My New Book: Burke-Sullivan, Lawler and Salzman; The Church in the Modern World: Gaudium et Spes Then and Now

Pray Tell continues with a new series, “My New Book,” in which authors answer a few questions about their recently-released book.

churchinthemodernworldWhat’s the point of your book, in ten words or less?

To “dust off” Gaudium et spes and demonstrate its ecclesial and moral significance for the 21st century, and to awaken a new appreciation of the Church when it takes the mission of the Gospel seriously as a powerful voice for Good News in a sometimes bleak secular society.

What do you think is the most interesting thing you say in the book?

One of the most interesting points we make in the book comes from Gaudium et spes, paragraph 16, on the role, function, and authority of conscience. Prior to Vatican II, especially in the 100 years preceding the Council, the rights of individual conscience were largely being ignored, and even suppressed, in the Church. Gaudium et spes issued a clarion cry with respect to conscience. “Man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of man. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depth. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor” The authority of conscience is highlighted in theologian Joseph Ratzinger’s (Pope Benedict XVI) commentary on this paragraph: “Over the Pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. Conscience confronts [the individual] with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official church.” Since Vatican II and Gaudium et spes, especially in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis splendor (The Splendor of Truth) the church has not always recognized or respected the authority of a well-formed and informed conscience, especially when it comes to sexual and biomedical ethical issues. We draw attention to this inconsistency and seek to empower the faithful to draw from the best of Catholic tradition to read “the signs of the times” and, through the formation of a well-formed conscience, to answer the call of Gaudium et spes to seek answers to the complex questions facing human beings.

Not only must the church have a greater appreciation for the role, function, and authority of conscience, but it must also adjust ecclesial structures, as Pope Francis is doing, to allow the voices of informed consciences, especially those voices that have been silenced, disenfranchised, or alienated, a place at the table in the ongoing discernment of ethical truths. The ethical issues that we explore in the book include marriage and family, Catholic social teaching and the responsibility to care for the poor and oppressed, political and civic responsibilities, and building a more peaceful and just world.

What’s the most controversial thing you say in it?

What is the most interesting thing we say in the book is also the most controversial. See above.

Why should I buy your book? Who do you hope will buy it?

People should buy the book because it provides insight into the profound developments and changes in how we think about, and as, Church, as these are reflected in the Second Vatican Council in general and in Gaudium et spes (and Lumen Gentium) in particular. Many theologians recognize that the communion, participatory model of the Church which marked the first thousand years of the Church’s history and was re-introduced at the Second Vatican Council has not been realized in the last 50 years since the Council, and has sometimes been actively suppressed. Our book provides insight into the communion model of Church and articulates successes and failures in realizing that model in the last 50 years.

We hope that all Catholics (and anyone else) who want to be better informed about Vatican II and Gaudium et spes and their relevance for the 21st century will buy the book and become active participants in realizing the communion, participatory model of church that Vatican II envisioned.

Who will like your book? Who won’t?

We believe that Catholics (and others) who are hoping for Church renewal and who are impressed with Pope Francis and his vision for the Church will like the book. Those who are resisting the type of changes that Pope Francis is putting forward may not appreciate the book, but they would learn why his vision is in continuity with the best of Catholic tradition, Vatican II, and Gaudium et spes.

What do you hope might change in the church because of your book?

We hope that there will be renewal in Church governance structures to allow for greater lay participation that recognizes a truly communion model of Church, especially from those who have been, or are currently, excluded from participating in communal discernment in the Church. We also hope that there will be greater respect for the individual conscience in communal discernment of ethical truth. Finally, our book fully supports Pope Francis’ shift in emphasis from moral issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and contraception, to issues that address poverty, social inequality, oppression, exploitation, and imbalances and abuses of power.

Anything that didn’t survive the chopping block? Anything you didn’t include that might be in your next book?

We address some of the theological anthropological and ethical methodological implications of Gaudium et spes in this book. Anthropologically, how we understand the human person created in the image of God determines the norms that facilitate or frustrate attaining human dignity and living in right relationship with God, neighbor, self, and the world. Methodologically, how we reason about ethics helps to formulate and justify those norms and distinguishes those who hold divergent ethical positions on specific ethical issues such as artificial contraception and homosexual acts. We are currently working on a more in depth book that will address anthropology and methodology and propose an ethical method for the 21st century.


  1. I can’t help but reply to this, please forgive me for being opinionated.
    1. I thought this blog was centered on the liturgy, I recall various messages on other topics tagged for straying from the subject of liturgy. What does this book have to do with the topic of this blog?
    2. I have to say, there is nothing new in this book that we haven’t struggled with over the past 40 years. Haven’t we been all through this with the cast of dissenting characters; Kung, Curran, Phan, Flannery, et al? They all dissented on the basis of their conscience.
    The quote from our pope emeritus simply does not mean what they want it to mean. It does not mean that the truth of moral norms are variable based on the individual conscience. Those who dissent from the church’s moral teaching are quite able to write many books justifying this disagreement, and what we are seeing is a tremendous push to change the church’s teaching, and they won’t stop until they win. This quote from the interview sums it up pretty well:
    “Methodologically, how we reason about ethics helps to formulate and justify those norms and distinguishes those who hold divergent ethical positions on specific ethical issues such as artificial contraception and homosexual acts.”
    As a layperson, I am definitely not for a more democratic church. If we had been a more democratic church in the 1930’s we would have accepted artificial birth control at that time, as every other denomination has, because their polity is based on a democratic model. The magisterial teaching structure of the church has saved it from falling apart. Those who want to do away with this may do well to consider some history.

    1. @Gregory Hamilton – I can’t help wondering what you do with the fact that sometimes those who have “dissented” have indeed “won,” if by winning you mean that the teaching of the magisterium is formed in a fruitful and positive way by their “dissent.” If we had been a *less* democratic church — that is, if we had failed to take careful account of the opinions of those who have been called “dissenters” — we would not be where we are now regarding many important aspects of orthodox Catholic teaching on the nature of the Church, Catholic social teaching, human rights, religious freedom, the role of women, ecumenism, and more.

      You’re right when you write that “the magisterial teaching structure of the church has saved it from falling apart.” But it’s an incomplete idea without making sure to acknowledge that “dissenters” have, time and time again, through their thoughtful and sometimes courageous reflection on Catholic teaching, *taught* “the magisterial teaching structure of the church.”

  2. I am glad to see this Gaudium-et-Spes focus on the PrayTell liturgy blog. Too often we liturgists think that CSL was the only thing that the Council did. But the Constitution itself (#9) reminds us that liturgy is not the only/sole work of the Church. As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the close of the Council and the promulgation of Gaudium et Spes, work and scholarship like this are important.

  3. Sacrosanctum Concilium is not the only V2 document affecting liturgical reform, not be a long shot. I think Gaudium et Spes has perhaps influenced postconciliar liturgical reform more than any of the other documents except SC. Once you enter into a cautiously more open attitude of dialogue and cooperation with the modern world, the implications for inculturation of the liturgy, and for how you think about every aspect of the liturgy, are huge.

  4. I am happy to see this book on this most important document, which does not, in many cases, get the attention it warrants.
    Two brief points:
    1. No matter what our interest, we cannot read the documents in isolation.
    2. GS and SC, together, illustration the profound connection of liturgy with social justice. Isn’t this what Virgil Michel worked so tirelessly to show?

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