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The Reinterpretation of Gaudium et Spes in Veritatis Splendor

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 September 2014

Mary Elsbernd
Loyola University Chicago


Commentators have concluded that frequent reference in Veritatis splendor to Gaudium et spes demonstrates a continuity of thought with the pastoral constitution, characteristic of a reiterative model of the use of prior magisterial teaching, one continuous teaching applied to additional issues. Recent centuries have shown that the encyclical teachings are often a vehicle for papal reinterpretation or recontextualization of previous teachings. This paper contends that the use of Gaudium et spes in Veritatis splendor follows this second model. The study demonstrates: first, that the theological anthropology of Gaudium et spes is recast in a dualist, individualist concept in Veritatis splendor, and second, that Veritatis splendor has re-contextualized quotations from Gaudium et spes on change, conscience, human autonomy, and human anthropology into teachings on law and precept. Thirdly, reliance on selective wording from Gaudium et spes enables Veritatis splendor to transform the role of the moral theologian into that of exclusively a disseminator of magisterial teaching.

Copyright © The College Theology Society 2002

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1 This paper uses the English translation of Gaudium et spes as it appears in Abbott, W. M., ed., The Documents of Vatican II (New York: Herder and Herder, Association Press, 1966), 199308.Google Scholar For Veritatis splendor, the English text comes from Supreme Pontiff Pope John Paul II to all the Bishops of the Catholic Church Regarding Certain Fundamental Questions of the Church's Moral Teaching, Vatican City, 1993.

2 See Zieba, Maciej, “Truth and freedom in the thought of Pope John Paul,” in Wilkins, J., ed., Considering Veritatis splendor (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 1994), 3540, at 36Google Scholar: “Noticing that the document most frequently cited by the Pope is Vatican IIs pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes, we can conclude that the encyclical's perspective is that of Vatican II….” See also Oliver O'Donovan, “A Summons to Reality,” in ibid., 41–45, at 41.

3 Sometimes the reinterpretation takes the form of previous condemnation to approval as in the case of the right of workers to join unions. Rerum novarum held that workers had a right to join working associations. Pius X taught that Catholics needed to belong to Catholic unions. In 1931 Quadragesimo anno §35 pointed out that it was the consistent teaching of the church that Catholics belong to workers' unions. See also teachings on revolution and socialism. Sometimes the reinterpretation is a response to changing historical situations as in the case of the teachings on private property. In Rerum novarum, Leo XIII taught that private property was a primary right based on nature. Subsequent encyclicals gradually returned to the teaching of Thomas Aquinas that the primary right from nature was the right to access to the goods of the earth and private property was one way of providing that access. See also teachings on capitalism.

4 The significance of this effort is further illustrated by the fact that 33 of the 37 references cite the first four chapters (Part I) of Gaudium et spes which address foundational understandings in contrast to the special issues of Part II.

5 See also Veritatis splendor §50 where the “nature of the human person” is noted as a quotation from Gaudium et spes §51. Two points re-enforce the pattern already noted. First, Veritatis splendor goes on to define the “proper and primordial” nature of the human person as “the person himself [sic] in the unity of body and soul,” which points are not made in Gaudium et spes. Second, the context of Gaudium et spes §51 is contraception and the sentence which mentions the quoted material is making the point that objective standards “based on the nature of the human person and a person's acts” preserve both purposes of the marital act. The body-soul dualism thus is less the point of this reference than the context of contraception which Veritatis splendor moves to as an example of the meaning of natural law. (The non-inclusive language of the texts is quoted without further comment through the remainder of the article.)

6 In fact this suspicion is articulated in Veritatis splendor §31, wherein “the dignity of the human person and of his or her uniqueness, and of the respect due to the journey of conscience” are called “positive achievements of modern culture” which have been expressed in “more or less adequate ways, some of which diverge from the truth about man as a creature and image of God, and thus need to be corrected and purified in the light of faith.” This sentence is footnoted to Gaudium et spes §11, the transition paragraphs between noting the signs of the times and chapter one on the dignity of the human person. In §11, the values addressed in the signs of the times need purification. The dignity of the human person, personal uniqueness and conscience are not included in the signs of the times discussed in §§4—10.

7 In Veritatis splendor §73 a similar recontextualization of Gaudium et spes §22 takes place. In this instance Veritatis splendor refers to the morality of actions which characterize the newness of Christian life, which show (un)likeness to Christ, which show (un)faithfulness to the Spirit and which demonstrate openness to eternal life. Gaudium et spes §22 makes no mention of actions in its description of life in Christ. Since both numbers are in the same sections respectively as §71 and §17, one can postulate a train of thought seeking to stress actions in Christian living.

