The Church’s Explanation of Her Nature, Mission, and Structure in the World
October 11, 2012, marked the 50th anniversary of the opening session of the Second Vatican Council. The newly canonized Pope St. John XXIII, born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, was elected to the papacy in October of 1958, at the age of 77. Much to everyone’s surprise, Pope John, less than three months into what was expected by many to be a “transitional” and, therefore, uneventful papacy, shocked both the Curia and the entire Catholic world with his announcement of a solemn convocation of all the world’s bishops, to be held in the grand halls of St. Peter’s Basilica. Thus, the Second Vatican Council was conceived, a Council whose purpose was, essentially, to recover the spirit of the earliest Christian communities and the writings of the early Church Fathers, and reconcile those with the expectations and genuine needs of post-industrial, 20th-century man. The mission of the Council was clearly in keeping with how the Church had always viewed herself, as “ever ancient, and ever new” (St. Augustine).
In addition to this two-fold goal, Vatican II was to be a truly “Ecumenical” Council, as the Church Fathers had come to recognize the radical importance of setting a new, positive example of genuine fraternal charity in the form of ecumenical outreach and dialogue, by inviting Christians of different denominations, not in communion with Rome—as well as members of various other ancient faith traditions—to be present at the Council as invited observers.
Of the 16 documents that emerged from the Council, four, in particular, stand out among the rest as “Constitutions” of the highest caliber, demanding full, unconditional assent of both intellect and will by all the faithful, without exception. They include Dei Verbum, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Gaudium et Spes, and Lumen Gentium. Lumen Gentium, was solemnly promulgated on November 21, 1964, by Pope Paul VI, who continued, and ultimately brought to conclusion, the Ecumenical Council that his predecessor had begun.
Lumen Gentium has played a most significant role in defining the nature and mission of the Catholic Church in contemporary times, and has had a monumental impact on theology in general, ecclesiology in particular, and in the thought, preaching, and writing of the four post-conciliar popes—Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, all of whom participated in the Council.
The essay that follows highlights some of the more salient themes that characterize Lumen Gentium. For the sake of accuracy, a summary of, and occasional brief commentary on, each of the eight chapters that comprise the document shall be presented in chronological order. Thus, the sections/chapters to be covered shall include (1) The Mystery of the Church; (2) On the People of God; (3) On the Hierarchical Structure of the Church and in Particular on the Episcopate; (4) The Laity; (5) The Universal Call to Holiness in the Church; (6) Religious; (7) The Eschatological Nature of the Pilgrim Church and Her Union with the Church in Heaven; (8) The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God in the Mystery of Christ and the Church.
The “Introduction” contains, as it were, the thesis of the document, as the Council Fathers explain that since “Christ is the Light of nations” (which is the English translation of the Latin title, Lumen Gentium), the “sacred synod … eagerly desires … to bring the light of Christ to all men” (LG, 1). Therefore, “since the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of … union with God and of the unity of the whole human race, it desires … to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world her own inner nature and universal mission” (LG, 1). This, then, constitutes the purpose and nature of the document.
Chapter One: “The Mystery of the Church”
Chapter One, entitled “The Mystery of the Church,” provides a summary of the very nature of the Church as both the visible and invisible reality through which all persons are called to participate in the Trinitarian, divine life of God through, with, and in Christ Jesus. “Fallen in Adam, God the Father did not leave men to themselves, but ceaselessly offered helps to salvation, in view of Christ the Redeemer, ‘who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature’” (LG, 2). God “planned to assemble in the holy Church all those who would believe in Christ” (LG, 2). Thus, God’s plan was to reestablish all of creation in his Son, the Christ, through whom all persons would be enabled to become adopted sons and daughters of the Father, brothers and sisters in Christ. This is accomplished chiefly through the Church’s sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist. Baptism grafts and unites the elect to Christ’s Mystical Body, and enables them to participate in Christ’s work of redemption, perpetuated in the Sacred Liturgy. “As often as the sacrifice of the cross in which Christ our Passover was sacrificed (1 Cor 5:7) is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried on, and in the sacrament of the Eucharistic bread, the unity of all believers who form one body in Christ (cf. 1 Cor 10:17) is both expressed and brought about. All men are called to this union with Christ, who is the light of the world, from whom we go forth, through whom we live, and toward whom our whole life strains” (LG, 3).
After Christ had accomplished his sublime work of redemption which, as stated above, is renewed in an unbloody fashion each time the holy sacrifice of the Mass is celebrated, the Holy Spirit of God was sent on the day of Pentecost in order bring to fruition the Church’s work of sanctification. “The Spirit dwells in the Church and in the hearts of the faithful, as in a temple (cf. 1 Cor 3:16). In them, he prays on their behalf and bears witness to the fact that they are adopted sons” (LG, 4). Christ, in preaching the “good news” of the Gospel, established his kingdom on earth, which is the Church. Having endured his passion and death, the risen Christ sent his Spirit in accordance with his promise to the disciples, that they would be led into the fullness of the truth. “From this source, the Church, equipped with the gifts of her Founder and faithfully guarding his precepts of charity, humility, and self-sacrifice, receives the mission to proclaim and to spread among all peoples the kingdom of Christ and of God and to be on earth the initial budding forth of that kingdom” (LG, 5).
The nature of the kingdom of God, the Church established by Christ, is depicted by the Lord through metaphors. For instance, “the Church is a sheepfold whose one and indispensable door is Christ (Jn 10:1-10). It is a flock of which God himself foretold he would be the shepherd (cf. Is 40:11; Ex 34:11), and whose sheep, although ruled by human shepherds, are, nevertheless, continuously led and nourished by Christ himself, the good shepherd and the prince of the shepherds (cf. Jn 10:11; 1 Pt 5:4), who gave his life for the sheep (cf. Jn 10:11-15)” (LG, 6). The Church is the Building of God, as Christ refers to himself as “the stone which the builders have rejected which has become the cornerstone” (Mt 21:42), and this edifice is built on the foundation of the Apostles. Also, “the true vine is Christ who gives life and the power to bear abundant fruit to the branches, that is, to us …” (Jn 15:1-5).
While Christ uses a multiplicity of metaphors to convey the nature of the Church, Lumen Gentium points out the additional metaphors of the Church as “mother” (Gal 4:26), and the “spotless spouse of the spotless Lamb, whom Christ ‘loved and for whom he delivered himself up that he might sanctify her’ (Eph 5:26), whom he unites to himself by an unbreakable covenant, and whom, once purified, he willed to be cleansed and joined to himself, subject to him in love and fidelity (cf. Eph 5:24), and whom, finally, he filled with heavenly gifts for all eternity, in order that we may know the love of God and of Christ for us, a love which surpasses all knowledge” (cf. Eph 3:19) (LG, 6). While on earth, the Church “journeys in a foreign land” (cf. 2 Cor 5:6).
