Reading Gaudium et Spes Part IV

Reading Gaudium et Spes Part IV January 3, 2021

This is my fourth and final post on Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, of Vatican II.   It has turned into a long one, but hopefully you find something worthwhile in it.  You can read part one here, part two here, and part three here.  For this discussion we read Part II, Chapters 4-5, paragraphs 75-93.  Chapter 4 is a discussion of the life of the political community, and Chapter 5 on fostering peace and the community of nations.   These sections draw heavily on the Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris.

The Constitution takes a very broad view about the structure of political authority.  It makes it clear that there is no God ordained governmental structure:

[T]he political community and public authority are founded on human nature and hence belong to the order designed by God, [but] the choice of a political regime and the appointment of rulers are left to the free will of citizens. (par. 74c)

The only requirement laid upon government is that it act in conformity with the moral law, uphold the common good, and protect the rights and dignity of its citizens.  At the same time, however, GS shows a strong practical preference for constitutional, representative democracy:

It is in full conformity with human nature that there should be juridico-political structures providing all citizens in an ever better fashion and without any discrimination the practical possibility of freely and actively taking part in the establishment of the juridical foundations of the political community and in the direction of public affairs, in fixing the terms of reference of the various public bodies and in the election of political leaders….[T]here must be a statute of positive law providing for a suitable division of the functions and bodies of authority and an efficient and independent system for the protection of rights. (par. 75a, 75b)

When this was written it may have just seemed as though the Church was acquiescing the “march of history” and the spread of Enlightenment ideals.  However, given that the Catholic countries of Italy and Germany had flirted with fascism, Spain and Portugal still had authoritarian governments, and the Church in Brazil had in 1964 supported a military coup that brought about a military dictatorship, these words were a challenge to Catholics not only to the Eastern bloc but to many countries in the West.  They remain relevant today, as the Catholic countries of Poland and Hungary have illiberal, authoritarian regimes, and many Catholics in the United States flirts with authoritarianism in the twilight days of the Trump administration.

In our discussions we quickly focused in on paragraph 76, which lays out the fundamental principles which should govern Church-state relations.  It is very clear that the Council Fathers were writing for pluralistic societies, and that even in Catholic countries, they wanted there to be a bright shining line between the Church and political authority.   This passage clearly shows the impact of the American experiment in separation of Church and state on Catholic thinking, and is perhaps influenced by the great American peritus, John Courtney Murray.  Above all else, the passage is a clear rejection of Catholic integralism, or any attempt to inject the Church into political power.  Again, this strikes me as very relevant today, given the appeal that integralism has among some conservative Catholics.

However, unlike the anti-clericalist movements of the past, or the rather naive approaches to the separation of Church and State in the US, GS adopts a more nuanced position.  In particular, it wants to draw the following distinction between

the tasks which Christians undertake, individually or as a group, on their own responsibility as citizens guided by the dictates of a Christian conscience, and the activities which, in union with their pastors, they carry out in the name of the Church. (par. 76a)

In other words, Catholic ideas will be part of the public debate because Catholics, individually or in groups of like minded citizens, bring them to bear on the situation at hand.   This is an invitation for Catholics to participate in the political debates of their countries; such debates require a double dose of toleration. Catholics will have to accept and engage with ideas not from our own tradition, and others will have to admit the legitimacy of Catholic ideas in the political sphere.  This latter is frequently excoriated in some, mostly liberal, circles in the US as “imposing our religion on others”, but that only serves to beg the question:  which philosophical and ideological presuppositions are allowed in the public square, and who gets to decide?   Also, from personal experience, I have noticed that religious ideas in the public square are acceptable depending on whose ox is being gored.  So to my liberal friends, it was proper that I spoke out as a Catholic against the death penalty, but not when I spoke out against abortion, and vice versa for my conservative friends.

However, the Church, as an organized body, “is not identified in any way with the political community nor bound to any political system” (par. 76b) and must be distinct from established political authority:

The Church and the political community in their own fields are autonomous and independent from each other. (par. 76c)

The Church is called upon to cooperate with the State on matters of mutual concern, but each in its own way. The Church has something important to contribute to political discourse and to the proper functioning of political authority:

The Church, for her part, founded on the love of the Redeemer, contributes toward the reign of justice and charity within the borders of a nation and between nations. (par. 76c)

The Church acts properly and as part of its mission when, as a body, it speaks out against injustice and in urging the state to take specific, prudential steps to address pressing issues, particularly those involving the poor, the marginalized or the oppressed.  In doing so it fulfills both its religious role of proclaiming the Gospel–see, for instance Jesus opening his ministry by saying

