Unlike the other 15 documents produced by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council which stemmed from suggestions sent to the preparatory commission by bishops and scholars, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) originated in a pastoral letter to Belgian Catholics.
Cardinal Leo Suenens wrote a pastoral letter to the people of the Archdiocese of Malines-Brussels expressing his concerns about the Church’s responsibility to concern itself not only with internal issues but to address the problems of the modern world. A copy of the letter found its way to Pope John XXIII, who shared the ideas expressed by the Belgian primate and called him to Rome to discuss the issue.
In a radio and television message a month before the opening of the Council, Pope John detailed his view of the Council as focusing on the Church’s internal situation (ad intra), its relationship to other Christian communities and on the entire human family (ad extra). The address drew on the Pope’s encyclical, Pacem in Terris, and expanded on Suenens’ ideas. In the address he essentially outlined what would become the content of Gaudium et Spes.
OnDecember 4, 1962, near the end of the first session, Cardinal Suenens spoke to the Council and echoed the Holy Father’s words calling for the Council to address the Church’s relations with the world at large. Other Council Fathers expressed support, including Cardinal Giovanni Montini, the future Pope Paul VI and a voice from the third world, Dom Heldar Camara of Brazil, who asked “are we to continue spending all our time on the internal problems of the Church, while two-thirds of the world is starving?” The following day Pope John named a commission, including Cardinal Suenens, to prepare a document dealing with the Church’s responsibility to engage the world.
Debate on the document was lengthy and lively. For many it represented a paradigm shift from a position of suspicion, hostility and condemnation to one of service and engagement. The document dis not break new ground it was primarily a synthesis of teachings previously set forth, especially the social encyclicals from Pope Leo XIII to Pope Paul VI.
Because the document concerns the presence and activity of the Church in the world, it became the first Council document addressed “to the whole of humanity.” It was also designated as a Pastoral Constitution because of its pastoral theme.
That theme is expressed in its introductory sentence, “The joys and the hopes, the grief and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the grief and anxieties of the followers of Christ.” Which also gave the document its Latin title Gaudium et Spes (Joys and hopes). The introduction emphasizes the Church’s “solidarity with, as well as its respect and love for the entire human family with which it is bound up.”
In the introductory statement the phrase “signs of the times” from Mater et Magistra is used to highlight the “profound and rapid changes” occurring: the crisis of growth, advances in science and technology, changes in the social order, change in attitudes and human structures, imbalances in the modern world,and the conviction that humanity can and should control creation. But beneath the apparent discord are the realities that do not change which have their foundation in Christ who is the same yesterday, today and forever.
In the body of the document there are two parts. The first part explores the basic issues of doctrine, the dignity of the human person, the community of mankind, man’s activity in the world and the role of the Church in the modern world. The second part suggests a pastoral approach to the dilemmas faced by the modern world, fostering the nobility of family and marriage, the proper development of culture, economic and social life, the life of the political community and the fostering of peace and the community of nations.
Addressing the great number of people near starvation the document stated that “since there are so many people in this world afflicted with hunger, this Sacred Council urges all, both individuals and governments, to remember the saying of the Fathers: ‘Feed the man dying of hunger, because if you have not fed him, you have killed him.’”
Not surprisingly the section on the ends of marriage sparked considerable debate which, despite Pope Paul’s reservation of the birth control issue to himself, found its way into the deliberations. The constitution defined marriage and conjugal love as being by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children while recognizing that marriage was not instituted solely for procreation avoiding the traditional statement of primary and secondary ends.
The universality of the Church became apparent with frequent statements from bishops from Asia that the text was too “western,” others believed the text was too optimistic in its treatment of the benefits to the world from scientific and technological advances. Many Italian bishops regretted that the document did not condemn communism, and American bishops lost their fight to condemn the use of weapons of mass destruction.
Declaring that “peace is not merely the absence of war,” the Council Fathers declared It to be the enterprise of justice, but is the fruit of love that goes beyond justice. War is condemned and Isaiah is quoted in the pleas for disarmament :"They shall turn their swords into plough-shares, and their spears into sickles. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" (Isaiah 2:4).
There were many objections to the fact that the document, while “rejecting atheism, root and branch,” called for cooperation and prudent dialogue “for the rightful betterment of this world in which all alike live.” Believers, the Council states, can contribute to the “birth” of atheism by erroneous teachings and witness that conceals rather than reveals “the authentic face of God and religion.
In the end the final draft of the constitution was approved by a large majority of Council Fathers (2309 for, 75 against).
Historian Father John O’Malley summarizes Gaudium et Spes as praising “the dignity of freedom, the dignity of conscience, the dignity of marriage, the dignity of human culture and finally, the dignity of the human person—to make dignity a great and pervasive theme of the constitution…”
Pope Paul VI on December 7, 1965, the day before the Council ended, wrote: “Never before, perhaps, so much as on this occasion has the Church felt the need to know, to draw near to, to understand, to penetrate, serve and evangelize the society in which she lives and to come to grips with it, almost to run after it in its rapid and continuous change.”