Circular Letter: Advent 2013

Vatican II: The Importance of Gaudium et Spes in our Times

In the last circular letter we reflected on Dei Verbum—the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. In this issue we wish to study Gaudium et Spes—the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (hereafter referred to as “GS”) which is by far the longest of all the documents written by Vatican II. In its own way GS encapsulates the major themes and the greatest concerns the Council wanted to address. Remarkable is the fact, that the Church addresses all men and women in the whole world regardless of their creed or culture:

The Second Vatican Council resolutely addresses not only the sons of the Church and all who call upon the name of Christ, but the whole of humanity as well…. Therefore, the world which the Council has in mind is the whole human family seen in the context of everything which envelopes it. (GS, 2)

To accomplish this daunting task, the Council chose to address nine major themes or areas of concern: I. The Dignity of the Human Person; II. The Community of Mankind; III. Man’s Activity in the Universe; IV. The Role of the Church in the Modern World; V. The Dignity of Marriage and the Family; VI. Proper Development of Culture; VII. Economical and Social Life; VIII. The Political Community; and IX. Fostering Peace and the Establishment of Nations.

Having given this brief overview let us now examine each section of this ground breaking document more thoroughly, so that we will be able to mine more deeply some of the precious nuggets of wisdom that are contained in this document. It is impossible, however, to do full justice in such a short space to the wealth of knowledge found within the text. Consequently, we will limit ourselves to highlighting some common areas of interest with which we should all become more familiar within the context of the Year of Faith.


In the introductory remarks the Council sets the stage for the subsequent sections stressing the fact that in the face of modern developments there is a growing body of men who are asking the most fundamental of all questions: What is man? What is the meaning of suffering, evil, and death…? What can man contribute to society? What can he expect from it? And what happens after this earthly life is ended? (GS, 10)

These are among the most fundamental questions facing modern man and, therefore, demand clear, unequivocal answers. The Council confidently proclaims that Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, is the answer to all these perplexing questions that plague mankind today: “The Church believes that Christ who was raised for the sake of all, can show man the way and strengthen him through the Spirit in order to be worthy of His destiny” (GS, 10). For this reason, the Council, relying on the “inspiration of Christ, the image of the invisible God, the Firstborn of all creation, proposes to speak to all men in order to unfold the mystery that is man, and cooperate in tackling the main problems facing the world today” (GS, 10).

I. The Dignity of the Human Person

The dignity of the human person rests firmly on the fundamental reality that man was created “in the image of God” (Gen. 1: 26) and that he “is called to communion with God” (GS, 19). Therefore, the Council Fathers lament the fact that “many of our contemporaries have never recognized this intimate and vital link with God, or have explicitly rejected it. Thus atheism must be accounted among the most serious problems of this age, and is deserving of closer examination” (GS, 19).

Not only unbelievers are responsible for this lamentable development, but also believers themselves may be partly to blame for it, “to the extent that they are careless about their instruction in the faith, or present its teaching falsely, or even fail in their religious, moral, or social life”(GS, 19).

These statements, then, can serve as a point for all of us to examine our conscience, whether we may have failed in any way to be the kind of Christian the Lord has called us to be. For “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” (GS, 21). In other words, the most effective way to combat the scourge of atheism is “by the witness of a living and mature faith, namely, one trained to see difficulties clearly and to master them” (GS, 21). When all is said and done, “it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear. … For by His incarnation, the Son of God, has in a certain way united Himself to each man” (GS, 22). These words should be deeply impressed into our minds and hearts!

II. The Community of Mankind

“One of the most striking features of today’s world is the intense development of interpersonal relationships due in no small measure to modern technical advances” (GS, 23). At the same time “genuine fraternal dialogue is advanced not so much at this level as at the deeper level of personal fellowship” (GS, 23). It is interesting to note that the Council stresses the fact that “Christian Revelation greatly fosters the establishment of such fellowship and at the same time promotes a deeper understanding of the laws of social living with which the Creator has endowed man’s spiritual and moral nature” (GS, 23). In other words, the key to deeper personal relationships, which are being sought so franticly by so many people today, lies not in more computers, smart phones, or I-pads, but rather in a deeper knowledge of Scripture and Tradition.

