Chapter I: The Mystery of the Church
1.1 "Subsistit in"
1.2 "Elements of Sanctification"
Chapter II: On the People of God
2.1 Members of the Church
2.2 The Church in Relation to Other Christians
2.3 The Church in Relation to Non-Christians
Chapter III: On the Hierarchical Structure of the Church
3.1 The College of Bishops
3.2 Papal Infallibility
3.3 Local Ministry of Bishops, Priests and Deacons
Chapter IV: The Laity
Chapter V: The Universal Call to Holiness in the Church
Chapter VI: Religious
Chapter VII: The Eschatological Nature of the Church
Chapter VIII: The Blessed Virgin Mary in the Mystery of Christ and the Church
Conclusion: Ecclesiology of Lumen Gentium
Having dealt with the pressing matter of liturgical reform in Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s next great effort was to define the Church in relation to the modern world. This required a formulation of ecclesiology that more clearly articulated the role of the laity, while at the same time explaining the hierarchical constitution of the Church in terms that are both intelligible to modern man and consonant with the original Christian mission. It is in this dogmatic constitution on the Church that ressourcement theology made its first lasting mark on the Council. Setting aside conventional juridical definitions, this document, titled Lumen Gentium, embarks on a discussion of how the hierarchical Church serves the divine mission proposed by her Founder, and how her members contribute to the realization of the kingdom of God. Every exercise of authority is subordinate to the call to holiness, and when this is realized, even modern democratic man can recognize the good of such authority. The document makes extensive use of Patristic and Biblical sources, consistent with the approach of ressourcement, yet at the same time, it holds true to the ecclesiology upheld at Trent and Vatican I.
When examined closely, Lumen Gentium’s ecclesiology is remarkably traditional, as contrasted with some of the more radical formulations proposed by ressourcement theologians and by some modern interpreters of the Council. This is not to say that there is nothing new in the document; quite the contrary, the constitution is an invaluable advancement in the discussion of how the Church should conceive of herself with respect to the rest of the world. Lumen Gentium is the key to understanding much of the Council’s subsequent work, including the Decree on the Churches of the Eastern Rite (Orientalium Ecclesiarum) and the decree on ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio), promulgated on the same day (November 21, 1964), as well as the later declaration on the relation to non-Christian religions (Nostra Aetate). It is only when the Church more fully articulates her own mission and constitution that she can define her relation to the rest of the world.
Although this document is a “dogmatic constitution on the Church,” there is little if any new dogma defined here. As with most of the Council’s work, the primary intention was not to define new doctrine, but to articulate existing doctrine in a way that makes possible a pastoral engagement with the world in modern terms. Given the near unanimity of its approval (2,151 to 5 votes), it is hardly sustainable that there could be anything contrary to the faith in this document, rightly construed. If Lumen Gentium was an attempt to redefine or alter the Church’s constitution, it would never have passed muster among the hundreds of staunchly traditionalist bishops, nor among the orthodox majority. Yet the best proof of its orthodoxy is an examination of the document itself.
This document is also notable for containing one of two possible instances (the other is in Dei Verbum) where the Council appears to have defined a doctrine at least incidentally. In the discussion of the role of the Blessed Virgin, we find, for the first time in an ecumenical Council, an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the title Mediatrix. However, the Council does not define exactly what is meant by this title, except to affirm that this does not diminish the unique mediation of Christ. The mere mention of the Blessed Virgin as Mediatrix is a remnant of the pre-conciliar desire by some bishops to define this doctrine formally. The project was abandoned for fear of creating a further stumbling-block for reconciliation with the Protestants, yet the “progressives” did not succeed in suppressing this discussion altogether. In fact, Lumen Gentium assigns an entire section to the discussion of the Blessed Virgin’s importance to the life of the Church.
Lumen Gentium represents an important synthesis of Biblical, Patristic, medieval and Tridentine ecclesiology, combined with orthodox elements of the new theological movement. Understanding Lumen Gentium is essential to the interpretation of the Council’s subsequent documents, especially Unitatis Redintegratio. It is critical to take the document in its entirety, rather than to select some sections over others. For example, we cannot accept what the Council says about “the people of God” without also accepting its explanation of the hierarchy and the laity. Similarly, we cannot conceive of the Church’s mission to the world without reference to her divine commission and her mystical character as the body of Christ. Those who cite Lumen Gentium as evidence of a brand new ecclesiology do so by quoting it partially or non-contextually. In this commentary, we will strive to make clear what is the traditional basis for the constitution’s assertions, following the document’s own citations.
