Forty years after Gaudium et Spes by Rev. Robert J. Vitillo

Year Published
  • 2011
  • English
Rev. Robert J. Vitillo
delivered to Catholic Social Ministry Gathering
February 20, 2005

Founded on Truth, Built on Justice, and Animated by Love Forty Years after Gaudium et Spes
On the occasion of the Thirty-Fifth Anniversary of The Catholic Campaign for Human Development

When I accepted the invitation to address you this evening, little did I realize that I now would qualify as an international guest at this assembly since I began the process of moving to Geneva, Switzerland, a whole week ago. Now people in Geneva will be asking: is he ever at home???? But please allow me to share how privileged I feel to be among treasured friends and esteemed colleagues as we celebrate the dual anniversaries of Gaudium et Spes and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

The topic for this evening, Founded on Truth, Built on Justice, and Animated by Love , could occasion a cursory examination or an endless philosophical and theological treatise. I hope to avoid both extremes and will invite you instead to join me, for a few brief moments, on a walk down memory lane  to the time when these words were first written by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council. I realize that, for some of you here present this evening, the 1960s are even more remote than the Paleolithic period. Thus, for you, please consider this a brief orientation to some very exciting times experienced by us older members of the audience.

For those of you who can, think back to being Catholic in the days before the Second Vatican Council. We gathered each week  often motivated more by fear than by faith - to hear Mass. Since the celebrating priest often droned in Latin with little inflection and horrible pronunciation, many of us fingered our beads or stared at the mosaics and stained glass windows.

On the other hand, we did feel quite secure and protected in our Catholic identity. Many of us grew up with the concept that there were two kinds of people in the world - Catholics and others. We flocked to Church early in the morning each Ash Wednesday in order to proudly wear our ashes and thus distinguish ourselves from everyone else on the street, in school and at work. For those of us who came from recently immigrated families, we sought further refuge - or were forcibly segregated in national parishes, since we were rejected even by fellow Catholics who had arrived earlier at the shores of this land. Christian doctrine was carefully handed down under the stern tutelage of religious sisters and brothers and priests who seemed to have eyes behind their heads and insisted that we commit to memory every single punctuation point in the Baltimore catechism. To question a jot or tittle of those staid formulations of doctrine might earn you the label of wise guy!

Social consciousness was present in the pre-Vatican II Church but, for the most part, our vision of this ministry was limited to hand-outs for those families unfortunate enough to require public or church-based welfare. Of course, we also were sensitive to the plight of poor people on the other side of the world. How many of us were tempted to steal from our own mothers so that Sister would not be displeased with our contribution to the Friday morning collection for the pagan babies and all those starving children in China!

Beyond the walls of our cathedrals and parish boundaries, the world itself was plagued by disintegration, hostility, and little sensitivity to the poor and vulnerable. The military and political blocs of power continued on what seemed to be an unstoppable race to nuclear destruction (remember the days of hiding under our desks during air raid drills in every school throughout the United States?). Our own land was still fractured by racism and segregation. Even though slavery had been eliminated officially almost a century before, its sinful effects continued to haunt us  and included racial segregation, on a de iure basis, in many schools and public gathering places in some parts of the country and, on a de facto basis, in neighborhoods and private associations, in most other areas. These sinful economic and social structures seemed impossible to overcome and spilled over into violence on the streets of several cities during the latter part of the 1960s.

It was within this torn and tattered Christian and secular world that the Holy Spirit inspired the college of cardinals to elect Pope John XXIII as the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church. Instead of closing himself behind the Vatican walls, John immediately, and in a most humble fashion, revealed his interest in learning the situation of the world in which he lived. In his first letter to the Church after his election as Pope, John XXIII outlined three objectives for his pontificate and for the Universal Church: truth, unity, and peace  and indicated that these should be advanced in a spirit of charity.

