As we continue to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, I plan to make occasional posts related to the documents, history, and reception of the Council. There is a lot of talk among Christian women and men about the Council — people talking about its apparent merits and problems, the “spirit” and challenges, and so on — but there is very little discussion of what the Council actually said. The truth is, as one seminary professor said to me a few years ago, very few people, including very few priests and other ministers in the church, have actually read the texts themselves or have only half-heartedly read portions of the texts for coursework and the like. My interest is to stir up discussion about what we believe, what the church has actually said as an Ecumenical Council (the highest teaching authority in the church), and what these teachings might mean for us today.
Today I’m struck by one of the most important texts, Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World). There is a striking passage in section no. 29 that deals with the question of the equal rights of all people.
Since all men and women possessed of a rational soul and created in the image of God have the same nature and the same origin, and since they have been redeemed by Christ and enjoy the same divine calling and destiny, the basic equality which they all share needs to be increasingly recognized (no. 29).
What the Church teaches is that by virtue of being a human person, all people have inherent rights from the creator. The problem isn’t the “granting” of these rights by a particular government or group of people, but the uncovering or recognizing the truth that is always already present in the fabric of creation.
Furthermore, the next two paragraphs of this section really deliver home the meaning of this uncovering or recognition of the equality of all.
Not everyone is identical in physical capacity and in mental and moral resources. But every type of discrimination affecting the fundamental rights of the person, whether social or cultural, on grounds of sex, race, color, class, language or religion, should be overcome and done away with, as contrary to the purpose of God. It is matter for deep regret that these basic personal rights are still not universally recognized and respected, as when women are denied the choice of a husband or a state of life, or opportunities for education and culture equal to those of men.
Moreover, although there are just differences among individuals, the equal dignity of persons demands access to more human and equal conditions of life. And the excessive economic and social inequalities among members or peoples of the same human family are a scandal and are at variance with social justice, equity, the dignity of the human person and, not least, social and international peace (no. 29).
As the church notes nearly fifty-years ago and as we still experience it today, people do not have access to the basic rights and needs that ground fundamental human flourishing. This is a social sin in which all who don’t work, in whatever capacity she or he is able, to overcome this are in some way complicit.
Healthcare, equal and living wages, the right to vote, the right to love whomever one loves, and the like are contained and expressed above as included among those rights that — as Gaudium et Spes makes explicit in a later section — all human institutions (e.g., governments and the church) are to work to guarantee for all people, regardless of any person’s mental, moral, physical, or social capacity or utility.
The church does not ignore the practical differences of each person, but instead affirms the reality that aptitude does in fact vary from person to person. Nevertheless, one does not earn something like access to healthcare or the right to make as much money doing the same work as someone of another sex. These are the intrinsic rights that the Creator has bestowed and that other human beings have unjustly curbed or outrightly taken away from other women and men.
Fifty years after the call of the Second Vatican Council, we can look back and reflect on how we’ve responded to this challenge and the needs of the modern world as seen by the church. We have a long way to go. What can you do to make a difference?