The Lost Orthodoxies of Vatican II: A Case of Selective Memory

Twenty-six years ago, under the aegis of Vatican II, the Catholic Church looked to the world and found “a new age of history” marked by “critical and swift upheavals spreading gradually to all corners of the earth” (Gaudium et Spes, 4). It was an age in which men, “in wonder at their own discoveries and their own might,” had become “troubled and perplexed” by numerous questions, including “their place and their role in the universe,” “the meaning of individual and collective endeavor,” and “the destiny of nature and of men.” To “clarify” those questions and to express “its solidarity and respectful attention for the whole human family,” the Council announced its intention of “enter[ing] into dialogue” with the world about the modern age and the problems unique to it. The result of that undertaking is its Pastoral Constitution on the Church and the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes. This two-part examination of man, Church, and world is justly considered to be among the most important ecclesiastical documents of our time. It is also a work that remains widely misunderstood, or at least selectively remembered. A quarter-of-a-century later — and contrary to its progressive reputation — what resounds most about Gaudium et Spes is not its vaunted novelty but its reiteration of what is not new.

Sweeping Social Changes

What is it about modernity that sets it apart from other ages? Beneath “the spiritual uneasiness of today” and the “changing structure of life,” Gaudiuin et Spes finds a “broader upheaval” affecting all aspects of human society. There are “sweeping changes” in the social order. There is also a “completely new atmosphere” regarding religion. On the one hand, modern man, under the influence of scientific thinking, is “taking a hard look at all magical world views” and rejecting superstition; on the other, he is encouraged in the name of “humanism” to confuse those world views with God and religion itself — a trend evident not only in philosophy, but also “in literature, art, the humanities, the interpretation of history, and even civil law.”

For all its talk of impersonal forces, however, Gaudium et Spes continually reminds us that “in the midst of it all stands man.” Unlike most accounts of modernity, Gaudium et Spes does not picture man at the mercy of external events; it treats him instead as “at once author and victim” of those forces. “The modern dilemma,” says Gaudium et Spes, is that “it is up to [man] to control” those forces “or be enslaved by them.” It is man, therefore — “considered whole and entire, with body and soul, heart and conscience, mind and will” — “who is the key to this discussion.”

A Cautious Progressivism

Part I of Gaudium et Spes devotes itself to the Church’s view of man: to the dignity of the human person, to his nature as a social being, and to the role of the Church in educating him to his destiny. It reviews the salvific message and mission of the Church, and “courteously invites” secular humanists to weigh those ideas against the various species of atheism. Part II then brings this teaching to bear on some of the “urgent problems” of the present day.

The language and tone of this discussion are determinedly neutral. Communism, Marxism-Leninism, and capitalism are alluded to but not mentioned by name; nor does any particular nation appear as such. “The Church,” we are reminded, “is not identified with any political com-munity nor bound by ties to any political system.” Yet, as commentators including George Weigel and Michael Novak have observed, the forms of government and society that Gaudium et Spes judges most consonant with man’s nature bear more than a little resemblance to those in the Western tradition. In that fact lies one of the document’s many ironies. For all that Gaudium et Spes has become a cause celebre of “progressives,” the government and society it recommends remain decidedly out of step with much that is called “progressive” thought. Private property is upheld as “an extension of human freedom”; so too are the “rights” of “free assembly and association, the right to express one’s opinions and to profess one’s religion privately and publicly.” We are even reminded that “citizens … should take care not to vest too much power in the hands of public authority nor to make untimely and exaggerated demands for favors and subsidies, lessening in this way the responsible role of individuals, families and social groups.”