In urging the pursuit of truth, the newly-elected Holy Father noted the careful attention given at that time to mastering and advancing human knowledge, especially in the amazing progress  made in the field of scientific research. He then asked, in contrast, why we did not exert as much energy, ingenuity, and enthusiasm to the sure and safe attainment of that learning which concerns not this earthly, mortal life but the life which lies ahead of us in heaven? i In the religious sphere, John insisted on absolute fidelity to revealed truth and defined dogma, but he also left room for  and even welcomed  discussion and debate on areas still open to theological investigation:

Far from jeopardizing the Church's unity, controversies  can actually pave the way for its attainment. For discussion can lead to fuller and deeper understanding of religious truths; when one idea strikes against another, there may be a spark. ii With regard to his concern about unity in the world, Pope John XXIII noted the progress that had been made in restoring relationships after the recent World Wars. In fact, he quoted the words of his predecessor to the Catholics of Germany:

The terrible disasters of the recent war produced at least one blessing among the many classes of your population: prejudices and exaggerated ambitions for personal advantage have subsided; the conflicting interests of the classes are nearer to reconciliation  Hard times borne together have taught you all a helpful, though bitter lesson. iii In his quest for social harmony, John XXIII did not ignore the needs of persons he described as those citizens of straitened fortune who are dissatisfied with their very difficult lot in life. He assured the poor and oppressed that the Church was not hostile to them but rather cares for them as would a loving mother. He reminded Catholics that the Church preaches and inculcates a social doctrine and social norms which would eliminate every sort of injustice and produce a better and more equitable distribution of goods, if they were put into practice as they should be. Finally, he urged friendly cooperation and mutual assistance among the various classes, so that all men [and women] may become in name and in fact not only free citizens of the same society but also brothers [and sisters] within the same family. iv

One essential counsel of Pope John XXIII constituted as well the title of the 1999 pastoral message of the bishops of the United States during the Year of Charity in preparation for the Great Jubilee Year:  the common saying, expressed in various ways and attributed to various authors, must be recalled with approval: in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity. v

It was in this same encyclical that good Pope John also announced his truly astounding decision  to call an ecumenical council. This decision enjoyed firm precedent in Church history but seemed totally out of context in the Church that we knew in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Most Catholics saw a bishop only on very rare occasions - when he came to our parishes for confirmation or some historic event fully donned in long-flowing train  the cappa magna  in which I once became entangled as a seven-year-old altar boy and train bearer! Now suddenly we were getting glimpses of bishops from every part of the world in photos taken at St. Peters Square or at the local coffee bars on the Via della Conciliazione. When we had heard our bishops at home, they spoke definitively and looked for little discussion; now, in St. Peters Basilica, they were debating the finer points of doctrine, theology, and even of politics. They were making decisions to celebrate the divine liturgy in our own languages, and we would be expected to lend active attention and participation in the prayers at Mass.

This process of change within the Church was not the prerogative or domain of the bishops alone. Even while they were gathered in Rome, the Council Fathers listened to the observers and theological experts, or periti, who accompanied them there. The sensus fidelium, or the faith of the people as it was lived and experienced on a daily basis, was helping to mold the reflection, priorities, and decisions of the bishops themselves. Aggiornamento  or catching up to the times  was being sought and lauded by the two-thousand-year-old Catholic Church that was coming of age once again  not apart from but firmly rooted within the Modern World!

These indeed were the circumstances of both Church and world to which the bishops turned their attention in the document Gaudium et Spes that was promulgated on December 7, 1965. I will not dwell on the dynamics and debates that almost sabotaged this document which eventually was made possible by the strong determination of many bishops and, I think we could say with confidence, by the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit.

The challenges encountered by the vulnerable in this world were front and center in the minds of the Fathers of the Council. Thus we recall those oft-quoted words that risk becoming trite  so try to listen to them with a more sensitive ear:

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men [and, I will take the liberty of adding, women] of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and the hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. vi The bishops participating at the Second Vatican Council departed from their usual methodology of introducing Church documents through a list of carefully detailed, but rather abstract, theological principles. On the contrary, they recalled the Church's responsibility first of scrutinizing the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus they engaged in a deep reflection on the issues and challenges faced by the human family during what they described as a new stage of history, characterized by profound and rapid changes that have led to a cultural and social transformation, one which has repercussions on  religious life as well. vii They noted  an abundance of wealth, resources and economic power as well as the torment of hunger and poverty among so many in the human family. They celebrated the keen sense of freedom among men and women but lamented the bitter political, social, economic, racial and ideological disputes in the world. viii

