Much of “Gaudium et Spes,” the 1965 Vatican II document about the church in the modern world, painted too rosy a view of fallen human nature, said future pope Joseph Ratzinger, who had been a council “peritus,” or expert. It was also “too French,” said Ratzinger, meaning it had too much of the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin’s human-divine partnership in creation and salvation, once rejected, later endorsed, including by Ratzinger as Benedict XVI.
The document, “joy and hope” in its Englished title, was “far too optimistic,” said the Jesuit Karl Rahner, another peritus, adding that some Lutheran pessimism would have helped. Indeed, the Lutheran theologian Karl Barth found it “overly optimistic” and “out of tune with the New Testament understanding of the world,” says Robert Royal, not cited by Barron, in the Claremont Review of Books.
Rev. Robert Barron, St. Mary of the Lake (Mundelein) seminary rector and host-creator of “Catholicism” on PBS, was at the podium Sept. 24 at St. Procopius Abbey, Lisle, before an enthusiastic 500-plus people.
The document at hand, one of four “constitutions” issued by the council, is the only “pastoral” one — not “dogmatic,” Barron said, and therefore something in which there is “room for criticism.” It also “has the marks of” being written by committee, which is a “weakness.”
And at 35,000 words it’s long. So were the other 15 documents. Put all writings from ecumenical (worldwide) councils (all bishops invited) on a shelf, and two-fifths of that shelf would be what came out of Vatican II, he said. Most of it is also “spherical” (globular? touching all bases?) and “ruminative” (thoughtful? meditative?). A sort of essay, in other words, though not one to curl up with of a cold, winter night.
Its prologue, nonetheless, beginning
The joys and the hopes, the griefs 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 griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ,
is “beautiful,” providing “a patristic moment” in a council where the early church fathers, such as Origen (c.185c.254) and St. Augustine (354-430), loomed large with their full-service overview of the mystery of Christ and the church.
As for the rampant optimism cited by Ratzinger and Rahner, vs. Chardin’s uber-embracing of the mundane as near-synomymous with spiritual-supernatural pursuits, Barron did his own capsule analysis of original sin and the discontents it loosed upon the world.
Sin “interrupted the Edenizing of the world,” he said. This (Garden-of) Edenizing had various names down the centuries. For the 20th, at the council, it was Christianizing. As such, Vatican II was “a missionary council,” in Cardinal Francis George’s words, offered months earlier at the St. Procopius podium in a similar setting. Karl Barth, conspicuously anti-Catholic in years gone by, was deeply impressed, telling Pope Paul VI after its closing, “If the Spirit was moving anywhere in the world, it was moving at this council.”
Barth had his misgivings, however, as noted by Robert Royal, president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C:
. . . invited to be an observer at the Council but . . . prevented from attending by ill health, [Barth] remarked in its aftermath, “Is it so certain that dialogue with the world is to be placed ahead of proclamation to the world?” Historically, Christianity had often clashed with “the world.”
Which is the point Barron made: The church “transfigures the culture,” he said. (By its nature, that is, not, obviously, in everything done by its leaders and members.) The council’s message is not that the church is to be modernized, going with the signs of the times, said Barron, but that it is to “Christify” the world.
Human dignity, the document says, lies in having a conscience, an individual’s “most secret core and sanctuary, in the human “hunger for God.” Barron cited rock/rap lyrics, among them “Ain’t got no satisfaction,” to demonstrate human longing. Augustinian “restlessness” is there (“our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee”). Freedom comes from being tutored in discipline, which once attained, bestows the ability (freedom) to do good things.
“Do not construe God in a competitive manner,” Barron said. When He was asked who he was in the burning bush, “What did God say?” Barron put to his audience, a large portion of which roared back, “Who am!” Yes, said Barron, he said, “I am who am,” not to be compared, incomparable.
He was on a roll, for all his clerical suit and collar, standing in an enormously high-ceilinged monastery auditorium, delivering a Scripture sermon in (muted) revivalist mode.
The second part of Gaudium et Spes is a roadmap for John Paul II’s papacy. It includes this, that economic power belongs to the people, not to a few powerful individuals, and should be “widely spread throughout society” (Barron’s phrase). Same for political power.
Profit-making spreads wealth around, he said, by offering examples of how to do it and enticing others to do likewise. The document embodies or promotes the two fundamental principles of Catholic teaching — subsidiarity and solidarity.
He asked at the end whether Gaudium et Spes is to be considered a touchstone for the whole council and said no. It’s a pastoral document, he said again, which I take to be advice to pastors and other concerned Catholics — from a highly placed source, to be sure, not to be taken lightly but not written on stone tablets fresh from the mountain top.
Barron got a standing ovation, then took questions. Asked how to approach the young with an evangelist’s message, he urged against finger-wagging and recommended talking up the beauty of what’s peculiar to them in a cultural sense. Having said that, he delivered this about religion for the young: “Don’t dumb it down!” which got him strong applause. Neither offer “cheap grace,” he added, using the Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s memorable phrase.
Vatican II, he added in response to another question, has been “largely unrealized,” urging those who want to capture its spirit to “read the Fathers,” including Newman — which sent this listener back to the Geoffrey Tillotson collection Newman: Prose and Poetry, out of Harvard Press.
He finished for the night to another standing ovation.