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Beyond the Modern-Anti-Modern Dilemma: Gaudium et spes and Theological Method in a Postmodern Context1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 March 2013

Lieven Boeve
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven


The Church has the duty in every age of examining the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the gospel, so that it can offer in a manner appropriate to each generation replies to the continual human questionings on the meaning of this life and the life to come and on how they are related. There is a need, then, to be aware of, and to understand, the world in which we live, together with its expectations, its desires and its frequently dramatic character (Gaudium et spes 4).

Editorial Essay
Copyright © The College Theology Society 2007

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2 Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, ed. Tanner, Norman P., 2 vols. (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1990), 2:1070Google Scholar (hereafter in the text as GS with paragraph number).

3 The ideas and the line of thought presented in this essay have recently been articulated in more detail as a contextually-anchored theology of interruption, with casestudies and illustrations, in Boeve, Lieven, God Interrupts History: Theology in Times of Upheaval (New York: Continuum, 2007).Google Scholar

4 Borgman, Erik, Edward Schillebeeckx: A Theologian in His History, trans. Bowden, John (London/New York: Continuum, 2003), 346.Google Scholar See also p. 358: “According to Schillebeeckx's reading, the final message of the Council documents was that the Catholic Church was really itself only if it succeeded in giving credible form to God's salvation for the world in its structure, its speech and action. … He thought that the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes above all marked off an area. It bore witness to what for an official document was a new ‘“worldly” spirit, supported by faith in the Creator God who at the same time is our unmerited salvation, so that the whole of the concrete reality in which we live comes to us as grace in the ordinary things of every day, in the face of our fellow human beings and in the great aspirations of present-day humanity’” (quoting Edward Schillebeeckx, Eindresulaat, in idem, Het Tweede Vaticaans Concilie, vol. 2 [Tielt/Den Haag: Lannoo, 1966], 69).

5 Tracy, David, “The Uneasy Alliance Reconceived: Catholic Theological Method, Modernity, and Postmodernity,” Theological Studies 50 (1989): 548–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

6 Cf. Joseph Ratzinger, “Angesichts der Welt von heute. Überlegungen zur Konfrontation mit der Kirche im Schema XIII,” in idem, Dogma und Verkündigung (Munich: Wewel, 1973), 183–204, at 199–200.

7 For this paragraph and further references see Boeve, Lieven, “Gaudium et spes and the Crisis of Modernity: The End of the Dialogue with the World?,” in Vatican II and its Legacy, ed. Lamberigts, M. and Kenis, L., BETL 166 (Leuven: Peeters, 2002), 8394.Google Scholar The present essay is a further elaboration of the points raised there.

8 See the results of the European Values Study, which shows a detraditionalization and de-institutionalization of religion in Europe, leading not to its disappearance but rather to its transformation. Cf. Lambert, Y., “A Turning Point in Religious Evolution in Europe,” Journal of Contemporary Religion 19, 1 (2004): 2945.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

9 See, e.g., my analysis of Richard Kearney's The God Who May Be in “God, Particularity and Hermeneutics. A Critical-Constructive Theological Dialogue with Richard Kearney on Continental Philosophy's Turn (in)to Religion”, in Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 81 (2005): 305–33.

10 Cf. Campion, D. R., “The Church Today,” in The Documents of Vatican II, ed. Abbott, Walter M. (New York: Guild Press, 1966), 183–98, at 185Google Scholar; McDonagh, Enda, “The Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes),” in Modern Catholicism: Vatican II and After, ed. Hastings, Adrian (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 96112Google Scholar, at 102. See also Christie, Dolores L., Adequately Considered: An American Perspective on Louis Janssens' Personalist Morals, Louvain Theological and Pastoral Monographs 4 (Louvain: Peeters, 1990), 101–06Google Scholar, regarding the similarities between Gaudium et spes and the personalism of Louis Janssens (who in turn was influenced by the French personalist philosopher Emanuel Mounier).

11 It is, of course, from Johann Baptist Metz, that I have borrowed “interruption”; see his Glaube in Geschichte und Gesellschaft. Studien zu einer praktischen Fundamentaltheologie, (Mainz: Grünewald, 1977), 150, thesis VI; Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, trans. Smith, David (New York: Seabury/Crossroad, 1980), 171Google Scholar; also published in Unterbrechungen: Theologisch-politische Perspektiven und Profile (Gütersloh: Mohn, 1981), 86. I have endeavored, however, to elaborate this “Metzian” intuition as an theological-epistemological category, enabling us to profile contextually the Christian critical consciousness, both ad intra and ad extra.

12 See Boeve, Lieven, Interrupting Tradition: An Essay on Christian Faith in a Postmodern Context, Louvain Theological and Pastoral Monographs 30 (Leuven: Peeters/Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), chap. 6.Google Scholar

13 Even Jesus had to learn this, according to the testimony of the gospels of Matthew and Mark (Mt 15:21–28; Mk 7:24–30). When Jesus moves to the region of Tyre and Sidon, he encounters on his way a Canaanite or Syrophoenician woman, a non-Jew, who dares to ask him to cure her daughter possessed by a demon. At first, Jesus rejects her begging, and claims that his mission only concerns the Jewish people (“the lost sheep of the house of Israel”). It would be even illegitimate to be occupied with others (“it is not right to take the children's bread, and to cast it to the dogs”). The woman, however, refutes his refusal, “yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table.” At that instant, Jesus' narrative is likewise interrupted, and he starts to learn to open his narrative further, so that others too have their place in it. In the faith of the woman, God manifests Godself also outside the borders of Israel.

14 For an alternative rendering of this point, see God Interrupts History, chap. 9.