“By communicating his Spirit, Christ made his brothers … mystically the components of his own body. … Through baptism, we are formed in the likeness of Christ: ‘For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body’ (1 Cor 12:13). In this sacred rite, a oneness with Christ’s death and resurrection is both symbolized and brought about: ‘For we were buried with him by means of baptism into death,’ and if ‘we have been united with him in the likeness of his death, we shall be so in the likeness of his resurrection also’” (Rom 6:4-5) (LG, 7). It is precisely in the partaking of the Eucharist, that we are united with both Christ and with each other: “‘because the bread is one, we though many, are one body, all of us who partake of the one bread’” (1 Cor 10:17) (LG, 7). Thus, we are truly members of the one Mystical Body of Christ, with each individual having his own unique mission and charism. “From all this, it follows that if one member endures anything, all the members co-endure it, and if one member is honored, all the members together rejoice” (cf. 1 Cor 12:26) (LG, 7).
Chapter one continues on to speak of the Holy Spirit as the principle of unification which binds Christ, the head, to his Mystical Body, the Church. Thus, the Spirit can be compared to the human soul, or the “life-principle” in man, which unites the diverse members and simultaneously acts as the animating principle.
The document proceeds to explain the intrinsic unity of (1) the earthly, hierarchical Church, “the community of faith, hope, and charity, as an entity with visible delineation through which (Christ) communicates truth and grace to all” and (2) the invisible, Mystical Body of the Church that transcends both space and time. These two radically interconnected realities “are not to be considered as two realities, nor are the visible assembly and the spiritual community, nor the earthly Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things; rather they form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and human element” (LG, 8). The document uses the analogy of the Hypostasis in Christ, whereby Christ’s perfect humanity and his perfect divinity are truly, inseparably united in a hypostatic union in the one Divine Person of Christ. Thus, the Church, like Christ, is simultaneously human and divine, earthly and heavenly.
Chapter One then concludes with a summary of the Church’s nature and essence: “This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, which our Savior, after his resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd (Jn 21:17), and him and the other Apostles to extend and direct with authority (cf. Mt 28:18), which he erected for all ages as ‘the pillar and mainstay of the truth’ (1 Tm 3:15). This Church, constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the Successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of her visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity” (LG, 8).
Chapter Two: “On the People of God”
This chapter begins with an explanation of the communal nature of God’s call to, and work of, holiness and salvation; specifically, how God chooses to sanctify and save us as a “people.” We read that “God … does not make men holy and save them merely as individuals, without bond or link between one another. Rather, has it pleased him to bring men together as one people, a people who acknowledges him in truth and serves him in holiness” (LG, 9). Thus, God elected and brought together his chosen people, the Israelites, revealing both himself and his will to them, and establishing covenant relationships with them. God’s dealings with his chosen people, as recorded in the Old Testament, were, however, a prelude and figure of his ultimate self-revelation and New Covenant in Christ Jesus. This New Covenant, or New Testament, was established in the Blood of Christ, the price of our salvation. Consequently, “for those who believe in Christ, who are reborn … through the word of the living God, not from the flesh, but from water and the Holy Spirit, are finally established as ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people … who in times past were not a people, but are now the people of God’” (1 Pt 2:9-10) (LG, 9). Christ himself is the “head” of this “messianic” people, in whom the Holy Spirit dwells, as in a temple, who are to abide by the new commandment to love as Christ loves. The end, or goal, is the kingdom of God, which Christ began on earth and which will be brought to perfection at the end of time, when Christ shall come again and return all of creation to the perfect glorification of the Father. Moreover, like the Israelites of old, who wandered in exile through the desert in search of their promised land, and were already called the Church of God; so too, the new Israel, “while in this present age goes in search of a future and abiding city, is called the Church of Christ” (LG, 9).
Christ, the High Priest of the new and eternal covenant, has established his people as “a kingdom and priests to God the Father” (cf. Rv 1:6; cf. 5:9-10). The document goes on to explain that “the baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated as a spiritual house and a holy priesthood, in order that through all those works, which are those of the Christian man, they may offer spiritual sacrifices and proclaim the power of him who has called them out of darkness into his marvelous light” (cf. 1 Pt 2:4-10) (LG, 10). Thus, the document makes clear the fact that as the Christian People of God, having been incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ through baptism, even the very least in rank among the laity have, thereby, been made participants in Christ’s Priestly, Prophetic, and Kingly office. And it is primarily through our participation in the Eucharistic Liturgy, that we, the Priestly People, exercise our common, royal priesthood by offering ourselves through, with, and in Christ to the perfect glorification of the Eternal Father as “living sacrifice(s), holy and pleasing to God” (cf. Rom 12:1) (LG, 10). While the document emphasizes the exalted priestly status of all the baptized, it does not neglect to distinguish between the different types of participation in the one Priesthood of Christ. While it is true that the ministerial priesthood of those who have received the sacrament of holy orders is interrelated with the common, royal priesthood of all the baptized, it is also true that these two types of participation differ in both essence and degree. “The ministerial priest, by the sacred powers he enjoys, teaches and rules the priestly people; acting in the person of Christ, he makes present the Eucharistic sacrifice, and offers it to God in the name of all the people. But the faithful, in virtue of their royal priesthood, join in the offering of the Eucharist. They likewise exercise that priesthood in receiving the sacraments, in prayer and thanksgiving, in the witness of a holy life, and by self-denial and active charity” (LG, 10). Elaborating on the role played by the laity, Lumen Gentium goes on to state: “Taking part in the Eucharistic sacrifice, which is the fount and apex of the whole Christian life, they offer the divine victim to God, and offer themselves along with it. Thus, both by reason of the offering and through Holy Communion, all take part in this liturgical service, not, indeed, all in the same way, but each in that way which is proper to himself. Strengthened in Holy Communion by the Body of Christ, they then manifest in a concrete way that unity of the People of God which is suitably signified and wondrously brought about by this most august sacrament” (LG, 11). Leading to the Holy Eucharistic Liturgy, the “source and summit” of all the Church’s activity which truly unites heaven and earth, are the remaining sacraments of the Church, which collectively constitute the fullness of the means of sanctification of man, who is called to become, by grace, what Christ is by nature.
