.- Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution of the Second Vatican Council, rightly recognized that the question of manâs identity is central to modern life but failed to anticipate many of the changes in modern worldviews and lifestyles. So says George Weigel, Catholic commentator and biographer of Pope John Paul II, who argued on Thursday that the teachings of the late Pope complement the documentâs omissions.
Speaking at an international symposium on the Second Vatican Council and the Pontificate of John Paul II at the Seraphicum in Rome, Weigel argued that the late Pope's ânew humanismâ could ârescueâ the insights of Gaudium et Spes from the documentâs more dated aspects.
Weigel emphasized that Gaudium et Spes was written against the background of the nuclear age and the Cold War, citing as pivotal events the nuclear attacks on Japan in 1945 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The latter crisis took place in the beginning months of the Second Vatican Council.
âThat juxtaposition of the Councilâs opening with the terrifying high point of the Cold War had its effects in the Churchâs life in the years immediately following,â Weigel said.
Gaudium et Spes was concerned with âpastoral dialogueâ with modernity and with âmodern man,â beginning with a reflection on the âhuman situation in the contemporary world,â the lecturer explained.
The second part of Gaudium et Spes, Weigel said, anticipated Pope John Paul IIâs approach in his encyclical Centesimus Annus in its description of a âtripartiteâ modern society in which politics, culture and economics are in âvigorous interaction.â
âThis scheme cleared the path in the development of Catholic social thought to John Paul IIâs teaching on the free and virtuous society as one composed of a democratic polity, a free economy, and a vibrant public moral culture, with the last being crucial to the proper functioning of the other two,â Weigel argued.
Weigel suggested that Gaudium et Spes can seem âcuriously, even strangely, datedâ because its description of the modern world turned out to have been a world that âwould soon self-destruct because of internal tensions and contradictions the Council did not address.â The world would not be that of modern man âliving under the shadow of nuclear warâ but rather âpost-modern man,â whom Weigel claimed is beset by more, âand arguably graverâ dangers than the Council Fathers imagined.
Listing the positive points of the Vatican II document, Weigel praised its âsympathetic treatment of the contemporary human quest for freedom,â its âdialogical approachâ to modern atheism, its celebration of the âgenuine achievementsâ of science and democracy, its ecclesiology of a Church that âproposes, but does not imposeâ and its teachings on conscience.
He said the Council Fathersâ Pastoral Constitution rightly focused on the human person as modern lifeâs crucial question.
What Gaudium et Spes Did Not Foresee
While saying the documentâs insights remain pertinent and worthy of gratitude, Weigel focused on what he believed Gaudium et Spes did not see or anticipate.
He indicated that doing so would make it possible to understand why the ânew humanismâ of Pope John Paul II remains âessentialâ to recover the Pastoral Constitution and for the New Evangelization.
Though Gaudium et Spes acknowledges the changes of a world formed by Freud and Darwin, it did not take advances in genetics into account. It âdid not anticipate that biology and the other life sciences would rapidly displace the hard sciences (such as physics) as the source of Promethean threats to the human future â and to manâs self-understanding,â Weigel remarked.
While the Pastoral Constitution depicted Marxism and Sartrean existentialism as the chief philosophical challenges to Christianity, Weigel noted that Marxism was soon to be âin the ash can of historyâ and Sartrean existentialism is now only of âantiquarian interest.â
Gaudium et Spes, in Weigelâs view, did not perceive that the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and others âwould mount a more forceful challenge to the Christian view of the human person (and to the possibility of a truth-centered public moral discourse) than Sartre ever managed.â
Though the Pastoral Constitution welcomed the new roles for women, it also does not seem to have anticipated the âharder-edged forms of the new feminismâ that would become mainstream in Western culture a few years after the documentâs promulgation.
Likewise, it did not anticipate the emergence of the two-worker family and its effects, the âglobal plague of abortion,â or the âgay rightsâ movement and the future âworldwide and historically unprecedented struggle over the very definition of marriage.â
Weigel argued Gaudium et Spes âgave us few, in any, hints that a new gnosticism, teaching the radical plasticity of human nature, was about to hit the western world like a cultural tsunami.â Focused on nuclear weapons, it did not anticipate the changes threatened by biotechnology predicted by Adolus Huxley years before.
Similarly, its counsels on population growth did not foresee the demographic decline of the present age, nor the rise of millions out of poverty. Its suggestion that economic inequality would be a major cause of wars also does not seem to have been born out,
Weigel noted that Gaudium et Spes also did not anticipate globalization and the rise of the Internet, which has made the world almost âa single time zone.â Further, Weigel claimed, the document did not envisage radical secularism or academiaâs replacement of an overall coherence of truth with âtheories of the inevitable fragmentation and incoherence of knowledge.â
While the document explores modernityâs crisis of religious faith, Weigel asserted it did not question the âsecularization hypothesisâ about advancing secularism and did not imagine a world that is becoming more religious and more affected by religious belief.
