Observing ‘the signs of the times’: Final Vatican II document subject of UST conference

| March 17, 2015 | 0 Comments

The Second Vatican Council’s capstone document, “Gaudium et Spes,” is key to understanding Pope Francis’ papacy and provides a framework by which the church can acknowledge the changing world without losing credibility, Church historian Massimo Faggioli told an audience March 12. However, he said, the 50-year-old document continues to receive a divided reception within the Catholic Church.

“It is clear that ‘Gaudium et Spes’ is the most perfect case of a problem in the reception of a document of the Second Vatican Council – a reception divided along theological fault lines overlapped with a theological-political rejection of Vatican II in general, and especially of the document that opens Catholic theology to a truly global church,” he said, adding that this division is most present in the Catholic Church in the United States.

Faggioli’s presentation opened a three-day conference at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul celebrating the 50th anniversary of Gaudium et Spes, the last of the Second Vatican Council’s 16 documents. The conference was titled “The Church in the Modern World: Teaching and Understanding ‘Gaudium et Spes.’”

More than 40 scholars from 25 U.S. academic institutions participated in the conference with the aim of discussing the impact of the document, whose Latin name translates to “joy and hope” and is also known as the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.” Pope Paul VI promulgated the document in December 1965.

Thomas theology professor and department chair Bernard Brady said that most people see the document as capturing “the spirit and sense of what Vatican II was – the role of the church in today’s world, and how Catholics should face and engage today’s world.”

The university also held a conference in 2012 commemorating the semicentennial of the council’s opening. It went so well that the department added the second conference to commemorate the anniversary of the council’s closing, said Brady, a parishioner of Assumption in St. Paul.

“It’s hard to conceive what the Catholic Church would be like today if we didn’t have the Second Vatican Council,” he said, noting changes in the liturgy, Catholics’ relationships with Protestants and the understanding of lay vocations.

“There are so many different expressions and changes in the church today. I guess some people think that’s the way it’s always been, but 50 years is a long time,” he said.

In addition to academics, the conference drew parish leaders and non-theologians. Most presentations were geared toward a general audience.

In the opening keynote lecture, Faggioli, an assistant professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, asserted that Vatican II did not produce a cultural turn, but rather interpreted what was already underway. However, he said, public opinion and some Church leaders have since given the impression that the council and its documents were “an accomplice in the destruction of the old moral system, and that ‘Gaudium et Spes’ was the manifesto of that,’” he said.

The document sought to put an end a Catholic “resentment” of the modern world and reframes the Catholic Church as a “world Church” that needs to listen before making judgments on the signs of the times, Faggioli said.

Pope Francis was the first pope to have been ordained a priest after Vatican II, and, Faggioli said, has given new life to “Gaudium et Spes” by referring to it with the title of his 2013 apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”) and by including it in texts for the 2014-2015 Synods of Bishops on the Family.

The conference included more than 35 break-out session presentations and three other keynote lecturers: Cathleen Kaveny, Boston College; Leslie Woodcock Tentler, Catholic University of America; and William Cavanaugh, DePaul University.

The conference’s goal was simple, Brady said: “To talk about the council, what was in the council, and the impact of the council, and to do it in a way that would meet questions of not only scholars but [of] people in the community. I think it did to that.”

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