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord (Luke 4:18-19)

–and also its role as a civic leader.  But it betrays both of those roles when it fails so speak out for justice, when it tolerates or openly supports injustice, or when it acts in a strictly partisan manner.  It also fails when it attempts to use State power for its own ends.  We noted a bit later in the discussion that as part of this GS calls on the Church to

not place her trust in the privileges offered by civil authority. She will even give up the exercise of certain rights which have been legitimately acquired, if it becomes clear that their use will cast doubt on the sincerity of her witness or that new ways of life demand new methods.  (par. 76d)

This separation from the temptation of governmental power is a far cry from the colonial period, in which the Church was far too willing to use the military power of the imperial powers to advance its own ends.  I am reminded of the complicated legacy of St. Junipero Serra, whom I blogged about recently when discussing structural racism.

Our discussion then turned to the ways in which the Church, as a body could and could not be involved in the political arena.  The immediate suggestion was that the Church should interact in the area of policies and not political parties.   This is an idea, however, which the Church has repeatedly honored more in the breach than in the practice.  Both Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno contained categorical denunciations of specific political parties (the socialists), and the Church in Spain during the Civil War was full-throated in its support of Franco and the Nationalists and in denouncing the Republic.   So it would seem that for a very long period, this injunction only held against denouncing parties that upheld the status quo.   In the case of St. Oscar Romero, or Dom Helder Camara, their crime was to question the parties in power, even though their actions clearly violated the gospel and the norms of justice.  And today, in the US, there are any number of priests (see examples here and here) who denounce Democrats from the pulpit.

As a digression:  five years ago, when I suggested Catholics should not vote for Trump, I received a fair bit of pushback, both from people who supported Trump and those who thought the Church had no business telling people who to vote for.  Reviewing my comments, I see that I missed the mark–I wish I had been familiar with the passage quoted above so that I would have thought to couch my argument as one being made by a Catholic, standing (I hope) firmly on Catholic teaching, but not trying to speak for the Church as a body.    Though again, it does raise the question that I don’t have a good answer to:  are there ever times when the Church should speak out specifically against parties or governments?

Our discussion then turned to the question of priests in political power.  At least through the Reformation, there were many bishops who were also feudal lords, and in the court Louis XIII, Cardinal Richelieu served as first minister.   More recently, when I was growing up in Wisconsin, for several years our representative was Fr. Robert Cornell, a Norbertine priest. More famously, Fr. Robert Drinan, a Jesuit priest, represented Massachusetts in the 1970s.  Both men left politics after being ordered by the Pope.  At roughly the same time, the Cardenal brothers, Ernesto and Fernando, served in the Sandinista government in Nicaragua; both were suspended from the priesthood by Pope John Paul II; Fernando returned to the Jesuits in 1997, and Ernesto had his priestly faculties restored in 2019 by Pope Francis.  Canon law does forbid priests from holding political office:

Canon 285.3: Clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power.

But at the same time it says

Canon 287.2: They are not to have an active part in political parties and in governing labor unions unless, in the judgment of competent ecclesiastical authority, the protection of the rights of the Church or the promotion of the common good requires it.

I find this latter passage interesting:  shortly after the Cardenal brothers were suspended by the Pope,  I remember discussing this fact with my brother Federico, who was outspoken in his leftist leanings back then.  He argued that the Pope was wrong because (though not in these precise words) the common good of the people of Nicaragua was being served by having the Cardenal brothers in the government and they had talents that were in short supply and which their nation was greatly in need of.  I do not know enough about the situation to judge this argument.

Finally, our discussion turned to Chapter 5 on promoting peace and building a community of nations.  This chapter builds upon the earlier encyclical Pacem in Terris, and the Council fathers are, understandably, still very concerned by the continuing Cold War and the nuclear arms race.  It calls for the building up of international organizations economic development and the promotion of peace, which it clarifies as follows:

Peace is not merely the absence of war; nor can it be reduced solely to the maintenance of a balance of power between enemies; nor is it brought about by dictatorship…[S]ince the concrete demands of this common good are constantly changing as time goes on, peace is never attained once and for all, but must be built up ceaselessly. Moreover, since the human will is unsteady and wounded by sin, the achievement of peace requires a constant mastering of passions and the vigilance of lawful authority. (par. 78a)

It expands upon the final idea of lawful authority later, arguing for the establishment of some kind of international political authority:

