This fifth of six short articles on the Second Vatican Council speaks to the longest document issued by the Council. The apostolic constitution Gaudium et spes addressed the reason Pope John XXIII called the Council: to change the relation between the Church and the world so that the Church’s mission would be strengthened and the world come to know its Savior and be rescued from its sinfulness. How should the Church, look now committed to dialogue with everyone, prescription enter into a more evangelically productive relationship to a world marked by advanced technological achievements, ask spreading democracy, an integrating economic system and an increasing skepticism toward revealed religion?
The apostolic constitution starts by identifying the Church with the joys and hopes as well as the grief and anxieties of the people of this age, especially with those who are poor or otherwise afflicted. In explaining who she is to the world, the Church hopes to enter into a dialogue that will explain the world to itself. While the Council was still meeting in Rome, Pope Paul VI went to the United Nations in New York, the first Pope to do so, and introduced himself to the world’s governmental representatives as “an expert in humanity.”
At a new moment in humanity’s history, the human race and its history, the Council Fathers wrote, are coming together around permanent values and new discoveries. There is a new social order, with new psychological and moral habits. In places, religion is being marginalized as too rooted in a prior moment of history. At this moment, therefore, reflection about the Church and the world needs to be grounded in mutual conviction about the dignity of the human person, made in God’s image and likeness. Human dignity is perennially threatened by human sinfulness, and the Church calls everyone to conversion of life. Christ is the new Adam, the new man, the one who establishes a world order based on truth and freedom. Death and atheism threaten this new order, but they cannot destroy it nor the Church that proclaims and embodies it.
Because Jesus is God, he brings us into the life of the Blessed Trinity; because Jesus is man, he transforms human activity into his instrument for making visible the Kingdom of God, even here and now. As God’s leaven in the world, the Church protects the “school of God’s love” that is the family. She works to strengthen marriage and respect for the human life born of it. The Church enters into dialogue with all cultures and is partner to the conversations about evolution, progress, economic and political life, peace and the international order. The document addresses each of these topics at some length.
This very broad vision of the relationship between Church and world was institutionalized right after the Council with ministries for social justice and peace, for the protection of human life and dignity, for marriage and family life, for intellectual life and communications. The Holy See itself and most dioceses have institutionalized these concerns while shoring up the faith life of Catholics themselves in efforts to renew catechesis and the common life of the Church herself, especially through various lay movements.
The Church, because of Gaudium et spes, has been on a fifty year dialogue with all the peoples and nations of the world. The conversation has sometimes been more acrimonious than those who set the course at the Second Vatican Council might have imagined or anticipated. But the course has held: the Church continuously finds new ways to introduce the whole world to its savior, Jesus Christ, the head of his body, the Church.
Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.
Archbishop of Chicago