Editor’s Note: This article is part of the Registry Symposium on Vatican II at 60.
The Latin title of the Pastoral Constitution of the Second Vatican Council on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium and Spes (Joy and Hope), is not misleading, because it wants to be both joyful and full of hope, not seeking conflict or confrontation, totally avoiding the use of any anathema. It is described as a pastoral constitution and was a novelty in conciliar history. I’m not sure he’ll ever be tempted again by a full council, but it can happen with over 5,000 bishops.
While relying doctrinally on the conciliar documents on the Church, Lumen gentiumand Revelation, Dei Verbum, this constitution is not primarily doctrinal, but lays out a vigorous Christocentric humanism, guidelines for how the Catholic community should relate to the modern world, in its bewildering variety. It is both commentary and exhortation and could be described as sociological or prudential rather than dogmatic.
We can understand what the Council was doing and what had to be done. Dating back to the Council of Elvira in 306, when offenders were separated from the body of the faithful, the Church had protected the faith and promoted the common good by promulgating anathemas and other similar measures, such as the “Index of prohibited”. Books”, first published in 1557. These ecclesial efforts were often aided by the covenant between the altar and the throne, begun by Constantine in the 4th century, and resumed in the Holy Roman Empire with the coronation of Charlemagne at Saint-Pierre in 800 AD.
But the dynamics began to change in the early modern period. The Reformation first divided Christendom, while the Augsburg Formula of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, cuius regio, eius religio, officially recognized that each state would be Catholic or Protestant. The French Revolution created the real possibility that some states in Europe were even actively hostile to the Christian faith. Pope Leo XIII, notably in the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, had begun the process by which the papacy reconciled itself to industrial democracy, which was already more advanced in the English-speaking world, freed from the memories of a Catholic alliance of throne and altar. For Catholics in these places, the crown had been a persecutor.
As papal representative in Bulgaria, Turkey and France after World War II, Archbishop Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, realized that the “old regime” was gone forever, and Gaudium and Spes reflected that. Although less than 20 years after the terrible Second World War, the pastoral constitution reflected the optimism of a rebuilt Western Europe, set up by Christian statesmen, such as Alcide de Gasperi, Konrad Adenauer and Robert Schuman , protected by American military might and regain its prosperity.
The first part of the constitution is theological, dealing with the dignity of the human person, the community of humanity and the activity of man in the universe. There are useful sections on conscience and freedom, the common good, the importance of reconciling science and religion, the good things the Church offers and receives from the world, and a Teilhardian section on Christ as the Alpha and Omega.
A long section on atheism contains the only mention of communism in the Council documents, although the Soviet Union is not named; instead, the document laments that some atheists “violently attack religion” and indoctrinate young people in their schools when they gain political control (GS, 20). The common opinion is that the conciliar silence on communism, the absence of condemnation, was the agreed price of the presence of bishops from communist Europe and the presence of observers from the Russian Orthodox Church. At least the first of these brought important blessings.
But the silence about Communism actively persecuting Christians throughout Eastern Europe, Russia and China has skewed the Council’s outlook. The struggle between good and evil, which is at the heart of the Gospel, exemplified by the murder of our Redeemer, the constant threat and intrigues of the Evil One, the struggle between Light and darkness (John 1:4-5 ) and the hatred of the world for Christ and his disciples (explained in more detail in the Gospel of John, 15:18-19) – this dimension is somewhat lacking, especially in this document. The clash between the two standards of Saint Ignatius of Loyola spiritual exercises is muted here.
When the threat of evil is underestimated or thought to be underestimated, we are further disadvantaged in our struggle “to discern the signs of the times”, a theme of Gaudium and Spes which is too often separated from its deeper theological context, serving as a pretext for conforming Christian truth to the erroneous precepts of our present day. Engagement with modernity is a start, but the signs are often wrong, not proof of God’s providence. Gaudium and SpesThe reminder of our duty to scrutinize these signs can never be separated from his insistence that this can only be done “in the light of the Gospel” (GS, 4). The most difficult but vitally important task is to recognize the presence and activity of the Spirit, and then to pray for wisdom to build constructively out of the confusion.
The second part concludes the document by dealing with marriage and the family, the proper development of culture, economic and social life, political community, the promotion of peace and the establishment of the community of nations. . There is a section on war, the possibility of nuclear war and the arms race. All of these are high-quality contributions to dialogue between people of goodwill, but in my view overestimate our ability to participate as equals with the most powerful hostile forces around us, present in all societies and certainly in the contemporary West. They did not offer ideal preparation for the culture wars, which saw the dismantling of the Judeo-Christian legal foundations of marriage, life and family in many countries. 1968 from Pope Paul VI Humanae Vitae was more prophetic, with more specific glimpses of what lay ahead. Mission and struggle are more important than dialogue, but each has its time and place.
I think Hans Urs von Balthasar, in 1952, was mistaken in seeing the tearing down of the strongholds of Catholicism – the secondary structures and models that the Church has built through the ages – as a long overdue task. Some strongholds, perhaps many, are gone forever, but we need all the sociological support we can find or build. The contributions of Trump, or Orban, of the Fratelli d’Italia are not to be dismissed, no matter how small, just as some of us remain grateful to Constantine and Charles V. It is not a mortal sin to dream of a Chinese Constantine or to tolerate the status of Anglicans in England.
The 21 councils of Catholic history are examples of the Holy Spirit at work, of divine Providence, despite and through their shortcomings as well as the obvious benefits they produced. But they didn’t happen too often. Synods should also not become too frequent, become a competitor to prayer, worship and service. And history reminds us to be careful, not to create false hopes, not to unleash forces that may be beyond our control.
The synodal process started disastrously in Germany, and things will get worse unless we soon have effective papal corrections on, for example, Christian sexual morality, female priests, etc. We find no precedent in Catholic history for the active participation of ex-Catholics. and anti-Catholics in such bodies. Only the Council Fathers, almost entirely bishops, could vote at Vatican II, and the observers were all Christians. Pope Saint Paul VI respected the authority and independence of the Council Fathers, rarely intervening as they painstakingly produced their documents, established consensus, while remaining fully respectful of the Magisterium and Tradition. Despite all this care and scholarship, and largely for reasons beyond the control of the Church, post-conciliar history has not been one of glorious success.
Each synod must be a Catholic synod, bound by the Apostolic Tradition, just as the Councils are so bound. To allow serious heresies to continue undisturbed is to undermine and damage the unity of the One and True Church, and again, it is not compatible with Gaudium et Spes’ call for an engagement with the modern world in “the light of the Gospel”, but in opposition to it. There can be no pluralism of important doctrines of faith or morals. Our unity does not resemble that of a loose Anglican federation or that of the many national Orthodox Churches.
Certain faithful German Catholics already speak, not of the synodal way but of the suicidal way. We must work and pray that they are wrong, that no such disaster occurs anywhere in the Church of the modern world. Pope Saint Paul VI was fair and impartial and guided the Council well, creating a good and encouraging model; but the consequences provide a warning of the powerful hostile forces around us.
Cardinal George Pell is an Australian Cardinal of the Church who served as Prefect of the Vatican’s Economic Secretariat between 2014 and 2019 and was a member of the “Council of Cardinals” between 2013 and 2018.