‘Ecclesia ad extra’

Some remarks on the content, context and importance of the Pastoral Constitution

artikel_vaticanumii - gepubliceerd: dinsdag, 8 december 2015
De bisschopsring die paus Paulus VI aan de concilievaders heeft geschonken
De bisschopsring die paus Paulus VI aan de concilievaders heeft geschonken

Aan de Radboud-uni­ver­si­teit werd enkele dagen voor de vijftigste verschijnings-verjaardag van Gaudium et Spes een symposium gehouden om dit bijzondere feit te herdenken. Hieronder de lezing die ik bij deze gelegenheid heb gehouden.


The impetus for one of the most important decisions of the Second Vatican Council came from an intervention by the Belgian Cardinal Léon-Joseph Suenens, who suggested that the Council should focus on two central issues: the inner nature and identity of the Church (Ecclesia ad intra) and her relation to the modern world (Ecclesia ad extra). In accordance with this intervention, the teaching of the Council was centred around its two principal documents: Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes, the first conciliar document ever to provide a synthesis of the social teaching of the Church.

The Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes is divided into two main parts, the first dealing with general principles, the second applying these principles to different areas, identified as “some problems of special urgency” (title before n. 46). This contributes to the fact that the document is rather repetitious.

In this lecture I intend to deal with some of the backgrounds and characteristics and with the lasting importance of this document.

1. Human person

Within the scope of this lecture an extensive discussion of the genesis of Gaudium et spes would not be fitting, but some remarks on the origin of this Constitution will have to be made, as they are crucial for a correct understanding of this most lengthy document of the Second Vatican council.

It was – as I mentioned - cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens (1904-1996), archbishop of Malines-Brussels, who tried to give the Council’s work a clearer focus , distinguishing between the “Ecclesia ad intra” and the “Ecclesia ad extra”, which presupposes an ecclesiology that considers these two aspects as connected and belonging to the inner nature of the Church: “How are the Church’s internal relations, her self-understanding as a people of God, to bear upon her external relations, her sense of sharing in God’s own mission for the world?” In this way the Church’s endeavours in the field of justice and peace are clearly inscribed in the whole of the mission of the Church.

The Council’s vision on the role of the laity and its pronouncement that lay apostolate is a form of participation in the saving mission of the Church and that the laity is engaged in this apostolate ordering temporal affairs according to the plan of God (LG 31 and 33) contributed, of course, to the acceptance of the cardinal’s proposal. Pope John XXIII had read the distinction “Ad intra - Ad extra” in one of cardinal Suenens’ pastoral letters and used it in his radio broadcast in 1962, on the eve of the council.[1] On 4 December1962, during the first session of Vatican II, cardinal Suenens addressed the Council fathers and referred to these papal words, which were in fact his own, to underline the importance of taking this double scope “Ecclesia ad intra” and “Ecclesia ad extra” as a basis for the council’s work. His words were welcomed by the fathers with a loud and long applause and confirmed and underlined in an address by Giovanni Battista Montini, the cardinal archbishop of Milan, later pope Paul VI.[2] These circumstances contributed to the success of the formula, though it was never a rigid or exclusive focus.

This distinction “Ad extra – ad intra”, applied more or less as a guiding principle in the Council documents, is of the utmost importance for a correct understanding of the pastoral Constitution. Draft-texts prepared during the preparatory period were put aside.[3] The draft-texts for the Constitution on the Church and the Constitution on the Church in the modern world from now on, were no longer a juridical framework or a moral evaluation of human acts,

like in the earlier draft- documents dealing with social order, Church – State relations, marriage or even cultural issues, but the vision of the Church as body of Christ and people of God with all its members sharing in the Church’s mission on the one hand, and a vision of man, created in the image of God and created as a social being, on the other. In both documents – the Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium and the Constitution on the Church in the modern world Gaudium et Spes – attention is focused on the human person, either as a Christian believer or as a human person, created in the image of God. The Church, the people of God, endowed with a mission in this world, is at the heart of Gaudium et spes. The pastoral Constitution thus became a document not separated from the ecclesiological teachings of the Council, but suffused with the same spirit.

This meant that the societas perfecta-doctrine (which departs from a comparison between Church and State and stresses the authority exercised in both societies by the sovereign, the predominant view before the Second Vatican Council), was more and more left aside and replaced by a theology of “communio” and a vision inspired by a Christian anthropology, which finds its culminating image in Christ, the new and perfect man (GS 22). With regard to both societies – Church and State – the focus turned to the community. This implied a very important shift in the way matters were approached, as becomes very clear if we compare the different schemata (draft-texts), prepared by the preparatory commissions before the Council started and the text of the pastoral Constitution itself. In the field of marriage, for instance, a discussion of moral issues was no longer focused on the moral action, considered in itself, almost separate from the acting person, but it was seen in its anthropological context. This created a completely new line of approach. Whereas the 1917 Code of Canon Law, for instance, mentions the contract of marriage as an act of the will by which the right to the act of intercourse was handed over, an act of the will therefore directed by its nature to the conjugal sexual act (cc. 1015 §1; 1081 §2), the pastoral Constitution refers to the conjugal covenant as an act whereby spouses mutually bestow and accept each other (cf. GS 48,1). Though, well considered, these two pronouncements do not contradict each other, the line of approach has shifted from a juridical evaluation of an essentially juridical right handed over in marriage consent, to the Christian anthropological meaning of getting married.

Cardinal Suenens was given a key-role in the process of preparing a first draft-text of the Constitution, known as the “Malines-text”, determined by a strong anthropological focus. This text, however, was not considered to be ripe enough to be discussed by the Council fathers. In the third session (1964) a draft text was finally presented and the Council fathers agreed upon this “schema XIII” as a good working basis, but a great deal of work still had to be done. The entire schema was rewritten in French and in May 1965 this document, referred to as the “Ariccia-text”, was presented to the Council fathers after a rapid but inadequate translation into Latin. Then Joseph Ratzinger and Karl Rahner were called upon to work on the text, in response to mostly German criticisms, prior to the discussion during the last session of the Council.[4] The anthropological focus however was still very much there.

2. Dialogue

In his address on 4 December 1962, already mentioned, cardinal Suenens also stressed the need for dialogue: a dialogue with the faithful, with separated (i.e.: non-catholic) Christians and with today’s world. This dialogue is necessary since more and more people do not accept the authority of magisterial pronouncements. A new way had to be found to reach the hearts of people. The new pope, Paul VI, in his first Encyclical letter Ecclesiam Suam ( 6 August 1964), presented precisely this as one of the three principal policies of his pontificate. One third of his Encyclical was devoted to the importance of dialogue.[5] The pope writes: “Neither the preservation nor the defence of the faith exhausts the duty of the Church in regard to the gifts it has been given. The very nature of the gifts which Christ has given the Church demands that they be extended to others and shared with others. (...) The Church must enter into dialogue with the world in which it lives. It has something to say, a message to give, a communication to make.” (n. 64-65). And: “... it seems to Us that the sort of relationship for the Church to establish with the world should be more in the nature of a dialogue” (n. 78).

This Encyclical letter was certainly a fruit of the Council’s spirit and at the same time a strong incentive to introduce an increasing attitude of dialogue into the wording of the pastoral Constitution on the Church in the modern world. Gaudium et spes can be seen as a first serious attempt of the Magisterium to express itself not so much as an authority dictating Church doctrine, but rather trying to bring “to mankind light kindled from the gospel”, offering “the honest assistance of the Church”, as the Constitution puts it (GS 3, 2-3). The pastoral Constitution therefore tries to find words and expressions that reveal this spirit of dialogue. Of course, this requires a delicate balance, since the Magisterium of the Church has to proclaim the truth of faith and the faith the Church proclaims springs from an inner certainty, while at the same time she wants to accompany those who are searching for values and truth. Was this balance achieved by the Constitution? One may have doubts, like Joseph Ratzinger seems to have had, when he wrote: “Whether a fitting way of Church pronouncements is to be found in the final text, may be left open”.[6] Surely one cannot deny that there are reasons for this doubtful remark. The humble, open and positive tone of the Constitution and the empathic way of expressing itself, added to the urgency for the Constitution to be finalised during the last session of the Council and the subsequent hurry, cause some of the wordings of Gaudium et Spes to be experienced, at least by some readers, as not very balanced and precise. In number 17 of the Constitution for instance, the role of grace may be found weakly expressed, since grace seems necessary only to bring a relationship with God into full flower (“...nonnissi gratia Dei adiuvante, plene actuosam efficere potest”).

3. The world

What has been mentioned before, implies a positive attitude and view of the world in the documents of the second Vatican Council, which means not only an openness to whatever God has created but also to technical and cultural aspects of this world and its civilization, aspects that have to be critically evaluated at the same time. It should be noted that the understanding of “world” in the Constitution is very different from the meaning it has in the Gospel of Saint John, where the expression is used to indicate those persons and situations in this world that have shut out God and are hostile to Him.

A Christian believer should be open to the world, since the cornerstone of Christian faith is the incarnation, the fact that God-made-man entered into this world, becoming part of it. [7] His redemption affects the whole world in all its aspects. Besides, a human person cannot exist without connection to the world.

The human activities and earthly affairs of this world do not derive their importance and meaning from being used for a religious purpose, but they have their own laws and values, as is stated in Gaudium et Spes n. 36, dealing with the rightful autonomy of earthly affairs.

The Signa temporum, signs of the times, is another important concept that expresses this openness to the world. Based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 16,1-4 and Luke 12, 54-59, the notion was used by saint pope John XXIII in the Apostolic Constitution Humanae Salutis, convening the second Vatican Council, and the concept was taken up in the Encyclical letter Pacem in Terris.[8] The notion became the starting-point for the introductory statement of the pastoral Constitution, where the notion is used in n. 4. It is used to indicate the many profound changes that are taking place in modern society and the life of man, changes of which the Church has to be aware and that must be taken into account, otherwise the Church would not be able to fulfil her mission and proclaim the gospel as she should. Scrutinizing the signs of times therefore means recognizing and understanding the world in which we live, as the Constitution explains (GS 4). The Church, that is to say, the entire People of God, has to hear, distinguish and interpret these signs in the light of the divine Word, but it is not just the gospel that sheds light on the signs of the times, but the signs of the times shed light on the gospel as well.[9] The Church profits by the history and development of humanity (GS 44,1-3). Developments in the modern world are even seen as a “crisis of growth” (GS 4, 3).

From what is said it is clear that the Constitution is suffused with a rather optimistic spirit, which was influenced, according to theologians like Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar, by the theological insights of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955).[10] But at the same time the importance of this view is clear: if the Church wants to fulfil the commandment of Christ and proclaim the gospel everywhere, she needs to be aware of the “profound and rapid changes”, “the true social and cultural transformation” (GS 4, 2), which influence society and mankind so deeply. If the Church wants to render a service to humanity, wants to voice the faith of the whole People of God and bring light kindled from the gospel (cf. GS 3), it is not sufficient to just safeguard the depositum fidei and combat errors, but she needs to understand the world and the situation in which people live so that they can understand the message and accept it as salvific.

4. Lasting Importance

The themes that have been dealt with are all distinguishing marks of a new approach. The Church wants to communicate and to express her message not only in such a way that it is well confined, but hopes to present it in such a way that people feel themselves understood and invited to dialogue. If they feel that the message is related to their lives, they may feel invited to accept and live it. The different aspects of the pastoral Constitution mentioned and discussed before, are therefore of lasting importance.

The Constitution presented for the first time social issues as a coherent, connected social doctrine of the Church, based on a Christian anthropology. This was an important step, not yet foreseen during the preparatory period, but taken during the celebration of the second Vatican Council. Proceeding in this direction the Compendium of the social doctrine of the Church was published in 2004.

The exposition of a Christian anthropology with its emphasis on the dignity of human conscience and of the human person, created in the image of God, was crucial for the development of social doctrine and moral theology in general. It laid a foundation for a new and more anthropological vision of marriage as an intimate partnership of married life and love, rooted in the irrevocable personal consent (GS 48, 1).

The Constitution condemns once again total war and the arms race and calls for inter­national action to avoid war, to promote peace and disarmament (GS 80- 82)

Furthermore it is worth mentioning the importance attached in the Constitution to the inter­national organizations and to the presence of the Church in this field (GS 83-90). Inter­national cooperation may contribute to a spirit of true fraternity and to the promotion of peace and global progress.

But more important even than these single facts is the new approach of discerning the signa temporum, openness to the world, dialogue.

The Council of Trent (1545-1563) changed the Church by conferring on it a deeply pastoral character, by many of its decisions. In doing so it changed the appearance of the Church: the Catholic Church became centred on the care of souls, catechesis and the preaching of the gospel, exercised by well-trained priests. The second Vatican Council again took a new step, inviting the Church to open herself to the world, to be in dialogue with the world, to understand the signa temporum and the motives of man and to be truly missionary in a new way, adapting to what is needed now, while remaining faithful to the deposit of faith.

On the fiftieth anniversary of this pastoral Constitution we can therefore affirm wholeheartedly its lasting importance.

[1] Http:// This distinction was originally made by Suenens in 1956: M. BARNES, Theology and the dialogue of religions (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002), p. 33; cf. J. KOMONCHAK, “The struggle for the council during the preparation of Vatican II”, in: G. ALBERIGO, 1995, pp. 342ff.

[2] J. RATZINGER, “Die letzte Sitzungsperiode des Konzils”, in: IDEM, Gesammelte Schriften, dl. 7/1 Zur Lehre des Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzils (Herder, Freiburg, Basel, Wien, 2012), pp. 527-575, here: p. 540; cf. X. RYNNE, Brieven uit Vaticaanstad, deel 1 (Ambo, Utrecht, z.j.; orig.: Letters from Vatican City, Farrar, Straus and Company, New York, 1963), pp. 219-221

[3] The draft-texts prepared during the preparatory period are: Schema Constitutionis dogmaticae de ordine morali Christiano and Schema Constitutionis dogmaticae de castitate, matrimonio, familia, virginitate (both published in: Schemata Constitutionum et Decretorum, series prima (Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1962), Schema Constitutionis doctrinalis de ordine sociali, Schema Constitutionis doctrinalis de Communitate gentium (Idem, series tertia, 1962) and Schema decreti de matrimonii sacramento (Idem, series quarta, 1963).

[4] B. PETERSON, Critical voices: The reactions of Rahner and Ratzinger to ‘Schema XIII’ (Gaudium et Spes),; M. McGRATH, “Historische notities over de pastorele constitutie Gaudium et Spes, in: G. BARAÚNA, De kerk in de wereld van nu. Commentaren op de pastorale constitutie “Gaudium et Spes” (Nelissen, Bilthoven, 1968), pp. 77-91; RATZINGER, a.c., pp. 540-541.

[5] ; nn. 12-14 and 58-117.

[6] “Ob es gelungen ist, im Endtext eine angemessene Form kirchlichen Sprechens nach außen zu finden, mag offen bleiben” , in: J. RATZINGER, Die letzte Sitzungsperiuode..., a.c., p. 548.

[7] J. RATZINGER, “Der Christ und die Welt von heute. Überlegungen zur Pastoralkonstitution des Zweiten Vatikanische Konzils”, in: IDEM, Gesammelte Schriften, dl. 7/1,o.c., pp. 479-526, here: pp. 482-493..

[8] 25 December 1962, in: AAS 54 (1962), pp. 5-13, also in: Con­sti­tu­tio­nes Decreta Declarationes (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Città del Vaticano, 1993, p. 841. In the Encyclical Pacem in Terris, 11 April 1963, the expression is used four times as a heading, without being in the text (in: AAS 55 (1963), pp. 257-304. Cf. M.D. CHENU, “De tekenen des tijds”, in: AAVV, 2/De Kerk in de wereld van deze tijd(Paul Brand, Hilversum-Antwerpen, 1967), pp. 55-77.


MARY ELSBERND, REIMUND BIERINGER, “Interpreting the Signs of the Times in the Light of the Gospel. Vision and Normativity of the Future”.

[10] RATZINGER, “Die letzte Sitzungsperiode....”, a.c., pp. 549-550; cf. J. TILLARD, “De Kerk en de aardse waarden”, in: G. BARÁUNA, De Kerk in de wereld van nu. Commentaren op de pastorele Constitutie “Gaudium et Spes” (Nelissen, Bilthoven, 1968, orig. A Igreja no mundo de hoje, Ed. Vozes, Rio de Janeiro, 1966)., pp. 156-195, here: p. 165: “... moet men zeggen dat alle aardse werkelijkheden niet alleen maar het kenmerk van de Zoon dragen, maar het stempel van Pasen”.