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Christ is the “light of nations” (lumen gentium), and the Church is entrusted to bring this light into the world. As such, the Church is a sign both of union with God and of the unity of the human race. For this reason, it is her responsibility to explain her “inner nature and universal mission” so that it is understandable to the nations. The Council takes up this task “following faithfully the teaching of previous councils.” (LG, 1)
God the Father created the world “by a free and hidden plan of his own wisdom and goodness”that is, not out of necessity. “His plan was to raise men to a participation in the divine life.” Following Biblical and Patristic teaching (Romans 8; SS. Cyprian, Hilary, Cyril, Augustine, Gregory, John Damascene), the Council affirms that God foreknew and predestined from eternity that the elect should be conformed to the image of His Son, the firstborn among many brethren. “He planned to assemble in the holy Church all those who would believe in Christ.” The Church was foreshadowed from the beginning of the world, prepared in the covenant with Israel, made manifest in the Christian era, and will achieve completion at the end of time, when all the just, from Adam to the last of the elect, are “gathered together with the Father in the universal Church.” (LG, 2)
It is in the Son that God the Father predestined the elect to become adopted sons. In obedience to the Father, “Christ inaugurated the Kingdom of heaven on earth and revealed to us the mystery of that kingdom,” and this obedience redeemed the world. “The Church, or, in other words, the kingdom of Christ now present in mystery, grows visibly through the power of God in the world.” The work of redemption is carried on through the eucharistic sacrifice, which draws men to Christ and brings about the unity of believers as the body of Christ. “All men are called to this union with Christ, who is the light of the world…” (LG, 3)
The Holy Spirit was sent on Pentecost to sanctify the Church continually. He acts as the advocate of the faithful and testifies to their status as adopted sons. The Spirit guides the Church in truth and equips her with “hierarchical and charismatic gifts.” (LG, 4)
The mission of the Church is “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)
Invoking various New Testament images of the Church, we find that the Church is a sheepfold whose shepherd is Christ, and he is also the door. (Shepherds would lie down and serve as the door to the pen.) The Church is also like a cultivated olive tree whose roots are the prophets, and her members are like the branches of the true vine that is Christ. The Church is also compared to a building, whose cornerstone is Christ, upon which the Church is built by the apostles. It is the place where God dwells among men, a Temple symbolized by our houses of worship, but really built of us as living stones. The Church is also “our mother” and the “spotless spouse of the spotless Lamb,” subject to Christ in love and fidelity. On earth, the Church is in exile, seeking those things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father, until her hidden life appears in glory with her Spouse. (LG, 6)
In the human nature united to Himself the Son of God, by overcoming death through His own death and resurrection, redeemed man and re-molded him into a new creation. By communicating His Spirit, Christ made His brothers, called together from all nations, mystically the components of His own Body. (LG, 7)
In the Body of Christ, which is the Church, “the life of Christ is poured into the believers who, through the sacraments, are united in a hidden and real way to Christ.” (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol. III, q. 62, a. 5, ad 1) We are formed in the likeness of Christ through baptism. “Really partaking of the body of the Lord in the breaking of the eucharistic bread, we are taken up into communion with Him and with one another.”
Different members of the Body have different functions, for which the Spirit assigns various gifts. “What has a special place among these gifts is the grace of the apostles to whose authority the Spirit Himself subjected even those who were endowed with charisms.” The Spirit gives the Body unity and encourages love among its members, so that all rejoice and suffer together.
Christ “is the head of the Body which is the Church.” All members ought to be molded in his likeness.
For this reason we, who have been made to conform with Him, who have died with Him and risen with Him, are taken up into the mysteries of His life, until we will reign together with Him. On earth, still as pilgrims in a strange land, tracing in trial and in oppression the paths He trod, we are made one with His sufferings like the body is one with the Head, suffering with Him, that with Him we may be glorified. (LG, 7)
Christ has shared with us his Spirit, one and the same in the Head and in the Body, so that Body is unified with life. The work of the Spirit in the Church is analogous of that of the principle of life or soul in the human body. (cf. Tertullian, Against Marcion 3, 7) Christ loves the Church as his bride, much as a man loves his wife as his own body.
