Gaudium et Spes

1. Fundamental Moral Theology.

The Second Vatican Council called for moral theology to be renewed by “a more vivid contact with the mystery of Christ” (Optatum totius, n. 16). The last of the Council documents, Gaudium et Spes, so important for moral theology, has a structure in part 1 which is Christocentric.

Looking at the human person, human society, man in relation to the world the Council examines the moral questions about each which people see as central and offers to people of good will throughout the world an answer which in every case is centred on Jesus Christ.

Thus, “it is only in the light of the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear” (GS. 22), the communitarian dimension of man “is perfected and fulfilled in the work of Jesus Christ” (GS. 32), the transformation of the world will enter its perfection “when the Lord comes” (GS. 32), since the Church proclaims that “the key, the centre and the purpose of the whole of human history is to be found in its Lord and Master” (GS. 10). We will never adequately understand any of the critical issues of our time except “in the light of revelation” (GS. 33), “in the light of the Gospel” (GS. 43) of Christ.
Question 1. Read Gaudium et Spes, nn. 11-22 or 22-32 or 33-39. How is the Council open to all people of good will and yet truly Christocentric?
Question 2. Read Gaudium et Spes nn. 13, 27, 37, 39. List the ways in which sin affects us as persons, in society and in our work, both internally and externally.
Question 3. Read Gaudium et Spes, nn. 14, 35 with a view to understanding of ‘nature’ and ‘natural law’. What comprises ‘human nature’ according to these passages of Gaudium et Spes? How does this compare to Sollicitudo rei socialis, nn.15, 30, and Humanae Vitae, n. 14? How can revelation give us a deeper and clearer understanding of the moral demand: How is our social dimension as human beings deepened by considering us as “the only creatures God wanted for His own sake” (GS. 24)? Does this affect the view of man as being “by his innermost nature a social being” (GS. 28)? How does it affect our view of the role of work (GS. 34)? How are our efforts on this earth related to the realisation of the Kingdom of God in its fullness (GS. 38-39)?

Question 4. What specific moral absolutes are given in Gaudium et Spes n. 27?

Question 5. Read Gaudium et Spes, nn. 16-17, 51 (if you want, you can cross reference Dignitatis humanae, nn. 2-3). When does acting wrongly through ignorance or error excuse and when does it not? On what basis is this? When someone acts contrary to God’s will through invincible ignorance, does he commit sin? Does his conscience lose its dignity? Does he have a right to follow an invincibly erroneous conscience? If so, are there any limits to that right?

(Introduction and questions courtesy of Mark Lambert @sitsio)

Gaudium et spes in English can be found here  The Latin text may be found here.

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17 Responses to Gaudium et Spes

  1. Lazarus says:

    Not sure if the length of the document has reduced us all to stunned silence! Let me pick up one detail in response to Marks’ question 1 above:

    ‘How is the Council open to all people of good will and yet truly Christocentric?’

    From para 21 there appear to be two routes: ‘sincere and prudent dialogue’ with atheists; and an appeal ‘ most secret desires of the human heart when she champions the dignity of the human vocation’.

    I suppose two issues spring to my mind when reading this: a) is the dialogue intended to lead first to conversion and then to common action? or b) is there already sufficient commonality of articulated interest, even before full acceptance of Christ, for common action to be undertaken with atheists?

    Currently, there appears to be very little acceptance of common ground between atheists and Catholics in public debate. In part, this is due to a self-conscious hostility to Catholicism on the part of New Atheism. In part, there is also the strongly Christological language used in documents such as Gaudium et Spes: to the extent that Catholicism needs to be articulated in such overtly Christological terms, it’s hard to imagine much productive dialogue with atheism other than the attempt to convert them to Catholicism.

    So here’s a simple question which emerges from all this: Should dialogue with atheism be explicitly Christological, or should it attempt to begin from a common, non-Christological language?

  2. Ttony says:

    Question 4. What specific moral absolutes are given in Gaudiem et Spes n. 27?

    “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. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator.”

    I must admit that wading through the morass of verbiage which is probably the fault of the translator of G&S (at least of the version I am using) this part of s.27 has remained aloft like a beacon, and quoting it in a comment on the Catholic Hetrald website this evening has reminded me that I have not yet posted on G&S here yet. (I’d have preferred Patience, by the way.)

    This is as good a way-in to the integrated (holistic?) pro-life position of Catholics as it is possible to get. This is a pellucid description of what we oppose and why we oppose it. To be pro-life is to love, honour, and respect God’s creatures.