It is our clear duty, therefore, to strain every muscle in working for the time when all war can be completely outlawed by international consent. This goal undoubtedly requires the establishment of some universal public authority acknowledged as such by all and endowed with the power to safeguard on the behalf of all, security, regard for justice, and respect for rights. (par. 81d, emphasis added)

One member of our group was concerned by this passage, as he could not conceive of an international authority that was consensual and non-coercive, and yet would still have the power to put an end to war.  Though he did not say so, this passage does stand in tension with the previous quote that peace cannot be brought about by dictatorship.  It is hard to be certain what the Council fathers had in mind when they wrote this.  At the time the United Nations was going strong, but was already ham-strung by its founding charter, which gave the US an the Soviet Union veto powers which they used extensively against one another.  With the fall of the Soviet Union, the American neo-conservatives envisioned a uni-polar world in which peace would flow from a Pax AmericanaThough many of them were Catholic, they never seemed  concerned that this project would not become the dictatorship cautioned about above.  I suspect, at the risk of being flippant, that they felt this would never happen since “we love peace and motherhood.” (With due credit to Tom Lehrer.)

In our discussion we considered various kinds of political authority and that might function this way, including a reference to Gandhi’s “soul force” or “satyagraha.” This is a question that has been much discussed in anti-war and pacifist circles, often in response to the common challenge, “What about Hitler and World War II?”   The solution is not clear, but it does involve early and continual engagement, long before the shooting actually starts.  And it will involve the modification of our ideas about national sovereignty–the European Union being a good example of this.   But it also requires that, while nations cede power upwards, they do so carefully, so that there remains a balance, just as in nation states there is a balance between the government, its citizens, and various intermediate social organizations, including the Church.   As noted much earlier in the document, GS counsels that

Citizens, for their part, either individually or collectively, must be careful not to attribute excessive power to public authority… (par. 75b)

My personal feeling is that more international cooperation, more binding of nations to one another through a web of treaties and international organizations is a good thing.  (Which is why I am amused and saddened by a small business down the road from my house, which has a large sign out front proclaiming, “US out of the United Nations!”)

Though we did not discuss it, in my notes I had underlined a passage that is concerned with war crimes and crimes against humanity:

Contemplating this melancholy state of humanity, the council wishes, above all things else, to recall the permanent binding force of universal natural law and its all-embracing principles….[A]ctions which deliberately conflict with these same principles, as well as orders commanding such actions are criminal, and blind obedience cannot excuse those who yield to them. The most infamous among these are actions designed for the methodical extermination of an entire people, nation or ethnic minority. Such actions must be vehemently condemned as horrendous crimes. (par. 79b)

Here we see the justification for the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes trials, held at the end of World War II, and which were tried under a nascent principle of international law against these crimes.  Catholic teaching on the natural law provides a good foundation for international human rights law, and I have heard, but cannot confirm, that it helped shape thinking on human rights in the 50s and 60s.   However, one note that I wrote to myself in reading this was “victor’s justice“:  that these were not real trials but rather the exacting of vengeance under a facade of law.   (I have heard it said that Stalin would have happily just taken the Nazi leadership out and shot them all summarily, but the article about the Nuremberg trials referenced above suggests that things were more complicated than that.)  One way to prove that this was not victor’s justice would be for we as a nation to submit ourselves to a court beyond ourselves.  However, the US has resolutely refused to support the International Criminal Court.  It will be interesting to see what the reaction of the Biden administration will be if the ICC attempts to prosecute the Blackwater contractors who committed the Nisour Square Massacre, recently pardoned by President Trump.

We finished our discussion by reflecting on the peroration of Gaudium et Spes, which called upon Catholics to actively engage in the political and social problems of the world.   The Council fathers remind the faithful that Catholic social teaching is central to our faith, and indeed, central to our salvation:

Christians cannot yearn for anything more ardently than to serve the men of the modern world with mounting generosity and success. Therefore, by holding faithfully to the Gospel and benefiting from its resources, by joining with every man who loves and practices justice, Christians have shouldered a gigantic task for fulfillment in this world, a task concerning which they must give a reckoning to Him who will judge every man on the last of days….Not everyone who cries, “Lord, Lord,” will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the Father’s will by taking a strong grip on the work at hand. (par. 93a,b)

If we want mercy, we must be merciful, and moreover, we must work for peace and justice in the world.


Cover Image: Second Vatican Council by Lothar Wolleh, used with permission, from Wikimedia Commons.

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