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By Christopher Zehnder

The following article, which I wrote a few years ago, was first published in New Oxford Review

Many are the opinions about the Second Vatican Council and its effects on the Church – some Catholics praising them and others deploring them. But, while many have discussed and debated what the council did, few seem to take interest in what the council said, and what it intended to accomplish.

Council Fathers

It is generally thought that the council set out to “update” the Church – and this is true, but not in the crude sense it which it sometimes is taken. The intent of the Second Vatican Council was to outfit the Church so that she could better promote and cultivate communion – a more intense communion among the members of Christ’s body, the Church, and between the Church and the world. In seeking communion with the world, the council called for some accommodation on the part of the Church, but not to confound the Church with the world; rather, the council wanted to better equip the Church to draw the world to herself, and through herself, to Christ. The council had an essentially missionary, evangelical thrust. Its inspiration was the Great Commission, not the craven and abject spirit of capitulation.

From Essence to Praxis

The Second Vatican Council expressed its goal of communion in the documents that might be called the hinges on which the entire council turns – Lumen Gentium, the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” and Gaudium et Spes, the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.” In its very first chapter – indeed, in its very first sentence — Lumen Gentium calls Christ the “light of humanity” and expresses the Church’s intention to “bring to all men that light of Christ which shines out visibly from the Church.” (LG 1) In Gaudium et Spes, the council expresses its friendship, respect, and love for the entire human family and declares its desire to address in the light of the Gospel the problems, questions, and challenges faced by modern men. The Church, says Gaudium et Spes, offers “to cooperate unreservedly with mankind in fostering a sense of brotherhood,” but not in order to inspire a vague spirit of togetherness. Rather, the council wanted to encourage the brotherhood of man to remove an obstacle that blinds the world to the fatherhood of God, which can only be attained when become the brothers of Christ, who “entered this world to give witness to the truth.” (GS 3)

Communion implies communication, and to commune with the modern world the Church must effectively communicate with different segments of that world. Throughout the constitutions, decrees, and declarations of the Second Vatican Council, the Church addresses how her sons might most effectively communicate the Gospel to various segments of modern society. Yet, even before it addresses the how of evangelization, the council addresses the what of the Church. For, though many and varied are the ways the Church addresses herself to mankind (becoming, like St. Paul, “all things to all men” – I Cor. 9:22), she may only act in accordance with her nature. It was thus the council issued Lumen Gentium, to declare to the world the essence of the Church — the basis of her universal mission to all the world. (LG 1).

Thus, before Vatican II could effectively summarize the various ways the Church speaks to mankind, it had to say both why the Church could and needs to do so. The council had to show what it means for the Church to be sacramentum seu signum et instrumentum intimae cum Deo unionis totiusque generis humani unitatis – “the sacrament or sign and instrument of intimate union with God and of the unity of all human kind.” (LG 1)

The Sacrament of the Church

In calling the Church a sacrament, the council alludes to the traditional definition of sacrament — a sign of grace that effects what it signifies. As the council expresses it, the Church is not only a sign but an instrumental cause of that grace, which is the union of the human race with God. By means of the Church, God works, not only in individual hearts but in the whole human family. Through the Church, he draws mankind’s disparate parts into union, not only with each other, but with himself. By and through the Church, all mankind comes to participate in God as in its universal common good. The Church, therefore, is not an exclusive, inward looking institution, but an inclusive, outward-tending dynamism that, radiating from its inner mystery, enters the world of men to draw all things back to God.

The Church is thus a sign, not for one race or one condition of men, but for all mankind. Nor is she a sign for the righteous alone; but, like her Lord, who “while we were yet sinners” (Rom. 5.8 ) died for us, the Church seeks to draw into her fold even those who have wandered farthest from God. Thus, the Church must not look only to the faithful or to those who believe in God; rather, she has a duty to minister to every person or class of persons outside her unity.

This essentially outward tending character of the Church is implicit in the council’s use of the phrase “People of God” to express the mystery of the Church. This phraseology invokes the image of a political commonwealth – indeed, as a people, says the council, the Church has her own head, condition of citizenship, law (of love), and common good (union with God). (LG 9). People of God expresses the Church’s openness to the world. It contrasts with and complements the traditional description of the Church as the “Body of Christ”; for a body has in itself an integrity and completion that does not admit the inclusion of new elements, whereas a human society is more open to such inclusion.

The passage that succinctly expresses the essence of the Church’s relation to the world is the following from Lumen Gentium, 8:

This Church, constituted and ordered as a society in this world, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in his communion, although outside its structure are found many elements of sanctification and truth, which, as gifts of Christ to the Church, impel to Catholic unity. (Haec Ecclesia, in hoc mundo ut societas constituta et ordinata, subsistit in Ecclesia catholica, a successore Petri et Episcopis in eius communione gubernata, licet extra eius compaginem elementa plura sanctificationis et veritatis inveniantur, quae ut dona Ecclesiae Christi propria, ad unitatem catholicam impellunt.)

We may divide this passage into three parts. The first (“This Church … in his communion”) states simply that the Church of Christ as constituted in this world subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the pope and the bishops. The second (“although outside its structure are found many elements of sanctification and truth…”) concedes an important point – that, even though the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church, the Church in some way is present outside the confines of the Catholic Church. The third part (“…which, as gifts of Christ to the Church, impel to Catholic unity”) indicates that the elements of the Church present outside the Church have an inner impulsion to the unity of the Church.