Section 12 of Lumen Gentium addresses the Prophetic role of the People of God. Speaking on the sensus fidelium, which means, “sense of the faithful,” the document has this to say: “The holy People of God shares also in Christ’s prophetic office; it spreads abroad a living witness to him, especially by means of a life of faith and charity and by offering to God a sacrifice of praise, the tribute of lips which give praise to his name (cf. Heb 13:15). The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One (cf. Jn 2:20, 27), cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole people’s supernatural discernment in matters of faith when ‘from the bishops down to the last of the lay faithful,’ they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth. It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, in faithful and respectful obedience to which the People of God accepts that which is, not just the word of men, but truly the Word of God” (cf. Thes 2:13) (LG, 12). Unfortunately, this reality of the sensus fidelium has, on not a few occasions, been misused by small factions of dissenters within the Church in an effort to effect changes in official Church teaching on fundamental issues of faith and morality which constitute the Sacred Deposit of Faith. And so, it becomes essential to distinguish mere theological opinion, even if this latter is widely held, from those essential teachings of the faith that do, indeed, comprise the Sacred Deposit of Faith; truths which can never be “changed” or “altered” in any way, due to the fact that they are not manmade but are, in fact, divinely revealed truths. The Magisterium has no authority to change or alter any of the truths of the faith; rather, her function as the official teaching body of the Church is to preserve, safeguard, and articulate these truths which God himself has revealed—he who can neither deceive nor be deceived.
In addition to the sacraments and the ministries within the Church by which God sanctifies his People, the Spirit imparts certain special “charisms” “among the faithful of every rank” (LG, 12). The Church understands that the Spirit of God blows wherever he wills, and that “By these gifts, he makes (the faithful) fit and ready to undertake the various tasks and offices which contribute towards the renewal and building up of the Church” (LG, 12). These charisms are to be submitted to the judgment and competence of the hierarchy, whose duty it is to “not … extinguish the Spirit, but to test all things and hold fast to that which is good” (cf. 1 Thes 5:12; 19-21) (LG, 12).
Section 13 of the document addresses one of the single most misunderstood and controversial dogmas of the Church: “Outside the Church, there is no salvation” (extra ecclesiam nulla salus). Throughout the Church’s tumultuous history, especially during periods marked by significant theological controversy and schism (such as the Protestant Reformation), the Church felt the need to reinforce this teaching in an even more forceful fashion. An unfortunate consequence of the apparent “exclusionary” and negative articulation of this truth has given rise to significant misunderstanding of precisely what is meant by this phrase. Before we examine what is stated in Lumen Gentium, we would do well to look at how the Catechism of the Catholic Church has reformulated this truth of the faith in a more “inclusive” and positive fashion: “How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Reformulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” (CCC §846).
Based on this reformulation, we are in a better position to examine the issue from the perspective of the conciliar document, which sheds a great and necessary light on an essential tenet of the faith that could otherwise very easily be misunderstood. Section 13 begins by underscoring the fundamental reality that “though there are many nations, there is but one People of God, which takes its citizens from every race, making them citizens of a kingdom which is of a heavenly, rather than of an earthly, nature” (LG. 13). This passage is important to keep in mind as we continue through the remainder of this section. Furthermore, the document reaffirms that “the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in his body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms, he himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism (cf. Mk 16:16; Jn 3:5) and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism, as through a door, men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved” (LG 14). From what has been stated, the Council is clear that it is precisely through membership in Christ’s Mystical Body that the “divinization” of human nature is made possible. Salvation simply cannot take place outside of Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Thus, if any person of any faith tradition receives, from God, the tremendous grace of eternal salvation at the pivotal moment of death, it will necessarily have been through, with, and in Christ and his Mystical Body, the Church, which cannot be separated from Christ, her head, regardless of the subjectively held theological beliefs of individuals throughout the course of their earthly existence.
Moreover, how inconceivable would it be to imagine that someone’s invincible ignorance of the Catholic Church as the one, true Church, established by Christ as the Sacrament of Salvation to the world, could ever possibly serve as grounds for God’s withholding of that most essential of all graces; namely, the grace of eternal salvation?! Let’s not forget the fundamentals of Moral Theology, and the three criteria that must be met for one to be considered culpable for having committed a mortal sin unto spiritual death: (1) commission of a grave evil; (2) with full knowledge; (3) and full consent of the will. We know that any impediments to full knowledge (ignorance; invincible ignorance, in particular) and/or full consent of the will (such as habit, fear, extreme emotion, or external coercion) mitigate subjective culpability, thereby rendering an intrinsically evil, disordered, and unnatural act a venial sin at most, which cannot, of itself, deprive a soul of the Beatific Vision.
It is at this point that the document begins to distinguish between the various “degrees” of membership in the Body of Christ. First, “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” (LG, 14). It is, however, quite possible to be a member of this visible body without remaining in the “heart” of this body by not exercising that charity which every Christian is called to. According to the document, such an individual “remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a ‘bodily’ manner and not ‘in his heart.’ … If (such members) fail, moreover, to respond to … grace in thought, word, and deed, not only shall they not be saved, but they will be the more severely judged” (LG, 14). But, those seeking full unity with the Church and in the process of being initiated into the Church are, for that reason, embraced fully by the Church, and are already considered to be united in a full communion.
Section 15 of the document states the following: “The Church recognizes that, in many ways, she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honored with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter” (LG, 15). This section emphasizes the faith and zeal of Christians who accept the authority of Sacred Scripture as a norm for belief in the truths it contains, and adherence to the way of life that it presents. Also, the Sacred Synod points out that through a valid sacramental baptism, whereby water and the Trinitarian formula are used, such individuals are truly incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ, and are thereby consecrated in Christ. In fact, the Church goes so far as to state that “in some real way, they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them too he gives his gifts and graces whereby he is operative among them with his sanctifying power” (LG, 15).
Finally, the Church admits a certain mysterious connectedness even with those who only acknowledge and worship the one true God, stating that “those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God” (LG, 16). Of these, the Church recognizes first and foremost her Jewish brethren, for, “God does not repent of the gifts he makes nor of the calls he issues” (LG, 16), and therefore, this “Chosen People” of God, from whom the Redeemer of humanity entered into the realm of space and time, “remains most dear to God” (LG, 16). And the Church recognizes as members, to some extent, various other groups of individuals who, insofar as they adhere to what is true, and, to the best of their ability, strive to live according to the dictates of their conscience, and hold fast to the most fundamental and self-evident axiom of natural law, which is to “do good, and avoid evil,” and who are sincere in their quest for truth.
Due to the profound importance of this issue, it is the opinion of this author that readers read for themselves precisely what the Sacred Synod has to say in its own words: “But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these, there are the Mohammedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. Nor is God far distant from those who, in shadows and images, seek the unknown God, for it is he who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Saviour wills that all men be saved. Those also can attain to salvation who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, yet sincerely seek God, and, moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do his will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and, with his grace, strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel” (LG, 16).
