It is well known that Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II made very different assessments of Gaudium et spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.
Now that we are remembering Vatican II after fifty years, I propose that we revisit the question of the controverted legacy of Gaudium et spes. I argue that, whatever is problematic in the Pastoral Constitution, it has the great merit of giving us a kind of magna carta of what I call incarnational humanism.
For greater precision on incarnational humanism I turn to a seminal essay of the American Catholic theologian, John Courtney Murray, who was the most important American presence at Vatican II. In an essay entitled “The Question of Christianity and Human Values,” Murray draws a contrast between “eschatological humanism” and “incarnational humanism.” He articulates the stance of eschatological humanism in the following way:
Within the earthly City man is an alien; it is not his home, he does not find his family there, he is no longer even native to it, he has been reborn. At best, he is a pilgrim in its streets, a man in passage, restless to be on the way toward the Holy City that is his goal. While he lingers, almost literally overnight, his attitude is one of waiting and expectancy. . . . The only true human values are those which are supernatural and eternal. The works of earth, the objects upon which human energies may be poured out . . . are the works of time, only valuable because they fill in the time of waiting.
Christian readers of works such as The Imitation of Christ will recognize in them of the otherworldly spirit of eschatological humanism.
Murray proceeds to contrast this eschatological humanism with what he calls incarnational humanism, of which he says: the Church
carries on the mission of Christ “to save that which perished.” And that which perished was not only a soul, but man in his composite unity, and the material universe too, in that its . . . subjection to man was shattered . . . [when] it fell into a mysterious slavery of disobedience to human purposes, from which it longed for deliverance. The Church then is catholic in her redemptive scope; all men are to be saved, all that is human is to be saved. There is indeed to be a war upon the flesh, but in order that the body may be dignified. The Christian heart must cultivate a contempt for the world, but diligently cherish . . . reverence for the work of the Creator, who is Creator not only of heaven but of the earth. . . . Therefore in the perspectives of an incarnational humanism there is a place for all that is natural, human, terrestrial. The heavens and the earth are not destined for an eternal dust-heap, but for a transformation. There will be a new heaven and a new earth; and those who knew them once will recognize them.
Murray adds that for incarnational humanism “all that is good in the order of nature and of human and terrestrial values ‘merits’ doing, and that the doing of it can be . . . salvific of the doer, incorporative of the thing done into the one overarching Christian endeavor, the bringing of all things under the headship of Christ.” Incarnational humanism, then, has a certain thisworldly focus, which forms a contrast with the otherworldly focus of eschatological humanism.
Incarnational and Eschatological Humanism in Contrast
In the City of God Augustine speaks in the eschatological mode when he famously says (V.17), “For as far as this life of mortals is concerned, which is spent and ended in a few days, what does it matter under whose government a dying man lives, as long as they who govern do not force him to impiety and iniquity?” Augustine seems to set the bar very low. He does not expect much from human rulers and he is willing to put up with a great deal of wickedness from them, all because he feels so strongly his pilgrim status, his being someone who is just passing through. In the perspective of eternity it just isn’t worth the trouble to think through in detail what good government entails and to try to achieve it within human history.
We can see the very different perspective of incarnational humanism if we think of Catholic social teaching, that remarkable body of Catholic teaching, originating with Leo XIII, on how to infuse social and political and even economic life with the spirit of the Gospel. According to the social teaching of the Church we should, even though we have here no lasting home, give much thought and prayer and care to the right ordering of the temporal order, that is, of human society.
Let me then turn without further delay to a brief sampling of texts from Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes that seem to express a new kind of commitment to incarnational humanism.
The Relative Autonomy of Created Being
In paragraph 36, the Council fathers address the concern that religion might compromise “the autonomy of man, of organizations, and of science.” Instead of rejecting out of hand the appeal to autonomy, the Council fathers recognize a legitimate autonomy. Then they say: “By the very nature of creation, material being is endowed with its own stability, truth and excellence, its own order and laws.”
To feel the edge of this conciliar text, and to read it so that it jumps off the page at you, let me share a profound reflection of the great Romano Guardini. Writing in 1939 and expressing just the kind of reflection that prepared the ground in the Church for the incarnational humanism of Gaudium et spes, Guardini said
Much as we may admire the grandeur and unity of the medieval world view, we must not forget that this view contains at every point a kind of religious short-circuit. The absolute made so strong an impression that finite being did not come into view in its own proper being. . . . The answers that medieval man gave to questions about the nature of the world were often of a pre-critical kind, and he often gave a mythic, legendary rendering of the world.
Guardini says that the process of stripping the world of its mythic and legendary aspect was in one respect quite positive, for it involved a “coming of age” of mankind in relation to the world, a transition from the mind of a child to the mind of an adult. He said that in the early modern period “finite reality emerged in a new way and revealed its density, its insistence, its meaningfulness, its intrinsic value. Finite being came to consciousness and so did the seriousness of created being.” Guardini then explains the Christian substance of this new sense of the reality of the world: “what God creates He creates altogether, through and through. He releases the creature into its own being, its own standing, its own acting.” In other words, we would depreciate God as creator if we were to treat creatures as mere symbols of divine things and were to refuse to acknowledge the “being of their own” which God vests in creatures. Recall the thisworldliness of incarnational humanism; one can readily see how a certain thisworldliness is at work in the deepened sense of the relative autonomy of created being that was expressed in Gaudium et spes. In the lines that I quoted, the Council fathers do not just state the obvious, but they give us a deepened theology of creation.
Building Up the Earth
I turn now to one of the most striking expressions of incarnational humanism in Gaudium et spes. In paragraph 38 we read: “Constituted Lord by his resurrection and given all authority in heaven and on earth, Christ is now at work in the hearts of men and women by the power of his Spirit; not only does he arouse in them a desire for the world to come but he quickens, purifies, and strengthens the generous aspirations of mankind to make life more humane and conquer the earth for this purpose.” The work of Christ in our midst is not only otherworldly, it is also thisworldly. He not only prepares souls for eternity, but He also quickens our aspirations for an earthly life more worthy of human persons. Recall the words of John Courtney Murray about the salvific will of Christ: “All men are to be saved, all that is human is to be saved.” This means that the salvific will of Christ extends to the social and familial and political and cultural life of human beings.
We can perhaps understand better this aspect of the Council’s humanism if we remind ourselves of man’s place in the whole of creation. Many Christian thinkers have marveled at the fact that man occupies a unique position in creation, existing as he does at the border of matter and spirit. As a composite of matter and spirit man has a foot in the world of matter and a foot in the world of spirit. Some have seen this boundary position of man as something threatening; they have usually thought that it is matter that threatens, and have argued that man needs to protect himself by escaping into the spiritual world. But many other Christian thinkers have seen in our boundary position the glory of man. They say that we human beings, we embodied spirits, have the task of mediating between the world of matter and the world of spirit, of acting so that matter can become spiritualized and spirit can become embodied.
The Age of the Laity
It follows from the logic of incarnational humanism that the lay Christian takes on a special importance. Whereas the priest is entrusted with the sacred mysteries of the liturgy, the layperson is entrusted with the “building up of the earth.” As long as the building up of the earth is not given its due, as long as our humanism remains more eschatological than incarnational, the layperson remains in a way “underoccupied” in the Church. His life is divided between his secular professional work that lacks any lasting meaning, and his sacramental life, which alone has lasting meaning. He runs the risk of becoming a kind of secondclass Christian; the first-class Christian seems to be the priest or religiously consecrated person, who is completely devoted to that only thing that lasts. Then we get dangerously close to the tendency, sometimes found in the pre-conciliar Church that I grew up in, to reserve the call to holiness for priests and religiously consecrated persons, and to consign lay people to a minimal Christianity.
When one understands the seriousness of the lay work of building up the earth, of extending the redemption wrought by Christ to “all that is human,” once one discerns the priestly character of this work of extending redemption, one understands that lay people have to live the same total commitment of themselves to Christ that priests and religious live. Thus we arrive at texts in Gaudium et spes like this: “let them [lay Christians] be proud of the opportunity to carry out their earthly activity in such a way as to integrate human, domestic, professional, scientific and technical enterprises with religious values, under whose supreme direction all things are ordered to the glory of God” (no. 43). One sees how the Council’s teaching on the role of the laity is embedded in the thing I have been calling incarnational humanism.
