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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.

4 thoughts on “Lumen Gentium at 50”

  1. As one who has great experience in this area, M.J. knows how nettlesome we amateur autodidacts can be but it seems to this amateur that there has been a change in Doctrine and the change can be seen when one compares L.G. with what came before.

    At the following link, one can compare what the Magisterium used to state about the Church vs what it now says.

    Thinking about the Church differently than the way it had (perfect society /mystical body) with clear lines of demarcation defining who is and is not in the Church makes this amateur wonder whether or not the change in how the V2 Church saw itself- (sacrament/communion) was a vision forced upon it owing to its ecumenical orientation and so one can now be in the church even if one is not in the church.

    There is one Faith and one Baptism and, thus, a protestant child validly Baptised becomes a member of the Catholic Church and remains a member until he matures to intellectual discretion and then, if he refuses submission to the Church, he becomes a heretic/schismatic and heretics and schismatics have never been consider in partial communion with the Church. They were out, clearly outside.

    Protestants are heretics. Sorry, that is just the way it is and that is the way it has always been and the use of subsistit in seems a novel circle impossible to square with Tradition..

    He is an excellent recapitulation of different (failed) attempts to justify its use

    Dear Father. M.J. is well aware of his manifest limitations (College major in Psych with a minor in Oakland Raiders philosophy) and he wants you to know this post is in no way intended as a personal attack on you; in fact, M.J has profited from reading you at this blog

  2. M.J.: How do you account for the Catholic Church’s practice of NOT re-baptizing converts to Catholicism from Protestantism or Orthodoxy who were validly baptized in their own communions, if NOT for the recognition of ecclesial or churchly elements (i.e., elements of the one Church of Christ, the Catholic Church) outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church? So, in practice, the Church has always recognized elements or vestiges of the Church outside her fold. This is what the phrase “subsists in” is getting at. You might find this helpful…

    • Dear Father. Because Baptism can not be repeated but those Baptised (temporarily members of the church unit they attain to discretion and refuse the authority of the church) are now heretics and, thus, outside the church accord to Doctrine that preceded V2.

      One is either in or out of the Church.

      The new orientation/vision/ecclesiological ideology refuses to draw distinctions and refuses to define who is and isn’t a member of the church and, thus the great commission is distilled to an effete ecumenism; for why bother about the actual business of the Church – Sanctification and Salvation – if the heretics and schismatics are already essentially members of the one true church and can find salvation in their communities?

      Prior to V2, there were clear lines drawn and carefully circumscribed definitions were advanced so that everyone could tell who was in or out of the church and on that basis alone one can tell that V2 changed doctrine.

      M.J. could post many excerpts from Pre V2 catechisms, Encyclicals, Denzinger, Manuals etc etc illustrating that fact but it prolly would be to no avail for the new theology reigns supreme.

      C’est la vie.

      Thank you, Father.

  3. O, what the heck. Here is one citation from the Catechism of the Council of Trent:

    Hence there are but three classes of persons excluded from the Church’s
    pale: infidels, heretics and schismatics, and excommunicated persons.
    Infidels are outside the Church because they never belonged to, and
    never knew the Church, and were never made partakers of any of her
    Sacraments. Heretics and schismatics are excluded from the Church,
    because they have separated from her and belong to her only as
    deserters belong to the army from which they have deserted. It is
    not, however, to be denied that they are still subject to the
    jurisdiction of the Church, inasmuch as they may be called before her
    tribunals, punished and anathematised. Finally, excommunicated
    persons are not members of the Church, because they have been cut off
    by her sentence from the number of her children and belong not to her
    communion until they repent.


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