The Mystery of the Church: ‘Lumen Gentium,’ 60 Years Later

COMMENTARY: The Second Vatican Council was a key moment for rediscovering the profound truth of the Church’s identity.

Second Vatican Council in session.
Second Vatican Council in session. (photo: Catholic Press / Wiikimedia Commons)

Nov. 21 of this year will mark the 60th anniversary of Vatican II’s landmark dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. This year, therefore, offers a special opportunity to reflect anew on this extraordinarily rich text, which continues to serve as a crucial reference point for the Church.

With this solemn document, the Church sought to respond to a key question that the Council Fathers wanted to answer: What does the Church have to say about herself? During the early debate on the document, Belgian Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens posed this question as a guiding principle for the Council’s work.

In view of Vatican II’s ambitious goals of realizing Christian unity and giving a new impulse to evangelization, the question took on paramount importance. The Council Fathers desired to present a more profound vision of the Church, going beyond an emphasis on the institutional and visible aspect, which had been dominant in previous centuries.

The draft for a constitution on the Church, produced during the preparation of the Council and presented to the Council Fathers on Dec. 1, 1962, offered a start in this direction. This text described the profound supernatural reality present in the Church — its origin in the eternal plan of the Father, realized by the Son and the Holy Spirit, and its identity as the Mystical Body of Christ.

In continuity with earlier Church teaching, this initial text also affirmed that the Church, while remaining a mystery, is also a human society and visible institution.

During the early part of the Council’s discussion of this document, various Council Fathers called for the Council to delve still more deeply into the Church’s mystery and at the same time find a language that might better connect with the contemporary world.

French Cardinal Achille Liénart, while acknowledging Pius XII’s teaching that the Catholic Church is the Body of Christ, encouraged the Council to consider that the truth of the Mystical Body of Christ goes beyond the visible and institutional dimensions. Cardinal Liénart called on the Council to respect this mystery and in this way better appreciate the baptismal bond that unites non-Catholic Christians to the Catholic Church.

The French cardinal was one of a chorus of voices calling for the Council to express the Church’s identity in a way that would be more biblical, more Christocentric, more immersed in the teaching of the Church Fathers, and also less triumphalist and less legalistic.

Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, archbishop of Milan and the future Pope Paul VI, expressed his opinion that while the existing text presented the truths of ecclesiastical law, it needed to give more attention to the mystery of the Church and, in particular, to the intimate relationship between the Church and Jesus Christ. The Council needed to show clearly, the cardinal noted, that the Church receives everything from Jesus Christ and can act only through Christ’s presence and action.

German Cardinal Josef Frings’ words bear the sure stamp of the theological adviser (peritus) who assisted him, a young German priest and academic by the name of Joseph Ratzinger.

Speaking at the end of the Council’s first few months of work, Cardinal Frings asserted that in formulating the doctrine on the Church, the Council had given full expression not to the entire tradition of the Church, but rather only a small portion of it, that is, the last hundred years. He noted that almost nothing was said in the initial draft about the Church’s ancient Greek tradition, nor about the ancient Latin one, despite the rich content of these venerable sources.

After citing some examples, the cardinal-archbishop of Cologne wondered aloud “whether such a method of proceeding is correct, is universal, is scientific, is ecumenical and is catholic,” according to the original sense of the Greek word for “catholic” (katholon) — which, the cardinal explained, “encompasses everything and looks to the whole.” Cardinal Frings called on the Council to rediscover the rich vision of the Church’s mystery found in the teaching of the Church Fathers; for example, the rich Eucharistic teaching of the Greek Fathers.

In the first few months of 1963, between the first and second periods of the Council, various Council Fathers and experts worked intensely to revise the initial portion of the proposed constitution. The revised text, which was sent to the Council Fathers in April 1963 and presented at a general assembly of the Council on Sept. 30, 1963, manifested an arduous and deeply pondered effort to put into practice the wishes of the Council Fathers.

The new opening chapter of the document was entitled “On the Mystery of the Church,” as opposed to Chapter 1 of the previous draft, which bore the title, “On the Nature of the Militant Church.” The revised draft, like the final version of Lumen Gentium, contained a profound reflection on the Church’s identity, now much more deeply immersed in the mystery revealed in Scripture and contemplated through the lens of the Church Fathers as well as of the entire Tradition of the Church.

In particular, the revised draft contains a much deeper commentary on the mystery of Christ. The very first words of the text draw attention to Christ, who is the Lumen Gentium (the “Light of Nations”), whose splendor shines forth on the face of the Church.

Recalling the words of St. Paul, the new document goes on to proclaim Christ to be “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15). This stronger emphasis on Christ offers the foundation for a renewed vision of the Church. By means of the sacraments, as the revised draft affirms, the life of the glorified Christ is spread among the members of the Church, making them one body with him and in him.

The text reveals the Church to be a mystery not simply because she is founded by Christ and sustained by Christ, but also because, in the Church, the life of Christ is present in believers.

The revised text lends special attention to the scriptural image of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, an image that had received renewed interest in the previous decades. At the same time, the Council came to appreciate that the Church is a mystery that cannot fully be expressed by any one image. The first chapter of the new text — along with the final version of Lumen Gentium — contains a more extended description of various other scriptural images for the Church: the flock that has God as pastor, the vine planted by God, the heavenly farmer, the family and temple of God as well as the New Jerusalem. A new chapter had been added, which focused on the Church as the People of God and which gave special attention to the laity.

In the revised draft, there was also a new section on the Holy Spirit and his role in sanctifying the Church, which formed the basis of Lumen Gentium Paragraph 4. The Spirit, acknowledged as the “Spirit of life or the water springing up into eternal life” (John 4:14), is the one who raises up those who had been dead due to sin. The third divine Person is the one, the text goes on, who “guides the Church with his various gifts and charisms and adorns it with his fruits.”

The text would evolve even more as the Council Fathers continued to study and discuss it over the course of the fall of 1963 and beyond. Still, the beginning of the Council’s second period witnessed a renewed awareness of the Church’s mystery, among many other insights received in the first year of Vatican II. The Council indeed had realized that it needed to express the nature of the Church in a way that might be more authentically “catholic” (universal) and open to all persons.

But the Council would move outward in this way by first looking inward and exploring more deeply the Church’s intimate connection with the Holy Trinity.

Today, in a world so often filled with confused notions regarding the Church, we would do well to go back and reflect on the great truths professed in Lumen Gentium. This dogmatic constitution provides us with an unparalleled insight into the authentic nature of the Church, the special dwelling place of God among mankind.