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Vatican II on Catholics in public life

“One of the gravest errors of our time,” stated the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, “is the dichotomy between the faith which many profess and the practice of their daily lives.”

Silhouette of St Peter's Basilica and colonnade, Vatican City. (Image: Raimond Klavins/Unsplash.com)

The Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (often referenced by its Latin title, Gaudium et Spes) is typically regarded as the most “progressive” of the 16 documents of Vatican II: the conciliar text that bespoke a new Catholic embrace of modernity while aligning the Church with liberal democratic political forces throughout the world.

Like every other conciliar document, however, the Pastoral Constitution only comes into clear focus when it’s read through the prism of the council’s two most authoritative texts, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) and the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium). Dei Verbum taught that God really does speak to humanity in history, and that the revelation of God’s intention for humanity, definitively manifest in Jesus Christ, is binding for all time. Lumen Gentium taught that the Church is a “sacrament” or “sign and instrument….of communion with God and unity among all men,” The Church embodies that by heeding the Great Commission: by proclaiming and living the Gospel of Jesus Christ, thus bringing the truth about God and us to the whole world.

That, according to the two fundamental documents of Vatican II, is the best thing the Church can do for the modern world: evangelize it. Everything else flows from that.

There were to be no exceptions to the scope of the Church’s evangelization. So the council taught that public life, including the tangled world of politics, was a field to be evangelized and thereby revitalized with the leaven of Christian truth. That meant, in the main, lay Catholics working in the public space to promote the dignity of the human person and the common good.

Gaudium et Spes had a lot to say about the Christian responsibility to contribute to the common good, about which it took a broad view: by the “common good,” Vatican II meant not just a prosperous economy, environmental protections, proper health care, and the legal protection of basic human rights, but the ongoing pursuit of a social order characterized by truth, justice, virtue, solidarity, and mutual responsibility. Meeting that responsibility to advance the common good, the council taught, required Catholics to lead coherent lives.

The Pastoral Constitution therefore reminded the people of the Church that “it is a mistake to think that, because we have here no lasting city, but seek the city which is to come, we are entitled to shirk our earthly responsibilities.” There could be no such shirking, for “by our faith, we are bound all the more to fulfill these responsibilities according to the vocation of each.”

Thus life in politics, which the council described as a “difficult yet noble art,” ought to be lived as a vocation by Catholics. And there could be no bifurcation in living out that vocation, or indeed any other. “One of the gravest errors of our time is the dichotomy between the faith which many profess and the practice of their daily lives.” The prophets of the Old Testament had “vehemently denounced this scandal,” Gaudium et Spes noted, as did Christ himself, who “with greater force threatened it with severe punishment.” There could be no “pernicious opposition” between a Catholic’s “professional and social activity,” on the one hand, and his or her “religious life,” on the other.

Coherently Catholic public officials, whose faith illuminates the truths that make for human flourishing and who integrate those truths into their political lives, are the Catholics who best reflect the Church’s intention to “establish and consolidate the human community according to the law of God.” Catholics who promote or who refuse to take effective action against grave offenses against human dignity (among which Gaudium et Spes listed abortion, euthanasia, and violations of the human person through mutilation) not only fail to contribute to the common good while doing severe damage to society; they also declare themselves incoherent Catholics, who are, objectively, not in full communion with the Church.

This is the challenge that the most progressive document of the Second Vatican Council puts today before the President of the United States, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. senators from both sides of the aisle, and the many other public officials who persist in living a “pernicious opposition” between their “professional activity” and their “religious life.” It is not a partisan challenge. It is not a traditionalist challenge. It is not a politicized challenge. It is Vatican II’s challenge.

Their fellow-Catholics among the laity have an obligation to bring this challenge of coherence to the attention of these brethren in Christ. So do their pastors.


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About George Weigel 341 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).