    Credit where it is due: here, in a single paragraph, is a manifesto for us all.

  3. Ttony says:

    Gaudium et Spes as the origin of the “Spirit of Vatican II”: this is one of the most repugnantly awful things I can imagine seeing in an official document ofd the Church.

    “May the faithful, therefore, live in very close union with the other men of their time and may they strive to understand perfectly their way of thinking and judging, as expressed in their culture. Let them blend new sciences and theories and the understanding of the most recent discoveries with Christian morality and the teaching of Christian doctrine, so that their religious culture and morality may keep pace with scientific knowledge and with the constantly progressing technology. Thus they will be able to interpret and evaluate all things in a truly Christian spirit.”

    The worst thing about this is knowing that there are, in 2012, Catholics who won’t understand what is wrong with it.

    My main problem with Gaudium et Spes is that there are a lot of passages like this, an odd couple like the bit of s.27 I cited yesterday, and a sea of verbiage which, to anyone familiar with the outpourings of the Berlaymont, read like nothing so much as the latest non-paper from a group in the European Parliament.

    I find G&S impossible to read as a coherent piece: it seems not to be so much about the Church in the modern world as about the Church fawning before the modernity of the modern world.

    I could go on (and on, and on and on) but should probably withdraw from this discussion and wait for the next piece.

    I’ve tried G&S transatlantic; I’ve tried it on the train; I’ve tried it in the quiet study; I’ve tried it in a “Throw me a quote and I’ll throw you a comment” circle of friends; and, I’m sorry, but it’s a dud.

    • Lazarus says:

      Hi Ttony, I’m going to stick my neck out here and try and defend it! (s.62) Isn’t it just the same old story of hermeneutic of rupture/hermeneutic of continuity over again? Certainly, you could read it in the way that the LCWR et al have -and then you’d have the Church suddenly discovering it’s been wrong all these years and we should just listen more carefully to Lenin and Lennon etc… But if you read it in continuity with the tradition, is it anything different from (say) what Aquinas was doing in discerning the latent possibilities of Aristotelianism or what Balthasar does in understanding European artistic culture? Science has discovered new things. Societies have changed. The Church has to react and engage with those changes -which broadly is to discern how much of God is in them and how much has been distorted by sin. Clearly, possessed by the Spirit of Vatican II, some have forgotten the divine vocation of the Church. But in principle, is there anything wrong with what the text says? That some have forgotten the need to test and interpret in ‘a truly Christian spirit’ (integro christiano sensu probare atque interpretari) is a problem of interpretation rather than the text -and we know that there has been a problem in interpretation.

      • Ttony says:

        Lazarus, thanks for your comment. I think I’d like to see a few more people chip in before I answer. I’m not being rude, or defensive – I’m just curious to see how our (pretty polarised) views chime with others.

  4. Ben Trovato says:

    I really will contribute soon. Am about halfway through… Keep getting distracted, though.

  5. bentrovato12 says:

    I am shocked at how long it has taken me to read G&S. In part, that was due to extrinsic factors: I have been busy with work, we have had guests and so on. But in part, I fear, it was intrinsic to the text. I found it quite hard going for a number of reasons.

    One was that the structure was somewhat opaque to me: I couldn’t really see where it was going, or why one idea followed another at times. Another was that I found the content largely uninspiring. Or was that the style? I am not sure, but it didn’t excite me at all for long periods. Some of it seemed platitudinous, some idealistic and some slightly puzzling; and there were also moments of real interest and engagement, but they were few and far between.

    However, I do agree with Ttony that the passage at §27 is an inspiring and comprehensive summary of what it means to be pro-Life in a truly Catholic sense.

    I’ll now start to look at some of Mark’s questions, starting with Q2 (I may come on to the other questions eventually).

    As a result of original sin, man finds himself damaged, and caught in a conflict between good and evil, both at the individual and the collective level §13.

    We find today there is a special need to recognise all as our neighbour, and extend our help to all, particularly the weak and dispossessed, and to commit to the radical pro-life position already commented on §27.

    Through all of history, man is part of a struggle against the forces of darkness: “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.” It is in Christ’s cross and resurrection that we are to find our escape from ‘pride and deranged self-love.’ §37

    This damaged world is transient and will be renewed; but that knowledge should not prevent us from striving to address all that works against God’s Kingdom here and now. §39

    After reading this, I went to the Catechism and read the section on Original Sin (§§385-421). That really provided a contrast. In the Catechism, the structure is evident as you read it: the ideas follow and build one on the previous one. The paragraphs are both clear and very rich, each adding something to the one that preceded it. The teaching is clear and develops in richness and depth as you progress. In short, it is well thought-through and well-written. It seems to me that G&S lacks these qualities. I’ve just finished reading it, and I’m still not clear what it’s really getting at…

    I will come back and look at some of the other questions – but not tonight!