What’s more, the Council commenting on Our Lord’s prayer to the Father, “that all may be one … as we are one” (John 17:21-22), points out that there is “a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God’s sons in truth and charity” (GS, 24). That is to say, there exists a bond among all men and women of good will that mirrors the union that exists among the Three Divine Persons of the Trinity. “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). For this reason, the Council stresses in the strongest possible terms that we have an “inescapable duty to make ourselves the neighbor of every man, no matter who he is, and if we meet him to come to his aid in a positive way” (GS, 27).

III. Work and Human Activity

This chapter points out the great importance of having a “balanced view of work” (GS, 35). For it is “what man is, rather than what he has, that counts” (GS, 35). In other words, the true measure of man is not how much money, power, or possessions he may have; but rather how holy he is. For this reason, “technical progress may supply the material for human advancement, but it is powerless to actualize it” (GS, 35). In this context it is good to keep in mind that we are only stewards of the material goods we possess and that we use them for our own moderate use, to help the poor and for the up-building of the Church.

The Council Fathers point out further the need for all of us to have a balanced view of the reality of evil and sin in the world, 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. (GS, 37)

We should not, however, feel frightened or overwhelmed with the forces of evil that are arrayed against us. Instead, through trusting prayer and living discipleship we should draw ever more close to Christ, the Word of God, Who “was Himself made flesh and dwelt on the earth of men. Thus, He entered world history, taking that history into Himself, and recapitulating it” (Cf. Eph. 1:10)” (GS, 38).

Moreover, in our utter weakness versus the powerful strength of the evil spirits we have the assurance of the protection of the holy angels. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches:

so that the contest [between men and the evil spirits] should not be an unequal one, men get some compensation, first through the help of God’s grace, and second, through the guardianship of the angels. Thus, Elisha said to his servant, ‘Do not be afraid, for there are more on our side than on theirs’ (4 Kings 6:16). (Summa Theologica, 114, 1)

Therefore, let us not forget to invoke daily the holy angels who “protect every human being” (CCC 352). The prayers St. Michael, the Archangel and Supplication of the Holy Angel are particularly effective to receive the protective and guiding help of the heavenly hosts in this “monumental struggle” (GS, 37).

The Council exhorts us, furthermore, to keep in mind that all things are passing and that the world will come to end some day.

The form of this world, distorted by sin, is passing away and we are taught that God is preparing a new dwelling and new earth in which righteousness dwells, whose happiness will fill and surpass all the desires of peace arising in the hearts of men.” (GS, 39)

Nevertheless, this reality should not allow us to neglect our responsibility to cultivate and subdue the earth. Rather, “far from diminishing our concern to develop this earth, the expectancy of a new earth should spur us on, for it is here that the body of a new human family grows, foreshadowing in some way the age which is to come” (GS, 39).

IV. Role of the Church in the Modern World

All of the above mentioned concerns expressed by the Council lead us to ask ourselves: what should be the relationship between the Church and the state? The Council points out that the Church contributes greatly to the world by making it more human. For not only does the Church communicate divine life to men, but also in a certain sense it casts the reflected light of that divine life over all the earth, notably in the way it heals and elevates the dignity of the human person, in the way it consolidates society, and endows the daily activity of men with a deeper sense of meaning.” (GS, 40)

What’s more, the Church can raise the dignity of human nature above all fluctuating opinions. For there is no human law so powerful “as the Gospel to safeguard the personal freedom and dignity of man” (GS, 41). It is extremely important that we are aware of this fact. For there is a “temptation today to feel that our personal rights are fully maintained only when we are exempt from every restriction of divine law” (GS, 41). We cannot allow ourselves to fall into this all too common trap set for us by the world, the flesh, and the devil, a “way leading to the extinction of human dignity and not its preservation” (GS, 41).

