This is the second of my ruminations on Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World of Vatican II. You can read part one here. This post has been long delayed for a variety of reasons, so I am hoping to turn out several of these in short order to get caught up.
This time we read to the end of Part I of the text, paragraphs 23-45. This is a very important section, divided into three chapters on the community of mankind (chapter 2), man’s activity throughout the world (chapter 3) and the role of the Church in the modern world (chapter 4). My gut instinct was that chapter 4 was and is the core of this document, but unfortunately, even after a close reading I am still uncertain of what, precisely, it is trying to say.
I suggested to my reading group that we start with this chapter, but the Spirit blows where He wills, and not where I necessarily want it to. So we spent much of our time in a close reading of chapter 2, with occasional forays into chapter 3 and 4. Our discussion began when one member zeroed in on paragraph 27, which contains a list of evils that, as he put it, should galvanize us into action:
whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator. (par 27c)
I was very familiar with this passage, but not from context. I first ran across it almost 30 years ago, because Pope John Paul II quoted it in Veritatis Splendor. He was using it to give examples of intrinsically evil acts: actions that are, in and of themselves, evil (see VS par. 80). It always stuck with me, but then came to the fore about a decade ago when Catholic Answers created its voting guide (pdf) around the “five non-negotiables”. This approach brought “intrinsic evil” into Catholic political discourse, but did so in a way which distorted its meaning and also drastically limited the scope of its application. So for me, this list serves as a touchstone for reminding me of what the many grave evils in our world are. It has made me a fervent supporter of the Consistent Life Ethic. (Full disclosure: I am on the board of the CLN.)
This list of evils is very graphic and it is somewhat depressing that 55 years after it was written, these “infamies” are still so prevalent in the world. On member of the group said that these are issues that should galvanize us to action, but then this turned to the problem of how do we get rid of these things. Interestingly, before listing these grave social concerns, the previous paragraph takes a personalist approach, foregrounding personal acts of charity and justice:
In our times a special obligation binds us to make ourselves the neighbor of every person without exception and of actively helping him when he comes across our path, whether he be an old person abandoned by all, a foreign laborer unjustly looked down upon, a refugee, a child born of an unlawful union and wrongly suffering for a sin he did not commit, or a hungry person who disturbs our conscience… (par. 27b)
But notice that the text highlights the context in which the poor and marginalized are, and points to the social forces which created their circumstances. By following with the next paragraph, it seems that the text is urging all Catholics to ground their direct charity in a broader understanding, and to also work for end to these evils. It is not “either/or” but rather “both/and”. Or to put it another way: the personal must be political, and vice versa. There will be different balances and emphases in each person’s life, but both must be present: we cannot feed the hungry without asking about the social structures which led to hunger (particularly in a nation as wealthy as our own); at the same time, we cannot allow our efforts for social justice to blind us to the poor and oppressed in our midst. As an illustration of the latter: I belong to a small Black Lives Matter movement (TTown Freedom Marches) here in Alabama, which has been staging weekly protests against racism and police brutality since the murder of George Floyd. At the same time, the organizers (who are not Catholic) have been careful to remind us that protest is not enough, and have scheduled specific activities for group members to participate in (a toy drive, a litter pickup, etc.)
In paragraph 29c an interesting turn of phrase was introduced to describe the evils listed above: they “cause scandal.” This is a phrase I often say derisively, since for me it summons up images of pearl-clutching over anything that makes people uncomfortable. The expression was also, to me, badly tainted by its use as a self-serving rationalization by the hierarchy for not having confronted the sexual abuse scandal earlier and more publicly: to do so would have caused scandal to the faithful. The irony, of course, is that here are the Council Fathers condemning “prostitution, the selling of women and children” as the real source of scandal. But perhaps this term can be rescued: I should understand it as meaning that we should not just regard these crimes as “just the way things are”, sad but inevitable, but truly are scandalous: or, as the dictionary puts it, “disgracefully bad, typically as a result of someone’s negligence or irresponsibility.”
