Next week, we mark the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Its opening passage, often-quoted and perhaps memorized by some of the readers, is worth revisiting:
The joy and the hope, the grief and anguish of the men of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men, of men who, united in Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, press onwards towards the Kingdom of the Father and are bearers of a message of salvation intended for all men. That is why Christians cherish a feeling of deep solidarity with the human race and its history. (no. 1)
The griefs and anguishes of this age are too immense to capture. Too often we are faced with yet another tragedy, filling social media with tributes. Yet, what does it mean for “the grief and anguish of the men of our time” to become “the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ” in a time when determining who and what is grievable is a political act?
Last month, shortly after the attacks in Paris, social media responded with tributes. One could see Eiffel Towers rendered as peace signs, Facebook profile pictures turned to French flags, and many tweets, Instagram posts, and other ways of marking this tragedy. Such a response is routine in our culture. It is so routine, in fact, that when Facebook launched the tool to turn one’s profile picture into the French flag, it did so by stating it was temporary. The sense of temporariness implies a period of appropriate mourning, followed by “normal” life, followed by another tragedy.
Just as routine is the backlash. People started decrying the fact that there was mourning for the victims in Paris, but not Beirut, where ISIS had carried out a suicide bombing killing at least 43 people only the day before . A several-month old story about an attack at a school in Kenya resurfaced, with cries questioning why this attack had not received similar outrage as the attacks in Paris. Social media became a site of competition in suffering.
The philosopher Judith Butler, in her book Frames of War : When Is Life Grievable?, approaches the topic of who and what is grieved by taking a step back and looking at the affirmation or denial of humanity. She explains, “If certain lives do not qualify as lives or are, from the start, not conceivable as lives within certain epistemological frames, then these lives are never lived nor lost in the full sense” (p. 1). Certainly, these lives exist, but are they valued? Do they “count”? Butler goes on, explaining, “An ungrievable life is one that cannot be mourned because it has never lived, that is, it has never counted as a life at all” (p. 38). Using this framework, we can see that the lives that were lost in Beirut were not fully grieved in the United States because prior to the bombings, they were not fully seen as lives. If we cannot value someone as living, we cannot mourn when they are dead.
Butler posits familiarity as the guiding force for making someone known and grievable. From this, she poses an important question for us to consider: “At what cost do I establish the familiar as the criterion by which a human life is grievable?” (p. 38)
Familiarity fueled the disproportionate responses to Paris, Beirut, and Kenya. On my newsfeed, many posted pictures of the first time they visited the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre. However, how many Americans can identify Kenya on a map or tell you the history of Beirut? Familiarity can lead to positive results, such as inspiring sympathy and perhaps fostering a sense of solidarity. However, problems arise when familiarity is our only guide. As Butler argues, unfamiliarity results in regarding others with diminished value. If only familiar lives exist to us, then we render billions of people invisible and invaluable.
At stake in Butler’s analysis of grievability is human dignity. Catholic social teaching is unequivocal in its affirmation of human dignity. All people, whether known or unknown, are created in the image and likeness of God. While the teaching on this is clear, we must ask ourselves whether familiarity or dignity guides our response to tragedy. Do we truly grieve for those who are unfamiliar? Whose lives are known to us, and thus grievable?
The prerequisite of familiarity for fostering grievability has serious implications for Catholic social ethics. It requires us, as people of faith, to ask ourselves these difficult questions. If the answer is that familiarity dictates grievability, as is the case for so many of us, then this requires a massive overhaul of our sense of solidarity and connection with those who are unfamiliar.
It is important to note that Gaudium et Spes states directly that the joy, hope, grief, and anguish of others, “especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way,” must be the joy, hope, grief, and anguish of Christians. Butler’s work makes this call especially important, as well as difficult. It calls for us to know the griefs and hopes of those who are poor, but in order to do this, we must both become familiar with the poor as well as have our care and knowledge extend beyond the confines of familiarity. As Gaudium et Spes affirms, “Today there is an inescapable duty to make ourselves the neighbor of every man” (no. 27). To do this, we must rid ourselves of the paternalism that leads us to see the poor as “other.” We must break down divides of in order to create a true solidarity.
As I read the opening paragraph of Gaudium et Spes, 50 years after its promulgation in the midst of news of mass shootings, bombings, and attacks, these words that are so familiar to me jump off the page with a renewed relevance. Whose grief do I make my own? How can I make the griefs of those who are unfamiliar to me my own? How can I value lives that society deems as ungrievable? Reading Gaudium et Spes through the lens of grievability creates a new urgency, challenging the church to go to the margins, as Pope Francis often calls us to do, and become familiar with the joy and hope, grief and anxiety of our neighbors in the margins.
Annie Selak is a Ph.D. student in Systematic Theology at Boston College, focusing on ecclesiology. She studies power and authority in the Roman Catholic Church, examining leadership structures and dialogue. Prior to studying at Boston College, Annie served as a Lay Ecclesial Minister in the Catholic Church, working with young women at Catholic high schools and universities.