man and championing the Godlike seed which has been sown in him, offers to mankind the sincere cooperation of the Church in fostering that brotherhood of all men which corresponds to this vocation of theirs. Moved by no earthly ambition, the Church seeks but a solitary goal: under the lead of the Spirit Advocate, to continue the work of Christ, who entered this world to give witness to the truth, to save and not to sit in judgment, to minister and not to be ministered. (GS, 3)

Christ’s earthly mission was not to come as a judge, but as a servant. Likewise is the Church’s earthly mission. This does not deny Christ’s role as judge at the end of time and after death, when the earthly mission is complete. Likewise, this does not deny that Christians, and especially the Magisterium, should pronounce some things to be evil, as this very Council has done in other documents.

What of the so-called social kingship of Christ and of the temporal power of the Church? We have seen in Dignitatis Humanae that the Church effectively renounced the temporal sword, though retaining administrative, financial, and judicial temporal powers. Yet all these temporal powers are at the service of the faithful. The Church’s temporal power is not for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. As to the social kingship of Christ, this is a voluntary submission by temporal powers to Christian principles. The Church does not impose this submission on nations by force, but proposes it to them as the best form of society, as Christian principles best nurture fraternity among men.

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Introductory Statement: The Situation of Men in the Modern World

…the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. … Some of the main features of the modern world can be sketched as follows.

Today, the human race is involved in a new stage of history. Profound and rapid changes are spreading by degrees around the whole world… these changes recoil upon him, upon his decisions and desires, both individual and collective, and upon his manner of thinking and acting with respect to things and to people. Hence we can already speak of a true cultural and social transformation, one which has repercussions on man's religious life as well. (GS, 4)

The Council is not indulging in an exercise outside the Church’s mission, for the Church is duty-bound to interpret the signs of the times, as Pope John XXIII was fond of saying. The external changes in modern life affect man’s interior life, including religious life, so it is certainly the Church’s concern to address them.

…while man extends his power in every direction, he does not always succeed in subjecting it to his own welfare. Striving to probe more profoundly into the deeper recesses of his own mind, he frequently appears more unsure of himself. Gradually and more precisely he lays bare the laws of society, only to be paralyzed by uncertainty about the direction to give it. (GS, 4)

The moral paralysis and anomie of man in technological society was a common theme in critical social commentary of the mid-twentieth century. Such concern has hardly abated since then, as man still faces the problems of alienation and atomization, even amid an abundance of superficial connections and communications. The struggle against boredom and purposelessness needs a better solution than hedonistic distraction.

Never has the human race enjoyed such an abundance of wealth, resources and economic power, and yet a huge proportion of the worlds citizens are still tormented by hunger and poverty, while countless numbers suffer from total illiteracy. Never before has man had so keen an understanding of freedom, yet at the same time new forms of social and psychological slavery make their appearance. Although the world of today has a very vivid awareness of its unity and of how one man depends on another in needful solidarity, it is most grievously torn into opposing camps by conflicting forces. For political, social, economic, racial and ideological disputes still continue bitterly, and with them the peril of a war which would reduce everything to ashes. True, there is a growing exchange of ideas, but the very words by which key concepts are expressed take on quite different meanings in diverse ideological systems. Finally, man painstakingly searches for a better world, without a corresponding spiritual advancement. (GS, 4)

Far from giving a naive, optimistic view of modern society, the Council recognizes paradoxes and problems of inequity, new forms of coercion, dissensions, and nuclear war. Most importantly, there is a lack of ideological certainty or cohesiveness, a lack of spirituality or permanent values.

Influenced by such a variety of complexities, many of our contemporaries are kept from accurately identifying permanent values and adjusting them properly to fresh discoveries. As a result, buffeted between hope and anxiety and pressing one another with questions about the present course of events, they are burdened down with uneasiness. This same course of events leads men to look for answers; indeed, it forces them to do so. (GS, 4)

This state of uncertainty is brought about by a deeper transformation:

Today's spiritual agitation and the changing conditions of life are part of a broader and deeper revolution. As a result of the latter, intellectual formation is ever increasingly based on the mathematical and natural sciences and on those dealing with man himself, while in the practical order the technology which stems from these sciences takes on mounting importance…

History itself speeds along on so rapid a course that an individual person can scarcely keep abreast of it. The destiny of the human community has become all of a piece, where once the various groups of men had a kind of private history of their own.

Thus, the human race has passed from a rather static concept of reality to a more dynamic, evolutionary one. (GS, 5)

The rapidity of these changes have made it difficult for man to maintain his bearings, and develop a good sense of which values ought to endure. He is further disoriented by his interconnection with diverse groups and nations.

New and more efficient media of social communication are contributing to the knowledge of events; by setting off chain reactions they are giving the swiftest and widest possible circulation to styles of thought and feeling.

It is also noteworthy how many men are being induced to migrate on various counts, and are thereby changing their manner of life. Thus a man’s ties with his fellows are constantly being multiplied, and at the same time “socialization” brings further ties, without however always promoting appropriate personal development and truly personal relationships. (GS, 6)

These trends are only amplified in our day, with the pervasive presence of electronic media, and their use for disseminating entertainment and propaganda. The emergence of new social networking technologies similarly amplifies the trend of increasing the quantity of our connections without necessarily improving their personal quality.

A change in attitudes and in human structures frequently calls accepted values into question, especially among young people, who have grown impatient on more than one occasion, and indeed become rebels in their distress. Aware of their own influence in the life of society, they want a part in it sooner… The institutions, laws and modes of thinking and feeling as handed down from previous generations do not always seem to be well adapted to the contemporary state of affairs… (GS, 7)

The “problem of youth” was already perceived in the late 1950s. The Council affirms that youth rebellion is motivated not so much by a deficiency in young people, but by an incongruence between their aspirations and received social structures.

Finally, these new conditions have their impact on religion. On the one hand a more critical ability to distinguish religion from a magical view of the world and from the superstitions which still circulate purifies it and exacts day by day a more personal and explicit adherence to faith. As a result many persons are achieving a more vivid sense of God. On the other hand, growing numbers of people are abandoning religion in practice. Unlike former days, the denial of God or of religion, or the abandonment of them, are no longer unusual and individual occurrences. For today it is not rare for such things to be presented as requirements of scientific progress or of a certain new humanism. (GS, 7)

A more rationalistic, anti-superstitious mentality has the upside of purifying religion among believers, but also the downside of causing religion itself to be discarded as superstition, even by the common man, rather than just a few intellectuals.

Within the individual person there develops rather frequently an imbalance between an intellect which is modern in practical matters and a theoretical system of thought which can neither master the sum total of its ideas, nor arrange them adequately into a synthesis. Likewise an imbalance arises between a concern for practicality and efficiency, and the demands of moral conscience; also very often between the conditions of collective existence and the requisites of personal thought, and even of contemplation. At length there develops an imbalance between specialized human activity and a comprehensive view of reality. (GS, 8)

Scientific and technical abilities outpace the development of philosophy, which is in a relative dark age. There is no widely accepted systematic metaphysics or theology, or even ethics, comparable to the richness and detail of our scientific and technical understanding. Ask a highly educated person about these topics, and you will likely be astonished at the simplicity and underdevelopment of their thought (assuming you are yourself familiar with the systems of previous centuries). Knowledge has greatly outpaced deeper understanding.

Meanwhile the conviction grows not only that humanity can and should increasingly consolidate its control over creation, but even more, that it devolves on humanity to establish a political, social and economic order which will growingly serve man and help individuals as well as groups to affirm and develop the dignity proper to them. (GS, 9)

There is nothing wrong with this conviction, for man is supposed to have dominion over terrestrial creation, and it is only morally right that he should structure this dominion in a way that will be of better service to mankind, individually and collectively.

As a result many persons are quite aggressively demanding those benefits of which… they judge themselves to be deprived either through injustice or uneven (non aequam) distribution. Nations on the road to progress, like those recently made independent, desire to participate in the goods of modern civilization, not only in the political field but also economically, and to play their part freely on the world scene. (GS, 9)

Injustice and uneven distribution are distinguished, implying that not all uneven distribution is unjust. Further, aequam need not mean numerically equal, but merely “fair” or “equitable.” Still, it is at least highly uncharitable for gross disparities to persist.

These political and economic grievances reflect a deeper aspiration:

…persons and societies thirst for a full and free life worthy of man; one in which they can subject to their own welfare all that the modern world can offer them so abundantly. In addition, nations try harder every day to bring about a kind of universal community.

