The call to read the signs of the times


By Corrine Winter

Corrine Winter

A line from Gaudium et Spes — The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, has become for many a thematic description of the call of Vatican II. “In every age, the Church carries the responsibility of reading the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel (GS 4).”  As we noted last month, during the debate over the Dogmatic Con­stitu­tion on the Church, Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens suggested that the council should address the Church not only in itself but in its relations with the world. The council fathers determined to issue two documents — one from each of the two perspectives identified by the cardinal.
The concern with the needs and the values of the world as such characterized much of the work of Pope John XXIII and certainly his hopes for the council.  In his 1960 encyclical on the Church, Mater et Magistra, he noted the inseparability of the spiritual from material needs, the eternal from temporal concerns of humanity and analyzed changes in the social order since Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum which spoke to the conditions and rights of laborers. The encyclical, Pacem in Terris, asserted that peace on earth can be established only if the dignity and rights of all persons are respected. Pope John called all members of the Church to take an active part in society, to build political, social and economic structures consistent with the common good.
A schema on the Church’s relationship with the world was drafted between the second and third sessions of the Council by a subcommission led by Bishop Emiliano Guano of Italy and assisted by the moral theologian Bernard Haring. The draft they presented was identified as pastoral rather than as dogmatic and intended to encourage dialogue rather than to define or explicate doctrine. The basic ideas in the draft were well received and the document went back to the working group for revisions between the third and fourth sessions of the council. Major issues ad­dressed in the discussion of the document included how to discuss marriage in a way that would recognize the value of human love, how to treat conscientious objection and whether the use of modern weapons of war or even their development could ever be morally justified.
The introduction to GS states that efforts by the Church to read the signs of the times have led to an awareness of growing division between those who are very wealthy and those who cannot meet their basic needs, and the changes in social structures that have come with increased urbanization, industrialization and personalization (GS6). In light of these observations, the Church proposes to reach out to the world both to offer the riches of its own tradition and to learn how best to make that offer in changing times.
The document is not perfect.   Many believe, for example, that it takes a too-positive attitude to the world, when, for example it discusses human interdependence and means of communication. In a number of areas, the theological perspective is not developed as well as it might be.  Nonetheless, the document calls Catholics to pay attention to the world and to articulate anew the message of the Gospel as the shape of human experience shifts with technological changes and with changing relationships among people and nations. It also notes that in a globalizing world, we need to recognize that sin affects not only individual behavior, but the very structures we build within society — social, political and economical ways of relating with one another that ought to contribute to the common good but that all too often deny basic human dignity and equality — leading to alienation rather than to community.
Reading Gaudium et Spes 50 years later, one cannot help noticing that key issues remain while specifics change. Issues of “special concern (part II of the document)” include marriage and family, the development of cultures, the economy, politics, and peace — all of which played roles in the recent U.S. elections.
As we celebrate the Year of Faith, Gaudium et Spes reminds us that our faith tradition and our faith community cannot be isolated from the rest of our lives. As frustrating and discouraging as it can be, at times, we need to keep speaking, praying and acting on the principles of Catholic Social Teaching as they are outlined in this document and in a rich collection of magisterial documents as well as in the theological and pastoral work of many. If the Church is to be a sacrament of the communion with God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit to which all of creation is called (see last month’s reflection), we need to hold up the dignity and potential of human persons and human community, the preferential option for the poor, the call to solidarity, the right and duty to participate in the formation of our world. That might include, in our day, attending to the potential for both good and harm in social networking and electronic communication in general; the ways in which developing technologies could either help break down barriers between social classes or contribute to their harmful effects; and examining ways for Christians and Moslems to cooperate in the work for justice and peace.
(Corrine Winter is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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