Christ, the one Mediator, established and continually sustains here on earth His holy Church, the community of faith, hope and charity, as an entity with visible delineation through which He communicated truth and grace to all. But, the society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ, 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) [Emphasis added]
Here the Council sets forth clearly its teaching that the visible hierarchical Church is not something distinct from the Mystical Body of Christ that has been discussed, but rather they are one and the same thing. Though the Church is composed of human members, the faithful are formed according to Christ in baptism and really united in His Body through eucharistic communion. The Holy Spirit unifies the Body in the life of Christ, so that the same Spirit and the same life dwells in the Head and the Body. True to its foundation in God Incarnate, the Church is a union of divine and human elements. “As the assumed nature inseparably united to Him, serves the divine Word as a living organ of salvation, so, in a similar way, does the visible social structure of the Church serve the Spirit of Christ, who vivifies it, in the building up of the body.” The visible social structure of the Church is her human element, in analogy with Christ’s human nature, and this structure is vivified by the Spirit of Christ, building up the Body, much as the Word dwelling in the assumed human nature made the latter an agent of salvation.
This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic which our Saviour, after His Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, and him and the other apostles to extend and direct with authority, which He erected for all ages as “the pillar and mainstay of the truth.” (LG, 8)
The one Church of Christ is that union of human and divine elements just discussed. The Church is both a visible assembly and a spiritual community, both earthly and heavenly. Her human or earthbound aspect, i.e., her social structure, serves and is animated by the Spirit of Christ, and acts as an organ of salvation by bringing the sacraments to the world. This structure is grounded in the commission that Christ imparted to Peter and the other apostles, endowing them with an authority that would last through the ages.
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 its visible structure. (LG, 8)
In continuity with the previous sentence, which mentioned Christ’s commissioning of Peter and the apostles to direct the Church with authority, the Council now elaborates that this Church is now “governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him.” Clearly, the Catholic Church is the same as that established under the authority of Peter, since it is governed by his successor, and we were just told that Christ erected the Church under apostolic authority “for all ages.” Moreover, it was clearly stated just previously that the hierarchical Church is not to be considered a distinct reality from the Mystical Body of Christ.
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In view of these identities, it is strange that the document says that the Church of the Creed “subsists in” the Catholic Church, rather than simply saying that the Church of the Creed is the Catholic Church. This softened language appears to be motivated by the desire to recognize that there are “many elements of sanctification and of truth” outside its visible structure. In other words, the Church of Christ might in some sense extend beyond the visible structure of the Catholic Church.
This subtle distinction can easily be misread, and indeed has been misread far more frequently than it has been correctly interpreted. The Council definitely did not intend to say that the Church of Christ is a distinct entity from the visible, hierarchical Catholic Church. It plainly rejected that idea just a few sentences earlier. Any authentic, honest attempt to discern the Council’s meaning must harmonize with its earlier declarations that the hierarchical Church and the heavenly Church are not distinct realities, and that the Church of the Creed was erected under the authority of Peter and the apostles, to last for all ages.
Fortunately, we do not have to guess at the Council’s meaning, for the matter has been clarified by official magisterial pronouncements by the Popes, starting with Pope Paul VI. Just months before Lumen Gentium was ratified, the pontiff issued his encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, which approvingly quotes Pope Pius XII in Mystici Corporis: “The doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church, a doctrine revealed originally from the lips of the Redeemer Himself…” Here the equation of the Church with the Mystical Body of Christ is plainly pronounced as de fide. Lest there should be any doubt that Lumen Gentium did not intend to break continuity with this tradition, the same Pope announced, when promulgating the Constitution, “There is no better comment to make than to say that this promulgation really changes nothing of the traditional doctrine. What Christ willed, we also will. What was, still is. What the Church has taught down through the centuries, we also teach.” In later years, Pope Paul would become exasperated with attempts to interpret the Council as overturning previous dogma. That this was not the case was obvious to him, since he had worked tirelessly to ensure that no dogmatic controversies were to be taken up by the Council, but rather it was to focus on pastoral aims. The near unanimous approval of the document would have been impossible if the Fathers had understood it to contradict the perennial doctrine expressed in Mystici Corporis.
Still, some account needs to be made of the choice of wording. According to tapes of the Council, the phrase subsistit in was proposed by none other than Sebastian Tromp, a Thomist traditionalist who had been instrumental in authoring Mystici Corporis. He says:
Possumus dicere: itaque subsistit in Ecclesia catholica, et hoc est exclusivum, in quantum dicitur: alibi non sunt nisi elementa. Explicatur in textu. [Emphasis by speaker.]
We can say: ‘and so it subsists in the Catholic Church,’ and this is exclusive, inasmuch it is said, elsewhere there are not but elements. It is explained in the text.