Since all these things are so, the modern world shows itself at once powerful and weak, capable of the noblest deeds or the foulest; before it lies the path to freedom or to slavery, to progress or retreat, to brotherhood or hatred. Moreover, man is becoming aware that it is his responsibility to guide aright the forces which he has unleashed and which can enslave him or minister to him. (GS, 9)

The yearnings of the poorer classes and nations, often resulting in experiments with socialism, reflect an admirable desire for a life of greater freedom, where productivity is subordinated to human welfare. Since man has unleashed the forces of modernity, it is his responsibility to make sure they are directed properly.

The truth is that the imbalances under which the modern world labors are linked with that more basic imbalance which is rooted in the heart of man. For in man himself many elements wrestle with one another. Thus, on the one hand, as a creature he experiences his limitations in a multitude of ways; on the other he feels himself to be boundless in his desires and summoned to a higher life. Pulled by manifold attractions he is constantly forced to choose among them and renounce some. Indeed, as a weak and sinful being, he often does what he would not, and fails to do what he would. Hence he suffers from internal divisions, and from these flow so many and such great discords in society. (GS, 10)

The doctrine of original sin accounts for the internal conflict within man, causing him to unleash great good and great evil. Thus we have the paradox of great progress and great regress at the same time.

No doubt many whose lives are infected with a practical materialism are blinded against any sharp insight into this kind of dramatic situation; or else, weighed down by unhappiness they are prevented from giving the matter any thought. Thinking they have found serenity in an interpretation of reality everywhere proposed these days, many look forward to a genuine and total emancipation of humanity wrought solely by human effort; they are convinced that the future rule of man over the earth will satisfy every desire of his heart. Nor are there lacking men who despair of any meaning to life and praise the boldness of those who think that human existence is devoid of any inherent significance and strive to confer a total meaning on it by their own ingenuity alone. (GS, 10)

Here we find a decisive rejection of Pelagianism and secular humanist optimism. The idea that technology will cure all human problems is so thoroughly falsified by history, given the horrors of the twentieth century, that it is amazing that anyone still holds it. Still, in our day, a new wave of technological development has brought in another generation of naive optimists, thinking that the Internet, social networking, data mining, analytics, or some other wonder will help mankind save himself. All these approaches fail to recognize that technology is morally neutral, and by itself does nothing to solve the moral problems of man. A technocratic approach to legislation and the penal system has done little to abolish vice and crime; in fact, they have even worsened in some areas. We can improve our means of physical protection, but unless you convert the human heart, evil will find a way to unleash itself, sometimes even exploiting well-intentioned liberal laws and regulations. This is why the Council will repeatedly make reference to Gospel values and calls to spiritual conversion, for any purely technical solution is otherwise in vain.

…the number constantly swells of the people who raise the most basic questions or recognize them with a new sharpness: what is man? What is this sense of sorrow, of evil, of death, which continues to exist despite so much progress? What purpose have these victories purchased at so high a cost? What can man offer to society, what can he expect from it? What follows this earthly life?

The Church firmly believes that Christ, who died and was raised up for all, can through His Spirit offer man the light and the strength to measure up to his supreme destiny. Nor has any other name under the heaven been given to man by which it is fitting for him to be saved. She likewise holds that in her most benign Lord and Master can be found the key, the focal point and the goal of man, as well as of all human history. The Church also maintains that beneath all changes there are many realities which do not change and which have their ultimate foundation in Christ, Who is the same yesterday and today, yes and forever. Hence under the light of Christ, the image of the unseen God, the firstborn of every creature, the council wishes to speak to all men in order to shed light on the mystery of man and to cooperate in finding the solution to the outstanding problems of our time. (GS, 10)

The Council plainly affirms that no one can be saved in any other name but Christ’s, rejecting any notions of secular salvation (such as the Communists and other utopians offered) or religious indifferentism. lt declares that there are still many unchanging realities, grounded in Christ, who is focal point and goal of man and of human history. The Council, therefore, will speak to all men about the mystery of man and modern problems in the light of Christ.

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Part I: The Church and Man's Calling

This council, first of all, wishes to assess in this light [of faith] those values which are most highly prized today and to relate them to their divine source. Insofar as they stem from endowments conferred by God on man, these values are exceedingly good. Yet they are often wrenched from their rightful function by the taint in man's heart, and hence stand in need of purification.

…the People of God and the human race in whose midst it lives render service to each other. Thus the mission of the Church will show its religious, and by that very fact, its supremely human character. (GS, 11)

The values of human dignity and its associated rights are linked to man’s divine endowments. Indeed, without such grounding, there is no basis for such values beyond fickle human opinion. When man attempts to divorce these values from their religious basis, he runs the risk of abusing his rights, exercising them toward ends that are inconsonant with the duties and vocations proper to man. Thus we see, for example, in the Western liberal countries, an abusive notion of freedom, divorced from higher moral norms, while the socialist regimes recklessly imposed equality of conditions without regard for justice and fairness, subordinating the individual to the collective. Throughout the world, we see a tendency to make productivity the highest end, even to the point of countenancing the killing of the unborn and the terminally ill, or withholding social services from the poor. It is only by reflecting on man as a being made in the image of God that we can have a proper sense of human dignity. A purely materialist notion of man is inhuman, reducing him to an animal, a machine, a worker, an achiever, a producer, a consumer, a source of pleasure, but never someone with a transcendent dignity.

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Chapter I: The Dignity of the Human Person

According to the almost unanimous (concordem) opinion of believers and unbelievers alike, all things on earth should be related to man as their center and crown (culmen). (GS, 12)

All things on earth—not absolutely everything—are related to man as their center and peak. That is to say, all the earth’s resources are under the stewardship of man.

For Sacred Scripture teaches that man was created “to the image of God,” is capable of knowing and loving his Creator, and was appointed by Him as master of all earthly creatures that he might subdue them and use them to God’s glory. “What is man that you should care for him? You have made him little less than the angels, and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him rule over the works of your hands, putting all things under his feet.” (Ps. 8:5-7)

But God did not create man as a solitary, for from the beginning “male and female he created them.” (Gen. 1:27) Their companionship produces the primary form of interpersonal communion. For by his innermost nature man is a social being, and unless he relates himself to others he can neither live nor develop his potential. (GS, 12)

The Council rejects a strictly individualistic notion of man, holding instead, with Aristotle, that human nature is essentially social.

Although he was made by God in a state of holiness, from the very onset of his history man abused his liberty, at the urging of the Evil One. Man set himself against God and sought to attain his goal apart from God. Although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, but their senseless minds were darkened and they served the creature rather than the Creator. What divine revelation makes known to us agrees with experience. Examining his heart, man finds that he has inclinations toward evil too, and is engulfed by manifold ills which cannot come from his good Creator. Often refusing to acknowledge God as his beginning, man has disrupted also his proper relationship to his own ultimate goal as well as his whole relationship toward himself and others and all created things. (GS, 13)

This recapitulates the traditional doctrine of original sin, including the Thomist account of that sin: man seeking his goal without God. This bad orientation leads to the error of serving the creature rather than the Creator. As G.K. Chesterton observed, original sin is the one Christian doctrine that can be proven empirically, as our inclinations to evil undeniably exist.

Therefore man is split within himself. As a result, all of human life, whether individual or collective, shows itself to be a dramatic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness. Indeed, man finds that by himself he is incapable of battling the assaults of evil successfully, so that everyone feels as though he is bound by chains. But the Lord Himself came to free and strengthen man, renewing him inwardly and casting out that “prince of this world” (John 12:31) who held him in the bondage of sin. For sin has diminished man, blocking his path to fulfillment. (GS, 13)

Again the Council rejects Pelagianism, saying man by himself is incapable of battling the evil within successfully. Only Christ can strengthen man inwardly to free him from the bondage of sin.

Though made of body and soul, man is one. Through his bodily composition he gathers to himself the elements of the material world; thus they reach their crown through him, and through him raise their voice in free praise of the Creator. For this reason man is not allowed to despise his bodily life, rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and honorable since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day. Nevertheless, wounded by sin, man experiences rebellious stirrings in his body. But the very dignity of man postulates that man glorify God in his body and forbid it to serve the evil inclinations of his heart. (GS, 14)

Since man uses his body to glorify the Creator, he cannot despise the body, as did the Gnostics, Neoplatonists, Origenists, and Catharists. Indeed, a body of true flesh will be raised on the last day and spend eternity with God. Still, this does not mean the body has no sinful inclinations. Human dignity actually demands that we do not serve such inclinations. This is contrary to postmodern liberalism, which would have human dignity entail a slavish indulgence of base impulses.

