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Divine Providence in the Light of Vatican II

1986, June 18

General Audience

The truth about divine Providence appears as a point of convergence of the many truths contained in the statement: "I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth." Because of its richness and ever present topicality it deserved treatment from the entire Magisterium of the Second Vatican Council, which discussed it in an excellent manner. In many documents of the Council we find appropriate references to this truth of faith, and it is present in a particular way in the Constitution Gaudium et Spes. By setting that out in relief we summarize the previous catecheses on divine Providence.

As is known, the Constitution Gaudium et Spes treats of the Church in the modern world. From the first paragraphs, however, one sees clearly that it is impossible to treat this subject on the basis of the Church's Magisterium without going back to the revealed truth on the relationship of God with the world, and in the last analysis to the truth of divine Providence.

We read: "The council focuses its attention on the world of men, the whole human family...that world which is the theater of man's history, and the heir of his energies, his tragedies and his triumphs; that world which the Christian sees as created and sustained by its maker's love, fallen indeed into the bondage of sin, yet emancipated now by Christ, who was crucified and rose again to break the stranglehold of personified evil, so that the world might be fashioned anew according to God's design and reach its fulfillment" (GS 2).

This "description" involves the whole doctrine of Providence, understood both as God's eternal plan in creation, and as the carrying out of this plan in history. It is also understood as the salvific and eschatological finalization of the universe and especially of the human world according to its "predestination in Christ," the center and pivot of all things. This repeats in other terms the dogmatic statement of the First Vatican Council: "All that God created, he conserves and directs by his Providence 'reaching from end to end mightily and governing all things well' (cf. Wis 8:1). 'All lies bare and exposed to his eyes' (cf. Heb 4:13), even what will take place through the free initiative of creatures" (DS 3003). More specifically, right from the very beginning, Gaudium et Spes focuses on a question as pertinent to our subject as it is of interest to modern man-how to reconcile the "growth" of God's kingdom with the development (evolution) of the world. We shall now follow the main lines of this exposition, precisely indicating its principal assertions.

In the visible world men and women are the protagonists of historical and cultural development. They are in a certain sense "providence" for themselves, since they are created in the image and likeness of God, conserved in being by him and guided with fatherly love in the task of "exercising dominion" over other creatures. "Throughout the course of the centuries, men have labored to better the circumstances of their lives through a monumental amount of individual and collective effort. To believers, this point is settled: considered in itself, this human activity accords with God's will. For man, created in God's image, received a mandate to subject to himself the earth and all it contains, and to govern the world with justice and holiness; a mandate to relate himself and the totality of things to him who was to be acknowledged as the Lord and Creator of all. Thus, by the subjection of all things to man, the name of God would be wonderful in all the earth" (GS 34).

Previously, the same conciliar document had stated: "Man is not wrong when he regards himself as superior to bodily concerns, and as more than a speck of nature or a nameless constituent of the city of man. For by his interior qualities he outstrips the whole sum of mere things. He plunges into the depths of reality whenever he enters into his own heart; God, who probes the heart, awaits him there; there he discerns his proper destiny beneath the eyes of God" (GS 14).

The development of the world toward economic and cultural orders ever more suited to the integral requirements of man is a task which enters into man's vocation to exercise dominion over the earth. Therefore the real successes of modern scientific and technological civilization, no less than those of humanistic culture and of the "wisdom" of the centuries, enter into the scope of the "providence" shared with man for the implementation of God's plan in the world. The Council sees and recognizes the value and function of the culture and work of our time in this light. The Constitution Gaudium et Spes describes the new cultural and social condition of humanity, with its distinctive notes and its possibilities for such rapid advancement as to occasion amazement and hope (cf. GS, 53-54). The Council does not hesitate to witness to man's wonderful achievements, setting them in the framework of the divine plan and command, and linking them with the Gospel of brotherhood preached by Jesus Christ: "When man develops the earth by the work of his hands or with the aid of technology, in order that it might bear fruit and become a dwelling worthy of the whole human family and when he consciously takes part in the life of social groups, he carries out the design of God manifested at the beginning of time, that he should subdue the earth, perfect creation and develop himself. At the same time he obeys the commandment of Christ that he place himself at the service of his brethren" (GS 57; cf. also GS 63).

However, the Council did not close its eyes to the immense problems concerning man's development today, whether in his dimension as a person, or in that of community. It would be illusory to believe that these problems can be ignored, just as it would be an error to formulate them in an inadequate or insufficient manner, under the pretext of omitting the necessary reference to God's providence and will. The Council said: "Though mankind is stricken with wonder at its own discoveries and its power, it often raises anxious questions about the current trend of the world, about the place and role of man in the universe, about the meaning of its individual and collective strivings, and about the ultimate destiny of reality and of humanity" (GS 3). And it explained: "This transformation has brought serious difficulties in its wake. Thus while man extends his power in every direction, he does not always succeed in subjecting it to his own welfare. Striving to probe more profoundly into the deeper recesses of his own mind, he frequently appears more unsure of himself. Gradually and more precisely he lays bare the laws of society, only to be paralyzed by uncertainty about the direction to give it" (GS 4).

The Council spoke expressly of the "contradictions and imbalances" begotten by a "rapid and disorderly" evolution in socio-economic conditions, in the way of life, the culture, and in the outlook and conscience of man, in the family, in social relations, in relations between groups, communities and nations, with the consequent "mutual distrust, enmities, conflicts and hardships. Of such man is at once the cause and the victim" (cf. GS 8-10). Finally the Council arrived at the root of the problem when it stated "that the imbalances under which the modern world labors are linked with that more basic imbalance which is rooted in the heart of man" (GS 10).

In the presence of this situation in the world today, there is no justification for that mentality according to which the "dominion" which man claims is absolute and radical and can be realized without any reference to divine Providence. It is a vain and dangerous illusion to build one's own life and to make the world the realm of one's happiness, by relying exclusively on one's own powers. It is the great temptation into which the modern world has fallen, unmindful of the fact that the laws of nature also govern the industrial and post-industrial civilization (cf. GS 26-27). But it is easy to be dazzled by a supposed self-sufficiency of the progressive "dominion" of the forces of nature, to the point of forgetting God or of setting oneself in his place. Today in some circles this claim leads to forms of biological, genetic, and psychological manipulation. If this is not governed by criteria of the moral law (and consequently by the finalization of the kingdom of God) it can result in the domination of man over man with tragically disastrous consequences. Recognizing contemporary man's greatness, but also his limitation, in the legitimate autonomy of created things (cf. GS 36), the Council reminded him of the truth of divine Providence which comes to his assistance and help. In this relationship with God the Father, Creator and Providence, man can ever discover anew the basis of his salvation.