The “progressive” reputation of Gaudium et Spes arises not from these passages but largely from Chapter V. Here, citing the destructiveness of modern weaponry, the Council undertakes “a completely fresh reappraisal of war.” The Church’s condemnation of total warfare is reiterated, followed by a critical look at modern deterrence theory. Declaring that the “arms race is one of the greatest curses on the human race,” Gauditan et Spes calls on nations and their leaders to outlaw war “by international agreement,” to “enlarge their thoughts and their spirit beyond the confines of their own country,” and to “put aside nationalistic selfishness and ambitions to dominate other nations.” It further calls upon those nations, particularly the richer ones, to engage in collective efforts “to coordinate and stimulate development” and adds in conclusion that “we are all called to be brothers” and “ought to work together without violence and without deceit to build up the world in a spirit of genuine peace.”

The Relevance of Gaudium et Spes

Twenty-six years later, this remains a provocative, at times even intoxicating, piece of work. One is struck, too, by its formal elegance and magisterial scope. To set forth the most distinctive features of the present time and to distill the Church’s bearing toward each is a daunting enterprise at any length. To achieve as much in fewer than 200 pages, as Gaudium et Spes does, is nothing less than extraordinary. Quite apart from its other distinctions, that accomplishment alone would give Gaudiutn et Spes justifiable pride of place among the ecclesiastical works of our time.

Yet it is also a work whose persuasiveness — like that of many efforts explicitly committed to “relevance” — has fluctuated with the times. Not all its preoccupations ring as authoritatively today as they must have in 1965. One wonders, for example, whether the authors would still assert that “serious and alarming problems” have arisen “as a result of population expansion.” Not only has fertility itself fallen in much of the world since 1964, but a growing number of demographers are beginning to suggest that fears of a “population explosion” were themselves founded on faulty extrapolations. One wonders, too, whether the authors would be as exercised now as they were then about “fostering and acknowledging” the role of women in society and culture. In the Western world, at least, women have been prevalent in all walks of life — society, economy, government, even the military — for years now. What remains of a once broadly based “feminism” is now an increasingly radical, even separatist, remnant. By now, the document’s urgings for the “inclusion” and assimilation of women are recognizably the urgings of years past.

The same is true of the importance Gaudium et Spes assigns to the international politics of its day. Twenty-six years ago, the struggle for preeminence between the United States and the Soviet Union — two powers unnamed but ubiquitous in the document’s discussion of world affairs — was without doubt the single most important force in global events. By now, however, the Cold War has been decided. That decision has changed not only the world as we knew it, but also the political preoccupations that once seemed immutable facts of life. This is not to say that those portions of Gaudium et Spes most concerned with global events have lost whatever merits they once had. But the worries that it deems paramount — the “arms race,” “immense and indiscriminate havoc,” and especially nuclear annihilation — are not the fears that most people mention first, or even second, when they consider the international picture today.

Enduring Social Concerns

No such denouement, ironically, has met the less noted portions of the text. These sound fresher than ever, for reasons made plain by a review of the United States and its preoccupations of the past two-and-a-half decades.

If one were to ask Americans which domestic problems have been most enduring and most hotly debated during the past 26 years, one would be struck, first, by what they would not say. They would not say “the budget,” the “trade imbalance,” the “tax rate,” or any other issue of direct economic interest to Americans. These are all major concerns, it is true, and perennials of electoral politics. But they are not the issues that have remained, year after year, in the forefront of public debate.

What has remained there instead is some variant of what have come to be called “the social issues.” What are these issues, and why are they so persistent in our public life? In 1985, in an attempt to answer those questions, the sociologist Nathan Glazer gave a representative list: abortion (first on his list, as it would be on most others); the decline of the family; crime and pornography; and more general questions of authority, hedonism, and responsibility. The most surprising political development in the United States since 1965, he found, was the resurgence of this “social agenda.” It was the fact that “issues that many of us considered parochial, backward-looking, symbolic, unrelated to major economically defined classes and interest, have developed unexpected power.”

