4.3.4 Democracy in CST texts (iii): Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes

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Unit 4 Contents


Less than three months after John XXIII had become Pope in 1958, he announced that there would be an extended council of all the bishops of the Catholic Church.  This came to be called the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, and it was the first such event for nearly 100 years, since the First Vatican Council (1869-70).  (These meetings are called ‘Vatican’ councils simply because their location was Vatican City; all previous such church councils had met in other locations.)

The Second Vatican Council met in four sessions (each about two months long) from 1962 and 1965.  Pope John XXIII opened this momentous event, but he died in 1963, between its first and second sessions.  He was succeeded by Paul VI who was pope for 15 years until 1978.

The Council coincided with the 100th anniversary of the publication of the Syllabus of Errors of 1864, which, as you will recall, had been the Catholic Church’s sharpest expression of opposition to all that the legacy of the French Revolution represented.  In contrast to that statement, the sixteen documents issued by the Second Vatican Council together formed a much more constructive and positive engagement with the modern world.  One of these documents is especially significant in this regard, Gaudium et Spes. As with all Catholic Church documents, this title is taken from its opening words, which themselves communicated a sense of identity between the Church and people struggling with their lives in the world – rather than criticism or condemnation of what was wrong with the world:

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. (Gaudium et Spes, #1)

This is, of course, a statement of the obvious!  The struggles of ordinary life experienced by most Christians are the same as experienced by others.  But this Vatican II document was widely recognized as marking a fundamentally different mode of engagement with the world from that of the Syllabus of Errors one hundred years earlier.  The new mode was characterized by openness and by recognition of shared experience.  This characterized Gaudium et Spes especially, which is now seen as one of the key statements of Catholic Social Teaching

Gaudium et Spes (GS) is divided into two parts.  The first focuses on theological questions, especially to do with the human person and the role of the Church in the world.  The second part has the heading ‘Some Problems of Special Urgency’ and it addresses, in its first three chapters, marriage and family, human culture, and economic life.  The fourth chapter is on ‘The Life of the Political Community’ and this goes further in what it says about political participation than Pacem in Terris had done.  You are now asked to read a few pages from this chapter.

You will notice that, near the start of the reading, this document takes up the theme of the “present keener sense of human dignity” which we saw was present in Pacem in Terris.  This has led to “a growing desire among many people to play a greater part in organizing the life of the political community” (#73).


Reading (7pp)

Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, chapter IV (##73-76)


In #73, GS reiterates the basic point that government must not be diverted from “the service of the common good to the interests of one or another faction or of the rulers themselves”.  In #74, it twice reaffirms that the form of government can properly differ according to historical circumstances.  In #75 it makes a clear statement of support for participatory politics (in a way that is similar way to PinT) and it goes on to give stronger support for democracy than earlier CST documents had done – even if this is only implied, through the reference to “election of political leaders”:

It is in full conformity with human nature that there should be juridico-political structures providing all citizens in an ever better fashion and without any discrimination with the practical possibility of freely and actively taking part in the establishment of the juridical foundations of the political community and in the direction of public affairs, in fixing the terms of reference of the various public bodies and in the election of political leaders (#75).



From all you have learned through this unit about democracy, and in light especially of the whole of this short reading from GS, to what extent does this statement signify a clear endorsement of democracy?


In looking at the main principles of CST in Unit 1, we gave attention to ‘the preferential option for the poor’ (1.3.6).  This means that institutions should seek to operate in ways that will especially benefit those who are poor, and that individuals should seek to act in this way too.  It doesn’t mean that ways of operating that do not do that are inherently unacceptable, but that these could and should be changed for the better.  One scholar, Kenneth Grasso, has expressed CST’s position on democracy vividly by likening it to what that principle stands for.  By the end of Vatican II, the Church’s teaching had come to have “a preferential option for consititutional democracy”:

Embracing constitutional democracy, the council in no way contradicts its simultaneous insistence that the Church is not committed to any particular political system…  Circum- stances, it makes clear, may not only make another form of government legitimate, but may require it.  What the council affirms is that, in principle, consitutional democracy is preferable to other forms of government; and it ought to be instituted whenever and wherever the preconditions for its actualization and proper operation are present.1

We have now traced the development of CST on political participation and democracy from Pius XII’s 1944 Christmas Message to Gaudium et Spes two decades later.  What this has shown is that there is consistently an emphasis on participation.  For Pius XII, the need for active participation was because it can be a safeguard against those in power abusing ‘the masses’.  For John XXIII and Vatican II, the principal point was that participation in public life is a good for human persons – it contributes to human fulfilment.

The latter position is in keeping with the classical republican tradition that goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. This holds that to be properly and fully human, citizens need to take part freely in governing the polis; this is one of the main things our human capacity to exercise freedom is for.

Even though there is only one direct reference to ‘democracy’ or ‘democratic’ in the CST documents of the 1960s, what we find in them is such a strong emphasis on the good of political participation that they may be seen as making a participation-based argument for modern republican or democratic politics. We shall compare and contrast this with other ways of arguing for democracy in the final part of this unit (4.4.1).



End of 4.3.4

Go to 4.3.5 Democracy in CST texts (iv): John Paul II, Centesimus Annus

Module B outline

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  1. Kenneth L. Grasso, ‘Beyond Liberalism: Human Dignity, the Free Society, and the Second Vatican Council’, in Kenneth L. Grasso, Gerard V. Bradley and Robert P. Hunt (eds), Catholicism, Liberalism and Communitarianism: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition and the Moral Foundations of Democracy (Lanham, MD: Rowman, & Littlefield, 1995), pp. 29-58, at p. 32