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Pope John Paul II and the Christ-centered Anthropology of Gaudium et Spes | Douglas Bushman | Ignatius Insight

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A thorough study of the anthropology of Gaudium et Spes (GS) would be preceded by a study of the general purpose of the Pastoral Constitution. This would include considerations of how Gaudium et Spes articulates the relation of the Church to the world, and vice versa. It would also include its conception of the relationships of creation and redemption in Christ, nature and grace, reason and faith. Detailed evaluation of these themes is beyond the scope of this article.

For our purposes it will suffice to become familiar with the way in which Pope John Paul II understood and interpreted the pastoral purpose of Gaudium et Spes. That will follow these introductory remarks, which focus on the link between Gaudium et Spes and Fides et Ratio.

That Pope John Paul II was profoundly formed by and faithful to the general pastoral purpose and style of Gaudium et Spes throughout his pontificate is easy to show. He not only made constant reference to Gaudium et Spes, 22 and 24, referring to the former as encapsulating the motif of his pontificate, his encyclical, Fides et Ratio, stressed the unity of the two orders of knowledge, natural and supernatural. There is a "unity of truth" assured by the fact that God is Creator and Redeemer and thus the Author of what is revealed through creation and through the economy of salvation.

The fundamental presupposition of Gaudium et Spes is precisely this unity of truth as it pertains to the human person, that is, to anthropology. "For though the same God is Savior and Creator, Lord of human history as well as of salvation history, in the divine arrangement itself, the rightful autonomy of the creature, and particularly of man is not withdrawn, but is rather re-established in its own dignity and strengthened in it" (GS, 41). [1] There is a truth about the human person that is accessible to those without faith. This truth is not only confirmed by revelation, but also deeply enriched by it. How else can the Church enter into a dialogue with those without faith than to find some common ground, some starting point upon which both are in agreement?

Fides et Ratio was an alarm bell. The more serene tone and optimistic outlook of Gaudium et Spes ceded to a direct and serious warning that the "crisis of man" had reached a new, critical point. [2] Modern man has become so confused about himself that the very presuppositions for human fulfillment have been nearly eradicated: that there is objective and absolute truth; that man is made to search out this truth; and that he is capable of discovering it. These are under attack, being systematically rejected. Without them there is no foundation for the dispositions that create openness to a deeper understanding of the meaning of life based on faith. And without those dispositions, meaningful dialogue is impossible.

According to Fides et Ratio, if modern man is not searching for the meaning of life, then he lacks an essential openness to the Gospel. For the Gospel is precisely "the definitive, superabundant answer to the questions that man asks himself about the meaning and purpose of his life." [3] Indifference to religion has become indifference to truth, and living as if God does not exist has led to the near annihilation of man's most characteristic action, seeking the truth.

In Fides et Ratio the Pope called for a rediscovery of the integrity of the created order and of man's place in it as one called to realize himself by seeking and discovering the truth, and of the mutual complementarity of faith and reason. The fundamental assertion of Gaudium et Spes about man is that by being faithful to himself in seeking the truth, he is in fact being faithful to God, Who is the Author of human nature and thus of the innate desire to seek the truth. By seeking the truth man is in fact seeking God: "For God has willed that man remain 'under the control of his own decisions,' so that he can seek his Creator spontaneously, and come freely to utter and blissful perfection through loyalty to Him" (GS, 17). [4]

Another document of Vatican II, The Decree on Religious Liberty, put it this way:
It is in accordance with their dignity as persons--that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility--that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth. [5]

In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. [6]
In Fides et Ratio there is an essential continuity with Gaudium et Spes. The Church's service to the world and modern man entails leading him to the rediscovery of the created order and its relation to God, and of his natural orientation toward the truth, and thus to God. In the set of present circumstances, this is not at all an easy task. Consequently, what we need is a "boldness of reason" that is parallel to "the parrhesia of faith." [7] Such "boldness of reason" is the ideal, and necessary environment for the dialogue between the Church and the world. The re-reading of GS was never more necessary.