It would thus seem, according to the most doctrinally significant document that the Church has issued in modern times regarding her own nature and mission, salvation is, indeed, available to every human person who, with sincerity of heart, seeks the truth and strives to live a morally upright life in accord with the dictates of his or her conscience, even if, through no fault of their own, they have not come to an explicit knowledge of Christ and the Gospel. And it is the humble opinion of this author, that the Incarnation, in which the Second Person of the Holy Trinity forever united a true human nature to his divine nature, reconciling all of humanity with its Creator, bestowed upon each human person a dignity so profound as to make available the possibility of redemption. Granted, it will only be through the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, that everyone deemed worthy shall receive this free, unmerited gift, purchased with the Blood of Christ Jesus on the Cross. However, this more inclusive interpretation of “outside the Church, there is no salvation,” should not be viewed as incompatible with the dogmatic formulation. Rather, over the course of time, the Church has come to a deeper awareness of how she ought to understand herself in relation to both Christ, her Head, and the many peoples who, in some mysterious way, comprise varying degrees of membership in the Church.
While this understanding of membership in the Mystical Body of Christ may bring consolation to a great many, there are others who have voiced concern that such an understanding of “varying” degrees of membership in the Church effectively renders null and void the work of the missionary. For, the question might be posed, “If knowledge of Christ and the Gospel are not necessary for salvation, what, then, is the purpose of traveling to distant lands for the sake of evangelization? The Sacred Synod, however, anticipating such a reaction to the explanation provided in the Constitution, concludes this section with the following remarks: “As the Son was sent by the Father, so he too sent the Apostles, saying: ‘Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. And behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.’ The Church has received this solemn mandate of Christ to proclaim the saving truth from the Apostles and must carry it out to the very ends of the earth. Wherefore she makes the words of the Apostle her own: ‘Woe to me, if I do not preach the Gospel,’ and continues unceasingly to send heralds of the Gospel until such time as the infant churches are fully established and can themselves continue the work of evangelizing. The Church is compelled by the Holy Spirit to do her part that God’s plan may be fully realized, whereby he has constituted Christ as the source of salvation for the whole world. By the proclamation of the Gospel, she prepares her hearers to receive and profess the faith. She gives them the dispositions necessary for baptism, snatches them from the slavery of error and of idols, and incorporates them in Christ so that, through charity, they may grow up into full maturity in Christ. Through her work, whatever good is in the minds and hearts of men, whatever good lies latent in the religious practices and cultures of diverse peoples, is, not only saved from destruction, but is also cleansed, raised up, and perfected unto the glory of God, the confusion of the devil, and the happiness of man. The obligation of spreading the faith is imposed on every disciple of Christ, according to his state.” (LG, 17).
Chapter Three: “On the Hierarchical Structure of the Church and, in Particular, on the Episcopate”
The third chapter of Lumen Gentium takes up the issue of the governance of the Church of Christ through the Episcopate. The first and second paragraphs of this chapter explain that this Council intends to continue in the tradition and teaching established in the First Vatican Council, and explains that just as Christ was sent forth by the Father, so too, the Apostles (whose successors are the bishops) were sent forth by Christ to serve his Church as shepherds, with St. Peter and his successors as “permanent and visible source(s) and foundation(s) of unity of faith and communion” (LG, 18). In essence, “… all this teaching about the institution, the perpetuity, the meaning and reason for the sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff and of his infallible Magisterium, this Sacred Council again proposes to be firmly believed by all the faithful. Continuing in that same undertaking, this Council is resolved to declare and proclaim before all men the doctrine concerning bishops, the successors of the Apostles, who together with the successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ, the visible Head of the whole Church, govern the house of the living God” (LG, 18).
Christ, having prayed to his Heavenly Father, chose twelve men to be his Apostles, and, with Peter as their visible head, commissioned them to minister to, and govern, the Kingdom of God on earth, of which they and their rightful successors would serve as the foundation, with Christ himself as the “supreme cornerstone.” This apostolic mandate, moreover, was confirmed at Pentecost, in accord with the promise made to them by the Lord: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you shall be witnesses for me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and in Samaria, and even to the very ends of the earth” (LG, 19).
Additionally, the theological reality of “apostolic succession” is here explained. The Apostles knew that their divinely appointed mission of spreading and governing the Kingdom of God on earth through their teaching of the Gospel, the source of life for the Church, was to continue on well past their own death, and even to the consummation of the world. They appointed successors who would continue this apostolic tradition and ministry, with these latter being imbued with the very same charism of the original twelve. Thus was born the “Episcopacy,” the college of bishops who, “as sharers in his power, they might make all peoples his disciples, and sanctify and govern them, and thus spread his Church, and by ministering to it under the guidance of the Lord, direct it all days even to the consummation of the world” (LG, 19). Among the People of God, they would participate most fully in the One, Eternal, High Priesthood of Christ, with the validly elected successor of Peter, the “rock” upon which Christ built his Church, possessing primacy over this college.
“Bishops, therefore, with their helpers, the priests and deacons, have taken up the service of the community, presiding in place of God over the flock, whose shepherds they are, as teachers for doctrine, priests for sacred worship, and ministers for governing” (LG, 20). And “These pastors, chosen to shepherd the Lord’s flock of the elect, are servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God, to whom has been assigned the bearing of witness to the Gospel of the grace of God, and the ministration of the Spirit and of justice in glory” (LG, 21). In order to carry out such a tremendous task, a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit was bestowed upon the original Apostles, who, in turn, passed on this power to their validly appointed successors through the imposition of hands, such that, “by Episcopal consecration, the fullness of the sacrament of Orders is conferred, that fullness of power, namely, which both in the Church’s liturgical practice and in the language of the Fathers of the Church is called the high priesthood, the supreme power of the sacred ministry …” (LG, 21). Besides the sacred power of sanctifying, the Episcopate has additionally received from Christ the powers of teaching and governing. The bishops, “in an eminent and visible way, sustain the roles of Christ himself as Teacher, Shepherd, and High Priest, and … act in his person” (LG, 21). It should be noted that the sacrament of holy orders imparts a “character”—an indelible mark—on the soul, which brings about an ontological, metaphysical change in the one receiving the sacrament, enabling him to act in “Persona Christi” (in the Person of Christ). Bishops receive the fullness of this participation in the High Priesthood of Christ, while priests and deacons also receive this “character” upon ordination, and participate, each in his own way, in the one, eternal High Priesthood of Christ, as assistants to their bishops.
In addition to participating in the fullness of the sacrament of holy orders, the pope, as the bishop of Rome and the successor of Peter, receives the charism of infallibility when teaching “ex cathedra,” or “from the Chair,” on matters pertaining to faith or morality. While, up to this point, we have emphasized the role of the Episcopate in teaching, governing, and sanctifying, it must be noted that, “the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head. The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is, as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme, and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power” (LG, 22).
Moreover, “although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine of infallibly whenever, even though dispersed throughout the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held” (LG, 25). Speaking on the preeminent role of the charism of infallibility that is enjoyed by the pope, the document states in no uncertain terms, the following: “And this is the infallibility which the Roman Pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith, by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals. And, therefore, his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable, since they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, promised to him in blessed Peter, and, therefore, they need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment. For then, the Roman Pontiff is not pronouncing judgment as a private person, but as the supreme teacher of the universal Church, in whom the charism of infallibility of the Church itself is individually present, he is expounding or defending a doctrine of Catholic faith” (LG, 25).
