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The signature document of the Second Vatican Council was titled “Joy and Hope” (Gaudium et Spes). In content and tone, it was a vehement exhortation to political and social action for “the common good.”
Pope Francis (now called on one popular website “Red Francis”) says many things that have evoked criticism from those within the Church who are anxious to preserve doctrinal orthodoxy, and from those outside the Church who are annoyed at the Pope’s political alliance to the global Left. But there is little that the Pope says which is not a paraphrase or a quotation from “Joy and Hope.” He’s merely following the prescribed program. Consider a few typical statements from this blueprint for the post-Conciliar Church:
…The social order requires constant improvement. (#26)
Christians who neglect their temporal duties, jeopardize their eternal salvation. (#43)
Persons in extreme necessity are entitled to take what they need from the riches of others. (#69)
… The state has the duty to prevent people from abusing their private property to the detriment of the common good. (#71)
The common good embraces the sum total of all those conditions of social life which enable individuals, families, and organizations to achieve complete and effective fulfillment. (#74) [Emphasis added.]
…There will arise a generation of new women and men, the molders of a new humanity. (#30)
Many of the document’s statements could be inserted, quite seamlessly, into the Communist Manifesto or into a United Nations document or into the Democratic Party Platform. The overall message of “Joy and Hope” is that salvation is not a matter of personal sanctity but of social engagement. One must be active in the cause of economic equality and universal suffrage or risk eternal damnation.
“Joy and Hope” represents a seismic shift in the Catholic landscape that shook to its foundations every Church structure and cracked the edifice of doctrine. It effectively aligned the Gospel with egalitarian ideologies that want the state to become the great equalizer of society. To accomplish its mandate, the state must then assume authority to appropriate and redistribute property and money and material resources so that everyone can enjoy “complete and effective fulfillment.” (#74)
The very assumption that “complete and effective fulfillment” for “individuals, families and organizations” is possible in this world is ludicrous. It is the false promise of every revolution or reform that has brought violent upheaval, bloody death and prolonged enslavement and misery to mankind. For the Church to exhort us to become involved in any scheme that proposes such “fulfillment” is not only absurd and dangerous, it is opposed to the sole aim of the Catholic Faith: eternal salvation.
And to make our commitment to “the constant improvement” of the social order a moral duty on which our salvation depends distorts and upends the teaching of Our Lord, Who told us to seek first the Kingdom of God, which lies within. Our Lord embraced poverty, as do His most devout followers, because a concern with earthly goods distracts us from spiritual goods. Nowhere in the Gospel is there a prescription for social reorganization or the expressed hope that we may achieve a socio-economic system that will guarantee our “complete and effective fulfillment.”
As for the proclaimed right of those in “extreme necessity” to take what they deem they need from the rich, how can this not become a justification for violence? That the state is also prescribed a duty to prevent people from “abusing their private property” to the detriment of the common good confers upon those in authority the right to decide how property should be redistributed. In all such cases in which this has occurred, property is redistributed to those in authority. The poor become even poorer, and less free. Look at Russia after communism. Look at Venezuela. Look at any failed state where the principles outlined in “Joy and Hope” have been the ostensible guide to social and economic organization.
“Joy and Hope” was an unconscionable act of willful blindness on the part of its authors. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council refused to look at the world of the 20th Century, despite their professed aim to read “the signs of the times.” Instead, they sought social relevance, as they understood it, in a world that had become largely indifferent to spiritual concerns. So, “Joy and Hope” tried some sleight of hand: to reach into the Gospel and produce a political manifesto they deemed progressive and acceptable. But the secular program they chose to falsely christen was already a historical failure. How sad and silly it is when old men try to become fashionable. But when those old men are the custodians of the Catholic Faith, such obeisance to the times has consequences that are immense and tragic.