The Pastoral Nature of Gaudium et Spes and the Question-Answer Dynamic of Faith

Pope John Paul II consistently summarized Gaudium et Spes in terms of the dynamism of its Christological anthropology. Jesus Christ is the answer to man's most profound questions about the meaning of life. [8] There is a dialogical structure to revelation itself: "Vatican II sees in revelation the reply to man's eternal questioning." [9] "Redemption is the answer to man's perennial questions, but not only in the sense that it explains 'the mystery of man.' Redemption at the same time offers man a source of enlightenment and strength to respond to his own supreme vocation." [10]

Gaudium et Spes "displays the dynamism of the Church's mystery" insofar as "it 'actualizes' the truth of redemption by bringing it close to the experience of modern man." [11] This is precisely the goal of the constitution, to develop "a specific kind of anthropocentrism emerging through the Christocentrism which the Constitution reflects so clearly." [12] Christ and modern man, these are the essential poles of the dialogue between the Church and the modern world.

1. The description of the human condition

In Gaudium et Spes the Church engages in "reading of the signs of the time and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel." This effort is at the service of the Church's mission, which takes the concrete form of a dialogue in which the Church "should be able to answer the ever recurring questions which men ask about the meaning of this present life and of the life to come," and do so "in language intelligible to every generation" (GS, 4).

The description of the human condition in Gaudium et Spes allows the Church to articulate the questions modern man is asking, the answers to which are found in Jesus Christ. [13] This has several objectives. First, from the perspective of the Church and those with faith, it is necessary to have a precise understanding of those to whom she is called to extend God's love. How can the Church serve without a deep understanding of those she is called to serve?

This corresponds to the overall pastoral purpose of Vatican II. To a narrow view of pastoral theology John Paul II contrasted a broader understanding that Vatican II did not invent but simply rediscovered. The full meaning of "pastoral," he has written:
must reflect the integral vision of the Church that was restored to our consciousness by the Second Vatican Council. The Council did not create this image of the Church and pastoral ministry but merely restored it, for it is already wholly contained in revelation, in the sources of the Church's thought and life. Pastoral theology in the broader sense is not limited to a theological investigation of the tasks and activities of ordained ministers alone. Rather, it concentrates primarily on concern for salvation, on concern for the overall temporal and eternal welfare of the human person and community, a concern entrusted to the whole People of God and to its individual members according to their proper vocation." [14]

Pastoral concern means the search for the true good of man, a promotion of the values engraved in his person by God; that is, it means observing that "rule of understanding" which is directed to the ever clearer discovery of God's plan for human love, in the certitude that the only true good of the human person consists in fulfilling this divine plan. [15]
No doubt this pastoral concern for man is the reason that "On a number of occasions, the Second Vatican Council stressed the positive value of scientific research for a deeper knowledge of the mystery of the human being." [16] However, the principle of the unity of truth dictates that there can be no conflict or opposition between the objectively true findings of the human sciences and what God has revealed about man. If such a conflict arises, it cannot be resolved by an alteration of the data of revelation without serious repercussions. For example, certain theories of psychology and sociology conflict with the Christian view of human freedom and thus undermine responsibility. When uncritically employed in theology and pastoral practice, this contributes to the loss of the sense of sin. As a consequence, man is not disposed to embrace the call to conversion. [17]

A second objective of setting forth the human condition is that it can create a positive disposition in non-Catholics and non-Christians to be open to the answer that the Church provides. If the Church's analysis and descriptions are accurate and cogent, she gains credibility. If the words she puts to the experiences common to people assist them in understanding themselves, then the credibility gained here can be transferred to the answer.

Finally, this process benefits believers in no small way. The description of man's condition in the world serves to help keep the fundamental questions alive for believers, so that the relevance of their faith is more profoundly perceived and appreciated. "Faith hears the answer because it keeps the question alive. It can receive the answer as such only if it is able to understand its relevance to the question." [18] St. Paul, apparently, employed a similar process in chapters seven and eight of Romans, contrasting life without the Holy Spirit and life in the Holy Spirit. [19] Those with faith value that faith more when they consider what life would be like without it, that is, when they see it an answer to real questions.