Since the 1960s, the language of the first part of this passage has caused much confusion. Since the council, some theologians have seen in the phrase “subsists in” a weakening of the traditional identification of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church. However, Lumen Gentium contradicts such an assertion. “The society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ,” it asserts, “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 a human element.” (LG 8) Elsewhere, too, the council identifies the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church. In Orientalium Ecclesiarum 2, the council states, “The holy Catholic Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ, is made up of the faithful who are organically united in the Holy Spirit by the same faith, the same sacraments and the same government.” [Emphasis added.] (For a fuller treatment of this question, the reader should consult “What is the Church of Christ,” by Thomas Storck.)

Pope Paul VI at the Second Vatican Council

When we turn to the second part of the passage from Lumen Gentium 8, we find an important concession – but before we can see why it is important, we must first understand what it does not concede. When the council states that elements of the Church can be found outside Catholic Church, it is not saying that the Church of Christ subsists in churches or ecclesial communions outside the Catholic Church. Rather, the council here only asserts that aspects or properties of the Catholic Church can be found outside her communion.

This is really no new assertion, for the Church has always taught, for instance, that non-Catholic Christians administer valid baptism, possess Sacred Scripture, or teach some truths of the Faith or truths about God and man accessible to reason, unaided by grace. Yet, the council’s formulation is unique in that it says the presence of these elements constitutes what amounts to a virtual presence of the Church outside the confines of the Church. The Church herself is not present in her fullness or essence in non-Catholic communions, religions, or philosophies, nor are these non-Catholic groups or systems parts or aspects of the Church. The Church is present simply by virtue of her elements in other Christian communions, wherever sanctification and truth, the “gifts proper to the Church,” are found. She is even in a sense present in non-Christian religions and philosophies, for with their errors, these, too, assert truths about God and man. It is thus that, as Gaudium et Spes says, the Church acts as a leaven in human society and is to be “as it were” its very soul. For the Church is already, in a sense, the soul of the world, virtually present everywhere men teach what is true and do what is just, inspiring and quickening them to seek the fullness of the truth.(GS 40, 38) The Church is intimately involved in mankind, for in her alone is found in its fullness what men possess in a partial and imperfect way.

Icon of Pentecost

The proposition that elements of the Church are present in non-Christian religions and philosophies may seem to go beyond the meaning the council intended. It is clear that separated Christians possess Catholic elements, for such Christians belong to groups that have gone forth from the Church. Muslims, too, have derived beliefs and practices from the Catholic Church. But how can it be said that elements of the Church are present in religions and philosophies that developed in utter independence of the historical Christian faith?

Two considerations I think support the claim that the elements of the Catholic Church are present even outside the confines of the Christian faith. First, Christ has entrusted all truths about God and man’s relation to God (including the precepts of natural law) to the Church; for, he has constituted her the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Tim. 3.15). Thus, whatever non-Catholic religions and philosophies possess of truth about God and man and of goodness belong by right to the Church, by the gift of God. She is the magistra and guardian of all saving truth. Truth, wherever and by whomever it is possessed, is the virtual presence of the Church among men who are separated from her unity.

Secondly, every single truth strains after the fullness of truth. For instance, merely to know that God exists does not satisfy our intellectual longing; we want to know who and what God is. Our understanding (by natural reason) of who God is in relation to ourselves and the universe stirs us to seek the knowledge of God as he is in himself. This knowledge, as far as we can attain it in this life, has been entrusted to the revelation given to the Church. Too, we understand natural law in terms of our end or purpose; but what is our purpose? Why do we exist? Only the Church possesses the complete answer to this question, for she has been given the foretaste of what God has prepared for those who love him. Because of the incarnation, all things natural and merely human have received a new unction. They are the voices gone out to all the world, whispering to us and stirring our hearts with the longing that can only be fulfilled in Christ, who reveals himself through his Church. Everyone who seeks truth, implicitly seeks the Catholic faith. Every partial truth is a Catholic truth yearning for its consummation in the Catholic faith, the Faith of the Church.

The magnetic tendency of every truth for the fullness of truth is expressed in the third part of the passage quoted from Lumen Gentium 8 (“…which, as gifts of Christ to the Church, impel to Catholic unity.”) The gifts proper to the Church, but found outside her visible confines, have a homing tendency for Catholic unity. This fact places an obligation on non-Catholics to seek unity with the Church; but, more importantly, it obliges the Church to draw to herself those outside her fold. The Church is compelled by her very nature to be missionary.

The Church’s missionary character is a frequent theme of Vatican II. In its various documents, the Second Vatican Council insists on the Church’s duty to “make disciples of all nations, (LG 17) not only by spreading the Gospel among those who do not follow Christ, but by gathering all separated Christians “into the unity of the one and only Church, which Christ bestowed on his Church from the beginning” – a unity that “subsists in the Catholic Church … until the end of time.” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 4) If the gifts found outside the Catholic Church impel to unity, the Church, too, has that which compels her to spread the Faith – Christ’s commission to the apostles and “that life which flows from Christ into His members.” (Ad Gentes, 5)

Thus we can see that, according to the council, the Church, in her very nature as a “sacrament,” has an inherent orientation to communion and, hence, to the communication of herself through evangelization. Because the Church virtually interpenetrates the religions and philosophies, the institutions, customs, and aspirations of mankind, she must work to make this virtual communion fully actual. She must direct all her powers to draw all men to Christ by leading them into full and explicit communion with herself.

To be continued