  6. Ttony says:

    So three of us have commented so far, and I will characterise our views of G&S as:

    Lazarus: “Difficult, but readable in continuity with tradition”;
    Ben Trovato: “Mainly tedious but a couple of gems in a long drawn out piece); and
    Me: “A dud. Applied Spirit of Vatican II.”

    I will hazard a wild guess that Mark Lambert, who read G&S thoroughly to frame our reading of it is closer to Lazarus than than to Ben or me, but it worries me that nobody else, whether here or on Twitter, is engaging with what is considered one of the foundational works of Catholic social teaching in the second half of the twentieth century.

    If there is a lurker out there who has followed but who doesn’t want to get involved in a G&S discussion, I’d be really interested to know why.

  7. Ttony says:

    Whither the Catholic Reading Group?

    We know that there are this blog awoke an interest in those, like me, who relished the opportunity to step aside from the cut and thrust of the Catholic blogosphere and spend time reflecting, and then discussing our reflections. Sacrosanctum Concilium showed how keen we were; Gaudium et Spes showed the opposite.

    Here’s what I was – indeed am – looking for:

    I want to be stretched. I know what I know: I am pretty good at what I know; but I am aware that I should be pushing into areas with which I’m unfamiliar to develop an understanding of the Faith broader than I currently have. I’m not a theologian or a philosopher, and I wanted to concentrate on texts which were not aimed at specialists but rather would be accessible (literally and metaphorically) by any interested Catholic who would value a discussion of new ideas, or perhaps better, contextualised ideas.

    From this point of view, we set out on a resourcissement: a return to Vatican II sources to find out (whoops! remind ourselves) what the Council fathers actually agreed to, and resituate ourselves in the great debate of the Reform of the Reform as Somebody Who Had Read The Council Documents.

    (As an aside, I wrote to the Diocesan Education authorities a couple of years ago (when I was still a Catholic school governor) quoting the Vatican II decree on Christian Education to support my opposition to some nonsense being thrust upon the school only to receive a plaintive reply: “Is there a Vatican II decree on Christian Education?)

    I got a lot out of the excursion into Vatican II, even if it wasn’t what I imagine the Bishops’ Conference might have hoped for. I feel more confident that I have some idea what the Council Fathers thought they had agreed, and a better understanding of the way in which the “spirit of Vatican II” betrays both those who were at the Council and the Church today.

    I’d like to offer two possible reasons why G&S seems to have met with such resistance from group members: it might be that it is turgid and uninteresting, or it might be that it drove readers to conslusions they were unhappy to express directly. There may be other reasons too, and a solution might be to offer a significantly different type of text to read.

    When I started writing this, I realised just how much I was missing the Catholic Reading Group: I hope when can get ourselves restarted.

  8. Ben Trovato says:


    Thanks for these reflections. I agree with you boh about what I want to get out of this, and about missing the Group while it has been quiet over the summer.

    One more point is that G&S was very long: it took each of us a while to read it, and we all finished at different speeds and ended up waiting for each other: which I think didn’t help the discussion. Perhaps we should have read a section at a time.

    So I propose we either tackle something shorter next time, or take a longer document in sections and build up our understanding.

    A question, too: are we sticking with official Church documents, or would we consider things like Sheed, Knox (Ronnie, of course) and Ratzinger; or even novels..?

  9. I honestly think it is far too long to discuss in this format. We need to be more focused because each line of any council document deserves to be unpacked. I mean just look at LG 8 for example, I’ve written a 6,000 word essay on it—it’s so dense! To understand GS you need to read what it is saying in a specific context. So, for example, we could discuss how something like the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity are introduced in Quadragesimo Anno, developed in Mater et Magistra and Gaudiem et Spes and then picked up by Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate.

    GS displayed a personalist approach to moral issues regarding work, the theological basis laid down in this constitution would be developed in depth by Pope John Paul II. Following MM 57 it bases its social doctrine on Gen 1:26; humanity’s vocation to “fill the earth and subdue it”. This is a prolongation of the Creator’s work and also demonstrates humanity’s duty and responsibility before God as stewards of the earth, duly accountable for administrating with all justice (GS 24). In this context, Gaudiem et Spes stresses a hierarchy of values; putting persons before things. It asserted the right and duty of government to intervene in the economic order to ensure and promote justice, to defend the weak, and to see that the material good which belong to all are fairly distributed.

