Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Council at 50: A Moral Imperative

Welcome to one of the series of blogs on the Second Vatican Council. Each piece reviews one of the 16 documents produced by the Council Fathers during the extraordinary occasion in Church history. Vatican II, which drew together the world’s bishops, opened fifty years ago in St. Peter’s Basilica, October 11, 1962.

(Photo courtesy of Catholic News Service)

“The joy and the hope, the grief and anguish of the men of our time, especially those of who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well.”  Fifty years ago the Second Vatican Council opened Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), “The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” with these powerful words.

The constitution defended the responsibility of the Church to read “the signs of the time,” “to teach her social doctrine,” and “to pass moral judgment even in matters relating to politics, whenever the fundamental rights of man or the salvation of souls requires it.”

Not only are Church leaders required to make moral judgments on social issues, but all Christians are called to action.  The Council reminded Catholics that they cannot pray one thing on Sunday and do another thing the rest of the week. “One of the gravest errors of our times is the dichotomy between the faith which many profess and the practice of their daily lives,” it noted.  

The Council Fathers called people to be faithful citizens of both the earthly city and the Kingdom of God. “Far from diminishing our concern to develop this earth, the expectancy of a new earth should spur us on….”

The constitution had a profound effect on the entire Church.  It led national bishops’ conferences, like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to examine the “signs of the times” and “to pass moral judgment.” It led to lay involvement in a host of social causes from civil rights to poverty, from abortion to war and peace. The U.S. bishops’ pastoral letters, “The Challenge of Peace” and “Economic Justice for All, stand as two examples of this rich heritage.

The gap between rich and poor is one of the “signs of the times” identified by the Fathers. They pointed out a paradox of modern life, and said that “Never has the human race enjoyed such an abundance of wealth, resources and economic power, and yet a huge proportion of the world’s citizens are still tormented by hunger and poverty, while countless numbers suffer from total illiteracy.” Although much progress had been made in five decades, too many of the world’s people remain in crushing poverty.  

To address inequality, the Council emphasized the participation of all in economic life.  Economic development "must not be left to the judgment of a few individuals or groups possessing too much economic power, nor of the political community alone,” Gaudium et Spes said. It defended the rights of workers against “exploitation,” including their right to organize unions. 

Warfare stands as one more critical sign of the times. The destruction caused by modern weapons compelled the Council “to undertake a completely fresh reappraisal of war.”

“Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation,” the Fathers said. This led the Church to work for a world without nuclear weapons.

The Council taught:  “Peace is not merely the absence of war.  Nor can it be reduced solely to the maintenance of a balance of power between enemies…. Instead, it is…an enterprise of justice.” 

There is a profound link between peace and justice. War robs the world of the resources to address poverty, and poverty and injustice increase violence. In the poignant words of the Council, “the arms race is an utterly treacherous trap for humanity, and one which injures the poor to an intolerable degree.”

Gaudium et Spes spurred a dramatic commitment to justice and peace among Catholics, a moral imperative that continues today.


Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairs the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.


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