In many ways, Gaudium et Spes, or the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, is the culmination of what the Second Vatican Council hoped to accomplish, the capstone of the council.

The English title helps us see why. When Pope St. John XXIII called the council, he wanted a pastoral council, not a dogmatic one. He desired a council that would not so much produce condemnations or “anathemas” in response to pressing heresies, but rather a council that could lay out a vision for the future of a Church with updated expressions for our ancient faith. The promulgation of Gaudium et Spes in 1965, at the very end of the council, was the council’s first and only pastoral constitution.

The title also tells us that it is addressed toward the modern world. Almost exactly 100 years before Gaudium et Spes, Pope Pius IX had all but rejected the modern world, saying in the “Syllabus of Errors” that he need not “reconcile himself” to “modern civilization.”

The violence directed at him and the Church was intense. However, the Church in 1965 found itself in a far different relationship with a postwar world, one exhausted by violence and solicitous of the Church’s leadership for peace. The modern world needed the Church, and Gaudium et Spes responded to that need.

The Church and the Human Person

The first step in this pastoral approach was an extension of the Church’s open hand. The first words of the document are “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.” One would be hard-pressed to find words more tender and more inviting than these.

Gaudium et Spes continues addressing the “genuinely human” when it declares that the Church is dedicated not just to Catholics but to the whole world. More than that, the Church is dedicated to more than mere socioeconomic freedom, but to the freedom that comes from knowing and accepting God’s love. As we come to know God, say the conciliar fathers who wrote the document, we come to know ourselves.

The modern desire for self-discovery and self-actualization are answered ultimately in Jesus Christ: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come . . . Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. It is not surprising, then, that in Him all the aforementioned truths find their root and attain their crown” (No. 22).

The Church’s role in all of this is first and foremost to be the gateway through which every person and all of human society receives life in Christ. It is through the Church that we encounter Christ, so it is through the Church that we realize our vocation, our meaning and our innermost truth. She offers God to us and so meets our desires and teaches us that without Him we are lost.

By teaching us about the poor, leading us into service of the defenseless and by speaking for the voiceless, the Church points us to the dignity of the human person. In her prophetic mission, the Church stands before the world to denounce injustice and support love of neighbor.

But we ought not think this is the work of our bishops and priests alone.

The laity have a particular duty. From our pastors the laity may seek “spiritual light and nourishment,” but it is their primary duty to make sure “that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city” (No. 43).

Enlightened by the teachings of the Church, the layperson must both act in a Christian spirit and “be witnesses to Christ in all things in the midst of human society” (No. 43). The laity must carry Christ whom we encounter in the Church out into the world so that all men might be saved.

The Modern World and Human Action

Up to this point in Gaudium et Spes the council fathers have addressed human nature, our need for Christ, the role of the Church, and the role of the laity in bringing about the kingdom of God. The second part of the document focuses on specific areas which “go to the roots of the human race” (No. 46) and into which Catholics are called to action.

In the first area we are called to foster “the nobility of marriage and the family” (see Nos. 47-52). As the fundamental cell of society the family is “a kind of school of deeper humanity.” The family must be grounded in prayer, for through family prayer children and everyone in the family “will find a readier path to human maturity, salvation and holiness.” The purpose of family is holiness, and that holiness fosters a deeper humanity that informs and shapes society.

The next section of Gaudium et Spes deals with the “the proper development of culture” (see Nos. 53-62). Culture, a word rich in meaning, is that by which human persons develop and perfect physical and spiritual qualities. It presumes the family; but it also includes art, labor, literature, customs, institutions, civic memory and much more that may exist outside of one’s particular family.

The council fathers state that our action within culture must begin with fostering an understanding of the universals: “truth, goodness and beauty.” In this way the culture provides man with authentic liberty; for freedom is not doing what we want, but rather the freedom to pursue the good. This approach is accessible to both Catholics and non-Catholics.

As Catholics, however, we understand that truth is not merely a concept.

Truth is a person who took on flesh and dwelt among us. “The Gospel of Christ constantly renews the life and culture of fallen man,” say the council fathers. This is because liberty cannot be authentic unless it is founded on the truth of the human person; and since Christ reveals man to himself, only Jesus Christ and the truth of His Gospel can truly provide us with the fullest liberty to create a culture of life.

This liberty can nevertheless be frustrated by a material poverty which isolates. This is why the next area of human action is “economic and social life” (see Nos. 63-72). Here the council fathers insist that society views human labor as more than a commodity. “Human labor,” they write, “which is expended in the production and exchange of goods or in the performance of economic services is superior to the other elements of economic life, for the latter have only the nature of tools” (No. 67). Work is connected to real persons with full dignity. Everything else is merely a tool in the hands of humankind.

The council fathers also articulate what is referred to as the universal destination of goods, one of the principles of Catholic social teaching. Private property is a natural right of the human person, and God desires that all people have access to what is necessary for life and for human flourishing. Therefore, property exists to secure our own life and to be sure that everyone has enough to live. All are called to share his or her wealth with radical generosity.

Now the council fathers introduce the penultimate area for human action: “the life of the political community” (see Nos. 73-76). Government is necessary in order to secure the common good for a society. That is its whole purpose. However, the fathers write that “citizens … must be careful not to attribute excessive power to public authority.” Though necessary, governments must be kept in check, especially when they ignore our “eternal vocation.”

Rich in Tradition, Yet Boldly New

Finally, the last area of human action involves the “fostering of peace and the promotion of a community of nations” (see Nos. 73-93). Here the foundational principle is solidarity, that we are all responsible for all, an idea rooted in the natural law. We read that “contemplating this melancholy state of humanity, the council wishes, above all things else, to recall the permanent binding force of universal natural law and its all-embracing principles. Man’s conscience itself gives ever more emphatic voice to these principles” (No. 79). This natural law helps to connect one nation to another, and connect denominations. As Gaudium et Spes closes, it strikes an ecumenical note, encouraging cooperation between Catholics and our “separated brothers” as we try to advance the kingdom of God.

The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World is rich in tradition and yet boldly new in the way it presents that tradition to the world. It is a manifesto of love directed toward an ever more secularized world, a world that looks with skepticism at the Church. In this way it is truly a pastoral constitution, for it aims to win the heart and mind of that skeptical, modern soul and bring the whole world closer to Christ Jesus, in whom all “truths find their root and attain their crown” (No. 22).

Omar F.A. Gutierrez writes from Nebraska.