Now, man is not wrong when he regards himself as superior to bodily concerns, and as more than a speck of nature or a nameless constituent of the city of man. For by his interior qualities he outstrips the whole sum of mere things. He plunges into the depths of reality whenever he enters into his own heart; God, Who probes the heart, awaits him there; there he discerns his proper destiny beneath the eyes of God. Thus, when he recognizes in himself a spiritual and immortal soul, he is not being mocked by a fantasy born only of physical or social influences, but is rather laying hold of the proper truth of the matter. (GS, 14)

Man has a spiritual reality where he can meet God. This is not a mere imagining or social construct, but reality.

Man judges rightly that by his intellect he surpasses the material universe, for he shares in the light of the divine mind. …his intelligence is not confined to phenomena alone, but can with genuine certitude attain to reality itself as knowable, though in consequence of sin that certitude is partly obscured and weakened. (GS, 15)

The Council rejects philosophical skepticism, and upholds the Scholastic view that knowledge comes from God. Moreover, the object of knowledge is not confined to sensible phenomena, but we may know the underlying reality. This rejects not only Kantism, but practically all of British philosophy, the latter being mired in the error that sensory perceptibles are the objects of rational thought. This error accounts for why there is such a poor understanding, even among neuroscientists, of the distinction between the sensitive and intellectual faculties.

The intellectual nature of the human person is perfected by wisdom and needs to be, for wisdom gently attracts the mind of man to a quest and a love for what is true and good. Steeped in wisdom, man passes through visible realities to those which are unseen.

Our era needs such wisdom more than bygone ages if the discoveries made by man are to be further humanized. …many nations, poorer in economic goods, are quite rich in wisdom and can offer noteworthy advantages to others.

It is, finally, through the gift of the Holy Spirit that man comes by faith to the contemplation and appreciation of the divine plan. (GS, 15)

To attain knowledge of invisible realities, intelligence needs an orientation toward the true and good, which we call wisdom. Sometimes the technologically backward countries may have greater wisdom. Knowledge of the divine plan is attainable not through human wisdom but by that understanding or scientia which is a gift of the Holy Spirit and leads to faith.

In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. (GS, 16)

The dignity of man is obedience to natural law, which is the divine law written in his heart. This opposes the liberal error that human dignity consists in freedom from all restraint. On the contrary, such behavior is singularly bestial and undignified.

In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin. (GS, 16)

Conscience formed in accordance with natural law helps people to be guided by “objective norms of morality.” Conscience can err out of ignorance, yet still keep its dignity, for its intent is to keep to what is objectively right, though it is mistaken as to content. Such a man is better than one who does not even strive for truth and goodness, or who has become blind to his own sins by bad practices.

Only in freedom (libere) can man direct himself toward goodness. Our contemporaries make much of this freedom and pursue it eagerly; and rightly to be sure. Often however they foster it perversely as a license for doing whatever pleases them, even if it is evil. For its part, authentic freedom (libertas) is an exceptional sign of the divine image within man. For God has willed that man remain “under the control of his own decisions,” so that he can seek his Creator spontaneously, and come freely to utter and blissful perfection through loyalty to Him. Hence man's dignity demands that he act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure. Man achieves such dignity when, emancipating himself from all captivity to passion, he pursues his goal in a spontaneous choice of what is good, and procures for himself through effective and skilful action, apt helps to that end. Since man’s freedom has been damaged by sin, only by the aid of God’s grace can he bring such a relationship with God into full flower. Before the judgment seat of God, each man must render an account of his own life, whether he has done good or evil. (GS, 17)

This is similar to the account of liberty of conscience in Dignitatis Humanae. Such liberty is not license, but a freedom that is necessary so that man can serve God as a son rather than as a chattel slave or brute beast. The Council does not pretend to solve the thorny question of grace and free will, though it asserts the indispensability of grace, and that we are judged according to our works.

It is in the face of death that the riddle a human existence grows most acute.… He rightly follows the intuition of his heart when he abhors and repudiates the utter ruin and total disappearance of his own person. He rebels against death because he bears in himself an eternal seed which cannot be reduced to sheer matter. All the endeavors of technology, though useful in the extreme, cannot calm his anxiety; for prolongation of biological life is unable to satisfy that desire for higher life which is inescapably lodged in his breast. (GS, 18)

Man desires, and Christianity promises, a higher, more perfect life, not merely a prolongation of earthly life or simple immortality.

…the Church has been taught by divine revelation and firmly teaches that man has been created by God for a blissful purpose beyond the reach of earthly misery. In addition, that bodily death from which man would have been immune had he not sinned will be vanquished, according to the Christian faith, when man who was ruined by his own doing is restored to wholeness by an almighty and merciful Saviour. For God has called man and still calls him so that with his entire being he might be joined to Him in an endless sharing of a divine life beyond all corruption. Christ won this victory when He rose to life, for by His death He freed man from death. Hence to every thoughtful man a solidly established faith provides the answer to his anxiety about what the future holds for him. (GS, 18)

This calling to eternal life in divine communion is not merely some palliative for the fear of death, but is in fact the basis of human dignity.

The root reason for human dignity lies in man's call to communion with God. From the very circumstance of his origin man is already invited to converse with God. (GS, 19)

The document’s discussion of atheism was shaped by the interventions of Bishop Wojtyla, who served on the relevant subcommittee.

The word atheism is applied to phenomena which are quite distinct from one another. For while God is expressly denied by some, others believe that man can assert absolutely nothing about Him. Still others use such a method to scrutinize the question of God as to make it seem devoid of meaning. Many, unduly transgressing the limits of the positive sciences, contend that everything can be explained by this kind of scientific reasoning alone, or by contrast, they altogether disallow that there is any absolute truth. (GS, 19)

Above we find enumerated what might be called positive atheism, agnosticism, metaphysical naturalism, positivism, and skepticism.

Some laud man so extravagantly that their faith in God lapses into a kind of anemia, though they seem more inclined to affirm man than to deny God. Again some form for themselves such a fallacious idea of God that when they repudiate this figment they are by no means rejecting the God of the Gospel. Some never get to the point of raising questions about God, since they seem to experience no religious stirrings nor do they see why they should trouble themselves about religion. (GS, 19)

Other atheistic errors include secular humanism, a false equation of Christian religion with gross paganism, and indifference to religion.

Moreover, atheism results not rarely from a violent protest against the evil in this world, or from the absolute character with which certain human values are unduly invested, and which thereby already accords them the stature of God. Modern civilization itself often complicates the approach to God not for any essential reason but because it is so heavily engrossed in earthly affairs. (GS, 19)

Marxism, socialism, and anarchism are often atheistic, though motivated by a protest against evil. They make the mistake of taking certain human values (equality, freedom) into absolutes, even idols before which all persons and values must lie prostrate. Certain non-theistic religions, especially those of India and China, may likewise show devotion to some human value with an absoluteness proper to a deity. Yet the most common reason for irreligion is simple distraction in mundane matters.

Undeniably, those who willfully shut out God from their hearts and try to dodge religious questions are not following the dictates of their consciences, and hence are not free of blame; yet believers themselves frequently bear some responsibility for this situation. For, taken as a whole, atheism is not a spontaneous development but stems from a variety of causes, including a critical reaction against religious beliefs, and in some places against the Christian religion in particular. Hence believers can have more than a little to do with the birth of atheism. To the extent that they neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion. (GS, 19)

Willful aversion to or avoidance of God is culpable, but some responsibility may be shared by believers who offer a bad witness to the faith.

Modern atheism often takes on a systematic expression which… stretches the desires for human independence to such a point that it poses difficulties against any kind of dependence on God. Those who profess atheism of this sort maintain that it gives man freedom to be an end unto himself, the sole artisan and creator of his own history. They claim that this freedom cannot be reconciled with the affirmation of a Lord Who is author and purpose of all things, or at least that this freedom makes such an affirmation altogether superfluous. (GS, 20)

This emphasis on freedom as end in itself can be found in Nietzsche, the existentialists, and the post-structuralists.

Not to be overlooked among the forms of modern atheism is that which anticipates the liberation of man especially through his economic and social emancipation. This form argues that by its nature religion thwarts this liberation by arousing man's hope for a deceptive future life, thereby diverting him from the constructing of the earthly city. Consequently when the proponents of this doctrine gain governmental power they vigorously fight against religion, and promote atheism by using, especially in the education of youth, those means of pressure which public power has at its disposal. (GS, 20)

Here is a clear allusion to Communism. The Council does not ignore the fact that the Church has aggressive enemies.

In her loyal devotion to God and men, the Church has already repudiated and cannot cease repudiating, sorrowfully but as firmly as possible, those poisonous doctrines and actions which contradict reason and the common experience of humanity, and dethrone man from his native excellence. (GS, 21)

The Council, in Gaudium et Spes, repudiates “poisonous doctrines”! There is still a place for condemnation in the universal magisterium.