How is this development to be explained? Glazer him-self offered a political answer: “The strength of the ‘social agenda’ owes more today to Supreme Court decisions than anything else.” If the federal judiciary had not appropriated the powers of state and local government, he maintained, then the “social issues” would have been diffused, disaggregated, and finally spent. Instead, they became issues of national policy. So long as they remained in the docket of the Court, Glazer concluded, those issues — particularly abortion — would continue to “tear the country apart.” There is much to be said for this analysis. In 1985, particularly, it seemed utterly convincing. Yet it does not seem so convincing today.

As we know now, for example, the struggle over abortion — to begin where Glazer does — will not be defused even if Roe v. Wade is reversed and the power to decide the issue is returned to state legislatures. Too much has happened since then. Today everyone has a “position” on “the abortion question”: politicians, celebrities, journalists, and scholars, even national organizations such as the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, and unions. We may no longer see mass demonstrations in front of the Supreme Court, it is true. But as the aftermath of the Webster decision shows, the fight over abortion will continue unabated in the 50 state legislatures, in the national PACS and on the national air-waves, and in and among most of our churches — as well as in local media and local political groups. It will continue to be the issue to which people on both sides bring their most passionate and absolutist convictions. It will continue, in Glazer’s words, to “tear the country apart.”

The same is true, though for different reasons, of some other items on the social agenda. Not so long ago, issues of profanity, blasphemy, and pornography seemed distant, even archaic, concerns. To many in the United States, they were skirmishes in the heartland, in the sorts of places where creationism and other “relics” were thought to linger on. Yet today those issues engage debate across the country, and the passions they arouse on both sides show no sign whatever of diminishing. Who would have guessed, 26 years ago, that Americans in all parts of the country would come to hold opinions — vehement opinions — about obscure works of postmodern art? Or about the lyrics of lesser-known rock bands, about the ratings system for movies, about a comedienne and what she did on national television after singing the national anthem — all examples from the first half of 1990 alone?

Like abortion, these issues have come to be seen in absolutist terms; like abortion, they are regarded on both sides as issues of competing political “rights.” Those on one side cite the “right” to freedom of “expression” contained within the First Amendment; those on the other, their own “right” to determine the moral tone of their homes and communities. This much is certain: even if the power to regulate such matters reverts to local communities, the problem will not be solved to either side’s satisfaction. Who, for example, will regulate Hollywood? Or the music industry? How will local communities contend with the influence of national organizations in the schools, organizations like the National Educational Association, the ACLU, the Department of Education itself? The porousness of the modern world — a characteristic acutely identified in Gaudium et Spes, among other places — is even more pronounced within American society than it is between nations. Lines may be drawn on Main Street or in the school library, but they are Maginot lines at best against the combined forces of popular culture and national bureaucracies.

Other parts of the “social agenda” seem even less susceptible to resolution by government. American cities, by almost any account, have become hothouses of crime, racial tension, drug abuse, and general incivility. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, for one, has remarked that the quality of life in New York City today is lower than it was 40 years ago. One doubts that New York is alone. In city after American city, murder rates have risen notoriously these last few years — partly because of drugs, another of those “non-economic social issues” that turned out to have serious consequences after all.

Breakdown of the Family

Interwoven with these troubles is the widespread disruption of family life itself. Illegitimacy and divorce rates have shown a steady rise across race and across class, with consequences that become clearer each year. The “feminization of poverty,” as it is called, has become an axiom of sociologists. It means that when families break up, women and children are the hardest hit. Those who were getting by become poor; those who were already poor become close to destitute. Yet the economic effects of family breakdown are only the most measurable of its consequences. Its emotional traumas and its social costs may not yield as readily to statistics, but they are more apparent each day. They have even given us a new vocabulary: witness “trophy wife,” “mid-life crisis,” “latch-key child,” “female-headed household,” “welfare queen,” and other terms unknown before the past two decades.