At the conclusion of this social analysis, the Council Fathers declared that Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and, yes, forever offers himself as the key, the focal point, and goal of the human family and thus sheds light on these and other human problems. ix They reminded us that all persons are created to the image of God x, not as solitary beings, and that without others we can neither live nor develop [our] potential . xi They urged respect for the fundamental rights of the person and condemned every type of discrimination  as contrary to Gods intent. xii They recognized that human freedom can be threatened equally by extreme poverty and by dependence on too many of life's comforts or by living in a kind of splendid isolation. xiii They acknowledged that sincere disagreement could arise among the faithful but then called for mutual enlightenment through honest discussion, preserving mutual charity and caring above all for the common good. xiv

In the second part of this pastoral constitution, the bishops turned their attention to areas of universal concern. They identified the family as a kind of school of deeper humanity. xv They lauded the increasing consciousness among people  that they themselves are the authors and artisans of the culture of their community xvi and declared that it is now possible to free most of humanity from the misery of ignorance. xvii They bemoaned the fact that at the very time when the development of economic life could mitigate social inequalities , it is often made to embitter them; or, in some places, it even results in a decline of the social status of the underprivileged and in contempt for the poor. xviii They cautioned that economic development  must not be left to the judgment of a few. or of groups possessing too much economic power, or of the political community alone, or of certain more powerful nations. xix They recalled the command of the Church Fathers to Feed the man dying of hunger, because if you have not fed him, you have killed him and called for the support of individuals or peoples with the aid by which they may be able to help and develop themselves. xx They urged that investments must be directed toward procuring employment and sufficient income for the people both now and in the future. xxi

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council saw civic and political formation as being of the utmost necessity for the population as a whole, and especially for youth, so that all citizens can play their part in the life of the political community. xxii They reassured the faithful that the Church cannot and will not identify with any political system but is at once a sign and safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person. xxiii They expressed their longing for peace, not merely the absence of war and begged humanity to strain every muscle in working for the time when all war can be completely outlawed by international consent. xxiv In concluding this pastoral constitution, they noted with conviction:

  Not everyone who cries Lord, Lord will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the Fathers will by taking a strong grip on the work at hand. xxv We could not do justice to our celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the proclamation of Gaudium et Spes if we did not note the creative and unique ways in which the bishops, clergy, religious, and laity of the United States took a strong grip on the work at hand. Some of you present in this room tonight, and many of our social ministry colleagues who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, were among those who carried the banner of Vatican II not just into our church pews but also in the streets and barrios of daily life.

I dare say that the historic pastoral letters of the U.S. bishops on the economy and on war and peace were literal brainchildren of Gaudium et Spes. So, too, the establishment of stronger advocacy efforts at the national episcopal conference, in state Catholic Conferences, and in parish legislative networks could be seen as direct results of this pastoral constitution.

As a young priest in the early 1970s, I was privileged to witness the influence of Gaudium et Spes on the re-make of Catholic Charities in the United States. No longer was the work of charity to be summed up in emergency assistance and family counseling. The diocesan charity agencies also were called upon by the historical Cadre Report to expand their activities by including advocacy for just social policies and legislation and convening of people at national, diocesan, and parish levels with the ultimate goal of humanizing and transforming the social order.

This same pastoral constitution also helped to re-form the global solidarity efforts of the Church. Thus Catholic Relief Services and sister Caritas organizations in other parts of the world moved beyond an almost exclusive reliance on emergency relief to a development-oriented interaction with people in developing countries. They began to treat those benefiting from their generosity as partners rather than as recipients. Within their home countries, they expended energy and funds to change the social policies and laws that often led to the further marginalization and victimization of the poor and vulnerable in developing countries. They promoted efforts to increase civic participation and reconciliation in areas affected by oppression and conflict. They worked to make accessible medications, treatment, and livelihoods for those affected by illnesses such as HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, all of which can constitute a swift and sure death sentence in low-income countries.