The Church today has much to offer to modern day society and the state. It must be stressed, though, that the impact that the Church can have on the world “amounts to an effective living of faith and love, and not to any external power exercised by purely human means” (GS, 42). For this reason, the Council sternly warns that “one of the gravest errors of our time is the dichotomy between the faith which many profess and the practice [of that faith] in our daily lives” (GS, 43). On the other hand, the Council points out, that “it is no less mistaken to think that we may immerse our lives in earthly activities as if these were utterly foreign to religion and religion were nothing more than the fulfillment of acts of worship and the observance of a few moral obligations” (GS, 43). It must be kept in mind, then, whenever we reflect about the relationship between the Church and the state, “every benefit the People of God can confer on mankind – during its earthly pilgrimage is rooted in the Church’s being ‘the universal Sacrament of Salvation’ (LG, 7), at once manifesting and actualizing the mystery of God’s love for men” (GS, 45). What’s more, we must never forget that “the Lord is the goal of all human history, the focal point of the desires of history and civilization, and fulfillment of all aspirations” (GS, 45).

V. The Dignity of Marriage and the Family

The Council declares at the outset of this important and ever-relevant chapter that marriage is a divine and not a merely man-made institution. In fact, “God Himself is the author of marriage and has endowed it with various benefits and with various ends in view” (GS, 48). Accordingly, the Council re-emphasizes the traditional Catholic teaching on marriage and the family by stating: “By its very nature the institution of marriage and married love is ordered to the procreation and education of children” (GS, 48). Consequently,  couples are not free “to follow their own fancy” (GS, 50) in this matter. Rather, the decisions of the couples in regard to procreation “must be ruled by conscience—and conscience ought to be conformed to the Law of God in the light of the teaching authority of the Church, which is the authentic interpreter of Divine Law” (GS, 50).

It should be noted that this statement was made in 1964 and anticipated, in a prophetic way, we could say, the same teaching framed by Pope Paul VI, four years later in Humanae Vitae,  his Encyclical Letter on the Regulation of Births. Despite the emphasis on the importance of this aspect of married life, “is not instituted solely for procreation; rather, its very nature as an unbreakable compact between persons, and the welfare of the children, both demand that the mutual love of the spouses be embodied in a rightly ordered manner, that it grow and ripen” (GS, 50). Finally, the Council stresses in no uncertain terms that a valid consummated marriage demands not only “total fidelity from the spouses,” but also requires “an unbreakable unity between them” (GS, 48). In short, marriage is forever.

VI. The Proper Development of Culture

The word culture “refers to all those things which go to the refining and developing of man’s diverse mental and physical endowments” (GS, 53). The Council chose to address this particular topic because “the circumstances of life today have undergone such profound changes on the social and cultural level that one is entitled to speak of a ‘New Age’ of human history” (GS, 54). In view of constant changes in society which touch individual lives it must never be forgotten that “culture must be subordinated to the integral development of the human person, to the good of the community and to all mankind” (GS, 59). The Council further teaches that our cultures should encourage “the human spirit to develop its faculties of wonder, of understanding, of contemplation … [and] of cultivating a religious and moral sense” (GS, 59). In short, the culture of each nation should contribute significantly to the moral and intellectual development of men and women, so that they will be able to make greater progress in their love for God and their neighbor.

VII. Economic and Social Life

The Council expresses the concern that “luxury and misery exist side by side. While a few individuals enjoy an almost unlimited opportunity to choose for themselves … the vast majority quite often have to live and work in conditions unworthy of human beings” (GS, 63). Hence, the Council fears that “the growing contrast between the economically more advanced countries and others [less advanced] could well endanger world peace” (GS, 63). Nevertheless, despite these concerns, the Council comes down strongly on the side of private property in contrast to the more communal and socialistic outlook that dominates much of today’s thinking: “Property and other forms of private ownership of external goods contributes to the expression of personality and provides man with the opportunity of exercising his role in society and the economy” (GS, 71).

The Council then goes on to stress the importance of the right of the individual to possess private property in the strongest possible terms: “Private property or some form of ownership of external goods assures a person of a highly necessary sphere for the exercise of his personal and family autonomy, and ought to be considered as an extension of human freedom” (GS, 71). At the same time, though, the Council clarifies that private property is not in opposition of public property, recognizing that the state has the duty to prevent anyone from abusing his private property to the detriment of the common good.… [For] whenever the social aspect [of private property] is forgotten, ownership can often become the source of greed and serious disorder.” (GS, 71)

As a concrete example of social justice the Council recommends that “extensive rural estates which are only slightly cultivated or not cultivated at all for the sake of profit, while the majority of the population have no land or possess only very small holdings… [should] be divided up and given to those who will be able to cultivate them” (GS, 71).

VIII. The Political Community

The Council reiterates in this important chapter the Church’s traditional teaching not only about the meaning and purpose of the “state”, but also about the relationship that should exist, all things being equal, between it and the Church. First of all, the Council points out the need for the existence of that reality we call the state,  “lest the political community be ruined while everyone follows his own opinion, an authority is needed to guide the common good—not mechanically or despotically, but by acting above all as a moral force based on freedom and a sense of responsibility” (GS, 74). Citizens of a state, then, have not only rights, but also duties that they must fulfill. And “among these duties it is worth mentioning the obligation of rendering to the state whatever material and personal services are required for the common good” (GS, 75). For this reason, we can conclude that citizens have a duty to pay taxes that are just and equitable. Likewise, all citizens of a nation are bound to respect and obey their leaders and the  laws that have been promulgated.

But how far are we bound to obey civil authority? This is a question that presents itself today with increasing urgency. On the one hand the Council asserts that “when citizens are under the oppression of a public authority which oversteps its bounds, they should not refuse to do whatever is objectively demanded of them by the common good” (GS, 74). Nevertheless, despite this principle it is legitimate for “citizens to defend their own rights and those of their fellow citizens against abuses of this authority within the limits of the natural law and the law of the Gospel” (GS, 74). Further, at all times and in all places the Church should have true freedom to preach the faith, to proclaim its teaching about society, to carry out its task among men without hindrance, and to pass moral judgments even in matters relating to politics, whenever the fundamental rights of man or the salvation of  souls requires it.” (GS, 76)

IX. Fostering of Peace and Establishment of a Community of Nations

The Council strongly condemns here what it calls the “savagery of war” (GS, 79), while at the same time asserting that “governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed” (GS, 78). The Council also reaffirms the Church’s traditional teaching of the morality of the just war. It condemns in the strongest terms, however, the so called “arms race”: “The arms race is one of the greatest curses on the human race and the harm it inflicts on the poor is more than can be endured” (GS, 81). Therefore, the Council concludes that “Providence urgently demands of us that we free ourselves from the age-old slavery of war. [For] if we refuse to make this effort, there is no knowing where we will be led on the fatal path we have taken” (GS, 81).


In concluding the Council stresses again that its message is directed to all men and women of good will, regardless of their religious affiliation or whether one believes in God: “Drawn from the treasures of the teaching of the Church the proposals of the Council are intended for all men, whether they believe in God or whether they do not explicitly acknowledge Him” (GS, 91). What’s more, it recapitulates the goal of the document by stating that “the proposals are intended to help all men to a keener awareness of their own destiny, to make the world conform better to the surpassing dignity of man, to strive for a more deeply rooted sense of universal brotherhood, and to meet the pressing appeals of our time with a generous and common effort of love” (GS, 91).

The Second Vatican Council has in Gaudium et Spes directed an inspiring appeal to all men and women of good will that is directed to the best in human nature, an appeal based on the truths of our faith which, if heeded, can bring greater peace and harmony to world and to all men and women.

During this Advent Season, let us ask Mary, the Queen of Peace to help the world to achieve the goals of the Second Vatican Council, so that there finally may be, as the angels proclaimed at Bethlehem, “peace on earth and good will towards men” (Lk 2:14).

Fr. Matthew Hincks, ORC

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