17 Comments

  1. Rather than “incoherence,” I think of this dichotomy as a disintegration of the body and soul. People of integrity (integration) know that what they profess to believe must agree with how they live. This integration of belief and practice is essential for a healthy soul. I don’t think this is just semantics, either, as incoherence actually describes something that is confused to the point of being unintelligible. The politicians cited in Weigel’s article are certainly not incoherent when they support all the immoral pieces of the Left’s agenda. In fact, they are quite clear. My only question is how their individual souls react to the lack of integration when they present themselves for Communion in the Catholic Church. This, I’m certain, also applies to many in the pews across America and the world, but their disintegration is not visible to the larger population and probably doesn’t encourage a similar condition on many people. The scandal those in public life foist on others is the encouragement that it is okay to profess to believe something while acting in opposition to the professed beliefs. God help their souls.

  2. This being said to Politicians, all a politician has to do is say, “But according to Vatican ll” and they are then justified. The Council opened the door to any and all errors. That’s the Vatican ll Church for 55 years now. Look at the Church today, humanly speaking She is in complete disarray. We need to restore Christ’s Church to all her perfection, beauty, and dignity.

  3. Regarding double-speak, in all contexts:

    From Gaudium et Spes: “One of the gravest errors of our time is the dichotomy between the faith which many profess and the practice of their daily lives.”

    From the DIARY of St. Faustina: “O Eternal Truth, support me that I may have the courage to speak the truth even if it would come about that I would pay for it with my life. O Jesus, how hard it is to believe in this, when one sees one thing taught and something else lived” (n. 1482).

  4. One writer last week posited VCII as a failed council. Supporting that thesis is the Vatican’s failure to promulgate the teaching of Gaudium et Spes. Also supporting that thesis is along the failure of both hierarchy and laity to follow its teaching.

    Gaudium et Spes could just as well have remained unwritten for the little influence it has made on many. Faithful traditional orthodox Catholics knew what it said before it was written.

  5. Poor George…STILL trying to defend the indefensible, still trying to conflate heterodoxy with orthodoxy, and Tradition with modernism.

  6. From my comment, German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass born in predominantly Catholic Saarlouis, himself a Catholic believes what people do interrelationally as love, happily enjoying each other must be a good thing. What distinguishes the German Church phenomenon is a highly intellectualized understanding of the Christ message that ironically finds liceity in observation. Observation of human behavior is actually ground for identifying natural law for Aristotle and Aquinas. Behavior has changed radically from individuals coming out of the closet to a horde of homosexuals, and with that the anomaly of practice contrary to the faith one professes. Gaudium et Spes as G Weigel pointedly documents denounced the scandal of hypocrisy. Homosexuality has been intellectually absorbed as inherent to human nature, now itself become whatever we decide. The Church as we’re aware is not immune. Where is the truth if not in what human sexuality predominantly was since Adam and Eve, and evident in the biological differences meant to continue life. What our alleged New Epoch is said to reveal as the new norm, transgenderism is contradicted by the Christ revelation. A light eternal and inextinguishable.

  7. A question for all Catholics – clerics & religious & lay.

    Do we need to converse more and think more deeply about Holy Communion?

    After more than 70 years, my conclusion is that by receiving Christ’s Body from His Hands we are signifying our agreement to faithfully obey all God’s commandments, as He did and does. By sharing the chalice of His Blood we signify our agreement to love others, even our enemies, as He did and does.

    Every Holy Communion is our renewal of our solemn covenant with God in Christ.

    The popular idea that, by ‘sympathetic magic’, the sacrament feeds us with assurance of our righteousness and acceptability to God, seems to me to be a far less scripturally-sustainable concept. In teaching the magic of it, have we not opened the way to irresolvable questions, such as currently face the Church, of the worthiness or not of those who present themselves at the altar.

    If we emphasize more the solemn covenantal acts we enter into with God, through Jesus’ Body & Blood, that implicitly interrogates an intending communicant: “Are you a genuine follower of Christ or are you a hypocrite. Are you fully intending to obey as Christ obeyed and to love as Christ showed us how?”

