Vatican II challenged the Church to leave its tidy ‘world apart’ of recent centuries and to share in the ongoing struggles of human history.


The two key documents of Vatican II were Lumen Gentium (which replaced the juridical ecclesiology of recent centuries with an ecclesiology inspired by Christian faith’s earliest vision of the Church as a mystery of solidarity in the Saviour’s Paschal Mystery), and Gaudium et Spes (which called the Church to leave the ‘world apart’ in which it has lived in the modern period, to share in the hopes and struggles of humanity’s journey into the future).

Both of these documents were revolutionary, and it is not surprising that the principal internal tensions within Catholicism today relate to issues which are central to these constitutions: the issue of collegial pastoral responsibility, which is a corollary of the solidarity in the mystery of Christ taught by Lumen Gentium, and the issue of the Church’s collaborative relationship with the cultures of the human family initiated by Gaudium et Spes.

With regard to the second issue, it has become clear that there is a profound difference of opinion between John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, his principal aide. Understanding this difference helps us to appreciate what is at stake if the Church is to follow the lead of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.


Bishop Wojtyla collaborated with Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac in the preparation and promotion of the text that was to become Gaudium et Spes. They both acknowledged the remarkable nature of his contribution (c/f. Geo Weigel, Witness to Hope: The biography of Pope John Paul II, 1999 – page references below are to this work). In his diary, Congar noted Wojtyla’s ‘magnetic power’ and ‘prophetic strength’, and his arguing for a dialogue with contemporaries (p.168); in correspondence with de Lubac, Wojtyla told him that he was preparing a text on ‘the metaphysical sense and mystery of the PERSON’, because he believed that the ‘evil of our times’ was ‘a kind of degradation … pulverisation of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person’ (p.174 – This text was published in English as The Acting Person; the pope‘s position was developed in his weekly addresses, published as The Theology of the Body).

The great Paul VI identified with the position championed by Wojtyla at the council: ‘… evangelise human culture and cultures, in the sense of Gaudium et Spes, taking the person as starting point, and always coming back to relationships… the building up of the Kingdom must borrow elements of human culture and cultures … the Gospel can permeate all cultures without becoming subject to any one of them … cultures have to be regenerated by an encounter with the Gospel …’ (Evangelii nuntiandi n.20).

There are few people who have had the dramatic and tragic events of the 20th century become part of their personal experience as Karol Wojtyla has (‘I have participated in the great experience of my contemporaries – humiliation at the hands of evil’, Weigel, p.87). It is in this experience that the Christian humanism, which has consistently inspired his leadership, had its origins. Forming deep and lasting friendships, he helped his people to salvage their human dignity and inner freedom by reconnecting with their Polish heritage, as they bore the frustrations of life under a Marxist regime. It was an approach which effectively countered the influence of the regime without direct confrontation – and it led ultimately to one of the most important themes of his pontificate: the Church should influence the course of history, not by participating in the world’s political processes, but by the evangelisation of cultures (‘not by being a competitor or partner in the game of politics’, to liberated Poland, 1991).

Wojtyla’s coherent intellectual program that is echoed in Gaudium et Spes

As an academic and popular university lecturer, the future pope worked out a coherent Christian humanism. Some representative texts will help us to appreciate the vision he set out to share.

Optimism concerning human nature – ‘God does not despair of man’ so ‘neither may we despair of man’ (p.598, to Poles reflecting on the experience of World War II). Openness to the role of conscience – ‘While I talked to him for hours, I never heard him say, “I’d advise you to…” … he would always say, “You have to decide”’ (p.105, words of a mature acquaintance); ‘The Church proposes; she imposes nothing. She respects individuals and cultures and she honours the sanctuary of conscience’ (Redemptoris missio, compare Gaudium et Spes, n.16 and Weigel p.636). On the dignity of the person – ‘Re-acquire depth, the depth which is really the essence of the human person’ (p.547);

