Vatican II on the Church: Introduction to ‘Lumen Gentium’

It is noteworthy, perhaps even a bit troubling, that the Second Vatican Council saw need to produce four constitutions, documents stating, in fullest form, primary doctrines of the Church.  These constitutions expound the three fundamental, interlocking realities of the liturgy (Sacrosanctum concilium), divine revelation (Dei Verbum), and the Church (Lumen gentium  and Gaudium et spes).  How had it come about that in two thousand years the Church had not given such an explicit teaching on these ‘non-negotiable’ elements of her self-understanding?  Or, why was what had already been written deemed insufficient for the catechizing of modern persons?

As we begin our reflections on Lumen gentium, I think that it will be worthwhile to think about how history brought about need for such a constitution on the Church.

Systematic reflection on Church doctrine, that is, the teaching of Jesus Christ as transmitted through His chosen Apostles, was a somewhat piecemeal affair in the early years, even centuries, of the Church’s existence.  Apostolic preaching begins as the urgent communication of a ‘gospel’, the joyful announcement of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and the consequent invitation to all peoples to partake of the everlasting life offered in communion with Christ.  This communion with Jesus Christ is the Church, made up of many individuals while still forming a fundamental unity, the ‘Mystical Body’ of Christ, the ‘Bride’ of Christ.  It is the new People of God with God not only as King, but as very ‘life principle’ through the outpouring of grace in the Holy Spirit.

Put in this way, we already see the intrinsic connection of the liturgy and of revelation to the birth and upbuilding of the Church.  It is through the sacrament of baptism (which is, we recall, part of the liturgy) that individuals receive the life of Christ and becoming ‘incorporated’ into the Church (literally ‘in-bodied’).  Through participation in the liturgy, most especially the Eucharist, members of the Church gradually are conformed more and more to Christ, and therefore become more manifestly what they are in truth, the Body of Christ, the Church.  God’s life is revealed, and in the Church becomes revelation for the world.

As I wrote above, however, systematic reflection on what it means to be a member of the Church was not a concern of early preachers and theologians.  Circumstances throughout the first millennium largely moved Christian thinkers to respond ad hoc (though, in another sense, Providentially) to unpredictable and changing circumstances.  In the first three centuries, this meant ruthless persecution.  This was followed by the rather confounding circumstance the Church being an official ‘state’ religion within the post-Constantinian empire.  Then, as this empire fell apart in the West, the Church was called upon to adapt the gospel to a missionary outreach in the midst of a collapsing civilization.

It was not until ‘Christendom’, a more or less stable, more or less Christian society emerged in the eleventh and twelfth centuries that truly systematic reflection on doctrine could occur.  And as it happens, the fundamental aspects of doctrine, those things that are ‘givens’ for any theological reflection, will tend to be precisely those aspects that are hidden from the theologian in such a society.  At the very least, the theologian will not find these givens to be particularly urgent and in need of attention.

As this process of systematic reflection become more and more refined and more and more centered on the great medieval universities, a danger arose.  Reflection can become a kind of end in itself.  The fundamentally mysterious origin of the Faith, as the ‘supernatural’ revelation of God’s hidden plan for humankind, tends to be obscured.  The great Summas produced at the height of medieval culture can give the impression that there is nothing particularly mysterious about the faith.  This is so even while, as I suggested above, the very process of reflection hides what is ‘most true’ about the Faith, the fundamental realities of revelation, the liturgy and the Church.

That something or other was wrong with this arrangement was strongly intuited by Churchmen and civil authorities alike throughout the tumult of the fifteenth century.  Not only was there a certain uneasiness in theological reflection at the time, but widespread failures in public morality, especially among the clergy, clearly indicated the disordered state of Church life.  Furthermore, this indicated a disconnect between theology and life: the teaching of the gospel was not acting as a proper leaven for conversion to Christ.  Multiple councils and synods attempted to address these problems to little avail.

Thus it came about that the Protestant Reformation was, in some sense, required to force into view the very fundamentals of the Church.  When we look at the three interlocking realities with which I began—liturgy, divine revelation, and the Church—we see that these were precisely the contended issues of the Reformation.  The Reformers, in various ways rejected or modified traditional teachings in these areas.  For example, sola scriptura offered a radically innovative understanding of the Scriptures, even while placing, in an obvious way, the mystery of divine revelation back at the center of the Church.  Calvin’s denial of the necessity of a visible, institutional Church called into question what had been too complacently taken for granted.  The efficacy of the sacraments was called into question, with even the doctrine of transubstantiation denied by virtually all of the different Protestant communions.

In this new era of intense controversy, the Church entered the Council of Trent (1545-1563) still handicapped to some extent with the inadequate tools of late scholasticism for rethinking and restating her ancient teachings.  Moreover, the Council dealt with the issues not systematically, but in counter-response to specific challenges of the Reformation.  Under these circumstances, what the Council accomplished it quite remarkable.

When Pope John XXIII called for a ‘pastoral’ council, he had in mind a more positively shaped series of reflections by the bishops.  Instead of responding to modernity with an array of anathemas, thereby allowing the world to set the agenda, the council Fathers aimed to articulate the gospel on the Church’s own terms.  Rather than a ‘reactionary’ attitude the Church was to rediscover the bold confidence of real faith, to enter on a new evangelization that would enliven the hearts of believers and make the Faith credible and attractive.

Once more, I would point out the significance of the fact that the Council began its Magisterial teaching with a document on the liturgy.  When Vatican I set out to articulate its teaching on the Church, it did not begin with the supernatural reality that the Church is God’s, brought into being through the death and resurrection of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Using then-traditional ideas stressing the visible Church (against the fading ghost of Calvin), the Fathers of Vatican I began, in good European political fashion with the office of the papacy, intending to work their way down through the bishops, priests, deacons, religious, et cetera, all the way to the laity.  Alas, the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War caused the suspension of the Council with only the articles on the pope finished!  This left the controversial teaching on papal infallibility as an apparent (though unintended) ‘stand-alone’ doctrine, to the dismay of Cardinal Newman and many others.

Thus, in some ways, Lumen gentium [LG] picks up where the First Vatican Council left off.  And perhaps, in God’s wisdom, the suspension of Vatican I was to the benefit of a more mature reflection on the full nature of the Church.  LG begins, not with the pope, but with ‘mystery’ and God’s desire to bring about the unity of all humankind through the mystery of the Incarnation, extended in our time in the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church.  It is with these dense, important early paragraphs that we will resume next week.

1 Comment

  • Bob says:

    This was a very helpful introduction. I look forward to your “unfold[ing] more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission.” ;-)