Still, she strives to detect in the atheistic mind the hidden causes for the denial of God; conscious of how weighty are the questions which atheism raises, and motivated by love for all men, she believes these questions ought to be examined seriously and more profoundly.

The Church holds that the recognition of God is in no way hostile to man’s dignity, since this dignity is rooted and perfected in God. For man was made an intelligent and free member of society by God Who created him, but even more important, he is called as a son to commune with God and share in His happiness. She further teaches that a hope related to the end of time does not diminish the importance of intervening duties but rather undergirds the acquittal of them with fresh incentives. (GS, 21)

The Church needs to reassure men that belief in God will not injure their dignity or their legitimate aspirations for freedom, nor does it require a neglect of temporal duties. In fact, religious belief is the safest guarantor of these values.

By contrast, when a divine instruction and the hope of life eternal are wanting, man’s dignity is most grievously lacerated, as current events often attest; riddles of life and death, of guilt and of grief go unsolved with the frequent result that men succumb to despair. (GS, 21)

This is informed especially by the horrific experiences under Communist regimes, the French Reign of Terror, the Mexican revolution, and other ruthless impositions of atheism on civil society. In the absence of God, left with a mere materialist notion of man, human beings are easily perceived as expendable. The mortal individual counts for nothing before the immortal collective.

The remedy which must be applied to atheism… is to be sought in a proper presentation of the Church's teaching as well as in the integral life of the Church and her members. For it is the function of the Church, led by the Holy Spirit Who renews and purifies her ceaselessly, to make God the Father and His Incarnate Son present and in a sense visible. This result is achieved chiefly by the witness of a living and mature faith, namely, one trained to see difficulties clearly and to master them. Many martyrs have given luminous witness to this faith and continue to do so.

This faith needs to prove its fruitfulness by penetrating the believer's entire life, including its worldly dimensions, and by activating him toward justice and love, especially regarding the needy. What does the most reveal God’s presence, however, is the brotherly charity of the faithful who are united in spirit as they work together for the faith of the Gospel and who prove themselves a sign of unity. (GS, 21)

Again, this witness is directed especially toward Communists, to prove that Christians also have concern for the poor and oppressed.

While rejecting atheism, root and branch, the Church sincerely professes that all men, believers and unbelievers alike, ought to work for the rightful betterment of this world in which all alike live; such an ideal cannot be realized, however, apart from sincere and prudent dialogue. Hence the Church protests against the distinction which some state authorities make between believers and unbelievers, with prejudice to the fundamental rights of the human person. The Church calls for the active liberty of believers to build up in this world God’s temple too. She courteously invites atheists to examine the Gospel of Christ with an open mind. (GS, 21)

Here the Church objects to atheist states that limit religious liberty, preventing public religious expression. Without accepting atheism, we may still work with atheists for the common betterment of man, discernible by natural law.

The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. …

He Who is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), is Himself the perfect man. To the sons of Adam He restores the divine likeness which had been disfigured from the first sin onward. Since human nature as He assumed it was not annulled, by that very fact it has been raised up to a divine dignity in our respect too. … Born of the Virgin Mary, He has truly been made one of us, like us in all things except sin.

As an innocent lamb He merited for us life by the free shedding of His own blood. In Him God reconciled us to Himself and among ourselves; from bondage to the devil and sin He delivered us… By suffering for us He not only provided us with an example for our imitation, He blazed a trail, and if we follow it, life and death are made holy and take on a new meaning. (GS, 22) [Emphasis added]

This is all traditional Catholic anthropology, save for the strange statement that Christ’s sacrifice reconciled us “among ourselves.” It is altogether absent from 2 Corinthians 5:18-19, which the document cites. It should not be taken as a new dogmatic statement about the purpose of Christ’s sacrifice, which was to reconcile man to God. Rather, by means of this reconciliation, man is also reconciled with his brethren, since we who are recipients of mercy must also show mercy. (Matthew 18:21-35) The Council inserts this point at what would be an awkward place in a purely theological exposition, likely to emphasize the harmony between religious belief and social concern, as this section is an appeal to atheists with socialist leanings.

[Through the Holy Spirit,] who is “the pledge of our inheritance” (Eph. 1:14), the whole man is renewed from within, even to the achievement of “the redemption of the body” (Rom. 8:23)… Pressing upon the Christian to be sure, are the need and the duty to battle against evil through manifold tribulations and even to suffer death. But, linked with the paschal mystery and patterned on the dying Christ, he will hasten forward to resurrection in the strength which comes from hope.

All this holds true not only for Christians, but for all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way. For, since Christ died for all men (omnibus), and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, namely divine, we ought to hold that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to everyone (cunctis) the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery. (GS, 22)

This only asserts the possibility, not the likelihood or the certainty, of salvation for those who are not nominally Christian. This possibility is not on account of human works, but by divine grace granted to men of good will.

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Chapter II: The Community of Mankind

One of the salient features of the modern world is the growing interdependence of men one on the other… (GS, 23)

God, Who has fatherly concern for everyone, has willed that all men should constitute one family and treat one another in a spirit of brotherhood. For having been created in the image of God, Who “from one man has created the whole human race and made them live all over the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26), all men are called to one and the same goal, namely God Himself. (GS, 24)

The Council plainly affirms that God is the end or telos of man. The solidarity of mankind comes from our status as sons of God. This fraternity is also grounded in a literal common descent from a single man (monogenesis).

For this reason, love for God and neighbor is the first and greatest commandment (mandatum). Sacred Scripture, however, teaches us that the love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbor: “If there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.… Love therefore is the fulfillment of the Law” (Rom. 13:9-10; cf. 1 John 4:20). (GS, 24)

It is strange and improper to lump the love of God and neighbor together as a single commandment. Rather, the latter is derivative of the former. If this were taken as a strict dogmatic definition, we should find that there is at least a theological error, plainly contradicting the Lord’s teaching in Matthew 13. (See Summa Theol II, ii, 44, 2.)

Evidently, the Council Fathers had no intention of declaring a new teaching, as pastors everywhere, even of a “progressive” bent, still present Christ’s declaration of two precepts of charity in the usual way. Here we just have a case of imprecise rhetoric—combining two interrelated precepts as if they were one—which should not be construed as a precise definition of doctrine.

Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, “that all may be one… as we are one” (John 17:21-22) opened up vistas closed to human reason, for He implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God’s sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself. (GS, 24) [Emphasis added]

Saying that man is “the only creature on earth which God willed for itself” is not a denial that God is the final end and goal of all creation, including man, as was just affirmed a paragraph earlier. It simply means that, unlike other creatures, which were willed in part for the good of man, man is not willed for the good of some other creature. He is valued for his own sake, not as an object to be used for the good of another. This is why chattel slavery, for example, is incompatible with the dignity of man. Note the text says “only creature on earth,” for the angels, too, may have this dignity. Yet the Church does not, on this account, allow that man should be a Nietzschean master who determines his own value selfishly. Rather, the intrinsic worth of man is found precisely when he voluntarily makes a gift of himself.

Man's social nature makes it evident that the progress of the human person and the advance of society itself hinge on one another. For the beginning, the subject and the goal of all social institutions is and must be the human person which for its part and by its very nature stands completely in need of social life. Since this social life is not something added on to man, through his dealings with others, through reciprocal duties, and through fraternal dialogue he develops all his gifts and is able to rise to his destiny. (GS, 25)

Society is ordered toward the needs of individual human persons, yet individuals in turn have an intrinsically social nature, which must be realized in order to live a fully human life.

…if by this social life the human person is greatly aided in responding to his destiny, even in its religious dimensions, it cannot be denied that men are often diverted from doing good and spurred toward and by the social circumstances in which they live…

When the structure of affairs is flawed by the consequences of sin, man, already born with a bent toward evil, finds there new inducements to sin, which cannot be overcome without strenuous efforts and the assistance of grace. (GS, 25)

Here the Council points to the possibility of social or structural corruption, which may induce sin rather than virtuous life.

Every day human interdependence grows more tightly drawn and spreads by degrees over the whole world. As a result the common good… today takes on an increasingly universal complexion and consequently involves rights and duties with respect to the whole human race.…

At the same time, however, there is a growing awareness of the exalted dignity proper to the human person, since he stands above all things (cum ipsa rebus omnibus praestet), and his rights and duties are universal and inviolable (et eius iura officiaque universalia sint atque inviolabilia). (GS, 26)

The human person “stands above all things” in the context of earthly society; this should not be construed as making man a god. Rather, it means that regard for the human person must take precedence over any other temporal concerns, such as productivity, efficiency, and the like. In this sense, the rights and duty of man are inviolable, and apply to all humans. Note that the Latin term for “right” is ius, that which is just; literally, “binding.” Unlike in English political philosophy, where a “right” is treated like some piece of property that one is free to use arbitrarily, the Latin ius entails a notion of justice or moral rectitude that one is bound to follow. As such, the exercise of right is always linked to moral duties (officiis); indeed, the purpose of rights is to enable us to carry out these duties.

