SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY HIS HOLINESS
POPE PAUL VI
ON NOVEMBER 21, 1964
1. Christ is the Light of nations. Because this is so, this Sacred Synod gathered together in the Holy Spirit eagerly desires, by proclaiming the Gospel to every creature, (1) to bring the light of Christ to all men, a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church. Since the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race, it desires now to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission. This it intends to do following faithfully the teaching of previous councils. The present-day conditions of the world add greater urgency to this work of the Church so that all men, joined more closely today by various social, technical and cultural ties, might also attain fuller unity in Christ.
And so begins the Vatican II declaration Lumen Gentium as it undertook one of the Church’s most critical self-analyses in history sixty years ago. The title Lumen Gentium is translated from Latin as “the light to the nations.” There are a good number of folks here in the United States who would argue that in 2021 the Catholic Church is generating more heat than light. Are there many people who are pleased with the Church’s status quo? It is no secret that a large number have left the Church in recent decades, and there is a growing anxiety—if Catholic journalists are correct—that the long-awaited return of the faithful from the Covid shutdown will be more of a trickle than a stampede. This is certainly my impression in my home parish.
I admit that I must work up my energies for the weekend Eucharist. Preaching as a rule is poor. It is evident that many priests do not read, and thus fall each week into their “default sermon” which neither comforts the afflicted nor afflicts the comforted. The guiding principles of fitting liturgy in general from Church law—from architecture to appropriate participatory singing to reflective silences in the Mass—are frequently ignored or, more likely, were never properly taught to those in charge of planning parish masses. On the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord, the parish cantor at my Mass, during the distribution of the Eucharist, sang two solos—to the Blessed Mother—on a day of universal feasting over the ascension and glorification of the risen Christ. A well-intentioned error to be sure, but one that complicates Catholic identity and catechetics, nonetheless.
Paragraph 1 of Lumen Gentium above describes the Church as the visible sign of Christ to the world, “like a sacrament,” the pinnacle of unity with God and the whole human race. Sadly, the public face of the Church in real time can be distressing. Many of our family and friends have left Catholicism to look for Christ elsewhere, and there seems to be a reluctance by American bishops, for example, to research why so many have left the Church and why others are tempted to do so. The official “default” answer from Church officials to the media blames outside factors instead of difficulties within the family—asserting that former Catholics were never strong believers to start with, or the secularism of this age has stolen their faith. Yet there are dozens of other credible reasons why many view the Church with caution at the very least. The tales of clumsy personal encounters are legion, from the pulpit, the classroom, and the confessional. The honesty of official church leaders has been damaged by generations of equivocation or outright dishonesty in the matter of the abuse of minors. The “optics” of church life—from the classification of homosexuals as “disordered” to the attempts to deny public Eucharist to politicians—are embarrassing and distracts from the serious underlying theological issues that do demand reflection and consideration.
To top it off, there is grave division within the Church on precisely who is a good or a bad Catholic, exacerbated by “culture wars” and attitudes toward the last several presidents of the United States but which predates recent events and goes back at least to Vatican II itself [1962-1965], or even the 1800’s to be precise. It is forgotten that the Council was nearly shipwrecked in its first sessions during the fall of 1962 and 1963 when the conservative Roman Curia and the more progressive Western bishops came to blows over the very agenda of the Council itself. On November 8, 1963, Cardinal Fringes of Cologne, addressing the heavy administrative hand of the Vatican’s Holy Office headed by Cardinal Ottaviani, accused Ottaviani’s Office of exercising “methods and behaviors…which are a cause of scandal to the world,” a declaration met with prolonged applause by many of the bishops in attendance. [Xavier Rynne, Vatican Council II (1968), p. 221] This tension between forward looking and backward looking is a heritage of the Council which, if anything, has intensified over the past sixty years.
Very recent theological writing on the nature of the Catholic Church, the branch of theology called “ecclesiology,” is trying to break loose from the conservative-progressive tug of war to recover the term “communion” or the unity of believers around the table of Jesus Christ. As a lifelong Catholic and a pastor for two decades, I would like to fall in love again with the tradition that shaped my life and identity. Moreover, for the many now discerning whether to remain under the Catholic umbrella—and I think we all wonder about the value of that commitment from time to time—I would like to put forward the Church’s full identity so that whether one stays or leaves, the decision can be made in clear conscience in possession of the heart of Catholic identity.
For the next several weeks I will use the “Liturgy” blog stream of the Catechist Café to feature the paragraphs of Lumen Gentium and proceed to a discussion of what the Vatican II fathers envisioned as the unifying identity of the Catholic family. I will add references and commentary on Lumen Gentium from the post-Council popes Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. Pope Francis’ Pentecost Sermon yesterday addresses our very subject at hand. I will also provide references to the latest Catholic works on ecclesiology [the identity of the Church]; the Amazon Prime truck made a large delivery yesterday and I am reviewing several newly written texts on the Church for our use here and possibly your own reading at home.
A few weeks ago, I lamented on another post that I did not believe the Church does very much to inform and educate its catechists and Church ministers, nor its baptized adult members in general, many of whom have earned college degrees and are eminently capable of reading and critiquing the same texts used by seminarians in preparation for the priesthood. There are few resource sites where adults can review a bibliography or library of contemporary Catholic theological themes for self-study, such as our focus on ecclesiology or the nature of the Church. I do my best to research such works and provide links. For our purposes today I connected to the excellent on-line theology training program of Dayton University and checked to see what textbook it recommended for its ecclesiology course and where to find it. Save the Dayton link, as it offers dozens of courses and text recommendations you might not find elsewhere. Notice, too, that the Dayton recommended ecclesiology text can be purchased used on Amazon for a few dollars.
Vatican documents are free online. The link for Lumen Gentium is here.