Friday, November 21, 2014

Lumen Gentium at 50

Today marks the 50th anniversary of what - from a doctrinal perspective at least - was undoubtedly the most important document of the Second Vatican Council - The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium). The same day also saw the promulgation of the council's Decree on Ecumenism (Unitas Redintegratio), which, so to speak, goes hand in hand with Lumen Gentium in articulation the Council's ecclesiology.

Ecclesiology, of course, was what the Council was all about. Being just a high school kid at the time, my knowledge (and, a fortiori, my understanding) of the Council was quite limited. But however limited my knowledge and understanding, I did know that the Council would in some sense complete Vatican I's teaching on the Church. I knew, of course, that Vatican I had been interrupted by the unification of the kingdom of Italy (or, as it was then still sometimes called, "the sacrilegious invasion of Rome"). And I understood, albeit in some very vague way, that the result was a prevailing picture of the Church - one focused heavily on the papacy, whose primacy and infallibility had been definitively treated by the Council - that was certainly not wrong but which was only part of the entire Church picture. Vatican II was widely expected (at least by those who thought about such things) to reaffirm Vatican I's teaching but also to balance it by filling in the rest of the picture that Vatican I had had no opportunity to address. (In one of history's many ironies, the post-conciliar Church is perhaps even more papacy-centered than ever before - a consequence of modern media and the larger-than-life media presence of two post-conciliar popes - Saint John Paul II and now Pope Francis.)

Lumen Gentium most certainly did that. It utilized lots of biblical imagery and highlighted images of the Church (e.g., the Church as "the People of God") that seemed somehow new, while resonating with our roots. It spoke in expansively gracious language about non-Catholics, Jews, and other non-Christians, in ways that affirmed the uniqueness of the Catholic Church while at the same time recognizing the multiple levels of connectedness with the Church among the larger human family. (In the process, it may have paved the way for what contemporary commentators have called a "lifestyle ecumenism," that analogously attempts something similar to address the complexities of the many multiple levels of connectedness experienced subjectively by many within the Church and at its margins.) And, of course, Lumen Gentium also situated the Blessed Virgin Mary in her prominent place within the Church, helping to address not an internal Catholic problem particularly but a perception problem for many non-catholic Christians, with whom it has since become much easier to engage in productive common dialogue about Mary. Excerpts from Lumen Gentium's chapter on the Blessed Virgin Mary reappear regularly in the Liturgy of the Hours in the Saturday Office of the BVM. And, when they do,I never tire of re-encountering them.

A lot has gone unexpectedly badly in the Church and the world in the 50 years since the Council - at least in the West, where renewal sometimes seemed like simple surrender to a secular Zeitgeist. But that came later, and should not be blamed primarily on the Council. Had the post-conciliar decline been anticipated, undoubtedly the Council Fathers would have been much more cautious in their outlook and probably would have produced fewer and less interesting documents. As it is, they gave the world a rich vision of the Church's self-understanding, which under different historical circumstances could well have renewed the Church along the lines initially envisioned by Pope Saint John XXIII and which, with God's grace and seen through the longer lens of God's providence, may yet come to full fruition in the new historical circumstances of this third millennium.

1 comment:

  1. I, too, was in high school 50 years ago. I had a stupendous Sister who kept us abreast of all the Council doings while it was happening. We were excited and very prepared when the changes occurred. (Our parents, on the other hand, were unprepared.) In college I began reading all the documents. Thanks for this reminder.