8 Given this context, it is noteworthy that the next sentence is a quotation from the “Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation,” issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on 22 February 1987.

9 See for a few examples: §23 reads (growing interdependence) “leads us to a deeper understanding of the laws of the social life which the Creator has written into man's spiritual and moral nature”; §25 states “Man's social nature makes it evident that the progress of the human person and the advance of society itself hinge on each other”; And §30 says “… no one … content himself with a merely individualistic morality.”

10 Several of the citations from Gaudium etspes, §§23—32 are also used out of context to substantiate the role of law and precepts. These will be dealt with in the next section.

11 One might make the case that Veritatis splendor addresses personal moral decisions and hence does not draw on quotations from chapter 2 of Gaudium et spes, entitled “The Community of Mankind.” The point which this section is making, however, concerns an understanding of the human person, who makes both personal and social decisions.

12 Gaudium et spes §24: “Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, ‘that all may be one … as we are one’ (Jn. 17.21–2) opened up vistas closed to human reason. For He implied a certain likeness between the union of divine Persons, and in the union of God's sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”

13 In a section of the final chapter reflecting on “For freedom Christ has set us free,” §86 apparently refers to the same paragraph of Gaudium et spes §24, albeit in a similar reshaping from a socially constitutive to a Thomistic personalist anthropology: “It is at once inalienable self-possession and openness to all that exists, in passing beyond self to knowledge and love of the other.” No reference to Gaudium et spes §17 on the dignity of human freedom is mentioned in this section.

14 See Modras, Ronald, “The Thomistic Personalism of Pope John Paul II,” Modern Schoolman 59 (1982): 117–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Wojtyla, Karol, “Personalism Tomistyczny,” Znak 13 (1961): 664–76.Google Scholar

15 See Selling, Joseph A., “The Context and the Arguments of Veritatis Splendor,” in Selling, J. and Jans, J., eds., The Splendor of Accuracy. An Examination of the Assertions Made by Veritatis splendor (Kampen, Netherlands: Kok Pharos Publishing House, 1994), 1170, at 57Google Scholar; and Lash, N., “Teaching in Crisis,” in Considering Veritatis splendor, 2734, at 29–30.Google Scholar

16 See “Gaudium et spes,” Acta Apostolicae Sedis 58 (1966): 1025–20, at 1048: “… ac dum civilizationem humanam infeiunt, magis eos inquinant qui sic se gerunt, quam eos qui iniuriam patinatur …” See “Veritatis splendor,” in AAS 85 (1993) 1133–1228, at 1206: “… quae est ‘humanitatis’ hominis violatio, in eo iam prius qui illum committit quam in eo qui eundem patitur.” It is also worth noting that in the listing of the practices detrimental to the common good, some minor wording is changed in spite of quotation marks signaling an exact quotation. “Suicidium” (Gaudium et spes) is changed to “ho-micidium” and “incarcerationes” is changed to “carcerationes.” The changes do not change the meaning, but such imprecision leaves questions about the attempt to render previous magisterial teachings faithfully.

17 See Johnstone, Brian V., “Erroneous Conscience in Veritatis splendor and the Theological Tradition,” in The Splendor of Accuracy, 114–35.Google Scholar

18 As Johnstone, ibid., 116, n. 10 indicates, these two points were both changes in the final text from earlier drafts, as part of the compromise document.

19 See footnotes 70 and 73. Although the latter says Gaudium et spes §47, attention to both Gaudium et spes §41 and §47 suggests the correct reference is §41.

20 The easy move from theologians in general in Gaudium et spes to moral theologians specifically in Veritatis splendor is not without difficulty. As long as the “revealed truths” with which theologians work remain the same for moral theologians, there is no problem. However, there is an uneasy sense as one reads the encyclical that “revealed truth” in moral theology may include more than in other theological disciplines.

21 Veritatis splendor §§2–3 with its quotation of Gaudium et spes §4 makes the same two shifts. The citation from Gaudium et spes in Veritatis splendor §2 reads: “[The Church is conscious of its] duty in every age of examining the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel, so that she can offer in a manner appropriate to each generation replies [respondere] to the continual human questionings on the meaning of this life and on how they are related.” Three comments are in order. First, both the Latin text and the English translation of Abbott translate respondere as a verb, “the Church can respond;” the English translation in Veritatis splendor translates respondere as a noun, i.e., a static answer. Second, the previous sentence in Veritatis splendor confirms this shift: the church “offers to everyone the answer….” Third, the sentence following the quotation from Gaudium et spes §4 sets forth the role of the Church's pastors as “they guide and accompany them [the faithful] by their authoritative teaching….”