“The Church in the Modern World” is unique among the documents of Vatican II. It is the longest of the 16 documents issued by the Council; it was not even contemplated in the work of the Preparatory Commissions; and it is written in a style that has come to characterize the newness of Vatican II among the Councils of the Catholic Church.
On December 1, 1962, the Doctrinal Commission presented its outline of the document on the Church (De Ecclesia), expected to be the key document of the Council. It received withering criticism from the majority for being a repetition of the defensive stance of the Council of Trent against Protestantism, with nothing positive to say about other religions or the contemporary world.
A proposal was made that the document should follow the suggestion made by Pope John XXIII in his opening address on October 11th. This would give the document the form of a triple dialogue: the Church in dialogue with its own membership (who are we, and what are we about); the Church in dialogue with other Christians (our brothers and sisters in the Faith, but visibly separated from us); the Church in dialogue with the modern world (how can we serve the world; what can we learn from the world).
This proposal was widely acclaimed. Over the next two years the third dialogue gradually became a separate document. Its title was Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), from its first two words, and it received its final form only during the last two months of the Council. It was finally approved on December 7, 1965, with 2309 votes in favor, and 75 against.
The document consists of 93 articles, filling 110 printed pages. It is divided into two parts. Part One has four chapters which deal with (1) the dignity of the human person, (2) the community of mankind, (3) human activity throughout the world, and (4) the role of the Church – how the Church can serve the world, what the Church can learn from the world.
Part Two has 5 chapters which deal with these specific matters (1) Marriage and the Family, (2) Development of Culture, (3) Socio-Economic Life, (4) Political Life and (5) Justice and Peace.
Apart from the topics under consideration, what is noteworthy about this document is the language. The Council is respectful as it offers to be of service to the world, and recognizes the help the Church has received from the modern world (n.44). The Council is humble as it acknowledges the responsibility of Christians for some of the loss of religious values in the world (n.19).
This optimistic document helps to distinguish Vatican II from other Church Councils with their condemnations and anathemas. It makes an honorable attempt to follow the lead given by Pope John XXIII in his opening address when he declared, “The Church prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations”.