Vatican II initiated dialogue with the world, says McKeon

Bob McKeon says because of Vatican II documents like Gaudium et Spes, the Church in the global South has begun to gain its own voice.


Bob McKeon says because of Vatican II documents like Gaudium et Spes, the Church in the global South has begun to gain its own voice.

December 10, 2012

Widely seen as a landmark of Catholic social teaching, the wide-ranging document Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), focuses on the role of the Church and its members in the world.

The document is an overview of the Catholic Church's teachings about man's relationship to society, especially in reference to economics, poverty, social justice, culture, science and technology, war and peace.

Bob McKeon, director of social justice for the Edmonton Archdiocese, said Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, was an incubator of ideas.

Those ideas would be realized years later in papal encyclicals such as The Development of Peoples and in regional synods in Africa, Asia and Latin America, "where the churches of the Third World gained their own voice, named their own issues and discerned the signs of the times precisely as Gaudium et Spes had asked them to," McKeon said in a Nov. 28 talk.

Approved by a vote of 2,307 to 75 of the bishops assembled at the council, Gaudium et Spes was promulgated by Pope Paul VI on Dec. 7, 1965, the day the council ended.

The document was born at the council itself, not in preparatory work done in the Roman curia. "Forty per cent of the Vatican II bishops were from Asia, Africa and Latin America. The voice of the Church in the South contrasted that of Vatican I, where 40 per cent of the bishops came from Italy."

Vatican II was a gathering of the global Church, McKeon said, noting there were bishops from 116 countries. Still the agendas, the council leaders, the major speakers were almost entirely from the First World, from the global North.

"It would be years later before really the leadership, the agendas and the issues of the Church of the South rose to the forefront of Catholic discussion."

As the last document of the council, Gaudium et Spes built on all the other documents, including those on liturgy, ecumenism and the laity.

One of the document's earlier drafts spoke about the Church "and" the modern world. But the bishops argued that Church "in" the modern world would be more appropriate as the Church is part of the world.

The document speaks of a dialogue with the world that is not theoretical but incarnated, said McKeon, inviting his audience to think back about what was taking place at the time of Vatican II.

The Cold War was at its height and colonial nations were gaining their independence, many through revolutionary violence.

"The world was changing. How do you make faith sense out of this? This is what Vatican II sought to do," McKeon said.

"As soon as they opened the council, within two weeks, the Cuban missile crisis breaks out. That was an anxious time, right? The bishops are sitting in Rome beginning to think how are we going to debate the liturgy and here you have the two global superpowers ready to launch their nuclear armaments. Reality check. It makes a difference."

Of course, other things happened around the council.

"When they actually debated the actual 'war and peace section,' Paul VI goes to the UN and gave his famous talk on peace. He is trying to get a message (across)."

Pope Paul VI described Gaudium et Spes as the crown of the council, McKeon said. "The question was how do we speak to the world today, how do we explain it, how do we understand it, how does it make sense for us."

McKeon said the document is built around the word "solidarity," which is an embodied vocation of the people of God. "The real relationship or solidarity is with those who are poor or in other ways afflicted."

That emphasis on solidarity led, a few years later in Latin America, to the preferential option for the poor. Eventually, that became part of the magisterial teaching of the popes.

Another important phrase one can see in Gaudium et Spes is "the sign of the times." Article four says the Church always has the duty of scrutinize the sign of the times and to interpret it in the light of the Gospel.

Pope John XXIII's 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris named specific signs of the times: The emancipation of the working class, women taking a greater role in public life, the emancipation of colonized peoples, the public recognition of human rights.


The discerning of the signs of the times is a proclamation that God is indeed active in the world, in human history through the presence and action of the Spirit.

Who does this discerning? "The people of God, not only the hierarchy or the clergy," McKeon said. "The laity certainly has some of that responsibility too."

In article 24 of Gaudium et Spes, the bishops looked at the Trinity as a model for community and for social living, proposing equal relationships of love among their members. The document says Jesus Christ is the perfect human because he embraced the fullness of humanity in all things but sin.

Gaudium et Spes also brought a strong affirmation of human rights as they had been articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. In Catholic social teaching this was new, first articulated in 1963 by Pope John XXIII.


"The full affirmation of human rights was not possible within Catholic theology until the document on religious freedom was proclaimed in the Second Vatican Council; that the very act of saying 'yes' to God had to be an act of freedom, not coercion."

In the second part of Gaudium et Spes, the Vatican II fathers discussed some "more urgent problems" facing the world today and illuminated them with the light of Christ. Each of the five chapters in the second part focuses on a particular issue relevant to the modern world – marriage and family, culture, economic and social life, the political community, and peace and international communion.

The section on wealth and poverty and the role of private property said everyone has the right to a share of earthly goods sufficient for oneself and one's family. It also says if one is in extreme necessity, one has the right to procure for himself what he needs out of the riches of others.


"That means morally and ethically the poor have the right to take what they need," McKeon said. "It's an exhortation there for the wealthy nations to give. If you don't give, those who are destitute poor have the right to take."

Gaudium et Spes also condemned the use of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, especially when used on civilian populations.

Vatican II was silent of the issue of whether revolution is acceptable in the face of longstanding oppression. But Pope Paul VI provided an answer in his letter on international development two years later, saying, "Under extreme circumstances and desperation it may be possible to legitimize the use of armed force to overcome longstanding tyranny."