It is my firm belief that Gaudium et Spes served as the principal source of inspiration for the Catholic bishops of our country when they made their prophetic decision to establish the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Please permit me to share with you what a privilege it has been for me to serve this Campaign as its Executive Director for the past eight years. Listen for a moment to the words of our bishops at the press conference that signaled the launch of the Campaign:

We believe that this new effort can lead the People of God to a new knowledge of today's problems, a deeper understanding of the intricate forces that lead to group conflict, and a perception of some new and promising approaches that we might take in promoting a greater spirit of solidarity among those who are successful, those who acquired some share of the nations goods, and those still trapped in poverty. xxvi The promising approaches which the bishops called upon Catholics to support with time, treasure, and talent included community organizing and economic development initiated and led by poor people themselves. Listen to these words they were not uttered by sociologists, or community organizers, or political activists, but rather by the Catholic hierarchy of our country:

There is an evident need for funds designated to be used for organized groups of white and minority poor to develop economic strength and political power in their own communities. xxvii As we celebrate another milestone anniversary year for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, we must be grateful for the strong promotion by the clergy and the generous support of the Catholic faithful in response to this Campaign. As a result of such commitment, the Campaign has been able to offer more than $260 million in national grants for community organizing and economic development sponsored by more than 4,000 community-based, self-help groups of empowered people.

These statistics do not tell the whole story, however. Much more compelling is the direct witness of the beneficiaries who proudly show off their renewed neighborhoods that have been taken back from slum landlords, drug dealers, pimps, and gangs that once terrorized them. So too the participants in CCHD-funded groups boast of the progress made by their children in schools which have benefited from the stronger parent-teacher collaboration and expanded budgets made possible through their organizing efforts. Neighborhoods which had lost all local supermarkets and other commercial services now are welcoming back the merchants and are hosting the businesses initiated by groups of poor and low-income people themselves. Youth and young adults are beginning to dream again  not of ways to escape the oppressive cycle of poverty by drugs or alcohol or group violence, but rather of empowering actions to improve their surroundings and to look forward to a bright new future. So, too faith and action life within parishes in inner cities, suburbs, and rural areas is strengthened by the leadership development that takes place among their members when they participate in community-based, self-help groups such as those supported by CCHD.

Upon founding the Campaign, the bishops insisted that it not only direct its efforts at accompanying the poor but also sensitize the consciences of those with greater financial stability and access:

Poverty is the result of circumstances over which the poor themselves have little or no control. We hope to impress these facts on the non-poor and to effect in them a conversion of heart, a growth in compassion, and sensitivity to the needs of their brothers (and sisters) in want. xxviii In November 2002, the bishops of the United States renewed that same objective by issuing a pastoral message, entitled A Place at the Table xxix, which reminds Catholics of their obligation to respond to the plight of poor and low-income people with sensitivity and effective action. I suspect that the bishops, like most of us here present this evening, simply could not understand how or why so many Americans can quietly ignore the plight of some 35.9 million of our sisters and brothers in the human family who are burdened by poverty each day. That startling number amounts to 12.5% of our nations population and nearly 10% of our families. Among them are 12.9 million children, as well as one-quarter of all African-Americans. xxx

In a special effort to listen directly to the cries of the poor, just as the prophets counseled during Old Testament times, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development has surveyed the beliefs and attitudes of Americans with regard to poverty in our nation. The results of these surveys then are used to design our annual PovertyUSA Initiative that includes a public service advertising campaign that has attracted more than $36 million in free, educational advertising. Moreover, CCHD continues to sponsor diocesan- and parish-based educational programs to build greater solidarity among Catholics and their neighbors who are making their best efforts to break the cycle of poverty in America. Finally, CCHD also is grateful to its sister social ministry organizations and offices, well represented in this co-sponsored event, for their strong collaboration in raising consciousness among Catholics and other people of good will to the plight of poor and low-income people in America.