Therefore, there must be made available to all men everything necessary for leading a life truly human, such as food, clothing, and shelter; the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment, to a good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information, to activity in accord with the upright norm of one’s own conscience, to protection of privacy and rightful freedom even in matters religious. (GS, 26)

To choose a “state of life” means to follow a vocation; this freedom is not absolute, since it may be constrained by one’s abilities and circumstances. Similarly, the rights to education, employment, good reputation, etc. are not rights to actually have these things, but to have them available, so that one may obtain them by good work. The right to act in accord with the “upright norm” of conscience does not apply to perverse or malformed consciences. Note that the protection of privacy is considered a basic human right essential to dignity, contrary to the pretensions of those governments who think it licit to spy indiscriminately upon civilians of other nations.

The basis of all these rights is that they are essential to leading a truly human life. Omitting one of these would make a person live in a less than truly human condition. Of course, in reality, we may be routinely deprived of one or more of these. We do not thereby cease to be human, but live in a condition unfit for us. Dignus, after all, means that which is fitting.

…this council lays stress on reverence for man; everyone must consider his every neighbor without exception as another self…

…whether he be an old person abandoned by all, a foreign laborer unjustly looked down upon, a refugee, a child born of an unlawful union and wrongly suffering for a sin he did not commit, or a hungry person who disturbs our conscience… (GS, 27)

Reverence for man does not mean idolatry, but treating everyone as another self, entitled to the same basic dignity consonant with human nature.

Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. (GS, 27)

Suicide, along with abortion and euthanasia, are opposed to human life itself, which is a value higher than the freedom cited in favor of these practices. It is perverse to value freedom over human life, since freedom derives its value from that of human life.

Attempts to mutilate or torture are contrary to the dignity of the human person. Attempts to use torments to coerce a person, as if one could enter the mind and force the will, are direct assaults on the essence of human dignity. This does not preclude all corporal punishment, but only those forms that are intended to break down the will and turn the person into a mere instrument of the tormentor. Prostitution and slavery, including wage slavery, commit the grave error of treating people merely as objects to be used. Here prostitution is condemned insofar as prostitutes are exploited. (The sin of licentiousness is a distinct matter.)

Respect and love ought to be extended also to those who think or act differently than we do in social, political and even religious matters. …

This love and good will, to be sure, must in no way render us indifferent to truth and goodness. Indeed love itself impels the disciples of Christ to speak the saving truth to all men. But it is necessary to distinguish between error, which always merits repudiation, and the person in error, who never loses the dignity of being a person even when he is flawed by false or inadequate religious notions. God alone is the judge and searcher of hearts, for that reason He forbids us to make judgments about the internal guilt of anyone. (GS, 28)

This reiterates traditional teaching distinguishing the internal and external fora. The Church can judge only the external forum, and excommunicate on that basis, and she may condemn the external acts of non-Catholics.

As all men, strengthened by a rational soul and created in God’s likeness, have the same nature and origin, have been redeemed by Christ and enjoy the same divine calling and destiny, the basic equality among all (fundamentalis aequalitas inter omnes) must receive increasingly greater recognition. (GS, 29)

Men are equal in these matters: (1) all have a rational soul; (2) all have the same nature; (3) all have the same origin; (4) all are redeemed by Christ (that is, his sacrifice is intended for all, though only some may choose to benefit from it); (5) all are called to the destiny of union with God in heaven (though only some will realize it, and even those who are saved may realize this to different degrees of perfection). Only in these basic matters are men equal. They may vary greatly in other respects.

True, all men are not alike from the point of view of varying physical power and the diversity of intellectual and moral resources. Nevertheless, with respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex (Omnis tamen discriminandi modus in iuribus personae fundamentalibus, sive socialis sive culturalis, ob sexum), race, color, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent. For in truth it must still be regretted that fundamental personal rights are still not being universally honored. Such is the case of a woman who is denied the right to choose a husband freely, to embrace a state of life or to acquire an education or cultural benefits equal to those recognized for men (vel ad parem educationem et culturam quae viro agnoscitur accedendi). (GS, 29) [Emphasis added]

Not all discrimination among these categories is forbidden, but only that which touches the fundamental rights of the person; i.e., those rights flowing from the dignity of having a rational soul, human nature, and a calling as sons of God. Discrimination on the basis of physical, mental, and moral capacities is permissible, and may even be salutary, as long as this does not deny anyone basic human dignity. Human beings are equal in terms of the minimum rights owed to all, yet some may have further special rights according to their aptitudes or circumstances.

Regarding fundamental personal rights as applied to women, the Council holds that women should be permitted to choose a husband freely; that is, she is not to be coerced into marriage. She should not be forbidden from refusing to marry in order to pursue a religious vocation. Lastly, and perhaps most controversially at the time, she is to be permitted “to acquire an education or cultural benefits” equal to those of men. The right to education is not absolute, but is proportionate to aptitude. Yet, given a certain degree of aptitude, no distinction in the availability of education ought to be made on the basis of sex. It might be licit to segregate the sexes for moral reasons, as long as the quality of educational content is equal for those of similar aptitudes. (We set aside the specious reasoning of Brown v. Board of Education that the restricted opportunity of discussion among students necessarily makes segregated education unequal.) The Council does not presume to decide such prudential matters, but insists only on access to education for women.

What holds for education holds for other “cultural benefits,” i.e., exposure to the arts and sciences for the purpose of self-cultivation. This, too, was fairly bold for its time. Still, it is consistent with the assertion of human dignity in the female, since that dignity entails that no one should be prevented from developing their aptitudes or benefiting from culture. Still, reasons of morality or prudence might recommend, in certain circumstances, a separation of the sexes (e.g., in private clubs and organizations), though this cannot be used as an excuse for shutting women out of some cultural domain altogether.

Therefore, although rightful differences (iustae diversitates) exist between men, the equal dignity of persons (aequalis personarum dignitas) demands that a more humane and just condition of life be brought about. For excessive economic and social differences between the members of the one human family or population groups cause scandal, and militate against social justice, equity (aequitati), the dignity of the human person, as well as social and international peace. (GS, 29) [Emphasis added]

Following the Latin literally, there may be “differences of right” among men, which is to say that not all have the same rights. Still, there is an “equal dignity of persons,” which is to say that all have the dignity proper to persons. The Council criticizes “excessive economic and social differences” not on the false premise that all have equal rights, but only insofar as these conditions are incompatible with basic human dignity. They offend human dignity insofar as they treat some people as mere instruments for the enrichment of others, or deny access to the benefits of cultural development. There is no single atemporal standard of living to which we can say all human beings are entitled. Rather, according to a society’s level of cultural development, it should make the benefits of that development available to all, in accordance with individual aptitudes and circumstances, and should never reduce one portion of the human race to a mere tool of productivity.

…human institutions themselves must be accommodated by degrees to the highest of all realities, spiritual ones, even though meanwhile, a long enough time will be required before they arrive at the desired goal. (GS, 29)

Human dignity is intelligible only in terms of spiritual realities. It is quite nonsensical under a materialist paradigm, making atheistic liberalism a strange chimera.

[No one should] content himself with a merely individualistic morality. It grows increasingly true that the obligations of justice and love are fulfilled only if each person, contributing to the common good, according to his own abilities and the needs of others, also promotes and assists the public and private institutions dedicated to bettering the conditions of human life. (GS, 3) [Emphasis added]

Here we find superficial similarity with the Marxist slogan: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Yet this is not a prescription for economic organization or remuneration, but a reminder of the moral obligations of justice and charity. Obviously, we are bound to be charitable to those in need, though this is not necessarily demanded by justice, and so should not be enforced by strict coercion. Still, it is a “sacred obligation” that is morally binding.

…this development cannot occur unless individual men and their associations cultivate in themselves the moral and social virtues, and promote them in society; thus, with the needed help of divine grace men who are truly new and artisans of a new humanity can be forthcoming… (GS, 3)

Cultivation of virtue, not simple legislation, is what is needed. Yet charity is not strictly private, for this virtue should be cultivated even by associations. The Council mentions the necessity of divine grace, rejecting the idea that the “new man” can be formed by human efforts alone.

