One of the gems of Church teaching is the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium – The Light of the Nations. This past Saturday (November 21) was the forty-fifth anniversary of its promulgation by Pope Paul VI. It is the great summary of the teaching on the nature of the Church to be formally issued by a council, produced in response to John XXIII’s injunction before Vatican II that: “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another, retaining nonetheless the same meaning and message.”
Paul VI probably had some inkling of the ways in which this document would be “spun” even though his Creed of the People and Humane vitae were still four years in the future. The Council cast its words into a tumultuous time marked by a particularly strange spirit. Ralph McInerny analyzed the situation in his What Went Wrong with Vatican II and concluded that a lack of obedience was the issue, not some great search for freedom, or some escape from an oppressive Church, or any of the other sophistries that gained currency in the sixties.
Not surprisingly the life of the document has mirrored the life of the Church over the past forty-five years. Humanae vitae – Paul VI’s encyclical on contraception and related matters – met with a backlash from a culture that was “experimenting.” Then large groups of Catholics ignored the fact that the Church works so that “all men, joined more closely today by various social, technical, and cultural ties, might also attain fuller unity in Christ.” (1) Instead people “experimented” with other religions or with no religion. More pernicious was the felt need to compromise – all religions, of course, are equivalent – a view driven by the sociological and anthropological approaches dominating the human sciences at the time.
The papacy and the bishops lost stature in some ways on the world stage. Meanwhile, the Council in contrast spoke about members of the Church: “They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops.” (14) This is the integral vision of the authentic Church member. So the Church has a concrete, visible, institutional structure.
At the same time, however, the world’s fascination with expansive government, driven by waves of former colonies gaining independence and the spread of communist forms of central control, raised false expectations of what human institutions could achieve. Remember the Tower of Babel! So the notion of the inner fulfillment and elevation of human aspiration by the Spirit of Christ in the Church got swept aside. From then, everyone from housewives to university professors could judge on their own what was progressive and what was regressive in the Church!
Yet in the face of all the attempts to dismantle the Church since the sixties, the document simply stands. It is the still point in the turning world. It indicates the perennial purpose and structure of the Church. Does the Bishop of Rome have a role? You betcha! The Council said: “The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact.” (22) Where do the bishops come in? The Council again: “the bishops duly established in all parts of the world [are] in communion with one another and with the Bishop of Rome in a bond of unity, charity, and peace.” (22) Who are these bishops? They are “bishops [who] in an eminent and visible way sustain the roles of Christ Himself as Teacher, Shepherd and High Priest, and that they act in His person.” (21) The rest of the clergy? There are priests and deacons. Then there are the Laity who are subject to the clergy when they teach, sanctify, and govern. But then Laity do something unique to themselves so that specifically “by their very vocation, [they] seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations.” (31) This is how the Church is a sign to the world, how it reflects the light of world, Jesus Christ.
But the Church will be the “sign [in history] that will be opposed” (Luke 2:34) until the end of time. In Joseph Ratzinger’s words, the divine dynamism in the Church means that: “The more we ourselves do in the Church, the more uninhabitable she becomes, because everything human is limited and is in opposition to other human realities.” (Called to Communion) Lumen gentium really shows us something singular: how God works in the Church.