While the bishops possess the fullness of the sacrament of holy orders, “the divinely established ecclesiastical ministry is exercised on different levels by those who, from antiquity, have been called bishops, priests, and deacons. Priests, although they do not possess the highest degree of the priesthood, and although they are dependent on the bishops in the exercise of their power, nevertheless, they are united with the bishops in sacerdotal dignity. By the power of the sacrament of orders, in the image of Christ the eternal high priest, they are consecrated to preach the Gospel and shepherd the faithful and to celebrate divine worship, so that they are true priests of the New Testament” (LG, 28). As essential collaborators with their bishops, “They exercise their sacred function especially in the Eucharistic worship or the celebration of the Mass by which, acting in the person of Christ and proclaiming his Mystery, they unite the prayers of the faithful with the sacrifice of their Head and renew and apply, in the sacrifice of the Mass until the coming of the Lord, the only sacrifice of the New Testament, namely, that of Christ offering himself, once for all, a spotless Victim to the Father” (LG, 28). In other words, through their function as cooperators with their bishops as members of the holy presbyterate, through which they truly act in Persona Christi, priests make it possible for the faithful to exercise the common, royal priesthood, that was bestowed upon all the faithful in their baptism, having been baptized into the priestly, prophetic, and kingly offices of Christ.
At the lowest level of the hierarchy are the deacons, whose proper ministry is one of service. We might say that just as the priest is an assistant to his bishop, the deacon, likewise, is an assistant to the priest. Concerning their particular mission within the Church, the document states: “It is the duty of the deacon, according as it shall have been assigned to him by competent authority, to administer baptism solemnly, to be custodian and dispenser of the Eucharist, to assist at, and bless, marriages in the name of the Church, to bring Viaticum to the dying, to read the Sacred Scripture to the faithful, to instruct and exhort the people, to preside over the worship and prayer of the faithful, to administer sacramentals, to officiate at funeral and burial services” (LG, 29). On a final note, it should be said that when Lumen Gentium was first promulgated, the diaconate was simply a stepping stone in the process of a man’s ordination to the priesthood. In keeping with the goal of the Council, however, it was established in this document that “in the near future” the diaconate could be reinstituted as a permanent hierarchical rank within the Church, as it had been in the early Christian communities, provided such was the desire of the Roman Pontiff and the bishops united with him. Today there are numerous permanent deacons who carry out a legitimate ministry of service within the Latin Rite Church.
Chapter Four: “The Laity”
Who constitute the laity? The document provides the following answer: “The term “laity” is here understood to mean all the faithful except those in holy orders and those in the state of religious life specially approved by the Church. These faithful are, by baptism, made one body with Christ and are constituted among the People of God; they are, in their own way, made sharers in the priestly, prophetical, and kingly functions of Christ; and they carry out, for their own part, the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world.” Chapter four goes on to state that while different members of the one body are called to various ministries and are granted unique charisms particular to each member’s distinct calling and secular profession, all share the same dignity as adopted sons and daughters of the Father, through, with, and in, Christ. “‘For just as in one body, we have many members, yet all the members have not the same function, so we, the many, are one body in Christ, but severally members one of another’. Therefore, the chosen People of God is one: ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism;’ sharing a common dignity as members from their regeneration in Christ, having the same filial grace and the same vocation to perfection; possessing in common one salvation, one hope, and one undivided charity” (LG, 32). What is more, the laity, on account of the distinctively “secular” roles they assume within society, are afforded a unique access to persons who would otherwise not be exposed to officially designated Ministers of the Word and the sacraments; and so, the laity are in a privileged position to act as the “salt of the earth” by carrying the Good News of Christ, into those worldly arenas that Sacred Ministers would likely not have access to. The laity are called to act as a leaven in the world, while they live “in” the world without being “of” the world.
Chapter four highlights the tremendous significance of the lay vocation and apostolate: “The lay apostolate, however, is a participation in the salvific mission of the Church herself. Through their baptism and confirmation, all are commissioned to that apostolate by the Lord himself. Moreover, by the sacraments, especially holy Eucharist, that charity toward God and man, which is the soul of the apostolate, is communicated and nourished. Now the laity is called in a special way to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth. Thus every layman, in virtue of the very gifts bestowed upon him, is at the same time a witness and a living instrument of the mission of the Church herself ‘according to the measure of Christ’s bestowal’” (LG, 33).
Finally, toward the end of this chapter, the most significant and salient activity of the laity is addressed. Anyone who has taken an orthodox course on the sacraments of the Church should know that the Holy Eucharist is, unequivocally, the central sacrament prefigured in the first Passover. However, they should also know that each of the other six sacraments, while imparting specific graces, and while possessing their own specific purpose, exist for the greater purpose of bringing the faithful to a full participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. For example, while it is entirely true that the sacrament of penance exists for the purpose of forgiving the Christian faithful of their sins and imparting additional graces that will assist them in overcoming that same sin in the future, ultimately, we may state that penance exists for the sake of forgiving mortal sins that would otherwise prevent the baptized from participating fully in the sacred banquet of the Holy Eucharist, as one cannot receive Holy Communion if he or she is in a state of mortal sin. Or take baptism, for instance. While this absolutely essential sacrament of initiation forgives the original sin inherited from Adam, which, more accurately, is a “deprivation” of sanctifying grace, it may rightly be stated that one is baptized in order to be able to participate in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. In short, the Eucharist is the central sacrament toward which each of the other sacraments tends.
This having been said, we are in a better position to understand the tremendous significance of the following passage contained in the chapter on the laity: “The supreme and eternal Priest, Christ Jesus, since he wills to continue his witness and service also through the laity, vivifies them in this Spirit and increasingly urges them on to every good and perfect work. For besides intimately linking them to his life and his mission, he also gives them a sharing in his priestly function of offering spiritual worship for the glory of God and the salvation of men … For all their works, prayers, and apostolic endeavors, their ordinary married and family life, their daily occupations, their physical and mental relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and … the hardships of life … become ‘spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ Together with the offering of the Lord’s body, they are most fittingly offered in the celebration of the Eucharist” (LG, 34).
Many Catholic “baby boomers,” who experienced, as children, what it was like to live as a Catholic prior to the Vatican II, may well remember their parents continually exhorting them, whenever they had to endure some hardship or undertake some responsibility to which they had an aversion, to “offer it up.” These three simple words, which many Catholic children became quite sick of hearing, conveyed a most profound spiritual truth regarding the tremendous gift of our participation in the common, Royal Priesthood of Christ, which was bestowed upon us through our baptism into the Mystical Body of Christ.