Now a man can scarcely arrive at the needed sense of responsibility, unless his living conditions allow him to become conscious of his dignity, and to rise to his destiny by spending himself for God and for others. But human freedom is often crippled when a man encounters extreme poverty just as it withers when he indulges in too many of life's comforts and imprisons himself in a kind of splendid isolation. Freedom acquires new strength, by contrast, when a man consents to the unavoidable requirements of social life, takes on the manifold demands of human partnership, and commits himself to the service of the human community. (GS, 31)

For men to be truly liberales in the classical sense, that is free enough to perform useful duties to their fellow men, they must not be in a state of abject poverty, nor in self-indulgent decadence. Man must not assent only to the unavoidable requirements of social life, but must commit himself to further help society. Thus he is free and not coerced. Here we have no “social contract” or utilitarian notion of helping society purely out of practical necessity. There must be a genuine commitment to the good of others for their sake.

Hence, the will to play one’s role in common endeavors should be everywhere encouraged. Praise is due to those national procedures which allow the largest possible number of citizens to participate in public affairs with genuine freedom. Account must be taken, to be sure, of the actual conditions of each people and the decisiveness required by public authority. If every citizen is to feel inclined to take part in the activities of the various groups which make up the social body, these must offer advantages which will attract members and dispose them to serve others. (GS, 31)

Is this an endorsement of democracy? If so, it is subordinate to the principle that man should try to take interest and concern for his fellows in society. By allowing more people to take part in public affairs, more can be of service to society. Thus the “democracy” espoused here is not so that the people may rule, but so that more people may be of service to each other.

Still, there are caveats: 1) not all historical conditions are well suited for republican government; 2) the necessity of decisive action may make non-democratic, especially monarchical, forms of government preferable, at least for certain powers of the state. Even modern democracies almost invariably have a monarchical executive branch.

…God did not create man for life in isolation, but for the formation of social unity…

This communitarian character is developed and consummated in the work of Jesus Christ…

…He clearly taught the sons of God to treat one another as brothers. In His prayers He pleaded that all His disciples might be “one.” Indeed as the redeemer of all, He offered Himself for all even to point of death. “Greater love than this no one has, that one lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) He commanded His Apostles to preach to all peoples the Gospel’s message that the human race was to become the Family of God, in which the fullness of the Law would be love. (GS, 32)

This emphasis on fraternity and human unity is at the heart of the Church’s mission, seeking to bring the entire human race into the family of God. Many will reject this invitation, but the Church desires it no less.

As the firstborn of many brethren and by the giving of His Spirit, He founded after His death and resurrection a new brotherly community composed of all those who receive Him in faith and in love. This He did through His Body, which is the Church. There everyone, as members one of the other, would render mutual service according to the different gifts bestowed on each. (GS, 32)

In the Church’s communitas, not everyone has the same function.

This solidarity (solidarietas) must be constantly increased until that day on which it will be brought to perfection. Then, saved by grace, men will offer flawless glory to God as a family beloved of God and of Christ their Brother. (GS, 32)

The pilgrim Church’s solidarity admits of improvement, so that members are more attentive to the needs of others, much like the early Christian church where all were of one heart. It is certainly desirable that this should be constantly increased, though to assert that this will definitely happen (which the text does not state) would be to adopt the modern myth of inexorable human progress. The perfection of solidarity is not achieved by human efforts, but when men are saved by grace and can offer flawless glory to God in unity.

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Chapter III: Man’s Activity throughout the World

…man, created to God’s image, received a mandate to subject to himself the earth and all it contains, and to govern the world with justice and holiness; a mandate to relate himself and the totality of things to Him Who was to be acknowledged as the Lord and Creator of all. Thus, by the subjection of all things to man, the name of God would be wonderful in all the earth. (GS, 34)

The Council clarifies that man’s subjection of creation to himself is in turn subject to the mandate to relate himself and all things to the Lord and Creator.

…Thus, far from thinking that works produced by man’s own talent and energy are in opposition to God’s power, and that the rational creature exists as a kind of rival to the Creator, Christians are convinced that the triumphs of the human race are a sign of God’s grace and the flowering of His own mysterious design. For the greater man’s power becomes, the farther his individual and community responsibility extends. Hence it is clear that men are not deterred by the Christian message from building up the world, or impelled to neglect the welfare of their fellows, but that they are rather more stringently bound to do these very things. (GS, 34)

The Council is now speaking of Christians in the world, not contemplatives, who have a special charism. Yet even contemplatives, in their way, have regard for the rest of society.

Human activity, to be sure, takes its significance from its relationship to man. Just as it proceeds from man, so it is ordered toward man. For when a man works he not only alters things and society, he develops himself as well. He learns much, he cultivates his resources, he goes outside of himself and beyond himself. Rightly understood this kind of growth is of greater value than any external riches which can be garnered. A man is more precious for what he is than for what he has. Similarly, all that men do to obtain greater justice, wider brotherhood, a more humane disposition of social relationships has greater worth than technical advances. For these advances can supply the material for human progress, but of themselves alone they can never actually bring it about.

Hence, the norm of human activity is this: that in accord with the divine plan and will, it harmonize with the genuine good of the human race, and that it allow men as individuals and as members of society to pursue their total vocation and fulfill it. (GS, 35)

Human progress is not to be measured in terms of technological advances, but in using these advances to develop a more humane society that allows men in private and public life to pursue the genuine moral good, not mere apparent goods (pleasures). This rejects the liberal or socialist notion of the state as a provider of material well-being, with moral pursuits relegated to the private sphere. The moral good must be a public concern, as the primary purpose of civil society, indeed of all genuinely human activity, is to help men cultivate virtue.

Now many of our contemporaries seem to fear that a closer bond between human activity and religion will work against the independence of men, of societies, or of the sciences.

If by the autonomy of earthly affairs we mean that created things and societies themselves enjoy their own laws and values which must be gradually deciphered, put to use, and regulated by men, then it is entirely right to demand that autonomy. Such is not merely required by modern man, but harmonizes also with the will of the Creator. For by the very circumstance of their having been created, all things are endowed with their own stability, truth, goodness, proper laws and order. Man must respect these as he isolates them by the appropriate methods of the individual sciences or arts. Therefore if methodical investigation within every branch of learning is carried out in a genuinely scientific manner and in accord with moral norms, it never truly conflicts with faith, for earthly matters and the concerns of faith derive from the same God. Indeed whoever labors to penetrate the secrets of reality with a humble and steady mind, even though he is unaware of the fact, is nevertheless being led by the hand of God, who holds all things in existence, and gives them their identity. Consequently, we cannot but deplore certain habits of mind, which are sometimes found too among Christians, which do not sufficiently attend to the rightful independence of science and which, from the arguments and controversies they spark, lead many minds to conclude that faith and science are mutually opposed. (GS, 36)

The supremacy of moral and religious imperatives in governing human activity does not imply that activities do not have their own laws or principles, as do all created things. The various sciences may each follow their own principles freely, as long as they conduct themselves honestly. The Council affirms that science and faith never truly contradict, as they are truths derived from the same God.

But if the expression, the independence of temporal affairs, is taken to mean that created things do not depend on God, and that man can use them without any reference to their Creator, anyone who acknowledges God will see how false such a meaning is. For without the Creator the creature would disappear. For their part, however, all believers of whatever religion always hear His revealing voice in the discourse of creatures. When God is forgotten, however, the creature itself grows unintelligible. (GS, 36)

Yet the independence of science and other human activities does not mean that things can be used without reference to the divine law. Just as created things, though having their own principles, are still dependent on the Creator, so too is free human activity dependent on the Creator. Without God, who is man’s final end, all human activity would be meaningless and purposeless, the satisfaction of idle curiosity or the passing of time with pleasurable distractions. The idea of human activity that is opposed or indifferent to God should be unintelligible to the theist.

Sacred Scripture teaches the human family what the experience of the ages confirms: that while human progress is a great advantage to man, it brings with it a strong temptation. For when the order of values is jumbled and bad is mixed with the good, individuals and groups pay heed solely to their own interests, and not to those of others. Thus it happens that the world ceases to be a place of true brotherhood. In our own day, the magnified power of humanity threatens to destroy the race itself. (GS, 37)

If human progress is heedless of divine law, society degenerates into anti-social behavior. Even in the supposedly enlightened, fantastically advanced twentieth century, the liberal West and socialist East threatened to annihilate the human race. Without the divine law, human society fails even by human standards.

For a monumental struggle against the powers of darkness pervades the whole history of man. The battle was joined from the very origins of the world and will continue until the last day, as the Lord has attested. Caught in this conflict, man is obliged to wrestle constantly if he is to cling to what is good, nor can he achieve his own integrity without great efforts and the help of God's grace. (GS, 37)

The Council denies that man will ever conquer evil in society by human effort. In this life, he may preserve his integrity only with the help of divine grace, while the world as a whole will be purified only at the last judgment.

