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How we should and should not think of the Church

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 14, 2014 | In Reviews

Between about 1960 and 1985, some remarkably weird theories about the nature of the Church emerged in fashionable theological circles. As a general rule, these theories were mirrors of the prevailing Western cultural euphoria. Indeed, they were based almost exclusively on wishful thinking. All of them were heavily dependent on the image of the “people of God” used to describe the Church at the Second Vatican Council. As such, they claimed authoritative status as derivations of the Council.

In one way or another, these theories emphasized the universal dignity enjoyed by all members of the Church, but to the detriment of other relevant features of ecclesiology. They used this emphasis to argue for a Church in which all members were functionally equal and all decisions were democratic in nature.

At its worst, this line of thought led to a theory of the Church which was nothing more than a collection of individuals and congregations, rather like the World Council of Churches. At best, it led to an argument that the special prerogatives of the Church, such as her teaching authority and sacramental power, were in reality exercised only by the whole body of the Church. On this reading, priests, bishops and popes were reduced to a representational status. In saying Mass, for example, the parish priest was said merely to “preside” over the “assembly” of the faithful, which confects the Eucharist as a group.

These ideas have subsided somewhat over the past twenty years, at least in the consciousness of most active bishops, priests and laity. You will still find them among academic theologians in many forms, since universities are among the most difficult of all institutions to reform, and of course among dissidents, whether priestly or lay, who have particular axes to grind.

But it is astonishing how much one aspect of all this has stuck with us. I mean the myth that these ideas came from the Council, and that their abandonment is a recognition of the deficiencies of the Council—an admission that there was something wrong with an ecumenical council’s teaching on the Church.

Vatican II Flows from Vatican I

Such a myth is laughably distant from what the Council actually taught. Ecclesiologically, the Second Vatican Council was meant to be (and succeeded admirably in being) a continuation of the work of the First Vatican Council. Vatican I’s program called for dealing with the errors of rationalism and liberalism which dominated the Western world at the time, and for setting forth a renewed and comprehensive understanding of the Church. But it managed to finish only two proposed Apostolic Constitutions, the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith” and the “The First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ”.

Note well this word “first”. As everyone knows, the Council first carefully set forth the character of the Petrine office in the Church, the primatial prerogatives of the Holy Father, and in particular the doctrine of infallibility. The Council Fathers fully-intended to complete an equally serious consideration of the episcopate, religious life, and the laity. They envisioned a vitally renewed treatment of all the elements which made up the Church. Unfortunately, political unrest and war disrupted the First Vatican Council in 1870, bringing the sessions to an end as the bishops rushed home.

It is indicative of the Church’s intentions for this council that it was never formally closed—until Pope John XXIII officially closed Vatican I just before he opened Vatican II in 1962.

This history accounts for the program of the Second Vatican Council, which deliberately completed the unfinished work of Vatican I. The central document of Vatican II—the backbone of the whole Council—is the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), in which the most decisive sections address the episcopate. The Council carefully developed the role of the bishops in constituting a plenary college exercising Christ’s authority over the Church in union with the head of the college (the pope), who can speak for the whole college also on his own. Vatican II also issued separate documents on the priesthood, laity, and religious life—as well as the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”.

Images from Vatican II

The image of Vatican II as reducing the Church to some sort of democratic or congregational model (basically the reigning secular political model) is flamboyant in its falsity. Here I must use broad strokes, but the first thing to notice is that the Council actually rounded out the scope of Vatican I’s teaching on infallibility. Vatican II stressed the acceptance and obedience due to the truth of papal teachings even when they are not solemn definitions of faith, including those known from the pope’s ordinary magisterium, even touching philosophical and moral matters necessary to faith but not formally revealed. (Note: The Council taught that “religious submission of mind and will” is due to these teachings—not because they are less true, but because they are not directly dependent on Revelation, and so do not properly require the assent of Faith.)

Another way to quickly capture the difference between the ecclesiological reality and the ecclesiological myth of the Second Vatican Council is to recognize that the Council used not only the image of the “People of God” to describe the Church but also the image of the “Mystical Body of Christ” and the “Temple of the Holy Spirit”. Together these images are used to probe the mysterious being of the Church, as distinct from all other bodies and peoples, each of which is defined salvifically in terms of the nature of its relationship to the one Church. These relationships, including some limited sharing of goods, also become important ecumenically, in a way that enhances our understanding of the deep riches of the Church herself.

To read Lumen Gentium carefully is to gain an unparalleled insight into the nature of the Church which completely dispels the horizontalist political notions so characteristic of the modern world. But for those who would prefer to delve more deeply into Vatican II’s ecclesiology in direct response to the many faulty ecclesiologies we have had to protect against since that time, let me say that the best book that I know on this subject was written by Brian T. Mullady, OP and published in 2006 by New Hope Publications.

Fr. Mullady does a superb job of demonstrating how Vatican II first defined the very nature and being of the Church and of the orders within the Church, and then went on to show how this being issued forth in the characteristic actions of the various groups of which the Church in her full unity is composed—pope, bishops, priests, deacons, religious and laity. Echoing the Council itself, Fr. Mullady entitled his book Light of the Nations, and not “The Idiot’s Guide to Democratic Catholicism”.

Mullady’s title is a translation of both the Latin name and the opening words of Vatican II’s central dogmatic constitution. Light of the nations: This serves as a fitting symbol of what the Council itself most desired to say about the Catholic Church.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Aug. 14, 2014 10:55 PM ET USA

    As history has unfolded, it is apparent that confusion abounds. Among those calling for clarification has been Bishop Athanasius Schneider. William Oddie wrote in 2011 "The call for a new Syllabus of Errors, this time on Vatican II, should be heeded" as follows: "It is particularly relevant to the erroneous interpretations of the Second Vatican Council which Bishop Schneider has called on (Pope Benedict) to correct in a new Syllabus. I very much hope the Pope responds to this call..."

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Aug. 14, 2014 8:42 PM ET USA

    Liberation Theology was strongly supported by Jesuits in South and Central America. Jesuits and other religious orders were in rebellion against the Pope using the ideal of the Church being the people of God. North America also received this message from Catholic colleges run by these orders. The Pope's authority was attacked and weakened by the idea of the college of Bishops. Even though VII did stress papal auth the 'spirit' of VII stressed collegiality.