‘The giving of one’s self to others was a key norm in his personalist ethic: “The Law of the Gift” – Responsible self-giving, not self-assertion, is the road to human fulfilment’ (p.136 – c/f. Gaudium et Spes n.24; ‘Wojtyla suggested that we avoid “using” each other only when two genuine freedoms meet each other without reducing them to objects by manipulating them’ (p.141 – in the context of his wide experience with young students and married couples finding their way in their sexual life). On history and society – ‘The Church is convinced there is only one history – a history filled with God’s presence and redemptive promise: a promise providing the answer to the fears which haunt humanity’ (Weigel p.290, summarising the essential theme of Redemptor hominis, a theme which Wojtyla had championed in the debates of Vatican II); The world has to learn that difference, far from being a threat, is enriching, for ‘different cultures are but different ways of facing the question of the meaning of human existence’. And at the heart of every culture is a distinctive approach to ‘the greatest of all mysteries: the mystery of God’ (p.775, addressing the UN in 1995); Christian faith led Karol Wojtyla to stress the link between the strivings of the world’s cultures and the mystery of the Incarnation. Long before the debates of the council he was convinced of the fundamental importance of what the council was to declare; ‘only in the mystery of the incarnate Word is the mystery of our common humanity revealed to us’ (Gaudium et Spes n.22). This truth was to become a frequent refrain in his papal teaching.

It is clear that when the pope speaks of a new evangelisation, an evangelisation that is carried out through a dialogue with the world’s cultures, he is not resorting to a catchphrase, but proposing a pastoral approach that is profound and coherent. As one writer has put it, genuine religion, because it ‘orients human beings into the divine mystery which transcends all cultural achievements and grounds all truth, goodness and holiness’, opens the way to a dialogue which takes up the ultimate concerns of our common humanity (Matthew Lamb).


A recent biography of Joseph Ratzinger helps us to understand the ambiguous attitude he adopted after Vatican II – at which he had made an important contribution as a theological adviser (John L. Allen: Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican’s enforcer, 2000). This study suggests that he left the council unsettled. Lumen Gentium made him hopeful for a renewed Church; but Gaudium et Spes left him concerned that its openness to the broader world and its cultures would be detrimental to the Church’s welfare. Student unrest in the period immediately following the council only served to confirm this judgment. This reaction is associated with Ratzinger’s choice of Augustine as his principal theological guide. Augustine’s theological vision was an immense and complex work of genius. In it his stress upon the importance of God’s grace in the plan of salvation set up a dichotomy: human nature as either graced or fallen. This point of view sees no positive place for human nature, independently of grace, in the plan of God. Later Christian theology, following Aquinas, was to adopt a more adequate paradigm, acknowledging the positive potential of ‘nature’, between ‘graced humanity’ and ‘fallen humanity’.

The divergence of views between John Paul II (a follower of Aquinas) and Joseph Ratzinger (a follower of Augustine) is therefore profound. It has led the cardinal to ‘openly and publicly’ criticise the pope’s initiatives promoting inter-faith dialogue.

For the reasons we have given, the pope is ultimately optimistic about the prospects of a dialogue between Christian faith and the world’s cultural traditions. Joseph Ratzinger judges that such a dialogue can only run the danger of contaminating the doctrinal ‘givens’ of Christian revelation.

“.. CONSCIENCE is the most secret core and sanctuary of a person. There the person is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his or her depths … In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of the human family in the search for truth … Conscience frequently errs, from invincible ignorance, without losing its dignity…”

(Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, n.16)

CULTURE is the expression of two abilities which have made HUMAN HISTORY what it is … the ability to transcend oneself and make the universe, oneself, and one’s fellows into objects of contemplation, and a “drive” to try to “make sense” out of human experience and find some “principle” in the whole human situation.

(Australian anthropologist, W.E.H.Stanner)

The vitality of a society is bound up with its RELIGION … the cohesive force that unites a society and a culture … A society, which has lost its religion, becomes sooner or later a society that has lost its culture.

* * *

RELIGION is the key of history. We cannot understand the inner form of a society unless we understand its religion. We cannot understand its cultural achievements unless we understand the religious beliefs behind them. In all ages the first creative works of a culture are due to religious inspiration and dedicated to a religious end. The temples of the gods are the most enduring works of man. Religion stands at the threshold of all the great literatures of the world. Philosophy is its offspring and is a child that constantly returns to its parent.

(Historian, Christopher Dawson)

(Father John Thornhill SM is a Marist Father and well-known theologian. He is a writer and speaker, frequently addressing Australian audiences on the vision of Vatican II.)