‘Lumen Gentium’ at 50

Vatican II’s dogmatic constitution on the Church continues to shed light on the faith.

Lumen Gentium (Light of the Nations), the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, celebrates its golden anniversary on Nov. 21 and is no less relevant today than when it was issued in 1964, say scholars.

In the 50 years since its promulgation by Pope Paul VI, this document of Vatican II has made significant strides in what it set out to do, but in some important ways, its fulfillment is not completely realized, according to specialists on the Council.

Alan Schreck, chairman of the theology department at Franciscan University of Steubenville and author of Vatican II: The Crisis and the Promise, explains that Lumen Gentium is “just as relevant and important today because of the very nature of the document being a constitution of an ecumenical council, especially on the primary theme as to the nature of the Church.”

He describes it as “the hub of an old-fashioned wagon wheel, and the other documents from the Council are like the spokes. Many develop more fully what is presented in this constitution.”

Douglas Bushman, who holds the Pope St. John Paul II Chair of Theology for the New Evangelization at the Augustine Institute in Denver, observed that, as a dogmatic constitution, “Lumen Gentium’s teaching on the Church was above all geared to giving Catholics a greater sense of identity.”

The thought was that action, or concrete achievements, would flow naturally from deeper awareness of the Church’s nature and mission of each person’s vocation, he said.

“We see this,” Bushman noted, “in an increased sense of personal participation in the Church’s life and mission on the part of the lay faithful; a greater awareness that the Eucharist is the center of the Church’s life; in increased devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary; in a strong sense of identity among clergy, who see themselves as servants entrusted with the ministry of activating the common priesthood of the faithful.”

Schreck said Lumen Gentium’s universal call to holiness has been well received.

“The Council clearly states there are no second-class Catholics,” he said. “All are equally called to holiness.”


Carrying Out the Call

While many understand the call, he said, ironically, many don’t understand how this is carried out practically.

“This constitution says we must have holiness as saints to be our aim, but sometimes there is confusion about how that is to be attained: by taking a strong moral stance in a secular society.”

Bushman is of similar thought in the way some teachings of the constitution have been ignored or misunderstood.

“Too many Catholics in the U.S.,” he observed, “lack a sense that the world as we know it is passing away (1 Corinthians 7:31) and that heaven is our ultimate destiny and real homeland. Rediscovering this would go a long way toward overcoming the secularism that influences the Church’s members, who too often think in worldly terms, rather than in the terms of faith.”

Marcellino D’Ambrosio, director of The Crossroads Initiative, an apostolate of renewal in the New Evangelization and host of Early Church Fathers on EWTN, pointed out how Lumen Gentium regarded the role and dignity of the bishop and helped Church shepherds in being more fathers than administrators — and also their part in governing the Church together with the pope.

As a result, he said the cardinals are being consulted much more. He cited John Paul II and Benedict XVI as great examples in this regard.

Speaking of clergy, D’Ambrosio said the restoration of the permanent deaconate “specifically comes right out of Lumen Gentium.” He called it “a wonderful gift to the Church.”


The Church and Salvation

Lumen Gentium decisively magnified the authority, responsibility and the mission of the Church, as well as the duty of the faithful. However, the message wasn’t always understood.

Schreck explained that one point of confusion was the document’s treatment of the possibility of salvation outside of the Catholic Church. He said the document very clearly stated in articles 15-16 that other Christians, and even non-Christians, can be saved, while also saying some who do not know Christ will not be saved. Misunderstanding came when many Catholics “thought everyone can be saved [but] forgot that the normal means of salvation is through her proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Roger Nutt, director of the master’s in theology program at Ave Maria University, made clear that, in 2000, in Dominus Iesus (The Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church) issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was a peritus (expert adviser) at Vatican II, went back to Lumen Gentium and explained how the divine plan for sanctification and the mission of Christ and the Holy Spirit is realized and continued in the Church.

“The many religions we see in the world and are confronted with aren’t parallel plans of salvation alongside the Church,” Nutt explained. He said that Lumen Gentium is the primary resource for this teaching.

Lumen Gentium has a very clear and articulate explanation … that God calls all people to full membership” in the Church. “That all people find the deepest possible intimacy with God available in the Catholic Church is something that Catholic theologies have not articulated adequately.”

Nutt believes Lumen Gentium has been the foundation not only for Dominus Iesus, but also for some of “the richest magisterial instruction and guidance that we’ve seen in the Church in the last 50 years.” 


New Evangelization

And that includes instruction and guidance on the missionary activities of the Church.

“The missionary dimension of the Church is very important today because it is related to the New Evangelization,” which “is rooted in Lumen Gentium, in Article 17,” emphasized Schreck.

“The New Evangelization has directly been proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council,” D’Ambrosio agreed. “They didn’t use that term.” John Paul II, who was then a bishop attending the Council, later coined it.

Yet, “despite the talk of the New Evangelization, concerns to the unchurched and fallen-away Catholics are not top priority and clearly not in the mind of every Catholic that they [should] share the word with people,” D’Ambrosio said. “We have a responsibility to spread the faith and share the Gospel in word as well as deed. This mission is very clear in Lumen Gentium and the other documents.”

D’Ambrosio emphasized, “That is a big area to make that a priority — not an afterthought.”

In fact, Bushman pointed out, “Pope Francis has taken the central theme of his pontificate from Lumen Gentium, Article 8, on the Church following Christ in his poverty and humility in order to bring the Good News of God’s love to the poor.”

Capuchin Father Thomas Weinandy, newly appointed member of the International Theological Commission and recipient of the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal, both by Pope Francis, explained that one of the signs of the Church trying to fulfill Lumen Gentium is the New Evangelization that began with St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI and continues with Pope Francis, the first post-Vatican II pope not to have attended the Council.

Father Weinandy noted how the Church is trying to fulfill Lumen Gentium’s first sentences: “to evangelize and proclaim the Gospel in a new and dynamic way that will really touch the hearts and minds of our secular world in the dark society, especially our young people, that they be lights to the world as members of the Church.”

Focusing on the constitution’s opening sentences, Father Weinandy said: “Given the nature of the Church and the nature of the document, I don’t know if the Church will ever fully achieve what Lumen Gentium sets out until Jesus comes again.”

The very first sentences proclaim Jesus as “Light of Nations,” he said, and the Church is to bring the light of Christ to all.

“The very nature of the Church is to be the light of Christ,” he added. “Hopefully, the Church becomes more and more the visible light of Christ in the world, and as we approach the coming of Jesus, becomes ever brighter.”

Father Weinandy sees the light in several ways. Among them: the Holy Spirit raising up the various Church movements, many of which were founded by laypeople; new, vibrant religious orders; an influx of seminarians, especially among diocesan clergy; U.S. bishops, in communion with their faithful, challenging society in regard to the dignity of life, the elderly and the terminally ill; and concern and care for immigrants.

Yet in the midst of the light, there are shadows that hinder the step-by-step fulfillment of the documents, an example of which can be seen sometimes within the academic theological community with “theological proposals that have not been in accord with Revelation and the Church’s theological tradition,” Father Weinandy said. “That has sown shadows instead of being a light to enlighten the whole Church.” 

And then there’s the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Schreck points out that Lumen Gentium’s exceptionally important last section on the communion of saints and Mary had a mixed reaction. Some people thought Catholics now would not have a vital devotion to Mary and the saints, “but the constitution strongly stresses the importance of this devotion.”

“Mary is really the climax of the Gospel, because she as an individual shows us the nature of the Church and of a disciple of Christ,” Schreck emphasized. “Mary is the model, with her example as a really humble disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.

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