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Vatican II on the Church and the World: Special Problems

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 18, 2010 | In On the Documents of Vatican II

Part 2 of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World is devoted to “some problems of special urgency.” Covered in five chapters, these problems are marriage and the family; the development of culture; economic and social life; politics; and peace.

Chapter 1 is entitled “Fostering the Nobility of Marriage and the Family”. Although the Council did not foresee the problem of gay marriage, it was well aware of such problems as “polygamy, the plague of divorce, so-called free love and other disfigurements,” as well as “excessive self-love, the worship of pleasure and illicit practices against human generation” (47). Accordingly, the Council teaches that “the intimate partnership of married life and love has been established by the Creator and qualified by His laws, and is rooted in the conjugal covenant of irrevocable personal consent.” Moreover, “authentic married love is caught up into divine love and is governed and enriched by Christ’s redeeming power and the saving activity of the Church” (48). Therefore, married love “far excels mere erotic inclination, which, selfishly pursued, soon enough fades wretchedly away” (49).

By contrast, “marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children” (50). There can be no contradiction “between the divine laws pertaining to the transmission of life and those pertaining to authentic conjugal love;” indeed, the Council condemns abortion and infanticide as “unspeakable crimes” (51). Finally, and this is still several years before Humanae vitae, the Council notes that the morality of procedures to regulate conception “does not depend solely on sincere intentions or on an evaluation of motives, but must be determined by objective standards” which “reserve the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love.” Couples “may not undertake methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church” (51).

Chapter 2, “The Proper Development of Human Culture” addresses the problems that have arisen because of rapid cultural change: the loss of tradition and heritage; the inability to harmonize the “particular branches of study with the necessity of forming a synthesis of them, and of preserving…the faculties of contemplation and observation which lead to wisdom”; the lack of equality in sharing the advantages of cultural development; and the growing emphasis on the autonomy of human culture which is too often associated with a “humanism that is merely terrestrial, and even contrary to religion itself” (56). The Fathers identify the following keys to authentic cultural development: focus on the understanding of truth, goodness and beauty (57); the ability of the Gospel to correct and remove “the errors and evils resulting from the permanent allurement of sin” (58); and the necessary subordination of culture to “the integral perfection of the human person, to the good of the community and of the whole society” (59).

The Council holds that “within the limits of morality and the common utility, man can freely search for the truth, express his opinion and publish it; that he can practice any art he chooses; that finally he can avail himself of true information concerning events of a public nature.” And it emphasizes that it is not the function of the public authority “to determine the character of the civilization, but rather to establish the conditions and to use the means which are capable of fostering the life of culture” (59). This section closes with a consideration of the imperatives to free humanity from the misery of ignorance (60), to synthesize the various branches of knowledge (61), and to harmonize culture with Christian teaching (62), including literature and the arts.

In Chapter 3, “Economic and Social Life”, Gaudium et Spes emphasizes that “man is the source, the center, and the purpose of all economic and social life” (63). The Fathers briefly explore the problems associated with uneven economic development. They stress that human labor “is superior to the other elements of economic life” (67), and that in economic enterprises “it is persons who are joined together, that is, free and independent human beings created in the image of God” (68). Every person has a right to “a share of earthy goods sufficient for oneself and one’s family” (69). Investments “must be directed toward procuring employment and sufficient income for the people both now and in the future” (70). Ownership should be fostered because ownership contributes “to the expression of the personality” and furnishes “an occasion to exercise one’s function in society and in the economy.” But “it is the right of public authority to prevent anyone from abusing his private property to the detriment of the common good” (71).

In Chapter 4, “The Life of the Political Community”, the Council condemns those political systems “which hamper civic or religious freedom, victimize large numbers through avarice and political crimes, and divert the exercise of authority from the service of the common good to the interests of one or another faction or of the rulers themselves” (73). The political authority must operate “within the limits of the moral order…directed toward the common good” (74). Rulers must not “hamper the development of family, social or cultural groups, nor that of intermediate bodies or organizations”, and citizens must “be careful not to attribute excessive power to public authority, nor to make exaggerated and untimely demands upon it in their own interests, lessening in this way the responsible role of persons, families and social groups” (75). Especially in pluralistic societies, the Council insists that governments must understand the “clear 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” (76).

The fifth and final chapter covers “The Fostering of Peace and the Promotion of a Community of Nations”. In this section, the Council emphasizes that peace is not an absence of war but “an enterprise of justice” governed above all by the natural law (78-79). The Fathers condemn both weapons designed to kill large populations indiscriminately and guerilla warfare carried out by deceit and terrorism (79-80), and they describe the arms race as “an utterly treacherous trap for humanity” (81). To further peace, the Council recommends effective international bodies (83), greater international economic cooperation (85), and efforts at development which do not emphasize material conveniences in a way “contrary to man’s spiritual nature and advancement” (86). Finally, population concerns must not be an excuse for solutions “which are contrary to the moral law”; the decision concerning the number of children to have “depends on the right judgment of the parents and it cannot in any way be left to the judgment of public authority” (87).

Gaudium et Spes concludes by reminding everyone of two aphorisms of Jesus Christ, one gentle and the other severe. It is perhaps fitting that these are also the final warnings of the Second Vatican Council as a whole: First, “By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35); and second, “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 7:21) (93).

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Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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