Anthropology of Gaudium et Spes ... in Light of Developments in Pope
John Paul II
For our purposes it will suffice to become familiar with the way in which Pope John Paul II has understood and interpreted the pastoral purpose of GS. That will follow these introductory remarks, which focus on the link between GS and Fides et Ratio (FeR).
That Pope John Paul II has been profoundly formed by and faithful to the general pastoral purpose and style of GS throughout his pontificate would be easy to show. He not only makes constant reference to GS, 22 and 24, referring to the former as encapsulating the motif of his pontificate. His most recent encyclical, FeR, stresses the unity of the two orders of knowledge, natural and supernatural. There is a “unity of truth” assured by the fact that God is Creator and Redeemer and thus the Author of what is revealed through creation and through the economy of salvation.
The fundamental presupposition of GS is precisely this unity of truth as it pertains to the human person, that is, to anthropology. “For though the same God is Savior and Creator, Lord of human history as well as of salvation history, in the divine arrangement itself, the rightful autonomy of the creature, and particularly of man is not withdrawn, but is rather re-established in its own dignity and strengthened in it” (GS, 41).1 There is a truth about the human person that is accessible to those without faith. This truth is not only confirmed by revelation, but also deeply enriched by it. How else can the Church enter into a dialogue with those without faith than to find some common ground, some starting point upon which both are in agreement?
FeR is an alarm bell. The more serene tone and optimistic outlook of GS have ceded to a direct and serious warning that the “crisis of man” has reached a new, critical point.2 Modern man has become so confused about himself that the very presuppositions for human fulfillment have been nearly eradicated: that there is objective and absolute truth; that man is made to search out this truth; and that he is capable of discovering it. These are under attack, being systematically rejected. Without them there is no foundation for the dispositions that create openness to a deeper understanding of the meaning of life based on faith. And without those dispositions, meaningful dialogue is impossible.
According to FeR, if modern man is not searching for the meaning of life, then he lacks an essential openness to the Gospel. For the Gospel is precisely “the definitive, superabundant answer to the questions that man asks himself about the meaning and purpose of his life.”3 Indifference to religion has become indifference to truth, and living as if God does not exist has led to the near annihilation of man’s most characteristic action, seeking the truth.
In FeR the Pope calls for a rediscovery of the integrity of the created order and of man’s place in it as one called to realize himself by seeking and discovering the truth, and of the mutual complementarity of faith and reason. The fundamental assertion of GS about man is that by being faithful to himself in seeking the truth, he is in fact being faithful to God, Who is the Author of human nature and thus of the innate desire to seek the truth. By seeking the truth man is in fact seeking God: “For God has willed that man remain ‘under the control of his own decisions,’ so that he can seek his Creator spontaneously, and come freely to utter and blissful perfection through loyalty to Him” (GS, 17).4
Another document of Vatican II, The Decree on Religious Liberty, put it this way:
In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life.6
The Pastoral Nature
of GS and the Question-Answer Dynamic of Faith
GS “displays the dynamism of the Church’s mystery” insofar as “it ‘actualizes’ the truth of redemption by bringing it close to the experience of modern man.”11 This is precisely the goal of the constitution, to develop “a specific kind of anthropocentrism emerging through the Christocentrism which the Constitution reflects so clearly.”12 Christ and modern man, these are the essential poles of the dialogue between the Church and the modern world.
1. The description of
the human condition
The description of the human condition in GS allows the Church to articulate the questions modern man is asking, the answers to which are found in Jesus Christ.13 This has several objectives. First, from the perspective of the Church and those with faith, it is necessary to have a precise understanding of those to whom she is called to extend God’s love. How can the Church serve without a deep understanding of those she is called to serve?
This corresponds to the overall pastoral purpose of Vatican II. To a narrow view of pastoral theology the Pope contrasts a broader understanding that Vatican II did not invent but simply rediscovered. The full meaning of “pastoral,” he has written:
Pastoral concern means the search for the true good of man, a promotion of the values engraved in his person by God; that is, it means observing that “rule of understanding” which is directed to the ever clearer discovery of God’s plan for human love, in the certitude that the only true good of the human person consists in fulfilling this divine plan.15
A second objective of setting forth the human condition is that it can create a positive disposition in non-Catholics and non-Christians to be open to the answer that the Church provides. If the Church’s analysis and descriptions are accurate and cogent, she gains credibility. If the words she puts to the experiences common to people assist them in understanding themselves, then the credibility gained here can be transferred to the answer.
Finally, this process benefits believers in no small way. The description of man’s condition in the world serves to help keep the fundamental questions alive for believers, so that the relevance of their faith is more profoundly perceived and appreciated. “Faith hears the answer because it keeps the question alive. It can receive the answer as such only if it is able to understand its relevance to the question.”18 St. Paul, apparently, employed a similar process in chapters seven and eight of Romans, contrasting life without the Holy Spirit and life in the Holy Spirit.19 Those with faith value that faith more when they consider what life would be like without it, that is, when they see it an answer to real questions.
To lose sight of the relation between faith and fundamental questions is to invite a crisis of faith:
In the process of thinking, an answer without a question is devoid of life. It may enter the mind; it will not penetrate the soul. It may become a part of one’s knowledge; it will not come forth as a creative force.20
Discovering in faith that in Jesus Christ God has given the definitive answer to man’s questions is precisely what gives faith its existential value. Existential faith is “a state of consciousness and an attitude” that give rise to actions by which the content of faith is lived out because it is seen to give meaning to life.23 This, in turn, is the antidote to “the split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives [which] deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age” (GS, 41).24 The awareness of the correspondence between those questions, rooted as they are in human nature,25 and God’s answer in Jesus Christ, is the foundation for the joint witness of our own spirit and the Holy Spirit that Christians are adopted sons of God (see Romans 8:16).
2. Christ is the Answer
Immanent and Transitive
The foundation for this movement toward the interior is the conviction that “by his interior qualities man outstrips the whole sum of mere things” (GS, 15). The Pope recognizes that the description of man “from the outside” is limited. For a proper analysis man must be looked at “from the inside.”27
Without a doubt, this movement from the external and observable to the internal and secret aspect of human life and experience is a hallmark of the Holy Father’s magisterium. In an unmistakable way he links this to the distinction between immanent and transitive action when defining human work as “a ‘transitive’ activity, that is to say, an activity beginning in the human subject and directed toward an external object.”28
Though many may immediately pair “transcendent” with “immanent,” in the anthropology of Thomas Aquinas, immanent activity is an intransitive activity. That is, immanent activity remains within the human agent, and is distinguished from transitive activity that originates in man but results in an alteration of something outside the man. Knowing and loving are the defining immanent activities of man, and they constitute his perfection.29
In more contemporary language, Rocco Butiglione, summarizing the thought of Karol Wojtyla, gives a restatement of immanent activity being the perfection of human agents. “The fact that the person realizes himself through a free act is more important than the content of the act itself. That a man acts as a man, guided by his intelligence and following the impulse of his will, is more important and of greater value than the objective modification itself which his act introduces into the world. By acting freely, in fact, man inserts himself into the personalist order, which is his proper order. The personalist value of the action precedes the moral value in the sense that only an action of the person can have moral value.”30
Without employing terminology specific to the Catholic theological tradition, GS applies this principle in its rendition of the binding force of an erroneous conscience when it teaches: “Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity” (GS, 16). Another application is the assertion that more harm comes to those who commit acts that are opposed to life and human dignity than to those who are the victims of such acts.31 That this constitutes a potential point of encounter with non-Christians is evident in the fact that Socrates valued his own internal integrity of virtue more than life itself, declaring that he would rather be the victim of an injustice than to commit an injustice.
Two other applications of the principle are, first, the Constitution’s consideration of “all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way”(GS, 22), and, second, the concern for the split between the faith professed and daily life (GS, 41). Regarding the latter, GS stands in the tradition of the OT prophets, and Jesus Himself, in their charge that religious practices and ritual — even sacrifice (see Heb 10:5-9) — do not constitute justification. Faith, the entrusting of oneself to God, justified Abraham before he fulfilled the command to be circumcised (see Romans 4), and Jesus declares that the woman who gave quantitatively the least gave the most because of her immanent act of faith (Mk 12:43).
GS frequently introduces considerations of the moral order into its treatment of the pressing issues confronting man in the modern world. The point is that technology, science and efficiency are not adequate means to the realization of man’s dignity; nor are they adequate means for addressing problems regarding the family, economics, politics, and questions of war and peace. Ultimately, in order to make the world more human and more worthy of human dignity, man must learn to conduct himself as a moral agent. Concretely, this means that he must be guided by a properly formed conscience, and attend to his immanent actions of knowing and loving as constituting his perfection.
The assertions of GS
on the primacy of moral norms for human conduct and for the proper
ordering of all action and relationships are spread throughout the
document. This makes it possible for the theme to be overlooked by
a casual reader. Pope John Paul II made this theme the focus of his
first encyclical, Redeemer of Man.
Dignity, Image of
God, and Conversion
These texts make it clear that to understand the Church’s mission one must have a clear notion of human dignity. Further, Vatican II as a pastoral council stressed human dignity because this is an important point of contact between the Church and the world. In its pastoral dialogue with the world, GS stresses that “the recognition of God is in no way hostile to man’s dignity, since this dignity is rooted and perfected in God” (GS, 21).
What, precisely, is human dignity? For GS, it is defined in terms of man’s capacity, and thus his vocation, to enjoy communion with God.
The root reason for human dignity lies in man’s call to communion with God. From the very circumstance of his origin man is already invited to converse with God. For man would not exist were he not created by God’s love and constantly preserved by it; and he cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and devotes himself to His Creator (GS, 19).
The reference here to man’s origin is significant. God the Creator placed in man the capacity for communion in truth and love. As the Pope has put it: “man is called to realize the dignity of his own person and the basis of this vocation must be sought in his very nature, that is to say, in the work of creation.”34 This is why the “consciousness of creation” is an integral element of Christian self-awareness.35 This consciousness of creation as “the first and fundamental expression of God”36 is also the foundation for the “primacy of receptivity” in a Christ-centered anthropology.37 Creation is God’s first advance toward man, the first outflow of His love with a view to giving Himself to man and establish communion with him. Thus, human dignity is considered a vocation, something that can be realized or fulfilled. It is linked to the invitation to communion with God, and both the vocation to dignity and the vocation to communion are given to man “by reason of his own inner nature.”38
God created that capacity, not for frustration, but for fulfillment. With such capacity comes a natural desire to actualize it, and this desire and the actions that it animates manifest that “God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation . . . of love and communion.”39 Because every human person possesses the capacity for communion and is the recipient of this vocation, there exists an equality of dignity among all men (GS, 29).
Without recognition of God and the call to communion with him, as well as the mission of Jesus Christ, man has no hope of fulfilling his most fundamental capacity and his dignity “is most grievously lacerated” (GS, 21). The Church believes that its understanding of human dignity, rooted as it is in God’s acts of creation and redemption and fully revealed in Jesus Christ, is the safeguard against the misconceptions about man that lead to a diminishment of his dignity. Ultimately, man cannot protect, advance, or fully realize his dignity by his own efforts and institutions alone (GS, 41).
The communion with God, and its conditions and aspects of its content, are variously described by GS and linked with dignity. Thus, “the very dignity of man postulates that man glorify God in his body and forbid it to serve the evil inclinations of his heart” (GS, 14). Particularly important is freedom:
Pope John Paul II richly develops this connection between dignity and conscience throughout his writings. Two texts in particular manifest the Pope’s pastoral approach regarding conscience and dignity, concerned as he is to show that precisely here we have the most fundamental point of contact between the Church and the world. In a remarkable passage, he states: “When a man goes down on his knees in the confessional because he has sinned, at that very moment he adds to his own dignity as a man. No matter how heavily his sins weigh on his conscience, no matter how seriously they have diminished his dignity, the very act of truthful confession, the act of turning again to God, is a manifestation of the special dignity of man, his spiritual grandeur.”43
The other text is his description of conversion as the “laborious effort of conscience” responding to remorse caused by sin. Conversion begins with a sense of remorse for sin, that is, a spiritual form of suffering over moral evil. He connects this with the suffering of Christ on the Cross, which was also suffering on account of sin, and concludes that “When the Spirit of truth permits the human conscience to share in that suffering [of Jesus Christ], the suffering of conscience becomes particularly profound, but also particularly salvific.”44
For the Pope, the entire history of salvation and history of the human race are most profoundly grasped anthropologically, that is, with reference to conscience: “the conscience is the most important dimension of time and history. For history is written not only by the events which in a certain sense happen ‘from outside’; it is written first of all ‘from within’: it is the history of human consciences, of moral victories and defeats. Here too the essential greatness of man finds its foundation: his authentically human dignity. This is that interior treasure whereby man continually goes beyond himself in the direction of eternity.”45 Of course, to locate the meaning of history at the level of the conscience is to make it simultaneously a God-centered and Christ-centered history, since the object of the conscience is the voice of God and Christ died in order to sprinkle clean our consciences by His blood.46 The drama of history, both human and salvation, is captured in Christ’s appearing before Pilate in order to be judged. The reversal of sin, described by Augustine as the love of self to the contempt of God, is presented by the Pope as man sitting in judgment of God and, in Christ, God’s willingness to “make himself ‘impotent’” by subjecting Himself man’s judgment of conscience.47 There is no other way for God to penetrate the human heart while respecting His freedom.
It is important to note that in the anthropology of GS, as well as the development of John Paul II’s thought, dignity is used to signify both the capacity for communion with God given in creation and essential to human nature, and the realization of that capacity. As a result, it is possible to talk about an essential dignity, common to all, that is a property of human nature, and a qualified or fully realized human dignity, that is, the quality of a person who acts in conformity with his nature and enjoys communion with God.
The developments of Pope John Paul II prolong and enrich the direction provided by GS. If Christ is the answer to the questions occasioned especially by suffering, then conversion is the answer. Christ’s answer can only be personally appropriated through a transformation of the inner man. This theme is found in GS in several texts: “renewal of attitudes” that is assisted by the Holy Spirit (26); “purification and perfection” of all human activity that is disordered because of pride and inordinate self-love (37); inner renewal (13 and 22); “fashioned anew” (2).
Arguably the pinnacle
of the Pope’s anthropological teaching is Veritatis splendor.
In it he develops his teaching on truth and conscience. It is significant,
however, that the encyclical begins with a lengthy reflection on the
encounter between Jesus and the rich young man. Often overlooked in
favor of attention to his reiteration of the validity of teaching
on the natural law, this pastoral introduction is important, not only
because it employs the question-answer dynamic, but also because in
doing so it shows that the essential meeting place between God and
man is the moral dimension. More than anything else, God wants to
speak to us about the state of our moral conscience: “Christ asks
you about the state of your moral awareness, and at the same time
he questions you about the state of your conscience. This is a key
question for man.”48 The more technical consideration of moral theology
concerning the natural law must be seen in terms of a personal encounter
with Christ, a dialogue of salvation at the level of conscience. The
Pope wants people who study moral theology to realize that there is
more at stake than merely theological options. Human dignity itself,
that is, our relationship with God, hangs in the balance.
of Pope John Paul II
This has been a theme running through his pontificate, as seen for example in Evangelium Vitae: “It is the outlook of those who do not presume to take possession of reality but instead accept it as a gift, discovering in all things the reflection of the Creator and seeing in every person his living image (cf. Gen 1:27; Ps 8:5)” (EV, 83). Living with an awareness of having been loved coincides precisely with the “primacy of receptivity” discussed above.
2. The threefold mission
of Jesus Christ
As Prophet, Christ reveals the truth of God’s wisdom, the central content of which is that God is love and that man, made in His image, is invited to participate in this love. For the human person, “his relationship with truth is the deciding factor in his human nature and it constitutes his dignity as a person” and “is an integral part of the ‘mystery of man.’”52 Participation in the prophetic office of Christ is offered to everyone because “Every man is born into the world to bear witness to the truth according to his own particular vocation.”53
The Church’s continuation of Christ’s prophetic office, then, “is one of the fundamental points of encounter between the Church and each man.”54 By exercising this office, the Church, and all those individuals who participate in the prophetic office, respond to the right that all have to the truth.
Concerning the priestly office, a full understanding of it requires a return “to the ‘mystery of man’ as it shows itself in the ‘mystery of the Incarnate Word,’ that is to say the mystery of Christ the priest.”55 After citing GS, 10 on the essential questions that man cannot avoid asking, and on the conflict and imbalance man experiences within himself, the Pope gives a general definition of priesthood as the answer to the questions about the meaning of the world. “Priesthood is an expression of the meaning given to man and the world by their relationship with God.” “Priesthood reaches to the depths of the whole existential truth of the created world, and above all the truth of man.”56 Priesthood realizes man’s capacity and vocation to live in relationship through self-giving love.
In Redemptor Hominis the Pope’s teaching on the prophetic office focuses on the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. Still, he does not fail to make the link with the mystery of man. “By guarding the sacrament of Penance, the Church expressly affirms her faith in the mystery of the Redemption as a living and life-giving reality that fits in with man’s inward truth, with human guilt and also with the desires of the human conscience.”57
When considering the kingly office, the Pope asserts that “The conciliar teaching concerning this kingly function seems remarkably akin to present-day man’s thinking and feeling.” “This kingly character is embedded within the structure of the human personality.”58 While this kingly character expresses itself through human work by which man exercises dominion over the earth, there is another kind of dominion that is even more fundamental: dominion over oneself. This is achieved through obedience to one’s conscience, and such obedience is the realization of human dignity. This is the foundation of authentic human freedom, as martyrs make clear. Since all desire freedom, “The Church truly serves mankind when she guards this truth with untiring attention, fervent love and mature commitment and when in the whole of her own community she transmits it and gives it concrete form in human life through each Christian’s fidelity to his vocation.”59
3. The Primacy of Love
These texts are the foundation in GS for an anthropology according to which love has the primacy. For the Pope, the final sentence of GS, 24 “can be said to sum up the whole of Christian anthropology.”60 Commenting on the passage in his Letter on the Dignity of Women, he makes this capacity to love the hallmark of what it means to be made in God’s image: “To say that man is created in the image and likeness of God means that man is called to exist ‘for’ others, to become a gift.”61
The Pope does not hesitate to link this self-giving to the principle that the good is diffusive of itself (bonum diffusivum sui). This principle is the non-personal, philosophical equivalent to love as self-giving, and it is what “explains” the creative generosity of God.62 He links bonum diffusivum sui to the “sincere gift of self” of GS, 24:
Are all the families to which this Letter is addressed like this? Certainly a good number are, but the times in which we are living tend to restrict family units to two generations. Often this is the case because available housing is too limited, especially in large cities. But it is not infrequently due to the belief that having several generations living together interferes with privacy and makes life too difficult. But is this not where the problem really lies? Families today have too little “human” life. There is a shortage of people with whom to create and share the common good; and yet that good, by its nature, demands to be created and shared with others: bonum est diffusivum sui: “good is diffusive of itself.” The more common the good, the more properly one’s own it will also be: mine — yours — ours. This is the logic behind living according to the good, living in truth and charity. If man is able to accept and follow this logic, his life truly becomes a “sincere gift”.63
By love we become one with the common good, so that to will that good for another is in fact to make a sincere gift of oneself to that person. In Christian terms: If it is true that by grace there is a oneness with Christ – “I live now no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20) – then by reason of this oneness when I give Christ to others I give myself, and vice versa. Christians do not simply imitate God in His loving self-giving, as it were from the outside, reproducing the pattern revealed in Jesus Christ. By grace, we are made participants in God’s own act of self-giving love.
Douglas Bushman, S.T.L., is the director of the Institute for Religious and Pastoral Studies at the University of Dallas, and the author of In His Image, an adult faith enrichment program for parishes, published by Ignatius Press (ignatius.com).
This article first appeared in Catholic Dossier