To lose sight of the relation between faith and fundamental questions is to invite a crisis of faith:
Religion is an answer to man's ultimate questions. The moment we become oblivious to ultimate questions, religion becomes irrelevant, and its crisis sets in.

In the process of thinking, an answer without a question is devoid of life. It may enter the mind; it will not penetrate the soul. It may become a part of one's knowledge; it will not come forth as a creative force. [20]
For the late Pope, the consciousness of the correlation between the Gospel and experience makes it possible for Christians to integrate into a profound unity the "attitude of human identity" and the "attitude of participation in the life and mission of Jesus Christ." [21] Believers thus discover, and live in the awareness of the fact, that there is no opposition between being fully human and being a Christian. All alienation is overcome, [22] and Christians know experientially that: "Whoever follows after Christ, the perfect man, becomes himself more of a man" (GS, 41).

Discovering in faith that in Jesus Christ God has given the definitive answer to man's questions is precisely what gives faith its existential value. Existential faith is "a state of consciousness and an attitude" that give rise to actions by which the content of faith is lived out because it is seen to give meaning to life. [23] This, in turn, is the antidote to "the split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives [which] deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age" (GS, 41). [24] The awareness of the correspondence between those questions, rooted as they are in human nature, [25] and God's answer in Jesus Christ, is the foundation for the joint witness of our own spirit and the Holy Spirit that Christians are adopted sons of God (see Romans 8:16).

2. Christ is the Answer

Whenever Pope John Paul II gave a summary of GS, he turned to article 22:
The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. It is not surprising, then, that in Him all the aforementioned truths find their root and attain their crown.
The same article returns to the theme when it states: "Such is the mystery of man, and it is a great one, as seen by believers in the light of Christian revelation. Through Christ and in Christ, the riddles of sorrow and death grow meaningful. Apart from His Gospel, they overwhelm us." The previous article also contains the theme:
Meanwhile every man remains to himself an unsolved puzzle, however obscurely he may perceive it. For on certain occasions no one can entirely escape the kind of self-questioning mentioned earlier, especially when life's major events take place. To this questioning only God fully and most certainly provides an answer as He summons man to higher knowledge and humbler probing (GS, 21).
It is above all in suffering and death that the questions about life's meaning arise, questions that only Christ can answer. The anthropology of Gaudium et Spes does not shy away from acknowledging the reality of suffering. However, it's authors were keenly intent on leading readers to realize that the root of all suffering is found within man himself: "The dichotomy affecting the modern world is, in fact, a symptom of the deeper dichotomy that is in man himself" (GS, 10).

Immanent and Transitive Acts

Pope John Paul II observed that the Council distinguished between the exterior and interior dimensions of man's concrete situation: "in outlining his situation in the modern world, it always passed from the external elements of this situation to the truth within humanity." [26] As evidence he cited Gaudium et Spes 10: "In man himself many elements wrestle with one another. . . . Hence he suffers from internal divisions." This theme is taken up in article 13 where we read that "man is split within himself."

The foundation for this movement toward the interior is the conviction that "by his interior qualities man outstrips the whole sum of mere things" (GS, 15). The Pope recognized that the description of man "from the outside" is limited. For a proper analysis man must be looked at "from the inside." [27]

Without a doubt, this movement from the external and observable to the internal and secret aspect of human life and experience is a hallmark of the Holy Father's magisterium. In an unmistakable way he links this to the distinction between immanent and transitive action when defining human work as "a 'transitive' activity, that is to say, an activity beginning in the human subject and directed toward an external object." [28]

Though many may immediately pair "transcendent" with "immanent," in the anthropology of Thomas Aquinas, immanent activity is an intransitive activity. That is, immanent activity remains within the human agent, and is distinguished from transitive activity that originates in man but results in an alteration of something outside the man. Knowing and loving are the defining immanent activities of man, and they constitute his perfection. [29]

In more contemporary language, Rocco Butiglione, summarizing the thought of Karol Wojtyla, gives a restatement of immanent activity being the perfection of human agents. "The fact that the person realizes himself through a free act is more important than the content of the act itself. That a man acts as a man, guided by his intelligence and following the impulse of his will, is more important and of greater value than the objective modification itself which his act introduces into the world. By acting freely, in fact, man inserts himself into the personalist order, which is his proper order. The personalist value of the action precedes the moral value in the sense that only an action of the person can have moral value." [30]