These behaviors — as some would have it, these “social pathologies” — have coincided directly with the unprecedented expansion of the American welfare state. During the same years in which the “social issues” came to the fore and remained there, the federal government, in particular, approved program after program aimed at improving the material conditions of the poorest and most vulnerable Americans. We had a “war on poverty”; later, a “safety net.” We have housing programs, food stamp programs, literacy programs, prenatal health programs. Our “social services” are not only accessible, but advertised daily on billboards, radio, and TV. Yet all the “insurance and security” of the welfare state, all the “legislation and provision” that Gaudium et Spes itself recommends, have not led to a diminution of the behaviors we have come to associate with “the social agenda.” On the contrary, those behaviors have grown apace.

This is not to suggest that the actions of our civil authorities must always founder in inefficacy. Gaudium et Spes speaks for many in its conviction that those authorities can exercise their powers “toward the common good.” But we do know, or ought to know by now, that government can only ameliorate the problems of the “social agenda.” It cannot solve them, because it cannot eradicate what lies behind the social agenda: the fact that a large number of Americans have come to share a view of man that takes such behaviors for granted.

The view of man that is ascendant in American society today is not one that thinks too much of man, but too little. A closer look at some of those “social issues” bears this proposition out. Leave aside for a moment what our fervid supporters of abortion assert about the human fetus. What are those advocates saying about women and mothers? They are saying that a child, by virtue of being “unwanted” or “unplanned,” will be unloved. Even if they grant that the mother could someday come to love that child, that fact is judged somehow irrelevant. Whatever else is entailed in the consent to abortion, one must first consent to the idea that maternal love is conditional; that it is weaker than whatever external circumstances — poverty, or inconvenience, or illness, or an absent father —  prompted abortion as the “alternative.” Whatever else may be said of this view, it is not one that exalts womankind. Nor does it place much hope in men and fathers. It denies that one of the highest of human attributes, the ability to love and to care for a child, is powerful enough to prevail against external circumstance.

What view of man is discernible in a society where divorce, broken homes, and abandonment of children are endemic? When two people consent to divorce, they are saying that they have lost all confidence in their ability to surmount whatever troubled circumstances they have encountered. When children are left behind, the tacit message for them — as children from broken homes know very well — is that the home, that quintessentially human creation, is a weak reed against the tempests of the outside world. These are not views that elevate men and women to godliness. They are views taken by unhappy people who feel themselves buffeted and controlled by external events.

Criminals and drug addicts, as a vast sociological literature attests, suffer notoriously from a lack of what is called “self-esteem.” The criminal says, in effect, either that he is so low that he cannot be degraded; or that he can be degraded and does not care; or that he does care, but that his degradations are less important than the immediate satisfactions he gains by crime. Whatever he chooses, he cannot be accused of esteeming himself highly. The same is true of drug addicts, who likewise tacitly declare their higher instincts to be impotent against their lower drives.

American society today is one in which millions of people have come to believe some variant of this view of man. Against this crabbed and despondent estimate of who we are and what we are about, Gaudium et Spes offers an alternative. In place of a society that prizes the human body only when it is young and beautiful, and that fears its imperfection and decay, we are told instead that “man may not despise his bodily life,” for “he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honor.” In place of our culture’s disposition to treat human coupling as a mere (if sometimes entertaining) biological imperative, we are told that human sexuality is “wondrous,” that its expression in marriage is “noble and honorable” and “enriches the spouses in joy and gratitude”; that it “must be honored with the greatest reverence.” (All this, it must be said, from a Church ubiquitously disparaged by nonbelievers and even some believers for its “negative” view of human sexuality.)

Do we think more highly of ourselves when we believe, as many Americans today believe, that marriage is but one of various “lifestyles” (and a frequently repressive and pedestrian one, at that)? Or when we regard it as “a lofty calling” with “dignity and supremely sacred value”? Are we holding the human race in greater esteem when we believe that children are inconvenient, disruptive, and above all costly burdens on our freedom? Or when we regard them as “our crowning glory,” as a “supreme gift,” as individuals who “sanctify” and “greatly contribute to the good of the parents themselves”? Do human beings elevate themselves when they declare the traditional family to be an ambivalent, oppressive, and anxiety-ridden prison house — or when they proclaim it, as does Gaudium et Spes, “the basis of human society” itself?