That is why Christ’s Church, trusting in the design of the Creator, acknowledges that human progress can serve man's true happiness, yet she cannot help echoing the Apostle’s warning: “Be not conformed to this world.” (Rom. 12:2) Here by the world is meant that spirit of vanity and malice which transforms into an instrument of sin those human energies intended for the service of God and man.

…all human activity, constantly imperiled by man’s pride and deranged self-love, must be purified and perfected by the power of Christ’s cross and resurrection… Grateful to his Benefactor for these creatures… man is led forward into a true possession of them, as having nothing, yet possessing all things. (GS, 37)

Against the vanity that is always found in the world, the Christian must receive the goods of creation with humble gratitude. In this way, he is enriched by them, without his dignity depending on them.

He Himself revealed to us that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and at the same time taught us that the new command of love was the basic law of human perfection and hence of the world’s transformation. (GS, 38)

This accounts for earlier description of love of God and neighbor as a single precept. For the purposes of the theme of Gaudium et Spes, it is useful to think of a “command of love” as the law of perfecting the human race and the world. If this seems to mix human history with eschatology, we must recall that the Church herself is a union of this world with the kingdom to come.

…this charity is not something to be reserved for important matters, but must be pursued chiefly in the ordinary circumstances of life. …

Appointed Lord by His resurrection and given plenary power in heaven and on earth, Christ is now at work in the hearts of men through the energy of His Holy Spirit, arousing not only a desire for the age to come, but by that very fact animating, purifying and strengthening those noble longings too by which the human family makes its life more human and strives to render the whole earth submissive to this goal. (GS, 38)

The command of love is to permeate all of human life, and the desire for the heavenly kingdom should animate our desire to make life on earth more compatible with the dignity of sons of God.

Now, the gifts of the Spirit are diverse: while He calls some to give clear witness to the desire for a heavenly home and to keep that desire green among the human family, He summons others to dedicate themselves to the earthly service of men and to make ready the material of the celestial realm by this ministry of theirs. (GS, 38)

The contemplatives play an important role, since their example keeps fresh the desire for the heavenly kingdom, which motivates all other Christian activity. Those who perform earthly services to men are preparing the “material of the celestial realm,” which is to say the souls of men.

The Lord left behind a pledge of this hope and strength for life’s journey in that sacrament of faith where natural elements refined by man are gloriously changed into His Body and Blood, providing a meal of brotherly solidarity and a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. (GS, 38)

The Eucharist is foretaste of the union of the earthly and heavenly, the human and divine.

We do not know the time for the consummation of the earth and of humanity, nor do we know how all things will be transformed. As deformed by sin, the shape of this world will pass away; but we are taught that God is preparing a new dwelling place and a new earth… Then, with death overcome, the sons of God will be raised up in Christ, and what was sown in weakness and corruption will be invested with incorruptibility.

Therefore, while we are warned that it profits a man nothing if he gain the whole world and lose himself, the expectation of a new earth must not weaken but rather stimulate our concern for cultivating this one. For here grows the body of a new human family, a body which even now is able to give some kind of foreshadowing of the new age. (GS, 39)

The Christian desire for heaven does not diminish concern for this earth, because in cultivating this life, we grow a family that foreshadows that of the new age. This does not mean that we build the kingdom of God by earthly means:

Hence, while earthly progress must be carefully distinguished from the growth of Christ’s kingdom, to the extent that the former can contribute to the better ordering of human society, it is of vital concern to the Kingdom of God.

For after we have obeyed the Lord, and in His Spirit nurtured on earth the values of human dignity, brotherhood and freedom, and indeed all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise, we will find them again, but freed of stain, burnished and transfigured, when Christ hands over to the Father: “a kingdom eternal and universal, a kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love and peace.” On this earth that Kingdom is already present in mystery. When the Lord returns it will be brought into full flower. (GS, 39)

In this life, we can nurture the values of natural law, but only the Lord can transfigure them and remove them from sin in the life to come. That kingdom is already present on earth in the mystery of the Church.

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Chapter IV: The Role of the Church in the Modern World

…the Church has a saving and an eschatological purpose which can be fully attained only in the future world. But she is already present in this world, and is composed of men… United on behalf of heavenly values and enriched by them, this family has been “constituted and structured as a society in this world” by Christ… Thus the Church, at once “a visible association and a spiritual community,” goes forward together with humanity and experiences the same earthly lot which the world does. She serves as a leaven and as a kind of soul for human society as it is to be renewed in Christ and transformed into God’s family.

That the earthly and the heavenly city penetrate each other is a fact accessible to faith alone; it remains a mystery of human history, which sin will keep in great disarray until the splendor of God’s sons, is fully revealed. (GS, 40) [Emphasis added]

This notion of an earthly and heavenly city is taken from St. Augustine’s City of God, where the two cities are described as “commingled” and “entangled together” in the present life. (Book XI, ch. 1)

Pursuing the saving purpose which is proper to her, the Church does not only communicate divine life to men but in some way casts the reflected light of that life over the entire earth, most of all by its healing and elevating impact on the dignity of the person…

…the Church believes she can contribute greatly toward making the family of man and its history more human.

In addition, the Catholic Church gladly holds in high esteem the things which other Christian Churches and ecclesial communities have done or are doing cooperatively by way of achieving the same goal. At the same time, she is convinced that she can be abundantly and variously helped by the world in the matter of preparing the ground for the Gospel. (GS, 40)

Only the Christian churches and communities may cooperate with the Catholic Church in bringing the divine life to men. Other men in the world may help prepare the ground for receiving the Gospel by promoting natural virtues.

Since it has been entrusted to the Church to reveal the mystery of God, Who is the ultimate goal of man, she opens up to man at the same time the meaning of his own existence, that is, the innermost truth about himself. … For man will always yearn to know, at least in an obscure way, what is the meaning of his life, of his activity, of his death. The very presence of the Church recalls these problems to his mind. But only God, Who created man to His own image and ransomed him from sin, provides the most adequate answer to the questions, and this He does through what He has revealed in Christ His Son, Who became man. Whoever follows after Christ, the perfect man, becomes himself more of a man. For by His incarnation the Father’s Word assumed, and sanctified through His cross and resurrection, the whole of man, body and soul, and through that totality the whole of nature created by God for man’s use. (GS, 41)

The dignity of humanity and human activity can only be properly understood in the context of man’s supernatural goal. Christ sanctified and perfected human nature, and those united with Christ cooperate in the sanctification of the rest of creation through their activity.

Thanks to this belief, the Church can anchor the dignity of human nature against all tides of opinion, for example those which undervalue the human body or idolize it. By no human law can the personal dignity and liberty of man be so aptly safeguarded as by the Gospel of Christ which has been entrusted to the Church. For this Gospel announces and proclaims the freedom of the sons of God, and repudiates all the bondage which ultimately results from sin. (cf. Rom. 8:14-17); it has a sacred reverence for the dignity of conscience and its freedom of choice, constantly advises that all human talents be employed in God's service and men’s, and, finally, commends all to the charity of all (cf. Matt. 22:39). (GS, 41)

This balanced view of human dignity exalts man over the rest of creation while subordinating him to divine law. Yet even this subordination is a kind of exaltation, as it frees man from the bondage of those earthly desires that enslave and degrade him. Man’s natural freedom is a sign of dignity when he employs it in the service of God and man; otherwise, it can be a cause for shame, making him no better, and sometimes worse, than a brute beast.

…though the same God is Savior and Creator, Lord of human history as well as of salvation history, in the divine arrangement itself, the rightful autonomy of the creature, and particularly of man is not withdrawn, but is rather re-established in its own dignity and strengthened in it.

The Church, therefore, by virtue of the Gospel committed to her, proclaims the rights of man; she acknowledges and greatly esteems the dynamic movements of today by which these rights are everywhere fostered. Yet these movements must be penetrated by the spirit of the Gospel and protected against any kind of false autonomy. For we are tempted to think that our personal rights are fully ensured only when we are exempt from every requirement of divine law. But this way lies not the maintenance of the dignity of the human person, but its annihilation. (GS, 41)

The Church accepts the aspects of liberalism that assert human rights and dignity, but rejects those forms of liberalism that would detach natural rights from the divine law. This secularizing tendency eventually leads to the annihilation of human dignity, making rights subject to the whims of the masses or of the state.