At the moment we received this most necessary and exalted sacrament, we became participants in the Priestly, Prophetic, and Kingly offices of Christ, the Eternal High Priest. Additionally, we became adopted sons and daughters of the Eternal Father, and brothers and sisters of Christ Jesus. In the words of St. Paul, we became “members of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church.” It was the divine will of the Eternal Father that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity empty himself of his divinity and assume a true human nature in the immaculate womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, thereby reconciling humanity and divinity in his one Divine Person. In this way, the work of redemption was begun, and it was completed when Christ, from the altar of the Cross, offered himself as the perfect, unblemished Sacrifice to the perfect glory of God the Father in atonement for the sins of all of humanity.
This profound reality of the redemption of humanity by Christ on the Cross historically took place approximately 2,000 years ago, on Calvary, once for all. Yet, God, in his infinite wisdom, decided that this perfect redemptive act would assume a trans-historical reality and significance, enabling this singular sacrifice of the Son of God and the Son of Man to truly be made present, in an unbloody fashion, on all of the altars throughout the world, through the words, actions, and intentions of all men ordained to participate in Christ’s ministerial priesthood. Thus, Christ’s work of redemption is truly ongoing, as each day, from the rising of the sun to its setting, a perfect sacrifice is offered to the glory of God the Father and for the salvation of souls.
Further, we, the laity, through our baptism into the Mystical Body of Christ, and as members of the Royal Priesthood of Christ are truly called to exercise our priestly office through our participation in the Eucharistic Liturgy, offering ourselves, our prayers, works, joys, and especially our sufferings, through, with, and in Christ, to the perfect glory of God the Father and for the salvation of sinful souls. This, then, is the exalted vocation of all of the laity, the Priestly People of God, and is, by no means, to be taken for granted.
Chapter Five: “The Universal Call to Holiness”
Prior to the Council, there existed, within the Church, a certain consensus among priests, religious, and laity alike, that the former two groups had been specifically called by God to pursue the lofty heights of holiness, the “transforming union with Christ,” while living apart from the world in monasteries, convents, and rectories. The laity on the other hand, were called simply to “work out their salvation,” while carrying out the duties and responsibilities of their “secular” vocation, living “in” the world with the hope of just barely making it into purgatory.
Thankfully, Chapter Five puts a definitive end to that mode of thought: it explains, unequivocally, that all the Christian faithful, regardless of their particular vocation in life, are called to that same “perfection” and holiness of life that Christ speaks of in the Gospels in general, and in the “Sermon on the Mount” in particular. As it turns out, even janitors, housekeepers and garbage collectors, despite their secular and downright dirty jobs, are called to the same heights of holiness that, prior to the Council, were thought to belong singularly to priests and religious. This chapter explains the dynamic theology behind this “new” approach to understanding such a “universal” call to holiness, beginning with the following: “The Church … is believed to be indefectibly holy. Indeed Christ, the Son of God, who, with the Father and the Spirit, is praised as “uniquely holy,” loved the Church as his bride, delivering himself up for her. He did this that he might sanctify her. He united her to himself as his own body and brought it to perfection by the gift of the Holy Spirit for God’s glory. Therefore, in the Church, everyone, whether belonging to the hierarchy, or being cared for by it, is called to holiness, according to the saying of the Apostle: ‘For this is the will of God, your sanctification’” (LG, 39). This chapter commends that unique example that is to be set by those religious who have freely, and for the sake of the Kingdom of God, embraced the Evangelical Counsels of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience; at the same time, it clearly states that it is to the very same “holiness” and “sanctity” that all the Christian faithful, who have been baptized into the Mystical Body of Christ, are called, despite the diverse vocations of these faithful.
To emphasize this universal call to holiness, it continues: “The Lord Jesus, the divine Teacher and Model of all perfection, preached holiness of life to each and every one of his disciples of every condition. He himself stands as the author and consummator of this holiness of life: ‘Be you therefore perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ Indeed, he sent the Holy Spirit upon all men that he might move them inwardly to love God with their whole heart and their whole soul, with all their mind and all their strength and that they might love each other as Christ loves them” (LG, 40). Then it states: “it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness, as such, a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society. In order that the faithful may reach this perfection, they must use their strength accordingly as they have received it, as a gift from Christ. They must follow in his footsteps and conform themselves to his image seeking the will of the Father in all things. They must devote themselves with all their being to the glory of God and the service of their neighbor. In this way, the holiness of the People of God will grow into an abundant harvest of good, as is admirably shown by the life of so many saints in Church history” (LG, 40). Finally, it sums up everything that had been previously stated, reinforcing the concept of the universal call to holiness: “The classes and duties of life are many, but holiness is one—that 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. These people follow the poor Christ, the humble and cross-bearing Christ in order to be worthy of being sharers in his glory. Every person must walk unhesitatingly according to his own personal gifts and duties in the path of living faith, which arouses hope and works through charity” (LG, 41).
Much of the remainder of this chapter is devoted to explaining how this universal call is to be lived by persons of differing states of life, beginning with those who belong to the Episcopate, ending with unmarried, single lay faithful, and addressing all of the various states in between, with a special emphasis on the poor and those suffering with illnesses: “May all those who are weighed down with poverty, infirmity, and sickness, as well as those who must bear various hardships or who suffer persecution for justice sake—may they all know they are united with the suffering Christ in a special way for the salvation of the world” (LG, 41).
Chapter Six: “Religious”
This chapter offers an explanation of that marvelous vocation of those, who, for the sake of witnessing to the reality and absolute supremacy of the Kingdom of God, and in an effort to heed the Lord’s exhortation to strive for Christian perfection, leave all worldly comforts and earthly pursuits behind, and embrace the evangelical counsels of holy poverty, chastity for the Kingdom of heaven, and obedience. Those persons called to embrace a vocation to the religious life strip themselves of everything that is not conducive to living a radically Christ-centered lifestyle, in imitation of our Lord, who proposed this way of life to those who could accept it.
A vocation to the religious state of life, from the vantage point of the hierarchy, should not be thought of as a state of life that is “in between” the lay state and the clerical state. Rather, individuals from both of these states—lay and clerical alike—may assume the religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Thus, many male religious societies are comprised of both non-ordained and ordained brothers alike. The same, however, cannot be said of women’s religious societies, as women are not permitted to be ordained deacons, priests, or bishops within the Catholic Church; all women religious are necessarily, non-ordained sisters.
Unfortunately, within the United States and in various other nations throughout the world, certain groups of women religious who, in direct violation of their freely taken vow of “obedience” to Church authorities, are scandalously accusing the hierarchy of holding onto, and perpetuating, an “antiquated, oppressive, and sexist” mentality in its decision to not permit women to receive the sacrament of holy orders. These misguided women religious fail to understand that the Church has no right to change essential and fundamental teachings regarding the faith, and that the Church is simply following the example set by Christ himself, who chose only men to be his apostles. Moreover, as we shall examine more closely in our review of Chapter Eight of this document, not even the Blessed Virgin Mary had been chosen to be among this exclusive group of men, to whom Christ entrusted the mission of going throughout the world and making disciples of all the nations. For, if anyone should have been a pope, a bishop, a priest, or, at the least, a deacon, it should have been the Blessed Virgin Mary. Yet, such was not her God-given vocation, and this she accepted in all humility. This should serve as the single most telling example for women religious, some of whom mistakenly believe that the Church of Christ, to whom they have freely vowed obedience, is practicing discrimination against them. To believe that the Church is in error with regard to a matter of the faith is to make a liar out of Christ, who solemnly stated to Peter and his successors that whatever they held bound on earth would be held bound in heaven, and whatever they loosened on earth would be loosened in heaven. Is this not the Church which continues to carry on the Sacred Tradition of Christ, her founder, a Tradition which truly is a living Tradition, precisely because it is the Holy Spirit of God himself who guides and sustains her? Let us, then, step most cautiously when we find ourselves in disagreement with the Church of Christ; for despite the ever-shifting winds of political, social, and religious opinion, the Church of Christ has been charged with the arduous task of proclaiming the unchanging truths of the faith both in season and out; for Christ, the Eternal Word of God, remains the same: yesterday, today, and forever.
Getting back to the document, the end of Section 44 sums up the purpose of the religious vocation and the living of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience: “The profession of the evangelical counsels, then, appears as a sign which can and ought to attract all the members of the Church to an effective and prompt fulfillment of the duties of their Christian vocation. The people of God have no lasting city here below, but look forward to one that is to come. Since this is so, the religious state, whose purpose is to free its members from earthly cares, more fully manifests to all believers the presence of heavenly goods already possessed here below. Furthermore, it not only witnesses to the fact of a new and eternal life acquired by the redemption of Christ, but it foretells the future resurrection and the glory of the heavenly kingdom. Christ proposed to his disciples this form of life, which he, as the Son of God, accepted in entering this world to do the will of the Father. This same state of life is accurately exemplified and perpetually made present in the Church. The religious state clearly manifests that the Kingdom of God and its needs, in a very special way, are raised above all earthly considerations. Finally, it clearly shows all men both the unsurpassed breadth of the strength of Christ the King and the infinite power of the Holy Spirit marvelously working in the Church” (LG, 44).
Chapter Seven: “The Eschatological Nature of the Pilgrim Church and Her Union with the Church in Heaven”
Following the Constitution’s explanation of the vocations of men and women religious of the Catholic Church, who, by virtue of living the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience, bear a radical witness to the supremacy of the heavenly kingdom, it is most appropriate that the Council Fathers chose to segue into the topic of the eschatological nature of the Church Militant on earth, and our profound union with the Church Triumphant in heaven. Section 48 begins: “The Church, to which we are all called in Christ Jesus, and in which we acquire sanctity through the grace of God, will attain her full perfection only in the glory of heaven, when there will come the time of the restoration of all things. At that time, the human race as well as the entire world, which is intimately related to man and attains to its end through him, will be perfectly reestablished in Christ” (LG, 48). The following paragraph elaborates further: “… the promised restoration which we are awaiting has already begun in Christ, is carried forward in the mission of the Holy Spirit, and through him, continues in the Church in which we learn the meaning of our terrestrial life through our faith, while we perform with hope in the future the work committed to us in this world by the Father, and thus work out our salvation” (LG, 48). Here the document makes clear that it is precisely within this context of a sincere and genuine hope of coming face-to-face with our Creator in that period of the new heavens and the new earth, that we, as Christians, are to come to an understanding of our own wholly unique, God-given mission as pilgrims on this earth, and, within the context of this latter, earthly vocation, work out our salvation.
The document continues: “Already the final age of the world has come upon us and the renovation of the world is irrevocably decreed and is already anticipated in some kind of a real way; for the Church already on this earth is signed with a sanctity which is real although imperfect. However, until there shall be new heavens and a new earth in which justice dwells, the pilgrim Church in her sacraments and institutions, which pertain to this present time, has the appearance of this world which is passing, and she herself dwells among creatures who groan and travail in pain until now and await the revelation of the sons of God.”
The final paragraph of this section explains that, while it is true that, as members of the Body of Christ, we are, indeed, adopted sons and daughters of the Father, it is also true that while we are in the flesh, we are, as it were, exiled from the Lord. Yet, the Spirit, which grafts us to the Mystical Body, groans within us, urging us on to an ever more perfect union with Christ through works of charity. Thus, while in the flesh, we strive to be found pleasing in the sight of the Lord, in order that, upon the completion of our earthly course of life, we may be found worthy to participate in the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb who was slain, purchasing for himself a people of every tongue and nation. Having been found worthy at the moment of our particular judgment, in the presence of the tribunal of Christ, we may at the end of time, find ourselves among the sheep, who, at God’s right hand, shall glorify him for all eternity, as opposed to being numbered among the goats at the Lord’s left hand, that shall be cast into the everlasting lake of fire, where there shall be much wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Having been found worthy of Eternal Life through, with, and in Christ, we shall then know with great clarity that “the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come that will be revealed in us.” Moreover, as true members of the Body of Christ, we shall participate in the very Triune life of God himself, having been divinized as members of our Lord’s Body.
Speaking of the Church Militant, the Church Triumphant, and the Church Suffering as one Church, comprising the one Body of Christ, Section 49 has this to say: “Until the Lord shall come in his majesty, and all the angels with him and death being destroyed, all things are subject to him, some of his disciples are exiles on earth, some having died are purified, and others are in glory beholding ‘clearly God himself triune and one, as he is’; but all in various ways and degrees are in communion in the same charity of God and neighbor and all sing the same hymn of glory to our God. For all who are in Christ, having his Spirit, form one Church and cleave together in him. Therefore, the union of the wayfarers with the brethren who have gone to sleep in the peace of Christ is not in the least weakened or interrupted, but on the contrary, according to the perpetual faith of the Church, is strengthened by communication of spiritual goods. For by reason of the fact that those in heaven are more closely united with Christ, they establish the whole Church more firmly in holiness, lend nobility to the worship which the Church offers to God here on earth, and in many ways, contribute to its greater edification. For after they have been received into their heavenly home and are present to the Lord, through him and with him and in him, they do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, showing forth the merits which they won on earth through the one Mediator between God and man, serving God in all things and filling up in their flesh those things which are lacking of the sufferings of Christ for His Body which is the Church. Thus by their brotherly interest our weakness is greatly strengthened” (LG, 49).
Lastly, Section 50 eloquently explains that it is precisely through participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass that the Pilgrim Church on earth, or the Church Militant, is most closely and perfectly united with the Heavenly Court, the Church Triumphant: “Our union with the Church in heaven is put into effect in its noblest manner especially in the Sacred Liturgy, wherein the power of the Holy Spirit acts upon us through sacramental signs. Then, with combined rejoicing, we celebrate together the praise of the divine majesty; then all those from every tribe and tongue and people and nation who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ and gathered together into one Church, with one song of praise, magnify the one and triune God. Celebrating the Eucharistic sacrifice therefore, we are most closely united to the Church in heaven in communion with, and venerating, the memory first of all of the glorious ever-Virgin Mary, of Blessed Joseph, and the blessed Apostles and martyrs and of all the saints” (LG, 50).
Chapter Eight: “The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, in the Mystery of Christ and the Church”
Any official document regarding the Church of Christ issued by the Magisterium will invariably explore, if only in a cursory fashion, the wholly unique and exalted role of the Blessed Virgin Mary; for Mary, a member of the Body of Christ and the People of God, and recipient of untold graces, in view of the salvific work of redemption wrought by Christ, is also the Spiritual Mother and Model of the Church of Christ—the image, or type, of what the Bride of Christ will be at the end of time after having undergone her profound and necessary purification, when the Church, like Mary, will be without spot or wrinkle. Indeed, Mary so profoundly personifies the Church that whatever may be predicated of Mary may also be predicated of the Church and vice-versa.
Consequently, it is most fitting that the final chapter of Lumen Gentium should be devoted to Mary, the Mother of the Church. As has been so eloquently pointed out by the early Church Fathers, Mary is to Christ what Eve was to Adam. There is a tremendous richness in the analogies between Adam’s relationship and shared mission with Eve, and that of Christ (the new Adam) with Mary (the new Eve). For instance, in addition to what has been stated above, it can be said that just as Eve participated with Adam, by providing him with the fruit which served as the instrument of the fall of humanity from God’s grace and friendship, Mary, the new Eve, participated with Christ, the new Adam, by providing him with his body, which served as the instrument of the redemption of humanity back to God’s grace and friendship.
Speaking of Mary’s participation in the economy of salvation, Section 56 states that “The Father of mercies willed that the incarnation should be preceded by the acceptance of her who was predestined to be the mother of his Son, so that, just as a woman contributed to death, so also a woman should contribute to life” (LG, 56). Speaking on the analogies drawn by the early Church Fathers, it also states, “For, as St. Irenaeus says, she ‘being obedient, became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race.’ Hence, not a few of the early Fathers gladly assert in their preaching: ‘The knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by Mary’s obedience; what the virgin Eve bound through her unbelief, the Virgin Mary loosened by her faith.’ Comparing Mary with Eve, they call her ‘the Mother of the living,’ and still more often, they say, ‘death through Eve, life through Mary’” (LG, 56).
It is interesting to note that almost all of the theology needed to support a solemn, dogmatic definition of Mary as “Co-redemptrix, Mediatrix, and Advocate,” is almost entirely present in this final chapter of Lumen Gentium. In Section 58, the Council Fathers begin to explain the concept of Co-redemption: “… the Blessed Virgin advanced in her pilgrimage of faith, and faithfully persevered in her union with her Son unto the Cross, where she stood, in keeping with the divine plan, grieving exceedingly with her only begotten Son, uniting herself with a maternal heart with his sacrifice, and lovingly consenting to the immolation of this Victim, which she herself had brought forth” (LG, 58). Further, Section 61 provides still greater insight into this collaboration which Mary was called to, by Divine Providence, with her Son, in the work of redemption: “Predestined from eternity, by that decree of divine providence which determined the incarnation of the Word, to be the Mother of God, the Blessed Virgin was on this earth the virgin Mother of the Redeemer, and above all others and in a singular way the generous associate … of the Lord. She … was united with him by compassion (which literally means, “to suffer with”) as he died on the Cross. In this singular way, she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope, and burning charity in the work of the Saviour in giving back supernatural life to souls. Wherefore she is our mother in the order of grace” (LG, 61). Thus, anyone who believes that the doctrine of Mary’s Co-redemption is not in accord with official Church teaching is unequivocally in error, based solely on what is stated in Chapter 8 of Lumen Gentium.
Likewise, Mary’s role as Mediatrix is not only articulated theologically, but the very term itself is used in Section 62: “This maternity of Mary in the order of Grace began with the consent which she gave in faith at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the Cross, and lasts until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven, she did not lay aside this salvific duty, but by her constant intercession continued to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation. By her maternal charity, she cares for the brethren of her Son, who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and difficulties, until they are led into the happiness of their true home. Therefore, the Blessed Virgin is invoked by the Church under the titles of Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Adjutrix, and Mediatrix. This, however, is to be so understood that it neither takes away from, nor adds anything to, the dignity and efficaciousness of Christ the one Mediator” (LG, 62).
Thus, it logically follows that she who participated in a most intense, singular, and profound way with Christ, her Son, in the meriting of grace for souls, would also participate in the distribution of said grace. Consequently, it is the official teaching of the Church that nothing whatsoever of the vast treasury of God’s divine grace that is bestowed upon humanity comes to us except through the willed intercession of Mary, and that just as Christ is the sole Mediator between the Father and humanity, Mary is the sole Mediatrix between humanity and Christ. Should anyone reading this essay doubt the veracity of what I have written above, please visit ewtn.com/faith/teachings/marya4a.htm. There can be found a collection of 20 Magisterial quotations by various popes and councils which unequivocally confirm the truth of the theological assertions provided herein.
Nonetheless, it must be made absolutely clear, that Mary’s participation in Christ’s salvific act is entirely subordinate to, and dependent upon, the perfect work of redemption wrought by Christ. Yet, God, in his infinite goodness, mercy, and providence, has so ordained that all of the adopted children of the Father, through their baptism into the Mystical Body of Christ, are made sharers in the priestly office of Christ, and can, therefore, offer their prayers, works, and suffering as a spiritual sacrifice to the Father, through, with, and in Christ. This, then, constitutes the very heart of the Universal Call to Holiness, whereby the entire baptized are called to participate in Christ’s ongoing work of redemption, which is renewed daily, throughout the world, in the Sacrifice of the Mass. And Mary, by virtue of her Immaculate Conception, her sinlessness, her divine maternity, her perpetual virginity, and her glorious Assumption into heaven, is the Co-redemptrix among co-redeemers; the exemplar who most perfectly and profoundly participates in the ongoing work of redemption.
Ideally, those who have taken the time to read this not-so-abbreviated abbreviated version and occasional interpretation of Lumen Gentium should now read the document itself, which is not much lengthier than this essay. For, in doing so, readers shall avail themselves of the riches of Vatican II in general, and the Apostolic Constitution on the Church, in particular.