    “The complex circumstances of our day make it necessary for public authority to intervene more often in social, economic and cultural matters in order to bring about favorable conditions which will give more effective help to citizens and groups in their free pursuit of man’s total well-being. (Gaudium et Spes, n. 75.)”

    This is because “God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples.” (GS, n. 69). Therefore, according to the ability of each,

    “Since there are so many people prostrate with hunger in the world, this sacred council urges all, both individuals and governments, to remember the aphorism of the Fathers, “Feed the man dying of hunger, because if you have not fed him, you have killed him,” and really to share and employ their earthly goods, according to the ability of each, especially by supporting individuals or peoples with the aid by which they may be able to help and develop themselves.” (GS, n. 69)

    This is a key text of Gaudiem et Spes. It affirms the the universal destiny of the goods of the earth, created by God to be shared fairly by all. Having more and more, producing more and more, does not necessarily equate to authentic human development; the purpose of production is not profit, but the service of human persons (GS 64). This is highly significant and is in continuity with the personalism of moral theological renewal as well as highlighting the correct perspective for an examination of the moral issues related to work. These issues cannot be adequately assessed from the perspective of profit, neither are they assured by a rigid adherence to a totalitarian system based on ideological presuppositions.

    After VII Pope Paul VI & JP II took the doctrines of authentic human development and the hierarchy of values taught in GS 67-72, elaborated and developed them in Populorum progressio which focused on development as its key concept summarising GS in a more forceful and direct manner.

    Anyway, the point I am making is that you sort of have to see the issues and the role of the document in the sensus plenior 🙂

  10. Ben Trovato says:

    Mark, yes, you could be right: the approach we took to G&S may not have helped us get the most out of it. For example, I couldn’t imagine doing the CCC like this, unless one took it one paragraph at a time.

  11. Idle Rambler says:

    I feel a bit of a fraud adding my three ha’p’orth as I hadn’t manage to join in this discussion at all. For me personally, I think it’s a lot to do with not having enough spare time to do the reading necessary and the thinking/reflecting time before I’d feel able to comment. I feel slightly intimidated as I’m not on your intellectual level so it takes me a lot longer to digest the material and come up with anything worth saying.

    Nevertheless, I do read the documents and have learned a lot through just reading what others have written, which is very valuable.

    I agree that a document like G&S is very daunting to try and discuss ‘in one go’. If whatever was chosen as the topic were to be broken down into more manageable ‘chunks’ I for one would find it much easier and be more likely to try and join in.

    There, Ben, I have tried to add my bit to aid the discussion as you asked. I hope that was of some help.

  12. Ben Trovato says:

    Thanks, Idle Rambler, and yes, it is of help!

  13. I think manageable chunks would be sensible.

    With hindsight, I also think that G&S was an unwise choice (and I pushed for it!) for this group. It’s too long and much of it is worthy but uncontroversial because as Mark points out, it’s general – the controversy comes with the application to real life. I am glad we picked it though it does contain some gems and it was all new to me.

    It might be worth discussing what each of us is hoping to get out of the discussions. I think we should continue but I worry that, as a group, we are too varied in terms of what we already know and how we want our understanding to develop. This may actually be a benefit but it might be too difficult to meet everyone’s expectations.

  14. Ben Trovato says:

    Thanks, PTP. Another approach we could take is to be more like a ‘normal’ book club, where we take it in turns to nominate something we think the group would find it interesting to read – and even champion it, perhaps.

    However, I also think we could debate this for ever, and wonder how useful that would be. Like many, I have been grateful that the group made me read GS. Building on that, and on comments so far, I have a suggestion, which I will post as a new post on the blog.

  15. Lazarus says:

    G & S is long -and that may be the main reason why it didn’t spark a discussion. In general, my experience of focused online discussions groups is that it’s often a bit hit or miss: sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, and often there’s not a clear explanation behind success/failure.

    I’d like us to try again! Perhaps something a bit shorter and more digestible? My only expectation from the group is that I’ll be pushed to read something I probably otherwise wouldn’t have. And from that point of view, even the discussion on G & S worked. Don’t think we should get too worried about occasional damp squibs. Put something up. See what happens. Move on to the next. And if we all made a moral commitment to say something, even if it was only, ‘I find this impossible to read because…’?

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