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


Michael Novak held for many years the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and is now a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. He is a philosopher, theologian, and author, as well as the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He has been an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He has written over twenty-seven books on the philosophy and theology of culture, especially the essential elements of a free society. He also founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982.

  • Bob G

    Surprising. It looks very relevant now, with an update for the 2008 crash.

    I still hear Catholic “liberals” stumping for socialism and deploring the “greed” of the market.

    I like Mr. Novak

  • Paul Priest

    If you’re going to proselytise on Catholic social teaching it might be advisable to do so from Catholic, social and teaching perspectives….

    I’m trying to work out if there is anything you haven’t got wrong – but I’m blowed if I can find anything!

  • Cody

    May I suggest looking at Church History? Both the Franciscans and Dominicans developed in order to address a non-agrarian, business-based society. To say the Church hasn’t addressed business aspects is to be in the first millennium.

  • Linus

    Personally, I’m pretty tired of encyclicals. Their language/style of prose is off putting. Secondly, either the liberals or the conservatives try their best to steal them. What we need is constant encouragement to follow the gospel and the doctrine of the Church and use our heads while doing it.

  • Jose

    Perhaps, “Gadium et Spes” should be read with what the title implies. That is that as Christians, we should be joyful and hopeful for the very special mystical way we have in the Church of encourntering God in the Eucharist and living in and with Him in the world. Christianity is not a dry, obstract doctrine of rules. Nor is Theology ( the science of God) an intellectualized, conceptualized, and rationaized doctrines of God, divorced from the real world and history. No, the purpose Theology is to provide us a key to enter into communion with God. While Christianity is a wonderous mystery of life in an embrace of Love of neighbor and God. The only commandment of Christ that is particular to him and him alone in recorded history is: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Christianity then is a continual celebration of life and love that Christ has made possible for us by his incarnation, death and resurrection. Only when we learn to experience, live, and celebrate this faith of love at home, work and business, will we understand the true meaning of “Gaudium and Spes.”

  • Chris in Maryland


    I reckon that >95% of Catholics don’t suffer from the problem of being “tired of encyclicals,” if by that you mean you are tired from reading them. Rather, the laity of the Church (and probably many/most religious) suffer from being mightily ignorant of them. As was pointed out recently @ “The Catholic Thing,” who among the laity, especially the “college-educated” Catholics, has read “Sapientiae Christianae”? It seems lot’s of homework is left undone.

  • ROMAN mn

    There is still the age old crisis of war,famine, and disease. We are called as catholics to help our brothers in the developing world. Plus these people have not embraced post modern idiocy!

  • Barry

    Funny how Novak insists that Gaudium et spes must be read “in the light of Centesimus annus and other writings,” but he does not bother even to mention these “other writings” by name, though CA gets prominent references. Gaudium et spes should also be reading in light of JP2’s Sollicitudo rei socialis and Laborem exercens, not to mention Paul VI’s Populorum progressio. No mention of these, though, because they don’t fit Novak’s worldview.

  • Martial Artist

    @Mr. Novak,

    You write “Both as a metaphysic and as an economic theory, socialism has failed — dramatically.”

    That may be true if one conceives of pure socialism, contrasted with pure capitalism. These are terms defined by Hans-Herman Hoppe, an Austrian school economist, in his book A Theory of Socialism & Capitalism. He defines these as the “only two possible archetypes in economic affairs.” He defines the capitalist model as pure protection of private property, free assoication, and exchange—no exceptions. All deviations from that ideal are species of socialism, with public ownership and interference with trade. All known economic systems, including our nation’s economy, are combinations of these two types.

    I agree with your quoted statement as an objective statement of the results produced by socialism. However, the unfortunate fact is that with the absorption of Hong Kong into China, there are today no longer extant, insofar as I am aware, any systems of unadulterated capitalism (what I would prefer he termed “free market economy”—because what Hoppe calls capitalism has little to do with capital per se). They have all become mixed economies. Clearly the public and the average elected official are thoroughly unfamiliar with what constitutes socialism, with the result that every modern nation, including the U.S., is burdened with myriad instances of socialist intervention by the government.

    The only conclusion I can draw is that the electorate and the pundits are either unfamiliar with what constitute the evils of socialism or they are, at heart, closet socialists themselves.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer