Wojtyla on Gaudium et Spes


Kenneth D. Whitehead has recently published an excellent book about Vatican II entitled The Renewed Church: The Second Vatican Council’s Enduring Teaching about the Church (Sapientia Press, 2010). (amazon ) Mr. Whitehead has produced a number of excellent books on the Church and he has edited the proceedings of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars for years. He served as Assistant Secretary of Education under Bill Bennett. I will disclose that he is a friend of mine and I have the deepest admiration for his quiet and steady work. He shared with me the story that he came to be a Catholic (from a Morman background) after he read E. Gilson’s L’esprit de la philosophie medievale (The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, one of my top ten books) during his graduate studies in France.

His books on Vatican II, culminating with this one, provide a much needed balance of critical examination with a willingness to listen, and a balance of looking at the interminable and political debates during the Council with a grasp of the significance of the Council and its documents as whole. There are many valuable details, insights, judgments, and arguments in this book. I may return to them for later blogs. I would like to focus on Mr. Whitehead’s account of Cardinal Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II’s involvement with Gaudium et Spes and his subsequent use of the document during his pontificate.

Whitehead notes that of all the misunderstandings of the Council, the misunderstanding of Gaudium et spes ranks high on the list. The fiasco of the “call to Action” in Detroit 1976 is the prime example of where things went wrong. He looks instead to the legacy of Pope John Paul II. He summarizes John Paul’s two favorite passages from Gaudium et spes: §22 and §24: “The dual teaching that the mystery of man can be understood only in the light of the mystery of Christ and that man is the only creature created by God for its own sake.” (174) The chapter of The Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes) is the best I have yet seen in getting things right about the council and this document.

Of interest is a quotation he discovered by Pope John Paul II in which he admitted the great debt he owed to this document for the major themes of his pontificate. “It is precisely my intimate knowledge of the origin of Gaudium et spes that has enable me to appreciate its prophetic value and to make wide use of its content in my magisterium, starting with my first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis.” (169)

As a way into the thought of Pope John Paul II, I always take this approach. Begin by reading Gaudium et spes, and then read Redemptor hominis. Focus on section 22 of GS and see how that theme provides the backbone for his reflections on the crisis of our time and the Christian response.

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