Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Themes in Lumen Gentium: Part 1

Joseph Ratzinger, Autumn of 1964



While still a cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger complained that instead of viewing the Constitution on the Church in its broad theological context, "people have pounced upon individual phrases and slogans and have thus fallen short of the great overall perspectives of the Council Fathers." (Ecclesiology of the Constitution Lumen Gentium, p. 125-126). The Constitution on the Church deliberately follows the Constitution on Sacred Liturgy. "The Church derives from adoration, from the task of glorifying God. Ecclesiology, of its nature, has to do with Liturgy" (p. 126) In the following section I will examn a number of the themes in the Constitution on the Church.


The Church as Sacrament

The first Chapter of the Constitution deals with the mystery of the Church. The Pauline term mysterium is equivalent to the Latin equivalent sacramentum. Dulles notes, "For Vatican II, the idea of the Church as sacrament is of foundational importance. Four times in Lumen gentium (LG I, 9, 48, 59) and six times in other documents (SC 5 and 26; GS 42 and 45, AG I and 5) it so designates the Church. A sacrament is a symbolic expression of the great mystery of grace and salvation centered in Jesus Christ. For the New Testament and the fathers, Christ is the great sacrament or mystery of salvation, but Christ is not complete without the Church, which is his visible and effective presence on earth" (p. 26-27). The theology of the Church as a sacrament has roots in St. Augustine and was likely brought to the Constitution by the German bishops. Some modern scholars have introduced a false notion of the Church as a Sacrament by making a false distinction between the Church as "a mere sign (sacramentum) that points to the reality of salvation" as opposed to the Kingdom of God (res sacramenti). Controversial Catholic scholar, Richard McBrien took the position that while all are called to the Kingdom, only some are called to the Church. Cardinal Dulles points out, "According to the council, the Church and the Kingdom, without being in all respects identical, are intimately conjoined. The Church is "the Kingdom of Christ now present in mystery" (LG 3). In proclaiming and extending the Kingdom, the Church "becomes on earth the initial budding forth of that Kingdom" (LG 5)." (p. 29).


The People of God

The image of the People of God is a distinctive emphasis in Lumen Gentium. Following certain Protestant exegetes this image popularizes popularized "the idea of the Church as the pilgrim People of God still en route to its eschatological destiny" (Dulles, p. 30) This is a biblical image which emphasizes the humanness and humility of the Church against triumphalism. The image has less merit in the Bible and Church Fathers than some suppose. Ratzinger points out, in some detail, that the term could be used to express the unity of the history or salvation that comprehended both Israel and the Church. ("The Ecclesiology of Second Vatican Council", p. 17) The Term is not used in the New Testament except in reference to the Israel. He notes that "Christians can only be the people of God through inclusion in Christ, the son of God and the son of Abraham" (p. 19). Christology must remain at the center and the Church becomes the People of God through the sacraments, hence the notion of the Church as a sacrament. "One only remains faithful to the Council if one always takes and reflects on these two core terms of its ecclesiology together" (p. 19). Did the council intend to elevate the role of the laity by placing this section first before the section on the hierarchy? "It is therefore absurd when from the fact that the chapter on the people of God precedes that on the hierarchy people want to deduce a different conception of the hierarchy and of the laity, as if in fact all the baptized already bore within themselves the powers conferred by ordination and hierarchy were merely a matter of good order" (p. 19). We must remember that as a young theologian, Joseph Ratzinger was at the council.


Communion (communio)

Although the term "communion" does not occupy a central place in the council, the extra ordinary synod of 1985 chose the idea of communion-ecclesiology, correctly understood, as a way of synthesizing the essential elements of the conciliar ecclesiology. (Ratzinger, 2005,p. 130-131) "All the essential element of the Christian concept of "communion" are to be found together in that significant sentence from 1 John 1:3:"that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ." RSV

"Fellowship with God is mediated by fellowship of God with man, which is Christ in person; the encounter with Christ brings about fellowship with him and, thus, with the Father in the Holy Spirit; on this basis it unites men with one another. All this is directed towards perfect joy: the Church bears within herself an eschatological impulse" (Ratzinger, p. 130). He continues "the Term "communion" thus has, on the basis of this central biblical meaning, a theological and Christological character, on associated with the history of salvation and also ecclesiology. Thereby it carries within it the sacramental dimension; which appears quite explicitly in the writings of Paul:


16 The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.


"'Communion' ecclesiology is in its inmost nature a Eucharistic ecclesiology" (Ratzinger, p. 131). The idea of communion is concrete yet spiritual, and both transcendent and eschatological. Later misunderstandings of communion, however, "reduced to the theme of the relationship between the local Church and the Church as a whole" and questions of authority (Ratzinger, p. 132). Eventually the Church had to issue a correction, "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Certain Aspects of the Church as Communion" (1992)



Congar, Yves M. J. Lay People in the Church: A study for a Theology of Laity Trans. Donald Attwater (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1959).

Dulles, Avery Cardinal "Nature, Mission, and Structure of the Church" in Matthew L. Lamb and Matthew Levering, eds. Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Gaillardetz, Richard R. The Church in the Making: Lumen Gentium, Christus Dominus, Orientalium Ecclesiarum (New York: Paulist Press, 2006) [This work is highly unreliable and contradicts the CDF on several points]

Kloppenburg, Bonaventure The Ecclesiology of Vatican II. Trans. Matthew J. O'Connell (Chicago: Franciscan Herald, 1974)

Komonchak, Joseph "Toward an Ecclesiology of Communion" in History of Vatican II ed. Giuseppe Alberigo: English version edited by Joseph A. Komonchak. Vol. VI, The Church as Communion.

de La Soujeole, Benoît-Dominique O.P. "The universal Call to Holiness" in Matthew L. Lamb and Matthew Levering, eds. Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Philips, Gérard "History of the Constitution" in Herbert Vorgrimler, Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, Vol 1,(New York: Crossroad, 1989, reprint original 1967) p 105-137.

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal "The Ecclesiology of the Constitution Lumen Gentium", in Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as Communion. Trans. Henry Taylor (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2005) pp. 123-152.

_______, "The Ecclesiology of Second Vatican Council" in Church, Ecumenism and Politics Trans. Robert Nowell, (New York, St Paul, 1988) p.3-28

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