Man Revealed to Himself in the Light of the Trinity
Now I turn to Gaudium et spes 22 and 24, two passages that John Paul II could not quote often enough. At issue is the doctrine of the Trinity, which seems at first to concern God and not man, and therefore seems not to contribute anything to our understanding of man and of the meaning of his earthly existence. But the Council fathers were able to make the Trinitarian faith of the Church fruitful for our understanding of our human being; they were able to show how this faith “reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling” (22).
The key text is in paragraph 24, where we read that the Lord Jesus, speaking of His oneness with His Father, “has opened up new horizons closed to human reason by implying that there is a certain parallel between the union existing among the divine persons, and the union existing among the sons of God in truth and love. This parallel shows . . . that man . . . can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself.” In other words, Gaudium et spes discerns in the Trinitarian faith of the Church the key to our human self-understanding; we can see what it means for us to give ourselves in love to another, by seeing how the Son of God lives only to do the will of the Father and to give glory to Him. These well-known passages exemplify the Christian humanism we are seeking, because for the first time they disclose something in the Trinity that is exemplary for our human existence.
Evangelization Based on Incarnational Humanism
In Gaudium et spes 19-21 the Council fathers address the problem of modern atheism. Consider for a moment what incarnational humanism can contribute to the Church’s encounter with atheism.
Recall the main argument advanced by the atheists. Nietzsche said that religion “slanders the earth,” meaning that it depreciates human goods, despises the body, looks with a jaundiced eye at any sign of human creativity and human strength, or at the great works of human culture. God is affirmed at the expense of human goods, he thought; devotion to God requires us to mortify our interest in human goods, to live for the next world so as to neglect the possibilities of this world. Thus God appears as a source of “heteronomy” for us, that is, as a law that is foreign to our deepest human aspirations, a law that does us violence as soon as we are held to obey it. The great Romano Guardini thought that Christian teachers have sometimes made the mistake of making God appear as a threatening “other.”
It seems clear that the best Christian response to this main argument of the atheists is incarnational humanism. Atheists September/October 2013 23 who encounter real incarnational humanists are forced to realize that God does not have to be affirmed at the expense of human flourishing. They are forced to realize that there is a way of venerating God that does not block but rather releases our energies for “building up the earth.” In Gaudium et spes 58 the Council fathers say that the Church “takes the spiritual qualities and endowments of every age and nation, and with supernatural riches it causes them to blossom, as it were, from within; it fortifies, completes and restores them in Christ.” If faith in God can be shown to have this fortifying effect on human culture, then the anxiety over heteronomy will be struck at the root.
Thus for the “new evangelization” incarnational humanism is fundamental. If we preach mainly in the spirit of eschatological humanism, then we play right into the atheists’ worries about human goods; we confirm their suspicion that God is affirmed at the expense of man. But if we preach in the spirit of Gaudium et spes, in the spirit of incarnational humanism, we can be heard in a new way; our proclamation can find a new kind of resonance in the hearts of our contemporaries. We can disarm their main objection to us.
On the other hand, Christianity is not merely a matter of fulfilling human aspiration; the main point of Christianity is not just to help in building up the earth. Jerusalem is not just an extension of Athens. The cross of Christ will always remain a folly to the Greeks. The admonition of Kierkegaard is perennially valid: “Woe to the person who betrayed and broke the mystery of faith, distorted it into public wisdom, because he took away the possibility of offense.” Christian apologetics cannot be based entirely on the humanistic fruit of Christian belief. But this fruit is, nevertheless, an important part of Christian apologetics; by avoiding an overly eschatological rendering of Christianity we can remove one main obstacle, and a needless obstacle, to gaining a hearing for the Christian message.
It might be appropriate to conclude this reflection on incarnational humanism with a profound thought from Bl. Duns Scotus, the great 14th century Franciscan theologian, who held the doctrine of the “absolute primacy of Christ.” By this he meant that the Incarnation is not just God’s response to our sin, it is not just for the sake of our redemption; Scotus held that already in His original plan of creation God had created the world for the God-man, and destined it to be subject to His kingship. The Son of God was destined to become man not just in the order of redemption but also in the order of creation. This means that the instaurare omnia in Christo (“to restore all things in Christ”) of St. Paul is not just a matter of Christ healing our wounds, but of standing at the center of a new creation. It means that He is destined to be present throughout creation in just the way envisioned by the Council and its incarnational humanism.