Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Vatican II on the Church: The Mystery

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 01, 2010 | In On the Documents of Vatican II

The central purpose of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) is “to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission” (1). The first two chapters clearly build toward the document’s great third chapter on the episcopacy, but because they have generated considerable controversy in their own right, I will treat them separately here.

The first chapter (“The Mystery of the Church”) teaches that the Church is the kingdom of Christ “now present in mystery” and that the Holy Spirit was sent on Pentecost to “continually sanctify the Church”, which He “both equips and direct with hierarchical and charismatic gifts and adorns with His fruits” (4). At the same time, while growing slowly, “the Church strains toward the completed Kingdom and, with all its strength, hopes and desires to be united in glory with its King” (5). The Council also takes up the various images or metaphors of the Church, as used in Scripture and developed by the Fathers. Among other realities thus expressed, the Church is a body with Christ as its head and a bride loved by Christ the bridegroom.

This first chapter closes with a consideration of the Church’s visibility. She is a visible society governed by the Pope and the bishops, “a living organ of salvation” which “by no weak analogy…is compared to the mystery of the incarnate Word.” In other words:

[T]he society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ, are not to be considered as two realities, nor are the visible assembly and the spiritual community, nor the earthy Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things; rather they form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element. (8)

It is in this context that the Council makes a statement which has been abused by both Modernists and Traditionalists: “[T]his Church constituted and organized in the world as a society subsists in the Catholic Church” (8; emphasis added). Because earlier doctrinal statements had used “is” where the Council uses the more philosophical term “subsists in”, some thought the Council was teaching that the Church of Christ also exists fully beyond the visible borders of the Catholic Church. But that the Council meant no such thing is clear from the same sentence, which specifically notes only that “many elements of sanctification and truth [for example, Scripture and the action of the Holy Spirit] are found outside of its visible structure” (8; emphasis added). In fact, “these elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity” (8) (cf. Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church and Commentary).

The second chapter, “On the People of God”, develops the idea of the Church as a messianic people with Christ at its head:

[A]s a messianic people, although it does not actually include all men, and at times may look like a small flock, it is nonetheless a lasting and sure seed of unity, hope and salvation for the whole human race. Established by Christ as a communion of life, charity and truth, it is also used by Him as an instrument for the redemption of all, and is sent forth into the whole world as the light of the world and the salt of the earth. (9)

Thus can the Church serves as the sacrament of salvation even for those outside her visible borders, as the Council will later note. This section goes on to discuss the role played by each of the sacraments in the priestly and salvific character of the Church, and also emphasizes that “the entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief” (12)—an expression of the Church’s indefectibility.

Because “all men are called to belong to the new people of God” (13) and because the Council emphatically reaffirms that the Church “is necessary for salvation” (14), the chapter concludes with an extended consideration not only of the Church’s catholicity (universality) but also of the relationship of non-Catholics to this universal Church. After clearly outlining what it means to be “fully incorporated in the society of the Church” (14), the Council considers the different degrees of relationship to the Church characteristic of catechumens, non-Catholic Christians, and those who have not yet received the Gospel.

Based on the earlier material describing the Church as the necessary priestly sacrament of salvation for all, the Council notes that salvation is open to those who “through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience” (16). It is worth mentioning that this point is footnoted to the letter of the Holy Office to the Archbishop of Boston in 1949 concerning the affair of Fr. Leonard Feeney, which gives a corresponding presentation of the Church’s understanding of the axiom “outside the Church there is no salvation”.

Unfortunately, this is another passage which has been abused by both Modernists and Traditionalists. The former have frequently acted as if it means the Church is irrelevant to salvation (the very opposite of what the Council taught) while the latter have accused the Council of changing Catholic doctrine and effectively rendering missionary activity irrelevant by casting altogether too wide a net. However, not only had these exact points been authoritatively taught earlier, particularly by Pope Pius XII in his great encyclical On the Mystical Body of Christ (Mystici Corporis), but the Council also specifically refutes this objection by noting that missionary activity is essential in order to fulfill Christ’s command, overcome the deceptions of the devil, and save men from despair (16) as well as to “snatch them from the slavery of error and of idols…so that through charity they may grow up into full maturity in Christ” (17).

This second chapter of Lumen Gentium concludes by clearly focusing the Church’s mission on the glory of God:

Through her work, whatever good is in the minds and hearts of men, whatever good lies latent in the religious practices and cultures of diverse peoples, is not only saved from destruction but is also cleansed, raised up and perfected unto the glory of God, the confusion of the devil and the happiness of man. (17)

Previous in series: Vatican II on the Church: Introduction
Next in series: Vatican II on the Church: Bishops

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: - Mar. 14, 2010 8:15 PM ET USA

    Enough for me that Lumen Gentium is a thing of beauty and so sorely needed to be preached now, so that we might be filled with hope and joy. The Church is is “at the same time holy and always in need of being purified…[and] given strength [to] overcome its sorrows and its challenges, both from within and without, and that it might reveal to the world, faithfully though darkly, the mystery of its Lord until, in the end, it will be manifested in full light."

  • Posted by: c_truelove7100 - Mar. 03, 2010 2:09 PM ET USA

    The Church does not subsist in the elements found outside the Catholic Church--there is no concrete esse of Church in those elements. They properly belong to the Church and impel toward Catholic unity. On subsist vs is: A creature with the body of a lion and head/wings of an eagle "is" (est) a gryphon, but no gryphons have a concrete reality--a gryphon does not subsist (substit) anywhere. Christ's Church, on the other hand, has a concrete existence: in the Catholic Church.

  • Posted by: c_truelove7100 - Mar. 03, 2010 1:57 PM ET USA

    "Subsists in" (subsistit in) was actually a correction of "present in" (ad est), which was the attempt by the council fathers to reconcile "is" (est) with the "although many elements may be found elsewhere." "Est" didn't adequately allow for "although," but "ad est" wasn't adequate either, hence "subsistit in." Subsistence is the concrete perduring existence (esse) of a real nature that exists. There's 1 nature of "Church"--it only concretely exists in the Catholic Church.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Mar. 03, 2010 9:24 AM ET USA

    If we Catholics would be "more perfect" men the nonsense would stop. By the grace of God I just returned from Jerusalem. Rome may be infallible but as far as modesty goes there is no oomparison.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Mar. 02, 2010 7:57 PM ET USA

    Indefectibility (inability to have a defect) relates to the impossibility of the Church ceasing to be the spotless instrument of salvation, of which her inability as a whole to fall into error is one aspect—a feature, indeed, of her indestructibility. Infalliblity, however, refers only to her teaching office, as exercised in certain circumstances by the pope.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 02, 2010 8:18 AM ET USA

    ". . . 'the entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief' (12)—an expression of the Church’s indefectibility." Or is that her infallibility? I always thought indefectibility referred to her indestructibility, while her infallibility referred to her inability to err in her teachings on faith or morals.