Catholic Social Teaching and These Changing Times


Today, Gaudium et spes must be read in the light of Centesimus annus and other writings of the late-Pope John Paul II. These remain, by far, the most concrete, sophisticated, and accurate descriptions of the contemporary world. They are rooted in a thoroughly contemporary grasp of the philosophy and theology of the human person, community, and social systems.

Each of the five “urgent questions” addressed in Gaudium et spes was treated in depth by the Holy Father in his writings, especially Centesimus annus: the family, the economic system, the political order, the crisis of culture, and the international order.

Pope John Paul II always stressed the changing temporal dimension of Catholic social thought. He opened Centesimus annus by discussing the changes in the world since Rerum novarum (1891); and took account of the period of the 1930s, the world of 1945, the high-water mark of the welfare state (1965), and the fall of communism in 1989. The world of lay women and men is characterized by temporality. The layperson works in a world of uncertainty, and darkness, and the necessity of making decisions today — without the full light of knowing about later consequences.

Recognizing the characteristic temporality of “the world,” we may see that Gaudium et spes is in need of an aggiornamento. After forty-five years, we need a fresh diagnosis of the changes that have occurred in the world that laypersons address. (Perhaps, a fresh updating should become a tradition, conducted three times per century. Perhaps they should be preceded by the preparatory work of an international body of laypersons.)

What are the main changes in the world between 1965 and the release of Centisimus annus?


1. Atheism is different. Schema XIII was called “The Church in the Modern World,” but now the modern world is being rejected, in the name of “post-modernism” — a rebellion against the Enlightenment and reason itself. The late distinguished scholar Irving Kristol wrote several essays on “the failure of secular humanism.” The age of secular humanism is over, he argued, because it cannot supply a common social ethic or public morality, cannot defend reason against its enemies; cannot give comfort to those who grieve; and cannot give meaning to life. A new age of religion is dawning, he wrote, at least in the United States. A Fourth Great Awakening, others call it.


2. The division between two blocs is gone. Both as a metaphysic and as an economic theory, socialism has failed — dramatically.

One positive consequence of this failure is that, today, the vast majority of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and others are working in business — especially small business — and markets. In this field, women often lead the way — women seem especially skilled in small business. Asia, in particular, is being swept by a massive upsurge of small businesses.

Yet what pastoral theology do we have to offer to people in business? Those in business thirst for pastoral advice and spiritual counsel, yet in sermons they hear almost nothing of use to them.

Business as a field requires new virtues, hardly mentioned in the past (see Centesimus annus, #32). Especially, business needs the virtues of enterprise (both personal initiative and persistence), practical realism, and finally a sense of community (since a business is nothing but a small community serving ever-larger communities).

The economic thinking of the church has for centuries been predominantly agrarian, then (more or less) social democratic. Today, business is the most neglected pastoral reality.


3. The “economic miracle” of 1965 has given way to “the crisis of the welfare state.” Practically all the welfare states are in crisis — both budgetary, because they cannot pay for all the social promises they have made; and moral, because of the damage done to the family, and because of the perverse incentives encouraged by unwisely designed welfare programs, leading to much dishonesty and dependency.


4. The great technological explosions since 1965. Whole new industries have arisen that did not exist when Gaudium et spes was written: word processors and computers, the Internet, fax machines, satellite television, cable and wireless television, smart phones, compact discs, fiber optics, new pharmaceuticals, unprecedented medical techniques (including those of genetics), and the general transformation of the industrial age into the age of electronic processes. These changes highlight what was an important point made by Pope John Paul II in Centesimus annus, that the main cause of wealth today is the human mind, its know-how, its capacity for organization, and its pursuit of discovery, etc. (Centesimus annus, #32). The principal economic resource today is human capital: the mind.


5. Turbulence in the church. We have seen over the past twenty-five years a public dissidence and even an aggressive hostility toward the church by some Catholics, such as were rarely seen in 1965. At the Second Vatican Council, there were many criticisms of “triumphalism.”

But there has sometimes appeared a new triumphalism, a “Vatican II triumphalism,” which overlooks the losses and disorders that have appeared in the wake of Vatican II. We have overwhelming reasons for gratitude. We also have serious reasons to be humbled — and troubled — by some of the results of Vatican II.


6. The great crisis of today is a cultural crisis, a crisis in the “moral ecology” of the human race, as Pope John Paul II described it. At the UN in 1995, Pope John Paul II said that the main story of the 20th century was the story of liberty. But much depends on a proper culture of liberty — an ordered liberty, a liberty of reflection and reasoned choice, not of passion, bigotry, ignorance, or whim. True liberty, the pope said (alluding to Lord Acton), is not the liberty to do what we wish, but the liberty to do what we ought. Even if we have political liberties, and economic liberties, what good would they be if we used them to serve cultural ideals unworthy of free women and free men?

Analogously, I would warn against “Christological triumphalism.” Much was gained in Gaudium et spes by the new Christology, linked to anthropology. But which Christ are laypersons more likely to encounter? Less likely, I think, the glorified and radiant Christ. More often, the “humble, abject, rejected” Christ of Isaiah 53, “the suffering servant.” And also Christ as the Logos: “In Whom and through Whom and by Whom were made all the things that were made.” That is, laypersons encounter Christ in ordinary, simple things, which often do not seem like “grace” at all — but, of course, they are. As Georges Bernanos wrote, “Everything is grace.” And Yeats: “Everything I look upon is blest.”

Finally, there is a danger that Gaudium et spes has being too much captured by the theologians, and too much lost for laypersons — for questions that wrack the contemporary world. Theology is a science, concerned with the realities of things in themselves (in se), and its task is to define and interrelate basic concepts with one another systematically: Christology with anthropology, grace with nature, etc. This is a great and necessary work.

Still, the method more often used by laypersons is less in the ordo docendi than in the ordo imparandi: The way of pilgrimage, darkness, insecurity — the way of the personal voyage into faith. This is less a science than an art, an adventure, whose lessons often come by surprise, little by little, fragment by fragment, in the mode of experience and in the obscure light of “connaturality.”

It is important to reclaim Gaudium et spes as the great guide for laypersons, in the mode of laypersons. The further development of this document should not be left only to the theologians. Its further development must deal, if only provisionally, with economic, political, and cultural matters subject to the strains and uncertainties of temporality.


This article originally appeared in the February 1996 issue of Crisis Magazine.


Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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