We see in Pope Francis the inheritor and, perhaps, the last genuine enthusiast for the program outlined in “Joy and Hope.” The document is the product of a generation that is dead or dying. In this octogenarian from Argentina, we have a surviving representative of the ecclesial Hippies of the 1960s and 1970s. How can he admit that his life has been dedicated to the perpetuation of a grand mistake, of a squandering of the patrimony he was to hand down to posterity? We should be prepared to see the Pope soldier on until the end, carrying the banner of the revolution in which he still apparently believes, despite all the evidence that this revolution was a betrayal of the faithful by men who had, in some degree or respect, lost the Faith themselves and sought to reclaim it by refashioning it.
The tone of “Joy and Hope” is one both of grievance and optimism, as is the tone of every revolutionary document and every politician who promises to make this a better, brighter world for all. Its focus is on all that defines our earthly circumstances: wealth, work, housing, goods, status, power, opportunity, etc. Its hortatory rhetoric is grounded in the presumption that “constant improvement” of the social order should be the motive force of morality. Our salvation is made collective: personal sanctity is regarded with suspicion as an evasion of public duty. Is this not what Pope Francis preaches almost daily?
The true Gospel is not optimistic about the “constant improvement” of the social order, nor does it enjoin us to enlist in social and political movements that promise greater economic equality or more democratic institutions. It is only concerned about the condition of our soul. Those who reflected most deeply on the teachings of Our Lord withdrew from society and formed their own communities. They dedicated themselves to prayer and contemplation. Voluntary poverty was adopted as a means to remove obstacles to spiritual growth. It was not designed to show solidarity with the poor or as a rebuke to the rich.
All in this world will pass. Our Lord told us not to lay up our treasure where “moth and rust doth consume and where thieves break through and steal.” Would this not also apply to all schemes for earthly utopias designed to bring about our “complete and effective fulfillment”?
There is, at the heart of the Gospel, an otherworldliness that draws our vision inward and upward, not outward. As much as “Joy and Hope” and Pope Francis would like us to believe that our salvation is tied to our social engagement in “progressive” causes, this simply isn’t so, and nothing in the Gospels or the teaching of the Church through the millennia supports such a notion.
To the extent that we hope for things in this world, we will be turned away from Our Lord, from Divine love. And this applies even to our desire for a better, more just society. If we are living a holy life, we need not be concerned about whether we are doing our part to improve the world — for the world is the sum of all the individuals who are living in it. It can only become better one soul at a time. The paradox of Christianity is that it made the world better by turning us away from the world. It made us more generous by not coveting goods and demanding that the state give us our fair share. It made us kinder by not envying the rich or the powerful and insisting on our rights. It made us more compassionate through the acceptance of suffering, not through resentment of our misfortunes and blaming others.
That man is fallen from grace is the bedrock of our creed. The world is the manifestation of that fall. In the greed and lust and cruelty that have been the themes of every historical epoch, we see Adam’s legacy. In the acts of compassion, of self-sacrifice, of fraternal love, we see Our Lord’s legacy of redemption.
We cannot change the world; only ourselves. Much as the Pope appears to despise those who are concerned with personal holiness rather than social progress, it is personal holiness that makes any social progress possible. And we have no ground for presuming that the “constant progress” spoken of in “Joy and Hope” will ever be realized and result in “complete and effective fulfillment.” On the contrary, the Gospel takes a rather dim view of future prospects and wonders whether Our Lord, upon His return, will find any Faith left in the world. This is because the Gospel looks at human life “sub specie aeternitatis” – under the aspect of eternity.
It would be wonderful if, after this long sojourn in worldliness, in which salvation has been falsely tied to activism for social justice, the Church would return to the teaching of Our Lord and see everything again under the aspect of eternity. It would seem that we need a miracle for this to occur, given the state of the Church and the world. But we have one in prospect. Our Lady can deliver us, and She will do so when the Pope and the bishops consecrate Russia to Her Immaculate Heart. We should pray for that blessed occurrence, for that miracle in which our true joy and hope lie.