Tromp understood this wording to have an exclusive meaning, so that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church and nowhere else. Elsewhere there are only “elements” of sanctification, as we shall discuss later. Given that Tromp had helped author Mystici Corporis and had helped arch-traditionalist Cardinal Ottaviani prepare the original schemata that were set aside by the Council, it is hardly surprising that subsistit in should be given a perfectly traditional interpretation in its origin. The word subsistit was to replace the ambiguous adest (“is present”) in order to signify specifically that the Church of Christ is present in the Catholic Church and nowhere else. Tromp was an accomplished Latinist, and knew that subsistere originally meant “to remain standing,” and by the Middle Ages it was practically synonymous with “to exist.” That is to say, the Church of Christ remained in the Catholic Church, even as many members broke away. This is why Tromp understood subsistit to have an exclusive meaning, more so than adest or est.
Still, many liberal Catholics and non-Catholics interpreted the document according to what they wished it to mean, rather than according to the intent of Tromp and the majority of the Council Fathers. Thus, when the Vatican clarified in Dominus Iesus (2000) that the Church’s doctrine regarding her exclusive status had not changed, many falsely accused Pope John Paul II of betraying the Council. By then, the erroneous interpretation of Lumen Gentium (and Unitatis Redintegratio) had become so widespread that even well-intentioned Catholics sincerely believed that the Council taught the Church of Christ extended outside the Catholic Church, albeit in an imperfect form. While answering some objections to Dominus Iesus in an interview, Cardinal Ratzinger, who was then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and had also attended the Council, he explained the adoption of subsistit rather than est as follows:
The concept expressed by “is” (to be) is far broader than that expressed by “to subsist.” “To subsist” is a very precise way of being, that is, to be as a subject which exists in itself. Thus the Council Fathers meant to say that the being of the Church as such is a broader entity than the Roman Catholic Church, but within the latter it acquires, in an incomparable way, the character of a true and proper subject. (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 22 September 2000)
Here the Cardinal understands subsistit to refer to a concrete realization of “Church” as substantial subject. The broader sense of “being” (esse) is well known to those exposed to Scholastic thinking, for it can refer to the order of abstract essences. The “Church of Christ,” considered as a formal essence, is concretely realized in the existent Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is the only existent in which the essence of the Church (“the being of the Church as such”) is realized as “a true and proper subject.” In other words, only of the Catholic Church is it correct to say, “This is the Church of Christ.” This does not exclude, however, the possibility of other groups having attributes that pertain to the essence of the Church of Christ.
After Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, he ordered the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to issue a definitive formal clarification on the meaning of the Vatican Council’s ecclesiology. This explanation is consistent with that given by Cardinal Ratzinger in 2000.
Christ “established here on earth” only one Church and instituted it as a “visible and spiritual community”, that from its beginning and throughout the centuries has always existed and will always exist, and in which alone are found all the elements that Christ himself instituted. “This one Church of Christ, which we confess in the Creed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic […]. This Church, constituted and organised in this world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him”.
In number 8 of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium ‘subsistence’ means this perduring, historical continuity and the permanence of all the elements instituted by Christ in the Catholic Church, in which the Church of Christ is concretely found on this earth.
It is possible, according to Catholic doctrine, to affirm correctly that the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial Communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them. Nevertheless, the word “subsists” can only be attributed to the Catholic Church alone precisely because it refers to the mark of unity that we profess in the symbols of the faith (I believe... in the “one” Church); and this “one” Church subsists in the Catholic Church. (“Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church,” William Cardinal Levada, 29 June 2007)
Here the Vatican clarifies that “subsistence” contains the sense of perduring or remaining, and that the Catholic Church is the concrete realization of the Church of Christ. It is the only such realization, as is evident from the Creed saying the Church is “one.” Other churches may contain some, but not all, of the elements that define “Church of Christ,” and as such they cannot be properly said to “be” the Church of Christ, though the Church of Christ is in some sense present or operative in them. This is consistent with Fr. Tromp’s understanding, since he objected to adest (“is present”) as being non-exclusive, for the Church of Christ is present in other communities, but this is not the same as saying that it subsists in these communities as a proper subject. As an analogy, the Holy Spirit may be present in a Protestant congregation, but this does not make it proper to say the congregation is the Holy Spirit or a part of the Holy Spirit. Similarly, the presence of the Church of Christ in such a congregation does not mean that the congregation is the Church or part of the Church. It could hardly be otherwise, since Protestants have a fundamentally different understanding of ecclesiology.
