October 1962 was a busy month.
On the 6th, the Sino-Indian War broke out, which would claim over 10,000 casualties in the span of a month. On the 9th, Uganda gained independence from the United Kingdom, and, two weeks later, admission to the United Nations. And from the 16th to the 28th, the Cuban Missile Crisis terrified the world with the prospect of nuclear armageddon.
And on October 11, 1962, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, what some observers call the largest meeting in recorded human history. This assembly, often dubbed Vatican II, is the most recent of the Church’s 21 ecumenical councils, during which leaders of the Catholic Church assemble to develop and promulgate its teachings.
Even when considered in the context of the Church’s 2,000-year history, Vatican II was exceptionally important for a number of reasons. Unlike its predecessors, it was the first ecumenical council to address all of humanity, not just the Catholic faithful. Moreover, Vatican II was uniquely conscious of its historical moment, and sought to address the social, political, and spiritual needs of contemporary society.
This is seen clearly in the document entitled Gaudium et spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.
Gaudium et spes articulates a relationship of reciprocity between the Church and the modern world, in which each offers the other some definite service. Thus, the two are “bound up” and exist in a relationship of “solidarity.” First, in terms of what the world offers the Church, Gaudium et spes claims that even those not directly involved in the work of the Church bolster its ministry. “[W]hoever promotes the human community at the family level, culturally, in its economic, social and political dimensions… is contributing greatly to the Church…”
In the preface to Gaudium et spes, we begin to see how the Church conceives of its service to the world: “Human society deserves to be renewed,” the Church claims. This may strike us as odd—what needs to be renewed? After all, in the past 50 years, extreme global poverty has declined considerably, countless diseases have been cured, more communities have formed across greater distances than ever before, and most of the world’s population no longer feels compelled to rehearse nuclear drills.
Of course, the world has witnessed a number of calamities since the ’60s, too. Of those, the Church is particularly concerned with what we’ll call a crisis of meaning. “Man painstakingly searches for a better world, without a corresponding spiritual advancement,” reads Gaudium et spes. The Church believes that this existential crisis transcends the material, the political, the shortsighted. Our material freedom has not necessarily yielded a spiritual freedom.
Gaudium et spes translates to “joy and hope.” Ultimately, this has been the promise of the Church since Christ and remains its promise today. Even though the promise remains the same, the Church speaks uniquely to and for all of us, here and now, as Vatican II makes clear.
Let’s take a look at three ideas that find particular emphasis in the modern world and at Georgetown: dignity, rights, and social justice. What does the Church have to say to us about each of these today, and what do they have to do with joy and hope?
The Church holds that every human person is endowed by God with an inherent dignity, not unlike the dignity of God Himself. Because we are made in His image, we are accorded inestimable value and certain inalienable rights.
With our dignity and our rights come the responsibility to promote the dignity and rights of our neighbors. Thus, the Catholic vision couples our individual rights with our responsibility to others. In this way, rights—and, more broadly, justice—cannot be understood outside the context of community.
This may sound alien compared to the way we typically talk about rights. For us, rights are competing. “You have no right to be on my property!”—“I have the right to free speech!” As a result, rights have become politicized, even weaponized. We are led to believe that our dignity is bestowed on us by political victories instead of by God. This situation obscures and cheapens our dignity.
In Gaudium et spes, Church leaders reject this individualized conception of rights. Throughout Vatican II (and even before the Council), the Church promoted myriad rights: life, religious freedom, unionization, a living wage, and so on. Gaudium et spes adds freedom to the list—freedom to pursue “the service of the human community.”
At Georgetown, this is what is meant when we are called to be men and women for others, a phrase coined by Pedro Arrupe, S.J., the Jesuit Superior General elected in the midst of Vatican II. Social justice, the fruit of this Georgetown value, illuminates our dignity and brings our rights to fulfillment. Service works both ways. In serving others, we not only enhance their freedom; we enhance our own as well.
The Church is often thought of as an institution whose eyes are set above this world, promoting a theology of heavenly anticipation and ascetic forbearance. Even at Georgetown, many assume the Catholic faith discounts the joy, hope and suffering of this world, because it pales in comparison to what is to come in the next life. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, the Church focuses relentlessly on renewing this world, and professing the birth of a new humanism. This renewal must be “founded on truth, built on justice and animated by love.”
Justice is attainable, but not without hope, joy, and love.
In this column, we will explore why these ideas matter to our world and to our university. We invite you to join us.
Gaudium et spes is coordinated by the Georgetown University Knights of Columbus. The Knights of Columbus is a Catholic, fraternal, and service organization. This column focuses on how Catholic values, principles, and teachings can inform the lives of all Georgetown students, regardless of their faith. This column attempts to facilitate dialogue about matters of faith and inspire conversations about topics that impact the daily lives of Hoyas, from national politics to campus news. Gaudium et spes appears online every other Friday.