Recalling the Notion of Dignity

America today, as anyone within reach of a newspaper or television knows, is rife with therapies and schools of thought aimed at helping people to achieve “self-esteem” and “feel good” about themselves. Nowhere in those therapies or in their underlying schools of thought does man appear as the ennobled, majestic, intrinsically worthy being acclaimed in Gaudium et Spes. All the most controversial teachings of the Church, all those famous “do nots” that make our contemporaries and even some of our priests uncomfortable, are not imposed by the Church as ends in themselves; they are instead direct consequences of its affirmation of man’s “sublime dignity.” Not the least virtue of Gaudium et Spes is its reminder of that causal chain.

At a time when the teachings on family and sexual matters are so often disparaged for their “negativism,” it may be worth reiterating their logic as it appears in Gaudium et Spes. Because marriage is a sacred state and as such requires all that is best from a human being, “it excludes both adultery and divorce.” Because people have been “entrusted” with “the noble mission of safeguarding life,” abortion — like murder, infanticide, and genocide — “is an abominable crime.” Because “human life and its transmission are realities that are not limited by the horizons of this life only,” the denial of life implicit in sterilization and other artificial contraceptives is unworthy of human beings. Because man is a “unity of body and soul,” it defiles him to deny that unity by treating his body — through forms of abuse or selfish sexuality — as an end in itself.

In the United States today, more and more commentators are coming to believe that the deepest problems of American life require more than a material or political response. In 1985, essayist Irving Kristol reflected on the government’s record of addressing the problems of the black poor during the preceding 26 years. He concluded:

It is becoming more and more obvious that what is needed is the kind of black leadership that goes into the ghettos and works to “uplift” these people. What is wanted is a black John Wesley to do for the “underclass” in the ghettos what Wesley did for the gin-ridden, loose-living working class in eighteenth-century Britain. Reformation has to be on the agenda, not just relief.

Reformation: the word is exactly right. No single recent Church document reminds us of the reforming mission of the Church as vividly as Gaudium et Spes, which is, like Vatican II itself, a quintessential expression of evangelical intent.

And that is why, 26 years later, an American Catholic cannot help but read Gaudium et Spes with a sense of loss. For however the Church has fared elsewhere in those years — and in many parts of the world, we must remember, it has fared very well indeed — in the United States it is very much a church on the defensive. Where Gaudium et Spes speaks of evangelizing the world, we find an American Church struggling even to hold its own. Where the document, despite the plethora of views that went into it, speaks in the end with one voice on teaching after teaching of the Church, we find the divisions among clergy and prominent laity to be increasingly public and acrimonious. Where Gaudium et Spes speaks confidently and humanely about matters of morality, we find many priests who reiterate those same teachings in a spirit of apology, if at all. In the United States, as in much of the West, the daily encounters with a secular and increasingly anti-clerical society seem to have left much of our laity and clergy exhausted. The difference between Gaudium et Spes, with its bold and self-possessed challenge to those same forces, and the tone of much of American Catholicism today, could not be more profound.

How and why that distance between the spirit of Vatican II and its translation in the United States should have grown so wide remains a mystery. That it has done so during these past decades in particular — years in which the United States has been riven with exactly the sorts of problems addressed in Gaudium et Spes — is not only unfortunate, but tragic. Twenty-six years later, Gaudium et Spes says more about America and what we need than anyone could have foreseen in 1964. One can only wonder what Catholics, and our clergy, are waiting for.

  • Mary Eberstadt

    Mary Tedeschi Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. Eberstadt focuses on issues of American society, culture, and philosophy. She has written widely for various magazines and newspapers, including Policy Review, the Weekly Standard, First Things, the American Spectator, Los Angeles Times, London Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

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