The ecclesiological teaching from Rome has been consistent, from Pius XII through the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI. For anyone to resist this teaching because it does not jibe with one’s preferences is to lose the essence of Catholicism, aptly expressed by St. Augustine: Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia. Laymen, priests, bishops and theologians may lapse into error from time to time, but Rome remains to help regain one’s bearings. Whoever rejects this guidance, preferring his own counsel instead, will find himself moving further and further from the faith, and toward increasing antagonism with a Church in which he has only nominal membership.
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Having at last clarified that the Catholic Church remains the sole concrete realization of the Church of Christ, we can now turn to the other aspect of Lumen Gentium’s ecclesiology, declaring that “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside [the Catholic Church’s] visible structure.” (LG, 8) Here ‘elements’ should not be understood to mean the “marks of the Church,” for there are only four of those, not “many”: one, holy, catholic and apostolic. ‘Elements of sanctification’ is an informal term for the various supernatural goods that the Catholic Church has long acknowledged to exist among non-Catholic Christians. Notably, the Church has long recognized the validity of most Protestant baptisms. This is not a small thing, considering the tremendous sanctifying power the Church ascribes to baptism. Baptism is the means by which Christ incorporates a believer into His Body, which is the Church. By acknowledging Protestant baptisms, the Catholic Church has admitted that Protestants are in some sense members of the Church. This is not by virtue of being in a Protestant congregation as such, but by virtue of the sacrament that has been entrusted to the Church. Indeed, all elements of sanctification are “gifts belonging to the Church of Christ,” the Council teaches.
Since the various elements of sanctification found among non-Catholic Christians are “gifts belonging to the Church of Christ,” which is concretely manifested in the Catholic Church alone, these elements are “forces impelling toward catholic unity.” In other words, the Scripture, the sacraments, and the various sanctifying graces have all been entrusted to the Church of Christ, which concretely is the Catholic Church. Thus, when other Christians receive these elements of sanctification, they are receiving what is proper to the one Church of Christ, not to their various groups. As such, these sanctifying elements tend to incline the recipient toward the one Church which is their proper source. If this were not the case, the Holy Spirit would be opposed or indifferent to the Church’s unity, which is emphatically not the case, as Scripture attests. Stated simply, the more sanctifying elements a Christian community shares with the Catholic Church, the more apt such a community is for eventual reunion with the Church, the source of all sanctifying elements. Such reunion will enable the visibly separated Christians to fully participate in the unity that the Catholic Church already enjoys.
Although the Church has such an exalted origin and status, she must nonetheless conduct her mission in a spirit of humility and service, following her Founder. She has special concern for the poor and afflicted, and serves Christ by relieving their need. Like Christ, she embraces sinners, so she is “at the same time holy and always in need of purification,” and follows the path of penance and renewal. By the power of Christ, the Church may overcome its challenges, and “reveal to the world, faithfully though darkly, the mystery of its Lord until, in the end, it will be manifested in full light.” (LG, 8)
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It is commonly said that the Second Vatican Council redefined the Church as “the people of God,” as if to impose some new democratic emphasis on the Church’s constitution. In fact, the Council’s definition of the Church was already given in the first chapter as the Mystical Body of Christ. In this second chapter, the term ‘people of God’ is used as practically synonymous or co-extensive with the Church. Its primary purpose is to emphasize the collective nature of the Church: “God, however, 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…” (LG, 9)
The concept of “people of God” also enables the Church to articulate a continuity with the Old Testament and with non-Christians. Israel, of course, was the first people to be chosen by God, to be educated and made holy through His covenant. “All these things, however, were done by way of preparation and as a figure of that new and perfect covenant, which was to be ratified in Christ…” The new covenant, foretold by the prophets, where the law of God is inscribed on men’s hearts, was instituted in Christ’s Blood, “calling together a people made up of Jew and gentile, making them one, not according to the flesh but in the Spirit. This was to be the new People of God.” (LG, 9)
This redeemed people, made holy by Christ’s sacrifice, has Christ for its head. “The state of this people is that of the dignity and freedom of the sons of God… Its end is the kingdom of God, which has been begun by God Himself on earth, and which is to be further extended until it is brought to perfection by Him at the end of time…” Although this messianic people “does not actually include all men,” it is “a lasting and sure seed of unity, hope and salvation for the whole human race.” This people is used by God “as an instrument for the redemption of all, and is sent forth into the whole world as the light of the world and the salt of the earth.” (LG, 9) Here the Council appeals to the perennial Christian belief that all creation will be renewed at the end of time, and the whole human race in this new creation will consist of the saved. This does not mean that even the damned will then be saved, as various universalists have held. Although redemption is offered to all, some may freely choose not to accept this invitation.
