Celebrating The Church in the Modern World
by Fred Kammer, SJ
On October 11, 2012, we observed the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council—an event in Church and world history that is unprecedented in many ways. It was the largest and longest meeting ever held—over 2,000 bishops, cardinals, and other prelates meeting for four months every fall over the course of four years. Moreover, the tone and texture of its documents were like nothing before and have shaped public discourse in the Church ever since.
In particular, one special document—called in Latin Gaudium et Spes and in English The Church in the Modern World—is heralded as most emblematic of the Council’s work. It was approved on the last day of the council, December 7, 1965, by a vote of 2,309 to 75. This was more than three years after the council opened; this was the longest document by a Church council in 2,000 years; and the document was not planned for in three years of committee work which preceded the council.
The whole tone and message is captured in the first line of the document, from which it draws its Latin title: “The joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the people of our time, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.” With these words, the Council Fathers placed the Church squarely alongside all humanity in common concern and common cause.
Blessed Pope John XXIII announced the call of the Council “on January 25, 1959, less than three months after his election.” After this began three-plus years of the work of preparatory commissions or committees who produced a number of draft texts for consideration by the Fathers of the Council. No draft document concerned the Church in the modern world.
However, one month before the council, on September 11, 1962, Pope John delivered a radio address in which he declared the following:
"Where the underdeveloped countries are concerned, the Church presents herself as she is. She wishes to be the Church of all, and especially the Church of the poor."
In addition, on October 20, 1962, ten days after the Council began, the Council Fathers determined to deliver a message to the world which read in part:
"We urgently turn our thoughts to the problems by which human beings are afflicted today. Hence, our concern goes out to the lowly, poor, and powerless. Like Christ, we would have pity on the multitude heavily burdened by hunger, misery, and lack of knowledge. … As we undertake our work, therefore, we would emphasize whatever concerns the dignity of the human person, whatever contributes to a genuine community of peoples.” 
Gaudium et Spes originated in a call from Cardinals Suenens, Montini, and Lercaro at the close of the first session of the council for the Church to look outward and to address the world’s needs. In his speech of December 4, 1962, Cardinal Suenens explicitly cited the Pope’s September 11th radio address. As Fr. John O’Malley, the Jesuit historian explains:
"…Suenens asserted that what the council needed was a central theme that would lend it a basic orientation. Let that theme be, as the pope put it on September 11, “the church of Christ, light to the world”… That theme has two parts, the first of which looks to the inner reality of the church and asks the question, “What do you say of yourself? The second part concerns the relationship of the church to the world outside it, and asks questions about the human person, about social justice, about evangelization of the poor, about world peace."
Suenens then framed one of the critical themes that shaped the council. Again, as O’Malley further explains:
"The council will thus proceed by engaging in three dialogues: a dialogue with its own membership, an ecumenical dialogue 'with brothers and sisters not now visibly united with it,' and a dialogue 'with the modern world.'” 
Suenens proposed that the Council adopt this plan to better organize its work, and his proposal met with sustained applause! To proposed dialogue with the world was a radical departure from the 19th century Church condemnations of most things modern.
The Church was awakening to its international character as Asian, African, and Latin American bishops joined the First World majority and brought the concerns of a worldwide faith community, although European concerns and European bishops largely dominated the debates. The radical economic imbalances and threats to peace and humanity itself—the “joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties” were very much on the minds of the authors.
The document was widely debated over the next three sessions of the Council and drew its content from the participants themselves rather than preparatory committees. Considered to be the most characteristic and important document of the council, it was inspired by John XXIII, called for by Cardinal Montini (Paul VI) on the day after Cardinal Suenens’ address, and contributed to by Archbishop Karol Wojtyla who became Blessed Pope John Paul II, as well as Fathers Karl Rahner, SJ, and Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. It was promulgated on the last working day of the council.
To summarize, in this, the most authoritative document in Catholic social teaching, part one developed teaching on human dignity, social relations, essential social needs, and the role of the Church in the world. Part two focused on four “problems of special urgency”: marriage and family life, including overpopulation, responsible parenthood, respect for life, and family stability; cultural diversity and human development; and socio-economic life. It discussed fundamental imbalances between rich and poor, the requirements of justice, a sufficient share of earthly goods for all, the duties of public authorities, and the common good.