Without employing terminology specific to the Catholic theological tradition, Gaudium et Spes applies this principle in its rendition of the binding force of an erroneous conscience when it teaches: "Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity" (GS, 16). Another application is the assertion that more harm comes to those who commit acts that are opposed to life and human dignity than to those who are the victims of such acts. [31] That this constitutes a potential point of encounter with non-Christians is evident in the fact that Socrates valued his own internal integrity of virtue more than life itself, declaring that he would rather be the victim of an injustice than to commit an injustice.

Two other applications of the principle are, first, the Constitution's consideration of "all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way"(GS, 22), and, second, the concern for the split between the faith professed and daily life (GS, 41). Regarding the latter, Gaudium et Spes stands in the tradition of the OT prophets, and Jesus Himself, in their charge that religious practices and ritual--even sacrifice (see Heb 10:5-9)--do not constitute justification. Faith, the entrusting of oneself to God, justified Abraham before he fulfilled the command to be circumcised (see Romans 4), and Jesus declares that the woman who gave quantitatively the least gave the most because of her immanent act of faith (Mk 12:43).

Gaudium et Spes frequently introduces considerations of the moral order into its treatment of the pressing issues confronting man in the modern world. The point is that technology, science and efficiency are not adequate means to the realization of man's dignity; nor are they adequate means for addressing problems regarding the family, economics, politics, and questions of war and peace. Ultimately, in order to make the world more human and more worthy of human dignity, man must learn to conduct himself as a moral agent. Concretely, this means that he must be guided by a properly formed conscience, and attend to his immanent actions of knowing and loving as constituting his perfection.

The assertions of Gaudium et Spes on the primacy of moral norms for human conduct and for the proper ordering of all action and relationships are spread throughout the document. This makes it possible for the theme to be overlooked by a casual reader. Pope John Paul II made this theme the focus of his first encyclical, Redeemer of Man.

Dignity, Image of God, and Conversion

The Church's mission, in the mind of John Paul, is to serve human dignity. Within the Church, all pastoral and spiritual authority "must be directed towards developing and making evident the dignity of man." [32] The Church exists to defend, promote, reconstitute and elevate human dignity. "To rediscover and make others rediscover the inviolable dignity of every human person makes up an essential task, in a certain sense, the central and unifying task of the service which the Church and the lay faithful in her are called to render to the human family." [33]

These texts make it clear that to understand the Church's mission one must have a clear notion of human dignity. Further, Vatican II as a pastoral council stressed human dignity because this is an important point of contact between the Church and the world. In its pastoral dialogue with the world, Gaudium et Spes stresses that "the recognition of God is in no way hostile to man's dignity, since this dignity is rooted and perfected in God" (GS, 21).

What, precisely, is human dignity? For Gaudium et Spes, it is defined in terms of man's capacity, and thus his vocation, to enjoy communion with God.

The root reason for human dignity lies in man's call to communion with God. From the very circumstance of his origin man is already invited to converse with God. For man would not exist were he not created by God's love and constantly preserved by it; and he cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and devotes himself to His Creator (GS, 19).

The reference here to man's origin is significant. God the Creator placed in man the capacity for communion in truth and love. As the Pope has put it: "man is called to realize the dignity of his own person and the basis of this vocation must be sought in his very nature, that is to say, in the work of creation." [34] This is why the "consciousness of creation" is an integral element of Christian self-awareness. [35] This consciousness of creation as "the first and fundamental expression of God" [36] is also the foundation for the "primacy of receptivity" in a Christ-centered anthropology. [37] Creation is God's first advance toward man, the first outflow of His love with a view to giving Himself to man and establish communion with him. Thus, human dignity is considered a vocation, something that can be realized or fulfilled. It is linked to the invitation to communion with God, and both the vocation to dignity and the vocation to communion are given to man "by reason of his own inner nature." [38]

Read Part 2 of "The Christ-centered Anthropology of Gaudium et spes"


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