Christ, to be sure, gave His Church no proper mission in the political, economic or social order. The purpose which He set before her is a religious one. But out of this religious mission itself come a function, a light and an energy which can serve to structure and consolidate the human community according to the divine law. … (GS, 42)

The Church as such has no divinely commissioned political or economic authority, though the Pope and other ecclesiastics may have such authority due to historical contingency or practical need. Still, the Church’s spiritual mission has the function of impelling men to structure society according to divine law. If Christianity were to be excluded altogether from politics and economics, even in the shaping of moral norms, the Church would not be fulfilling her mission of charity and sanctification of human relations.

The Church recognizes that worthy elements are found in today's social movements, especially an evolution toward unity… The promotion of unity belongs to the innermost nature of the Church, for she is, “thanks to her relationship with Christ, a sacramental sign and an instrument of intimate union with God, and of the unity of the whole human race.” …the force which the Church can inject into the modern society of man consists in that faith and charity put into vital practice, not in any external dominion exercised by merely human means.

Moreover, since in virtue of her mission and nature she is bound to no particular form of human culture, nor to any political, economic or social system, the Church by her very universality can be a very close bond between diverse human communities and nations… (GS, 42)

The modern impetus toward global unity matches the Church’s millenia-old universal mission. Further, the Church’s supranational character, as well as her political and economic ideological pluralism, allows her to show what is truly in common across nations of various temporal ideologies.

This council exhorts Christians, as citizens of two cities, to strive to discharge their earthly duties conscientiously and in response to the Gospel spirit. They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation. Nor, on the contrary, are they any less wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life. (GS, 43) [Emphasis added]

Christians have duties to both the earthly city and the heavenly city. The corruption of the earthly city does not excuse us of our duties as citizens, nor does our citizenship in the heavenly city. In fact, the latter impels us to work toward building up and sanctifying the earthly city, thereby preparing the material (human souls) of the world to come. By the same token, this mission of sanctifying the world makes it unintelligible that a Christian should try to keep his religious life completely isolated from his secular activities.

The above exhortation would seem to exclude contemplatives, being concerned primarily with Christians living in the world. Yet even contemplatives have a duty to the world, which they fulfill by their prayers on behalf of others and by their inspiring example of Gospel virtues. They too are preparing souls on this earth for the world to come.

Secular duties and activities belong properly although not exclusively to laymen. … Laymen should also know that it is generally the function of their well-formed Christian conscience to see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city; from priests they may look for spiritual light and nourishment. Let the layman not imagine that his pastors are always such experts, that to every problem which arises, however complicated, they can readily give him a concrete solution, or even that such is their mission. (GS, 43)

The collaboration of laity and clergy in the exercise of secular activities is discussed in Chapter IV of Lumen Gentium.

Often enough the Christian view of things will itself suggest some specific solution in certain circumstances. Yet it happens rather frequently, and legitimately so, that with equal sincerity some of the faithful will disagree with others on a given matter. … Hence it is necessary for people to remember that no one is allowed in the aforementioned situations to appropriate the Church’s authority for his opinion. (GS, 43)

Where no teaching of the Magisterium directly contradicts or endorses a political, economic, or social doctrine, no Catholic should presume to claim that his opinion on such doctrine reflects the Church’s view, or that his opponents are not true Catholics.

Since they have an active role to play in the whole life of the Church, laymen are not only bound to penetrate the world with a Christian spirit, but are also called to be witnesses to Christ in all things in the midst of human society. (GS, 43)

One does not give witness to Christ merely by doing things in a “Christian spirit,” but one must also make explicit reference to Christ. This does not necessarily mean preaching to others, but entails giving explicit witness to one’s faith, by wearing Christian symbols, performing public devotions, and conducting activities of the lay apostolate that visibly engage Catholic groups with the general public. In other words, one does not give witness to Christ by simply “being nice” while concealing one’s religious identity.

Bishops, to whom is assigned the task of ruling the Church of God, should, together with their priests, so preach the news of Christ that all the earthly activities of the faithful will be bathed in the light of the Gospel.
By unremitting study they should fit themselves to do their part in establishing dialogue with the world and with men of all shades of opinion. (GS, 43)

The bishops represent local churches, and so they should act like ambassadors to the world.

Although by the power of the Holy Spirit the Church will remain the faithful spouse of her Lord and will never cease to be the sign of salvation on earth, still she is very well aware that among her members, both clerical and lay, some have been unfaithful to the Spirit of God during the course of many centuries; in the present age, too, it does not escape the Church how great a distance lies between the message she offers and the human failings of those to whom the Gospel is entrusted. Whatever be the judgement of history on these defects, we ought to be conscious of them, and struggle against them energetically, lest they inflict harm on spread of the Gospel. The Church also realizes that in working out her relationship with the world she always has great need of the ripening which comes with the experience of the centuries. (GS, 43)

Without pretending to resolve past historical disputes, the Council acknowledges that Church’s politics could use “ripening,” as her human members are subject to the same capacities for improvement in temporal affairs as all men. This does not derogate from the perfection of the Church as the spotless bride of Christ. (See LG, 6; CCC 823-829)

Just as it is in the world's interest to acknowledge the Church as an historical reality, and to recognize her good influence, so the Church herself knows how richly she has profited by the history and development of humanity.

The experience of past ages, the progress of the sciences, and the treasures hidden in the various forms of human culture, by all of which the nature of man himself is more clearly revealed and new roads to truth are opened, these profit the Church, too. For, from the beginning of her history she has learned to express the message of Christ with the help of the ideas and terminology of various philosophers, and and has tried to clarify it with their wisdom, too. Her purpose has been to adapt the Gospel to the grasp of all as well as to the needs of the learned, insofar as such was appropriate. Indeed this accommodated preaching of the revealed word ought to remain the law of all evangelization. (GS, 44)

The Church makes use of human culture to make the Gospel accessible to people in terms of ideas they understand. The incorporation of Platonic and Aristotelian ideas into theology, for example, helped the Church to realize her mission of elucidating the Gospel among the learned. Likewise, missionaries in the far East and the Americas were given special latitude to explain Christianity in terms of local cultural concepts.

With the help of the Holy Spirit, it is the task of the entire People of God, especially pastors and theologians, to hear, distinguish and interpret the many voices of our age, and to judge them in the light of the divine word, so that revealed truth can always be more deeply penetrated, better understood and set forth to greater advantage. (GS, 44) [Emphasis added]
Since the Church has a visible and social structure as a sign of her unity in Christ, she can and ought to be enriched by the development of human social life, not that there is any lack in the constitution given her by Christ, but that she can understand it more penetratingly, express it better, and adjust it more successfully to our times. … for whoever promotes the human community at the family level, culturally, in its economic, social and political dimensions, both nationally and internationally, such a one, according to God’s design, is contributing greatly to the Church as well, to the extent that she depends on things outside herself. Indeed, the Church admits that she has greatly profited and still profits from the antagonism of those who oppose or who persecute her. (GS, 44) [Emphasis added]

As noted in Lumen Gentium, the Church has a visible social structure, (LG, 8) and this is a sign of her unity (contrary to misinterpretations of Unitatis Redintegratio, 3-4). The fact that the Church profits from the outside world does not derogate from the uniqueness of her mission; indeed, even those who persecute the Church are said to help her.

While helping the world and receiving many benefits from it, the Church has a single intention: that God’s kingdom may come, and that the salvation of the whole human race may come to pass. For every benefit which the People of God during its earthly pilgrimage can offer to the human family stems from the fact that the Church is “the universal sacrament of salvation,” simultaneously manifesting and exercising the mystery of God’s love. (GS, 45) [Emphasis added]

The Church’s goal remains singlemindedly supernatural. All that she receives from and gives to the world is subordinate to this aim.

The expression ‘universal sacrament of salvation’ (universale salutis sacramentum) is taken from Lumen Gentium 48. In both documents, the phrase is used in an eschatological context. In the absence of a formal dogmatic definition, we cannot pretend to ascribe any theologically precise meaning to this expression as used by the Council, though Congar and other contributors to the text may have done so in their private theological opinions. The Magisterium later clarified, in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, that the Church is a “sacrament” only in an analogical sense, namely that, like the seven sacraments, she “both contains and communicates the invisible grace she signifies.” (CCC, 774) The grace she signifies is that “of communion with God and of unity among all men.” (LG, 1; CCC, 775) All the benefits that Christians offer humanity derive from this mission of uniting all men into union with God.

For God’s Word, by whom all things were made, was Himself made flesh so that as perfect man He might save all men and sum up all things in Himself. The Lord is the goal of human history, the focal point of the longings of history and of civilization, the center of the human race, the joy of every heart and the answer to all its yearnings. (GS, 45)

The section concludes with repeated emphasis that Christ is the center and goal of all human history and civilization.

Continue to Part II

© 2013 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved.