The first truly substantive part of Gaudium et Spes deals with some of the more fundamental and profound issues facing modern man: his own existence, life, death, conscience, freedom, belief, truth. Each of these topics is worthy of its own post. However, in the interests of not spending two weeks getting all the way through Gaudium et Spes, I will focus on what I believe are the issues that most affect the modern world: the pursuit of knowledge, belief (and the lack thereof), and freedom.
The Council Fathers are abundantly clear that the quest for knowledge, while laudable, must be tempered by wisdom and should not be an end in itself. In paragraph 15, we find:
The intellectual nature of the human person is perfected by wisdom and needs to be, for wisdom gently attracts the mind of man to a quest and a love for what is true and good. Steeped in wisdom, man passes through visible realities to those which are unseen.
Our era needs such wisdom more than bygone ages if the discoveries made by man are to be further humanized. For the future of the world stands in peril unless wiser men are forthcoming. It should also be pointed out that many nations, poorer in economic goods, are quite rich in wisdom and can offer noteworthy advantages to others.The Fathers then deal with the concepts of freedom, conscience, and death in the following paragraphs, before devoting a significant amount of time to speaking of atheism. Since in our time atheism and the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge's sake often go hand in hand, I will address this next before returning to the issues of freedom and conscience.
The Fathers first point out that "atheism" encompasses a wide variety of philosophies, from those who believe that man can know nothing of God to those who believe that scientific progress has proven that God does not exist. Before addressing any of the specific claims made by modern atheists, the Fathers explore briefly the reasons for the existence of atheism, and not without pointing out that believers share the blame for its existence by imperfectly living out their own faith:
For, taken as a whole, atheism is not a spontaneous development but stems from a variety of causes, including a critical reaction against religious beliefs, and in some places against the Christian religion in particular. Hence believers can have more than a little to do with the birth of atheism. To the extent that they neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion.The solution to this is to live a life authentically in line with what the Church professes:
The remedy which must be applied to atheism, however, is to be sought in a proper presentation of the Church's teaching as well as in the integral life of the Church and her members. For it is the function of the Church, led by the Holy Spirit Who renews and purifies her ceaselessly, to make God the Father and His Incarnate Son present and in a sense visible. This result is achieved chiefly by the witness of a living and mature faith, namely, one trained to see difficulties clearly and to master them. Many martyrs have given luminous witness to this faith and continue to do so. This faith needs to prove its fruitfulness by penetrating the believer's entire life, including its worldly dimensions, and by activating him toward justice and love, especially regarding the needy. What does the most reveal God's presence, however, is the brotherly charity of the faithful who are united in spirit as they work together for the faith of the Gospel and who prove themselves a sign of unity.The Fathers close the section on atheism by arguing that the vocation of man proclaimed by the Church is not oppressive, as many atheists argue, but brings him true and authentic freedom:
Above all the Church knows that her message is in harmony with the most secret desires of the human heart when she champions the dignity of the human vocation, restoring hope to those who have already despaired of anything higher than their present lot. Far from diminishing man, her message brings to his development light, life and freedom. Apart from this message nothing will avail to fill up the heart of man: "Thou hast made us for Thyself," O Lord, "and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee."In between these sections on knowledge and atheism, we find two more fundamental topics: conscience and freedom. The concept of conscience is one that is bandied about very loosely by some of our more progressive brethren. Their argument is that the Church states that following one's conscience is paramount -- therefore, they are justified in holding (and working actively in favor of) positions that are contrary to the Magisterium of the Church (such as the ordination of women, same-sex "marriage", etc.).
The problem is, nowhere does any Church document state that this is the case. Both paragraph 16 of Gaudium et Spes and the Catechism do indeed state that one must follow one's own conscience -- however, the crucial part omitted in the above argument is that one's conscience must be formed properly in light of the truth of the Church's teaching.
In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.This line of thinking is fleshed out more fully in the Catechism, which quotes part of the above language from Gaudium et Spes:
1790 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.Finally, we come to the issue of freedom, which I think is the synthesis of all of these topics. As with conscience, many in the modern world, both within and without the Church, argue that freedom is the ability to do whatever one chooses. Under this line of thinking, one is more free as more of the impediments are removed that prevent one from doing as one pleases. The end result of this line of thinking is total chaos -- with no moral compass to guide any actions, anarchy would ensue.
1791 This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man "takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin." In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.
1792 Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one's passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church's authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct.
Fortunately, the Council Fathers disagree with this idea of freedom. Paragraph 17 is so good that I have to reproduce it in its entirety:
Only in freedom can man direct himself toward goodness. Our contemporaries make much of this freedom and pursue it eagerly; and rightly to be sure. Often however they foster it perversely as a license for doing whatever pleases them, even if it is evil. For its part, authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image within man. 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. Hence man's dignity demands that he act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure. Man achieves such dignity when, emancipating himself from all captivity to passion, he pursues his goal in a spontaneous choice of what is good, and procures for himself through effective and skilful action, apt helps to that end. Since man's freedom has been damaged by sin, only by the aid of God's grace can he bring such a relationship with God into full flower. Before the judgement seat of God each man must render an account of his own life, whether he has done good or evil.Again, these ideas are echoed in the Catechism:
1732 As long as freedom has not bound itself definitively to its ultimate good which is God, there is the possibility of choosing between good and evil, and thus of growing in perfection or of failing and sinning. This freedom characterizes properly human acts. It is the basis of praise or blame, merit or reproach.The common theme throughout much of this section is that modern man continues to pursue concepts like knowledge, freedom, and conscience to their extremes without grounding these concepts firmly in the dignity of man as the beloved children of the Creator and the natural law implanted in the human heart. Modern man does so at his own peril.
1733 The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to "the slavery of sin."
1734 Freedom makes man responsible for his acts to the extent that they are voluntary. Progress in virtue, knowledge of the good, and ascesis enhance the mastery of the will over its acts.