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Vatican II on the Church: Introduction

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 26, 2010

The third document issued by the Second Vatican Council, on November 21, 1964, is undoubtedly the crown jewel—the impressive Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium). It is one of the Council's two major documents on the Church, the other being the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. The former document is clearly devoted to describing the nature of the Church in her deepest identity, while the latter is pastorally oriented toward her specific situation in the modern age, and her mode of action in contemporary circumstances.

It is noteworthy that the Council issued two dogmatic constitutions, this one on the Church and another on Divine Revelation, and it is necessary to note at least in passing that the very titles of these documents are sufficient to refute those who maintain that, because Vatican II was called primarily for a pastoral purpose, it never intended to teach anything in matters of faith or morals. Not only does this odd notion suggest that faith and morals are irrelevant to the Church’s pastoral activity, but it also ignores the obvious intent of the Council’s decision to entitle two of her documents as “dogmatic”.

Tellingly, the two documents on the Church (again, one dogmatic, the other pastoral) are by far the longest. Each is roughly twice as long as any other document. Clearly these two enshrine the Council’s most central and important purpose, which may be described as bringing the Church to a fuller understanding of herself so that every member of the faithful might more effectively contribute to the fulfillment of her mission in the world. The Dogmatic Constitution, removed as it is from issues of place and time and focused on the very nature of the Church herself, is necessarily the font from which all the Council's pastoral initiatives must draw their wisdom, strength and efficacy. It is not surprising, therefore, that Lumen Gentium is one of the most beautiful, deeply spiritual and inspiring documents ever issued by the Magisterium of the Church.

It consists of eight chapters, as follows:

  1. The Mystery of the Church
  2. On the People of God
  3. On the Hierarchical Structure of the Church and in Particular on the Episcopate
  4. The Laity
  5. The Universal Call to Holiness in the Church
  6. Religious
  7. The Eschatological Nature of the Pilgrim Church and Its Union with the Church in Heaven
  8. The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God in the Mystery of Christ and the Church

There is also an Appendix, not promulgated by the Council but attached to the official Latin text of Lumen Gentium in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, on the Constitution’s treatment of the bishops as a “college”. This appendix consists of four theological notes which clarify the term “college” in light of the document’s text. To the reader after the fact these clarifications appear to be so amply included in the text itself as to be all but unnecessary; for example, the Conciliar text repeatedly takes great pains to ensure that the idea of “college” is not conceived independently of the authority of the pope, who is the college’s head. Thus it is clear that these clarifications grew out of the memory of the debates which preceded the approval of the final document, memories which were still coloring a proper understanding of the text.

A Necessary Interruption

There is one more point to be made, though it seems a shame to have to give it disproportionate space. Some of those who have been appalled by the secularization of the Church in the West between 1965 and the present, and who have erroneously assumed that this secularization was brought about by a faithful implementation of the conciliar documents, have found themselves with a sort of psychological vested interest in establishing that the Council, for all practical purposes, dealt only in recommendations that the faithful could either take or leave. This has given rise to a fruitless quarrel over the authority of the Second Vatican Council. The Theological Commission (the committee of bishops charged with the drafting of the document) addressed this issue briefly prior to the vote on the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, and while not part of the official text of the Constitution, its remarks are also included in the Appendix published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis. The need for this arose because some councils have been more or less entirely dogmatic in character, consisting of brief texts which were almost exclusively composed of formal definitions or anathemas, but Vatican II did not take this form.

Therefore, the Commission stated that “the Council’s text must always be interpreted in accordance with the general rules that are known to all” and to make these rules clear, it briefly summarized them. First, the Council “defines as binding on the Church only those things in matters of faith and morals which it shall openly declare to be binding.” Second, everything else must be “accepted and embraced by each and every one of Christ’s faithful according to the mind of the sacred Council” as known from the “matter treated or from its manner of speaking, in accordance with the norms of theological interpretation.”

This is simply a succinct statement of the normal rules (“known to all”) of theological interpretation that apply to all magisterial teaching, including that of the papal Magisterium, as in encyclicals. In other words, this statement represents the magisterial norm; it is not some special license for confusion in accepting and obeying the Conciliar decrees. In the light of longstanding quarrels, I have been forced to comment on this. But in fact no part of the Appendix need detain us further in our exploration of the text, because all parts of the Appendix simply reaffirm what is already clear in the text of the Constitution itself when read “in accordance with the general rules that are known to all.”

In closing, is worth noting that Lumen Gentium has two sets of footnotes. The first and longest set are devoted exclusively to Scripure references, enabling the reader to grasp at a glance the rich Scriptural underpinnings of the document. The second set of notes provide doctrinal references to past Magisterial documents and patristic texts. Finally, while a subsequent summary of each chapter of Lumen Gentium would be appropriate, in my opinion it would make the series too long. Therefore, the rest of this seminal document will be covered in just four additional posts.


Previous in series: Vatican II on Social Communications
Next in series: Vatican II on the Church: The Mystery

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  • Posted by: lawrence_mosher4475 - Feb. 27, 2010 9:09 AM ET USA

    Dear Jeff, I wanted to thank you so much for doing this series. I am currently involved in the Diaconate Information series in the Archdioceses of Atlanta, Georgia. I am following the 'call' to pursue applying for Diaconate Formation. In addition I am reading the suggested reading list and have included the significant documents from Vatican II. This will certianaly help to understand the breath of these documents in our faith's history.

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