Articles on Vatican II - Fifty years Later
The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) is divided into two lengthy sections – the first on the Church and the human vocation and the second on five "urgent problems" facing the world. The first section begins with a chapter on the dignity of the human person where the council fathers discuss what makes someone human. Why does the document focus on that concern? To answer that question, one needs to see where the first part is going. It wants to set down a foundation for discussing those urgent problems in part two – marriage and the family, human culture, economic and social life, the political community and the need for world peace.
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The famous opening line of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) is a stirring reminder of the Church's solidarity with the global society: "The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts." The second sentence should not be surprising since the followers of Christ are themselves "genuinely human."
The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) was the crowning achievement of the Second Vatican Council. There is no document remotely like it in the history of the Church, and it should be regarded as an act of providence, rather than deliberate design, that Vatican II was able to produce such a statement. Gaudium et Spes arose out of the folding-together of various documents the council was preparing and giving those documents a more solid theological foundation than had been found in earlier Catholic social teaching.
Although the Polish Archbishop Karol Wojtyla was not one of the main architects of the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) at the Second Vatican Council, he may have been the bishop who used the declaration most effectively after the council. For Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, by rooting the right to religious freedom in the nature of the human person, the declaration provided a teaching that he could use to challenge the Communist rulers of Poland.
The American Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray was the only expert from this side of the Atlantic to have a significant impact at the Second Vatican Council. Murray made a major contribution to the drafting of the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae), although not as major as some observers would have it. In the early 1950s, Murray made a name for himself by arguing that the American system of Church-state relations was the most desirable form. This did not go down well at the Vatican where the U.S. system of toleration of religious difference was seen as a necessary, but unsatisfactory, compromise.
Depending on your perspective, the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignatatis Humanae) made a major change to an unchangeable Church teaching or only an evolution in that teaching. Either way, the roots that gave rise to the decree go back to the persecution of the Church begun during the French Revolution and which continues in various ways to this day. Prior to the Revolution of 1789, the Church was a dominant and privileged force in France.
In discussions about the Second Vatican Council, the Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church (Christus Dominus) is rarely mentioned. That is understandable. The main theological discussion on the nature of the episcopacy takes place in chapter three of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium). Christus Dominus is a document intended to take that earlier constitution and draw out practical implications for how bishops carry out their ministry.
Although the Decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches (Orientalium Ecclesarium) is the third shortest document produced by the Second Vatican Council, it is a significant statement that goes far beyond maintaining the status quo. While the decree is not exactly a Magna Carta for the churches of the East which are in union with Rome, it does signal a shift to a more positive view of those churches than had been the practice of recent centuries.
A key Protestant belief is the priority of Scripture. Catholics, while not denigrating Scripture, have held to the crucial importance of Christ's real presence in the Eucharist. The final chapter of the Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) raises the question of the relative importance of the two. It begins with the striking statement, "The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures as it has venerated the body of the Lord" (DV 21).
The Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) was surely the most difficult document to finalize at the Second Vatican Council. The original document on revelation appeared in November 1962 and was soundly rejected by the council fathers. It went through roughly six more major drafts before finally being approved three weeks before the council ended in 1965. To win approval, compromises were needed, and nowhere is that more evident than in the document's discussion of Sacred Scripture.