    Might the very real possibility of trivializing our covenant with God (and the inevitable eternal consequences of that) soften the hearts of even the most obdurate of formalistic clergy, religious & laity, causing us to contemplate more deeply our intention in daring to covenant with God through Christ’s Body & Blood.

    My prayer is that such a change of emphasis would spearhead a renewal in committed obedience & persevering love among all Catholics. Soli Deo gloria.

    • A wonderful post for all of us to reflect upon Dr. Martin and may your prayer be answered.

      kevin your brother
      In Christ

    • Dr. Martin James Rice, Excellent comment, something I wish we could hear about every Sunday from the Ambo. Oh, Sacrament Most Holy, Oh Sacrament Divine, all praise and all thanksgiving be every moment Thine. Today is the feast of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament. Most Holy Mother pray that we love Christ in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, More and More!

    • The sacrilegious reception of Holy Communion is a DIRECT result of the adoption of the Novus Ordo missae and the novelties {reception in the hand, altar “girls”} which developed thereafter.

  8. “The Council stated… the Council wrote… the Council insisted….” What Council? The imaginary Council that is yet to be discovered so that its renewing power can be unleashed? Even though it was implemented by the same prelates who wrote and approved its documents? This is all so tedious.

    • Timothy J Williams, “What Council?” You rightly ask. I’ve always heard “The Council was hijacked” but didn’t know exactly how. Until I started reading the Biography of Pope Benedict XVl. According to him, St. Pope John XXlll announced the Council on Jan 25, 1959. The Council officially began on Pentecost May 17, 1959. The Documents were sent to all the Bishops of the world beforehand for their input, suggestions, and corrections. From St. Pope John XXlll we had 70 Council Decrees, the 1962 Missal, and the Apostolic Constitution on the importance of Latin. The Bishops of the world were called to Rome for October 11, 1962, for the beginning or rather the end of the Council. It was to be for the signatures of all the Bishops on the 70 Decrees of “The second Holy Vatican Synod” (Vatican ll). St. Pope John is quoted as speaking about the opening of the windows of the Church, the New Springtime, and saying “It’s a done deal now we can move forward ahead without fear”, it was his Council he was speaking of and not that of the Modernists. So why do the Modernists attribute these words to their illegitimate Council? St. Pope John XXll beforehand said he wanted a Council, “In line with the Tradition of Nicaea, Trent, and the First Vatican Council. The signing was to last 2 weeks, 3 weeks tops. The Modernists plotted up until the day before the opening. They maliciously with mal-intent voted the Council of St. Pope John XXlll out and they made their own God-forsaken Council. It was not blessed by God, that’s why it has no good fruit only bad fruit. This is the reason Archbishop Vigano calls for abolishing the illegitimate Council of the Modernists. Vigano asks, “By what authority, by what right did they have to do this?”. Your right, “What Council?” or Which Council? As there are two Councils, one collecting dust and the other still wreaking havoc after 55 years.

  9. When in seminary late 80s, we were told the council texts were superceded by the post-conciliar documents to implement it – so more important to read those. That’s how they implemented the demolition… Everyone focusses on the Council texts, but they were put to one side quite quickly? We should remember that the Lord provided us with Pope Benendict XVI to attend to some “unfinished business” (his words). The most important: any priest can return to the catholic religion as taught for 1958 years, offer the sacred latin liturgy without the permission from a compromised bishop. The Holy Spirit has thus been released precisely in the lead up the pinnacle of the great apostasy. Faithful priests with eyes to read the times and witness the horror of the death throws of the modernist heresy playing out under the guidance of pope Francis’ right hand C6 man Cardinal Marx, need only read the moto proprio of the martyr Pope to the letter and follow.

  10. Who declared these were the two most important documents from Vatican II? There were four dogmatic Constitutions.

    • Lumen Gentium and Dei Verbum are Dogmatic Constitutions; Gaudium et Spes is a Pastoral Constitution, while Sacrosanctum Concilium is a Constitution.

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