Gaudium et Spes also held that an âintellectually assertive atheismâ would continue to challenge the Church, not anticipating a âmassive religious indifferentismâ that would descend upon Europe.
âBoredom in both its spiritual and metaphysical forms â a debonair indifference to the question of God, and a stultifying lack of awe and wonder at the very mystery of being â would turn out to be a far more lethal, and far more effective, challenge to the biblical view of man than âscientific atheismâ or existentialism ever was,â Weigel said.
John Paul IIâs Insight Into Man
Weigel emphasized that despite these gaps in Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution nonetheless realized that the âanthropological questionâ is fundamental, an insight continued by the papacy of John Paul II.
He summarized the questions asked in the future Popeâs essay recommending suggestions for the Second Vatican Council: âWhat, he asked, was the human condition today? What do people expect to hear from the Church, and what do they need to hear from the Church?â
According to Weigel, John Paul II thought the world needed an âintegral vision of the human person, nobler and more comprehensive than other understandings of man then being proposed.
âDefective, truncated, even demonic ideas of human nature, human community, human origins, and human destiny were everywhere; the most lethal of those false ideas created the cultural conditions for the possibility of the civilizational catastrophes of the first half of the 20th century.â
Weigel claimed the future Pope held such atrocities had been made possible by âdesperately defective ideas of who man is, which had led to distorted human aspirations and grotesque political projects.â
According to Weigel, then-Bishop Karol Wojtyla emphasized âChristian humanismâ as the Councilâs focus.
Inspired by St. John of the Cross, the future pontiff acknowledged the âinteriorityâ of human existence and its origin in God, and saw that the intellectual âturn towards the subject,â rightly understood, opens up the question of God.
Bishop Wojtyla based his new humanism in St. Thomas Aquinasâ ârealistic ontology,â which trusts in human experience and defends manâs capacity to know truth; which allows a synthesis of past and present thinkers and questions; and which rejects scientific or philosophical reductionism.
Following Max Scheler and early phenomenologists, he learned âfeeling and sensibility can disclose metaphysical and moral truths â and that this, too, was part of dealing with man âin full â.â
Weigel claimed that Bishop Wojtlyaâs philosophical explorations centered upon the âquestion of freedom,â in dialogue not only with influential thinkers but also the political situation of post-Stalinist Poland. His resulting thought was positioned âto challenge both the false humanisms of late modernity and the post-modern reduction of freedom to a matter of individualist, autonomous âchoiceâ.â
For Bishop Wojtyla, freedom is not a âfree-floating faculty of choiceâ which can attach to anything, but rather a âfreedom for excellenceâ directed towards choosing the good and doing so out of moral habit. In fact, he saw the first view of freedom as the ability to choose indiscriminately as âdehumanizingâ and not autonomy but âa prison, with bars of solipsism and locks of ignorance.â
âThe post-modern âautonomy projectâ leads to both auto-enslavement at the personal level and relativism-imposed-by-authoritarianism at the societal level,â Weigel argued, saying that John Paul II challenged this with his belief that freedom is grounded in the Holy Trinity, is always âtethered to truth,â and is always ordered to goodness.
John Paul IIâs work continues to be relevant, as his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus anticipates many present challenges, Weigel remarked.
Weigel also named the Popeâs âTheology of the Bodyâ as âperhaps the Churchâs most compelling response to the new gnosticism of post-modernity, and challenges postmodern man to rediscover his sacramentality and the sacramentality of the world.â
The Pope critiqued moral relativism in Veritatis Splendor and in Fides et Ratio he challenged post-modern man to achieve a mature humanism. Further, the Catechism produced under his pontificate provided a âcomprehensive and coherent accountâ of Christian life and belief.
âThe new humanism of John Paul II,â Weigel concluded, âis a living thing, a growing body of thought that must be nurtured and developed by the late Popeâs intellectual disciples in the decades ahead, if the Church is to respond adequately to the anthropological question that lies at the heart of so many postmodern dilemmas.â
However, Weigel argued that criticisms of that humanism needed to be considered, such as whether his personalism is effective in issues of state power and whether it leads to a âfunctional pacifism.â
The personalist approach, while pastorally effective, could also weaken the Churchâs sense of the moral law. The late Popeâs emphasis on the ministry of Christ risks forgetting the âsovereignty of the Risen Lordâ who judges as well as serves the world.
All of these concerns aside, Weigel was confident that engaging these questions will strengthen the position of John Paul IIâs thought as a âuniquely valuable resourceâ in engaging the âanthropological questionâ of the modern world.