Lumen Gentium at 50: Is Anyone Listening?


(photo: Wikipedia)

Nov. 21 marked the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of Lumen Gentium (Light to the Nations), the landmark dogmatic constitution of the Church approved by Vatican II.

The examination of the Church taught in Lumen Gentium, together with Dei Verbum, the dogmatic constitution on divine revelation, must be the starting point for a true understanding of Vatican II’s teaching.

Ecclesia, quid dicis de te ipsa (Church, what do you have to say about yourself)?” This question was paramount in the discussion of the Council fathers, according to then-Bishop Karol Wojtyla — a question he discusses in his book on the proper understanding of Vatican II, which he wrote to the priests and bishops after the Council (English translation, Sources of Renewal). Chapter four of this book is entitled, “The Consciousness of the Church as the Main Foundation of the Conciliar Initiative.”

Bishop Wojtyla maintained the Council was one great self-examination on the part of the Church. In a larger historical perspective, this examination was the natural result of the clarifications of Catholic doctrines beginning with Nicaea, in which first the Trinity and Christ, then the sacraments and, now, finally, the Church were examined.

Though the Church’s self-examination was hailed by many, what is actually taught in Lumen Gentium has not always been made clear to the faithful. To understand the true nature of the renewal sought by Pope St. John XXIII, a celebration of this document requires a fresh examination of what it actually teaches — not what the subsequently dubbed “spirit of the Council” held it should have taught.

There has been an attempt since Vatican II to reduce the Church to a human society, instituted by human beings, with an earthly purpose to be governed by consensus as one would a political state.

At the outset of Lumen Gentium, however, the bishops emphasize the exact opposite. They use the term “sacrament” to describe the Church as a social union of the human and the divine.

This is not sacrament in the sense of the seven sacraments, but, rather, “The Church is at the same time: ‘a society structured with hierarchical organs and the mystical body of Christ; the visible society and the spiritual community; the earthly Church and the Church endowed with heavenly riches.’ These dimensions together constitute ‘one complex reality which comes together from a human and divine element’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 771, quoting Lumen Gentium, 8).

In fact, the Council specifies that this society on earth is a participation in the union of the Holy Trinity in heaven. “Hence, the universal Church is seen to be ‘a people brought into unity from the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’” (Lumen Gentium, 4, quoting St. Cyprian). The vertical union with God is the origin of the horizontal union people experience in this visible society on earth. The rest of the document expounds on this central teaching of the Church participating in the life and mission of the Persons of the Trinity.

Paragraphs two through four examine how the society of the Church on earth participates in the Person and mission of the Father. This is the section where the celebrated term “people of God” is used. For those who sought a democratic view of the Church, this was the only term that authentically captured the so-called spirit of Vatican II. For them, the word “people” was cited against the idea that there was an order of authority in the Church.

In fact, this term expressed the nature of the Church in relationship to other religions, which included not only other Christian religions, but also all religious expressions. The bishops wished to present a positive image of a strong Church open to truth everywhere; and while they did state that every religion was related to the Church because of the positive elements found in them, they were also clear that these positive elements, in the final analysis, should be a means of union with the Church.

“The Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him” (Lumen Gentium, 8). Much was made of the expression that the Church “subsists in” the Catholic Church, as if the Catholic Church was just one religious expression that enjoyed equal truth with others.

The Holy See sought to clarify the meaning of this expression in the document Dominus Iesus (issued in 2000): “With the expression subsistit in (subsists in), the Second Vatican Council sought to harmonize two doctrinal statements: on the one hand, that the Church of Christ, despite divisions which exist among Christians, continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church; and on the other hand, that, ‘outside her structure, many elements can be found of sanctification and truth,’ that is, in those churches and ecclesial communities which are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church” (16).

The Church also clarifies that full communion in the society of the Church is characterized by “visible bonds of communion,” which include “profession of one faith received from the apostles; common celebration of divine worship, especially the sacraments; apostolic succession through the sacrament of holy orders, maintaining the fraternal concord of God’s family” (Catechism, 815; also in Code of Canon Law, 205).

The understanding of the Church as the people of God must be balanced by the understanding that the Church makes present the mission and Person of the Son/Word in time — that is, the Church is the mystical body of Christ. This image is completely contrary to the democratic image of the Church, because it teaches that there are different roles in the Church, as there are different organs in the body. The head governs the body as the bishops, together with the pope, govern the people of God.

This understanding of the Church as the Son present in the world becomes most clear in matters of the clarification of doctrine, when the teaching authority that Christ established is embodied by the pope, along with the bishops, who comprise the magisterium.

Some people who invoke the spirit of Vatican II contrary to the letter of the text believe that an emphasis on a hierarchy of roles in the Church leads to a monarchical conception of the papacy and that Vatican II was actually denying the infallibility of the pope, as taught in Vatican I. In fact, the bishops clearly affirmed the teaching that the pope is infallible by a gift of the Holy Spirit when he means to define a doctrine and that he can act alone in this.

However, a keynote teaching of Vatican II was the development of the doctrine of infallibility to include more clearly the teaching authority of the College of Bishops. A key talk during Vatican I had already stated that, in fact, infallibility was enjoyed by two subjects: the pope alone and the pope with the bishops. The pope with the bishops would be the College of Bishops. One should note that, already, during Vatican II, some were interpreting the idea of college in a mistaken way. These people identified the term “college” with a parliament that taught over and against the pope and was a check and balance on his teaching.

Pope Paul VI added an explanatory note to Lumen Gentium and specifically defined that the term “college” was not to be understood in the sense of a parliament over and against the pope, but was a permanently fixed assembly.

The College of Bishops reflected the “College of Apostles” and had the same authoritative relationships as those enjoyed by Peter in relation to the apostles: “In other words, it is not a distinction between the Roman pontiff and the bishops taken together, but between the Roman pontiff by himself and the Roman pontiff along with the bishops. The pope alone, in fact, in being head of the college, is qualified to perform certain actions in which the bishops have no competence whatsoever” (Lumen Gentium, Explanatory Note, 3).

Lumen Gentium, and really the whole Second Vatican Council, is a celebration of the laity as members of the Church. This topic was supposed to be discussed in 1870 at Vatican I, but it was postponed because the Council had to be suspended due to the political situation in Italy. Everyone recognized that the Church could not be reduced to a largely clerical affair and that the laity could not be reduced to simply silent partners in a giant corporation.

If the Church is a hieratic society, this is because the vertical is the source of its unity in the horizontal sense. This unity is based on the indwelling of the Holy Trinity in the soul by the grace of baptism and the fact that every baptized Christian has an indelible mark or character from that baptism on his soul.

By this mark, every Christian enjoys a unity with Christ as priest, prophet and king. An entire chapter of Lumen Gentium is dedicated to explaining the priesthood of the laity. This universal or common priesthood, which is very real, is shown in the laity’s development of a life of deep prayer, especially at Mass. The prophetic role is exhibited in the laity’s responsibility to teach the faith, especially in the family. The kingly role is shown in their self-control through detachment.

The hierarchy exists for the development of the baptized Christian’s indelible mark in ordinary practical life, and so the clergy become the servants of the laity. The Church is not a monarchy, but a hierarchy of service, based in love. By the same token, the renewal of the laity was not meant to turn them into “mini clerics.” The renewal of the whole Church was primarily a spiritual one in prayer.

The Council fathers finally applied these deep and spiritual truths to the participation of the Church in the Person and mission of the Holy Spirit. Based on the conformity to Christ that each Christian receives in baptism, the Church proclaims formally that all Christians are called to the fullness of holiness.

A spirit had grown up in the Church following the Council of Trent, which suggested that only a few chosen souls in contemplative monasteries were called by God to the heights of contemplation. John XXIII contradicted this by stating that the text “This is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3) should be written over the doors of the Council.

In a chapter titled “The Universal Call to Holiness,” Lumen Gentium insists all are called to this sanctification: “The classes and duties of life are many, but holiness is one sanctity which is cultivated by all who are moved by the Spirit of God and who obey the voice of the Father and worship God the Father in spirit and in truth” (Lumen Gentium, 40).

Some feared that the emphasis on the universal call to holiness would somehow diminish the contribution of people in religious orders to the Church. The Council also affirmed that those called to religious profession were a necessary part of the Church, not for its structure as a society, but to encourage people to desire heaven.

In fact, when people experience religious, they should experience people who are an image of what people are like in heaven and be encouraged to go there. Though it is true the Council called for a renewal of religious orders, this did not mean the abandonment of things which were helpful in religious being a sign and witness to the supernatural life, like the habit, the prayers, Divine Office and a fixed plan of life. This was another false interpretation.

The teaching on the pilgrim nature of the Church and the place of Mary in the Church finishes off this beautiful dogmatic constitution. The Church is a pilgrim not in the sense of constantly reinventing social structures but in the realization that the final perfection of the Church is only found in the communion of saints in heaven.

Our Lady, as the first and greatest Christian because of her love and grace, is a sign and powerful intercessor in the Church to arrive at this final perfection.


Dominican Father Brian Mullady, the author of Light of the Nations,


is a mission preacher and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles

College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.