The document Lumen Gentium is called a ‘constitution’ in its official title. We should be cautious in interpreting this word too literally and with modern political categories in mind. In my opinion, Fr. Louis Bouyer made this mistake in his commentary on the earlier ‘constitution’ on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, when he suggested that such a document represented an almost ‘final word’ on the nature of the liturgy itself. Leo Stelten, author of a very fine Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Latin gives a narrow definition of ‘constitution’ used in this context: “a Vatican II document that addresses doctrinal questions and offers doctrinal responses.” As I have suggested in my earlier introductory posts on Lumen Gentium, we can’t really have a full understanding of LG without a sense of the context in which it was written. If, as Stelten suggests, a constitution addresses ‘doctrinal questions’, we will need to have some sense of those questions that made necessary a ‘doctrinal response’. I will be calling them to mind (at least as I understand them) as we go along.
The truth is that there is not a last and definitive response to the question, “What is the Church,” because the Church is a mystery. This is indicated in two ways in the opening paragraphs. First of all, the narrative ‘history’ of the Church begins with the transcendent mystery of the Holy Trinity. Paragraph 2 begins with the mysterious plan of the Father. This is followed by the mission of the Son in Paragraph 3, and the sending of the Holy Spirit in Paragraph 4. This transcendent source of the Church is the infinite mystery of the very Godhead, and so there cannot be any sense of a ‘constitution’ either exhausting this mystery or even ‘founding’ the Church as a human organization.
The second indication of the hidden reality of the Church is the extended discussion in paragraph 6. Here, various ‘figures’ of the Church are given. No single figure is a complete analogy, and the combination of them all indicates that the nature of the Church goes beyond any one figure. Thus we are pointed toward Scriptural indications of the Church, the Kingdom of God in mystery, as a sheepfold, a field or estate, a vine, a building (and more specifically a temple), and as a bride and the ‘new Jerusalem’. I would highly recommend spending time reading the Scriptural sources for these images, rather than assuming that we already know how the figures are used.
I will end for today with another note about the fuller context of understanding Lumen Gentium. This was the third document published by the Council, and should be read particularly in the light of the first document, Sacrosanctum concilium, the constitution on the liturgy. This is especially true because that document makes some very strong claims. Consider the following:
[The liturgy is] the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church [par. 2].
It is of the essence of the Church that she be both human and divine [ibid].
Consider this important quote from paragraph 8, “In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle; we sing a hymn to the Lord’s glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them.”
Throughout Lumen Gentium, the pilgrim nature of the Church on earth will be stressed. This aspect of the Church is sometimes known as the ‘Church Militant.’ What I wish to note here is another aspect of the Church already realized but not explicit at this point in LG. The heavenly liturgy is already being sung, and the saints already partake in it in some fashion, and with the assurance of ultimate salvation. This aspect of the Church, the ‘Church Triumphant,’ is not covered strongly in LG until chapter 7 (par. 48), and if we are not cautious, we might forget about this aspect of the Church. I would expect that the Council Fathers took this for granted, and that emphasizing the Church Triumphant was not taken to be among the doctrinal questions to be addressed. As it happens, this aspect really does need heightening today. The Church includes all the holy ones from the beginning of time, and particularly those sanctified by Christ and acknowledged already as saints.
For the sake of completeness, I should add that there is a third aspect of the Church, the ‘Church Expectant’, made up of those souls who entered eternity not fully purified, but assured of salvation nonetheless, whose place is what we traditionally refer to as purgatory. It is worthwhile noting that every Eucharistic Prayer at Mass explicitly covers all three aspects of the Church, praying for the Church Militant, especially her ministers, venerating and calling to mind the communion of the saints in the Church Triumphant, while remembering and offering prayers for the Church Expectant.