I am reminded of a passage from one of my favorite novels, The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin. It is the story of a brilliant physicist, Shevek, born on an off-world colony, Anarres, founded by anarchists, who has returned to the home world, Urras. While ill, he is having a conversation with the man assigned to be his personal servant:
“You could have been trained as a medic, in the army?” The conversation went on. It was difficult for Shevek to follow, both in language and in substance. He was being told about things he had no experience of at all. He had never seen a rat, or an army barracks, or an insane asylum, or a poorhouse, or a pawnshop, or an execution, or a thief, or a tenement, or a rent collector, or a man who wanted to work and could not find work to do, or a dead baby in a ditch. All these things occurred in Efor’s reminiscences as commonplaces or as commonplace horrors. Shevek had to exercise his imagination and summon every scrap of knowledge he had about Urras to understand them at all. And yet they were familiar to him in a way that nothing he had yet seen here was, and he did understand.This was the Urras he had learned about in school on Anarres. This was the world from which his ancestors had fled, preferring hunger and the desert and endless exile. (Dispossessed, Chapter 9)
The last sentence helps us to understand what our reaction to scandal should be: the colonists who found Anarres were so scandalized by “the way things were” that they tried to over-throw the entire world order via non-violent revolution, and when they failed, fled rather than remain complicit in a system based on crimes that “poison human society.” We are still very far from such a revolution, and we do not have another world to flee to. So the Council Fathers are calling on us to be horrified by what is around us, and to work diligently to change it:
It grows increasingly true that the obligations of justice and love are fulfilled only if each person, contributing to the common good, according to his own abilities and the needs of others, also promotes and assists the public and private institutions dedicated to bettering the conditions of human life. (par. 30a)
The problem, of course, is that social ills are broad and complicated, and do not admit easy solutions. Nor is it easy to see ourselves complicit in them. In our personal lives it is easy to maintain a certain moral purity if we adopt a strictly individualistic morality and see our failings (“what we have done, and what we have failed to do”) in that light. It is much harder to see ourselves as complicit in evil social structures; we would rather, as GS puts it, live like
those who, while possessing grand and rather noble sentiments, nevertheless in reality live always as if they cared nothing for the needs of society. (par. 30a)
Indeed, hearkening back to Catholic Answers and their “five non-negotiables”, a strong criticism of them is that they all revolve around personal (and often sexual) sins, and do not address other, equally grave social evils. These might be acknowledged, but do not seem to demand (in their reading), any immediate action, despite the “scandal” that they create.
The challenge is to first acknowledge the problems, and then realize that the solutions may take time. But we must get started. As GS put it
[H]uman institutions themselves must be accommodated by degrees to the highest of all realities, spiritual ones, even though meanwhile, a long enough time will be required before they arrive at the desired goal. (par 29d)
The first step is to understand the grave evils we are facing, and what the Catholic understanding of them is. As it said earlier in the constitution, we need to discern “the signs of the times” and apply Church teaching to them. This in turn requires an education in Catholic social teaching. This in turn suggests that we need to inculcate education that is more than technocratic or career oriented. As GS put it
In order for individual men to discharge with greater exactness the obligations of their conscience toward themselves and the various group to which they belong, they must be carefully educated to a higher degree of culture….[to produce] great-souled persons who are so desperately required by our times. (par. 31a)
We were in disagreement if this passage referred specifically to religious or secular education. But it seems to me that any Catholic education should be infused with these broader elements, and any secular education should also do more than impart technical skills.
One feature of this passage is that it points to the close link between poverty and lack of educational opportunities. As the Council Fathers make clear, education beyond survival skills or workplace competence (which often amount to the same things) requires a basic level of material security to allow people to be aware of and concerned about broader things:
Now a man can scarcely arrive at the needed sense of responsibility, unless his living conditions allow him to become conscious of his dignity… (par. 31b)
It is too much to expect someone who is hungry and homeless (or, more broadly, weighed down by anxiety over food and shelter for himself and his family) to care about broader social issues. Those can and must be the concerns of those of us who are personally secure. But it was also interesting to note that the Council Fathers worried that both wealth and poverty can stunt a person’s ability to engage with social concerns:
But human freedom is often crippled when a man encounters extreme poverty just as it withers when he indulges in too many of life’s comforts and imprisons himself in a kind of splendid isolation. (par. 31b)
This kind of “splendid isolation” must be compared to the concern noted above that “grand and noble sentiments” are not in themselves enough to get people to engage with social evils and work for the common good. Dorothy Day was often very critical of a middle-class ethos which produced this separation from the poor and marginalized, and reduced their situation to abstract, intellectual concerns. To combat this, she advocated for voluntary poverty (as distinguished from precarity, by which she meant a destitution forced upon a person), whereby individuals freely chose to sacrifice “life’s comforts.” By doing so, they become truly free to embrace the marginalized and oppressed and meet their needs, and also to effectively address the social structures that created them in the first place.
