‘Lumen Gentium’: Paragraphs 1-5 on the Mystery of the Church

(Note: This is a very long and complex document.  I highly recommend reading the text itself, found here, as we go along.  However, the translations will be my own, as I wish to highlight certain aspects of the Latin text.  Also, I highly recommend, as you read Lumen Gentium, that you take the time to look up the Scriptural quotes in your favorite translation, and spend some time praying over them and their context.  These quotes should not be seen as mere ‘proof texts’ of an argument of special pleading, but as structural foundations to the Church’s entire self-understanding.)

As I have mentioned in earlier preliminary posts, Lumen Gentium is a document addressing challenges to the understanding of the nature of the Church.  The Reformation gave rise to notions of an ‘invisible’ church, entirely spiritual in nature, therefore lacking any visible authority in the persons of the ordained hierarchy.  However, the response, set out in the Council of Trent, perhaps gave rise to the opposite mistake, understanding the Church merely as the ‘perfect society’, more or less akin to other worldly states like, say, the United States of America.  Such an error misses the essential spiritual component of the Church.

Finally, for a variety of reasons, the Church came (and has come) to be seen as a kind of service organization.  Such a view, infected by the notion of a modern ‘corporation’, privileges the positions of the bishops and priests, even making of them (with the religious) the entirety of ‘The Church’.  This problematic thinking is heard everywhere today.  Faithful Catholics themselves will say things like, “Why doesn’t the Church do something about such-and-such a problem?”  But we are the Church.  Each member should do what his role in the Church requires.  And the important chapter on the laity (paragraphs 30-38) indicates the important roles that properly belong to the laity.  The active engagement of the laity in many areas of the Church’s life is one of the great fruits of Lumen Gentium and the related document Apostolicam Actuositatem.

That said, the reality of the Church, at root, is a mystery, as the first chapter makes clear.  The profoundest reality of the Church will always lie beyond our rational and intuitive grasp, touching as it does upon the union of God and humanity, inaugurated in the womb of the Virgin Mary and in the person of Jesus Christ, but extending to all who hear and believe in the good news announced by the Church.

Since there is only One God, the union of humanity with God also portends the unity of all humanity.  This claim is made explicit in chapter 1 as well:

…the Church is in Christ, as it were, a sacrament or a sign and instrument both of an intimate union with God and of the unity of the whole human race.

Wait!  Isn’t religion the source of division among men?  And why should I need a church to experience union with God?  It may be worth a comment or two on each of these questions as part of the introduction to Lumen Gentium, but ultimately the answer will become clear as we read the document.

First, as I indicated, we believe in One God, and indeed most believers in God share this belief.  The question, then, becomes: “How do we come to know this God?”  For Christians, the answer must be “through Jesus Christ,” since Christ is God.  Furthermore, He came to earth specifically to announce the Good News of God’s forgiveness and to send the Holy Spirit (see LG paragraphs 3-4).  We will briefly discuss the soundness of these claims in the next section.

Why, then, the Church?  Can’t we just pray to Jesus and know God that way?  Can’t we just read the Bible and do what Jesus teaches?  The rest of Lumen Gentium will substantiate the Church’s traditional claim that Christ’s Mystical Body, His real presence, is mysteriously the fullness of the Church herself.  And just as Christ’s body, and not merely His ‘essence’ or ‘soul’ was raised from the dead and glorified, the Church is not merely a spiritual unity, but includes the material and visible aspects of the bodies of believers, including the hierarchy, making use of the goodness of God’s creation to communicate grace, especially through the sacraments.

A fuller explanation will emerge from our patient reading of the rest of this important teaching document.

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