In concluding our reflection this evening, we continue to lament the fact that our world, our country, and, yes, even our Church, are far from realizing the vision of being Founded on Truth, Built on Justice, and Animated by Love . Despite the abundance of Gods creation, poverty and underdevelopment persist; violence and terrorism threaten security in all parts of the world; prejudice and discrimination rob countless individuals and communities of their basic rights and freedom; abortion and euthanasia snuff out the sacred breath of human life when it is at its most vulnerable stages. Most recently, Catholics in the United States have been sickened by the revelation that, during the past fifty years, sacred trust and responsibility were betrayed by nearly 5,000 priests when these clerics sexually abused minors and by the further news that some bishops covered over these crimes in a misplaced effort to protect the good name of the Church. Francis Cardinal George described the threats to Church unity during his address to the Holy Father at the time of the bishops ad limina visits to the See of Peter last year:

The Church's mission is threatened internally by divisions which paralyze her ability to act forcefully and decisively. On the left, the Church's teachings on sexual morality and the nature of ordained priesthood and of the Church herself are publicly opposed, as are the bishops who preach and defend these teachings. On the right, the Church's teachings might be accepted, but bishops who do not govern exactly and to the last detail in the way expected are publicly opposed. The Church is an arena of ideological warfare rather than a way of discipleship shepherded by bishops. xxxi Should these modern sinful realities lead us to conclude that Gaudium et Spes might best be considered as a failed experiment? Such a conclusion could be justified only if we label the Cross of Jesus Christ as a defeat as well! Just as they were upon conclusion of Vatican Council II, the energy, resources, and expertise to overcome present trials being faced by both the Church and by the wider global community are all present among the people of God  right here in this room. With Gods grace to accompany and inspire us, let us go forth from this Social Ministry Gathering with renewed determination to enter into the deep ( duc in altum), as Pope John Paul II constantly has urged throughout the time of his pontificate. With such faith and determination, we can attain a more profound understanding of and commitment to the vision of the Church that was painted by the Fathers of Vatican II. Finally, let us heed more acutely than ever before the challenge posed to us by our Holy Father during his last visit to the United States:

America: If you want peace, work for justice. If you want justice, defend life. If you want life, embrace the truth  the truth revealed by God. xxxii

iAd Petri Cathedram, Encyclical of Pope John XXIII on Truth, Unity, and Peace, in a Spirit of Charity, June 29 1959, #19, petri_en.htm01/26/2000.

iiIbid., #71; cf., J. H. Newman, Difficulties of Anglians, v. 1, 261 ff.

iii As quoted by John XXIII, in Ad Petri Cathedram, #41; Radio address to the 73rd Congress of German Catholics: Discorsi e radiomessaggi di S.S. Pio XII, v. 11, 189. AAS 41 (1949) 460.

ivIbid., #127-128.

vIbid., #72.

vi Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes promulgated by His Holiness, Pope Paul VI, on December 7, 1965, #1,

viiIbid., #4.

viiiIbid., #4-5.

ixIbid., #10.

xIbid., #12.

xiIbid., #12.

xiiIbid., #29.

xiiiIbid., #31.

xivIbid., #43.

xvIbid., #52

xviIbid., #55.

xviiIbid., #60.

xviiiIbid., #63.

xixIbid., #65.

xxIbid., #69.

xxiIbid., #70.

xxiiIbid., #75.

xxiiiIbid., #76.

xxivIbid., #81.

xxvIbid., #93.

xxvi National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Resolution on Crusade Against Poverty, 1969.


xxviii United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Statement affirming the Campaign for Human Development, 1970.

xxix United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, A Place at the Table: A Catholic Recommitment to Overcome Poverty and to Respect the Dignity of All Gods Children. Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2002.

xxx U.S. Catholic officials worried by rise in number of poor, uninsured, Catholic News Service, August 27, 2004; U.S. Census Bureau released on August 26, 2004.

xxxi Chicago Cardinal Georges Remarks to the Pope: Church's Ability to Evangelize is Diminished,, June 1, 2004.

xxxii Pope John Paul II, address during Vespers at St. Louis Cathedral, January 27, 1999.