Bob McKeon


December 7, 2015

Fifty years ago this month, the document Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World) was approved and promulgated on the last day before the close of Vatican II. After four years of difficult council debates, 97 per cent of the council bishops voted in favour of the final text.

It was an historic and unprecedented document. All the other Vatican II documents began as drafts prepared by the Curia prior to the start of the council.

Part way through the first session, it became clear to some bishops that the prepared drafts and early council debates were focused on internal Church concerns, and that there was an urgent need to have a document addressing the Church's engagement with the contemporary world.

This became clear to the bishops as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the threat of nuclear conflagration intruded into the consciousness of the bishops just weeks after the council deliberations had started.

Gaudium et Spes is listed as a "constitution," meaning it is one of the council's most important documents. However, it is the only "pastoral consitiution." It is addressed to Catholics, all Christians and the whole of humanity.

Its often-quoted opening sentence is "The joys, and the hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ."

This priority of listening to the voices of the poor will be described in later Catholic social teaching documents in terms of a "preferential concern for the poor."

The title is important. It refers not to Church "and" the modern world, but to the Church "in" the modern world. Immersed in the world, the Church is called to enter into dialogue with the world. The Church enters a mutual relationship, both teaching and learning from the world that it is immersed within.

The Church is said to have the duty of "scrutinizing the signs of the times, and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel." The People of God, led by the Spirit, are called "to decipher authentic signs of God's presence and purpose in the happenings, needs and desires in which this people has a part along with other people of our age" (11).

This innovative pastoral methodology of the "signs of the times" has continued as an important dimension of Catholic social teaching to this day.

For example, Pope Francis, has taken this approach in his recent encyclical Laudato Si' as he calls for Catholics and all people to respond to the urgent environmental and social crises of our time.


Another recent example is the letter sent last month by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the occasion of his being sworn in as prime minister. The bishops, quoting Pope Francis, express their "hope for a common commitment . . . to pursue reconciliation, peace and the defence of the transcendent dignity of the person."

They then go on to list what they judge to be five significant issues of common concern: the climatic, environmental and social challenges addressed by Pope Francis in Laudato Si'; the Calls to Action contained in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission final report; the current international refugee crisis; the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and Ukraine; and physician-assisted death in Canada.

This listing is a contemporary discerning of the signs of the times in light of the Gospel in Canada today.


It is significant that Gaudium et Spes speaks of the responsibility to discern the signs of the times as an ongoing task of the entire People of God, and not just Church hierarchical leadership.

It calls for each of us to ground ourselves through the Spirit in the Gospel message, and look out and discern where and how God is acting and calling us to act in our communities and our world today,

Reading Gaudium et Spes 50 years later is well worth the effort. In some ways, the details of the social issues addressed in the 1960s are dated. Much has changed in the world since then.


However, the underlying theological foundations for the Church engaging the world and the pastoral methodology of Gaudium et Spes have stood the test of time. This is an anniversary well worth celebrating.

(Bob McKeon: