Lumen Gentium at 50

The fathers of the 2nd Vatican Council gathered in St Peter's Basilica

The fathers of the Second Vatican Council gathered in St Peter’s Basilica

Today marks the 50th anniversary of ‘Lumen Gentium‘, the Vatican II constitution on the Church. With this brief post I present its highlights, while encouraging you to read the document in its entirety.

The First Vatican Council was preparing to give a definition of the Church but was forced to an abrupt end in 1870 as Europe was engulfed in war. Consequently, that council defined only the primacy and infallibility of the Pope. Almost a century later, at the opening of the third session of the Second Vatican Council on September 14, 1964, Blessed Paul VI said that the chief task of the third session would be to complete what Vatican I had left undone by explaining the nature and function of the bishops as successors of the Apostles. Session 3 ended on November 21, 1964 — fifty years ago today — with the promulgation of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.

More than simply clarifying the role of bishops, this document offers a comprehensive vision of the Church. It begins by describing the Church as being “in the nature of sacrament — a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men” (1). A sacrament both symbolizes and makes real that which it symbolizes. For the New Testament and the Church Fathers, Jesus Christ is the great sacrament of God in our world. The Church, in turn, is the sacrament of Christ and His Kingdom.

The Church is then portrayed as a mystery, an aspect of God’s self-revelation through Christ and the Holy Spirit (2-4). God, who is a communion of three divine Persons, is the beginning and end of the Church’s life and mission; thus “communion” describes the deepest reality of the Church. From this notion of communion derive two biblical concepts: the Body of Christ (7-8) and the People of God (9-17). The first highlights the Church as the continuing embodiment of Christ’s presence; the second highlights the Church as a human community rooted in the faith and people of Israel, yet transformed through the redeeming work of Christ and the gift of the Paraclete.

By virtue of their baptism and confirmation, all the members of the Church are “consecrated to be a spiritual house and a holy priesthood” (10). The application of the term “priesthood” to all the baptized identifies baptism, rather than ordination, as the fundamental building-block of Christian holiness. The universal call to holiness applies to all Christians (39-42) but is diversely lived out according to different vocations or states of life: lay, clerical, and religious. Lay people seek the reign of God through their work in the secular world (30-38). Those in the ordained priesthood teach, govern, and sanctify the priestly people; acting in the person of Christ, they offer to God the Eucharistic Sacrifice (10), the “fount and apex of the whole Christian life” (11). From both the clerical and lay states God calls the faithful to religious life so that they might witness to the glory of the heavenly Kingdom by professing poverty, chastity, and obedience (43-47).

The notion of communion applies also to the relationship between the bishops and all other members of the Church, but particularly between the bishops themselves, who together form a “college” headed by the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. Bishops receive power to teach, govern, and sanctify the Church from Christ Himself by virtue of their episcopal consecration, but this power cannot be legitimately exercised without the Pope’s consent (21-22). All bishops are vicars of Christ for their particular Churches (dioceses and their equivalents), just as the Pope is for the universal Church (27).

Another area to which Lumen Gentium applies the notion of communion is ecumenism. In the long development of the Church, dissensions have arisen and communities have broken away. The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church headed by Christ “subsists in” the Catholic Church, which possesses the fullness of divinely revealed truth and all the means of salvation (8). By using the phrase “subsists in” rather than “is,” the council was not denying that the Catholic Church is the sole Church of Christ, or implying that the many Christian denominations are branches of the one universal Church. Rather, “subsists in” — which perhaps is best understood as “exists wholly and integrally in” — acknowledges the presence of ecclesial or churchly elements outside the Catholic fold: the inspired Scriptures, the ancient creeds, the sacraments (all seven, in the case of Orthodox Christianity), as well as the life of grace and other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Lumen Gentium speaks starkly of those who fail to live according to the grace they receive: “Even though incorporated into the Church, one who does not persevere in charity is not saved” (14). Validly baptized non-Catholics participate in the Body of Christ and are rightly honored with the name of Christian, although they are not in full communion with the Body of Christ as it subsists in the Catholic Church. Moreover, the Church recognizes non-Catholic Christians as her children (15). Non-Christians are related to the People of God in various ways (16).

No consideration of the Church would be complete if it ignored the faithful who “have died and are being purified” in Purgatory or have already “been received into their heavenly home” (49). The pilgrim People of God reaches its true perfection in the heavenly Jerusalem. After discussing the communion of saints, Lumen Gentium concludes by synthesizing the place of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the mystery of Christ and His Church (52-69). Without detracting from her unique privileges, the document presents Our Lady as the preeminent disciple and member of the Church. At the closing of the council’s third session, Paul VI proclaimed Mary as Mother of the Church.

To sum up, the Church at Vatican II supplemented a one-sided emphasis on her institutional life (including the office of Peter) by addressing her innermost nature, her mystery and mission, her ultimate destiny, and the various ways and degrees by which people — living and deceased — belong or are related to her.

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