The final section of the Pastoral Constitution stressed the crisis of modern weaponry, and that peace could only be built on the basis of respect, harmony, justice, and love. It legitimated both nonviolence and conscientious objection, and rejected blind obedience to commands, wars of subjugation, and acts of war directed toward population centers. The council condemned the arms race as a human trap and devastation for the poor.
While the document on the Church in the Modern World has important things to say on a variety of issues touching peace and justice, its major accomplishment was both singular and complex. It first created a new stance, a new posture for the Church. As indicated in the Vatican guidelines for teaching priests about social teaching: “It was the first time that a document of the solemn magisterium of the church spoke so amply about the directly temporal aspects of Christian life.”  In doing so it moved the social agenda to center stage; it made social gospel not an off-brand, but an essential part, of the good news of Jesus to which all Christians were committed. Gaudium et Spes rejected the privatization of the gospel that nurtures political apathy, because, as Fr. Peter Henriot put it, “Vatican II recognized that the Church shares responsibility for secular as well as religious history.”  It was a new church self-understanding!
Gaudium et Spes created a stance of both responsibility and service. In the document’s words, “Christians cannot yearn for anything more ardently than to serve the people of the modern world ever more generously and effectively”[No. 93]. In his introduction to the document in the first complete set of Council documents, Fr. Donald Campion observed:
"The most distinctive note sounded in the text, many already agree, is that of the Church putting itself consciously at the service of the family of man. It may well be that in generations to come men will read this as a highly significant step toward a rethinking of conventional ecclesiological images..." 
The document put the Church squarely at the service of humanity. Catholicism broke out of the sanctuary, chancery, and parish to stand squarely in the heart of the polis; and in so doing it brought the griefs and anxieties of humanity into the heart of the church and its mission. Subsequently, in the decades that followed, synods and popes would draw out its implications for the nature of evangelization, a broadened Christology, and the “Christian virtue” of solidarity.
This ecclesiological foundation did more than bring the social concern of the pre-conciliar popes to the center of the church. In the process they seeded the church's own gradual transformation, planted its own freedom from enslaving ties to the powerful and privileged in many countries, and cultivated a widespread and passionate commitment to the poor. That concern prophesied a new harvest of martyrs in the following decades whose blood would be spilled for Christ found especially in the poor and vulnerable of Asia, Africa, and Central and South America. As Fr. Bryan Hehir put it:
"It was the dynamic of the council that made the decisive move toward a total ecclesiology that includes both the Church looking to the Church and the Church looking to the World. That's the distinctive shift. Look at Gaudium et Spes as both an event in itself and a process. I would argue with [Fr. Karl] Rahner that Gaudium et Spes is perhaps the single most significant document of Vatican II, a document for which they had no plan, a document which was called a “Pastoral Constitution.” But try and think about what has happened in the life of the Church in Latin America, in South Africa, in East Asia, in the United States, and in Europe and you get the social edge of ministry. I argue you can't explain that in random fashion. The background is Gaudium et Spes and the theological reflection that has flowed from it." 
In fifty years, much has changed in the Church and the relationship of the Church to the world due to the foundation laid in Gaudium et Spes.
1. John W. O’Malley, SJ, What Happened at Vatican II, (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press), 2008, p. 15.
2. Ibid., p. 99.
3. Ibid., p. 157-58.
4. Guidelines for the Study and Teaching of the Church's Social Doctrine in the Formation of Priests, Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, December 30, 1988, released June 27, 1989, No. 24, in Origins, Vol. 19, No. 11, August 3, 1989, pp. 169-92.
5. Peter Henriot, S.J., Edward P. DeBerri, S.J., and Michael J. Schultheis, S.J., Catholic Social Teaching: Our Best Kept Secret (maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books and Weshington, D.C.: Center of Contern, 1988), p. 17.
6. Donald R. Campion, S.J., “The Church Today,” in The Documents of Vatican II (New York: Guild Press, America Press, Association Press, 1966), Walter M. Abbott, S.J., Editor, p. 183-98, at 185.
7. J. Bryan Hehir, Catholic Social Teaching as a Framework, unpublished address to Province Days, New Orleans Province of the Society of Jesus, at Spring Hill College, Mobile, AL, June 2, 1988, p. 4.