This is a radical solution, but in our discussions we asked ourselves if our relative wealth, as Americans, really prevents us from both seeing the poverty (often extreme poverty) around us and entering into meaningful relationships with the people trapped by it. We contrasted the ways we often distance ourselves from poor people (for instance, by zoning regulations, school districting, in our social and church relations) and the strong openness and hospitality that the poor themselves often show. Whether in Central America, the Black Belt, or Appalachia, we shared examples of the simple hospitality of sharing a pot of beans with anyone who comes by. William Least Heat Moon, in his travel book Blue Highways, described an instance of this hospitality he encountered in a poor, rural area:
As I started the engine, [he] said, “If you get back this way, stop in and see me. Always got beans and taters and a little piece of meat.” Down along the ridge, I wondered why it’s always those who live on little who are the ones to ask you to dinner.”
Only in the end of our discussion did we turn to Chapter 4, “The Role of the Church in the Modern World.” This struck me as a very important section, as it gets us to the heart of what Catholics, individually and collectively, are to bring to the table, as it were, to address the problems facing humanity. Our contribution must be more than being good citizens in a secular sense: we need to, as said earlier in the discussion on education, “provide coming generations with reasons for living and hoping.” (par. 31c). But at the same time, however, GS rejects any false duality between the temporal and the spiritual: both are the concern of all Catholics:
This council exhorts Christians, as citizens of two cities, to strive to discharge their earthly duties conscientiously and in response to the Gospel spirit. They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities….Nor, on the contrary, are they any less wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life. This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age. (par. 43a)
On an individual and collective level, our faith must infuse our actions in the world. For the Church itself, GS rejects any role in governing the secular world. Rather, the Council Fathers identified two things that the Church can and must do: First, it must “by virtue of the Gospel committed to her, proclaims the rights of man” (par. 41e). Because of our understanding of humanity and the nature of God’s creation, the Church can provide the broadest and firmest foundation for justifying and defending human dignity and preserving it from all attacks, both direct and oblique.
Second, the Church, being being independent, is free to be a sign and instrument of the fundamental unity of the human community:
since in virtue of her mission and nature she is bound to no particular form of human culture, nor to any political, economic or social system, the Church by her very universality can be a very close bond between diverse human communities and nations (par. 42d)
We must take to heart and develop what St. Paul preached in the earliest days of the Church: in us, there must be “no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free” (Col. 3:11) This sense of universality can help bind together peoples and nations, and promote the kind of understanding and cooperation which is necessary to work for the common good of all people.
This sense of universality does not imply Catholic hegemony: the Church needs to be aware of its own failings and also be open to the natural good that has arisen in the world outside the Church. The constitution goes a significant way in admitting failure on the part of the Church:
she is very well aware that among her members,(20) both clerical and lay, some have been unfaithful to the Spirit of God during the course of many centuries; in the present age, too, it does not escape the Church how great a distance lies between the message she offers and the human failings of those to whom the Gospel is entrusted. (par. 43g)
This passage lays the groundwork for a re-evaluation of Church history, one which culiminated in the unprecedented apologies given during the Jubilee of 2000. Further, it fundamentally changes the ways in which the Church will view its relationship with the world. No longer is the Church always right, and the world always wrong. Rather, we are called to listen, to seek out the wheat from the chaff. The world itself can help the Church further its mission to bring salvation to the world:
With the help of the Holy Spirit, it is the task of the entire People of God, especially pastors and theologians, to hear, distinguish and interpret the many voices of our age, and to judge them in the light of the divine word, so that revealed truth can always be more deeply penetrated, better understood and set forth to greater advantage. (par. 44b)
One member of our group asked why this section did not give more consideration to the evil in the world, pointing back to the previous section, where GS says:
For a monumental struggle against the powers of darkness pervades the whole history of man. The battle was joined from the very origins of the world and will continue until the last day, as the Lord has attested. (par. 37b)
We agreed, reviewing the text, that the Council fathers wanted to avoid any simplistic dualism or Manicheanism (“Church, good; world, bad”). Instead, they wanted to call our attention to the fact that good and evil are present everywhere, both inside and outside the Church. Or, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in The Gulag Archipelago put it:
The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of hearts, there remains … an un-uprooted small corner of evil.
Recognizing this fact is key to the call of universal brotherhood which the Church is called to preach.
Cover Image: Second Vatican Council by Lothar Wolleh, used with permission, from Wikimedia Commons.