“Israel according to the flesh, which wandered as an exile in the desert, was already called the Church of God. So likewise the new Israel… is called the Church of Christ.” (LG, 9) The Council does not fear to call the Church of Christ “the new Israel.” This Israel is united not merely according to the flesh, but also in the Spirit, so it is not limited by race. “God gathered together as one all those who in faith look upon Jesus as the author of salvation and the source of unity and peace, and established them as the Church that for each and all it may be the visible sacrament of this saving unity.” (cf. St. Cyprian, Ep. 69, 6) Christ is the source of the Church’s unity, and we join the Church through faith in Christ.
Since all Christians are united in Christ the high priest, we are “a kingdom and priests to God the Father.” (Rev 5:10) The Council says all Christians “should present themselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.” More precisely, according to Romans 12:1, we should present our reasonable (i.e., spiritual) service as a living sacrifice to our bodies. (When the verse is correctly translated, “reasonable service” is the direct object and “bodies” is the indirect object.) This service is an acceptable and pleasing sacrifice to God not by our own virtue, but in virtue of the perfect sacrifice of Christ. All of our priestly and sacrificial activity is but a participation in the priestly and sacrificial action of Christ. This participation obligates all Christians to “bear witness to Christ and give an answer to those who seek an account of that hope of eternal life which is in them.” (LG, 10)
The Council recognizes a distinction between “the common priesthood of the faithful” and “the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood” as two different ways of participating in “the one priesthood of Christ.” (cf. Pope Pius XII) The ordained priest has a special power to teach and rule “the priestly people.” He acts in persona Christi to make the Eucharist present, “and offers it to God in the name of all the people.” Yet the faithful also join in the offering of the Eucharist by virtue of their “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9), as Pope Pius XI explained at length in Miserentissimus Redemptor (n.9). “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)
The priestly life of the faithful is exercised through the sacraments. The baptized “must confess before men the faith which they have received.” They are “more perfectly bound to the Church” in Confirmation, which endows them with spiritual strength “so that they are more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith”. The apex of Christian life is offering the Eucharistic sacrifice, where the faithful offer the Divine Victim and themselves along with It, though not in the same way as the ministerial priest (who alone acts in persona Christi). Through the Sacrifice and through Holy Communion, the faithful concretely manifest the unity of the people of God realized through the Sacrament. Reconciliation with the Church is achieved through Penance, and the anointing of the sick associates the afflicted with the passion and death of Christ. Those in Holy Orders feed the Church “with the word and the grace of God.”
Lastly, Christians living in matrimony have their own special gift, as St. Augustine teaches. They help each other to attain holiness and raise their children in the faith. In the family, new members of society are born, perpetuating the Church across the ages. “The family is, so to speak, the domestic church. In it parents should, by their word and example, be the first preachers of the faith to their children…” (LG, 10)
The people of God also participate in Christ’s prophetic office, spreading a living witness to Him. “The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief.” (LG, 12) This sensus fidelium is infallible only when “they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals.” [Emphasis added.] Such discernment “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… truly the word of God.” Naturally, there can be no universal consensus that does not include the bishops, so the sensus fidelium fidei is not some sort of democratic counterweight to hierarchical authority. Nor is it a basis for inventing new doctrine as popular opinions change, for “the people of God adheres unwaveringly to the faith given once and for all to the saints, penetrates it more deeply with right thinking, and applies it more fully in its life.”
While diverse charisms or spiritual gifts may be distributed throughout the Church, “judgment as to their genuinity and proper use belongs to those who are appointed leaders in the Church.” (LG, 12)
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“All men are called to belong to the new people of God.” (LG, 13) This one people has members from all nations, and since Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, joining the people of God “takes nothing away from the temporal welfare of any people.” All that is good in their customs is preserved and ennobled.
Particular Churches within the Church “retain their own traditions, without in any way opposing the primacy of the Chair of Peter, which presides over the whole assembly of charity and protects legitimate differences, while at the same time assuring that such differences do not hinder unity but rather contribute toward it.” (LG, 13) The particular Churches, like individuals within the Church, have different gifts, and each member supplies what the rest of the body may lack. In this way, even diversity contributes to unity, as is seen in the distinctions of rank and status within the Church.
This Sacred Council wishes to turn its attention firstly to the Catholic faithful. Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, it teaches 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 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)
The Catholic Church, that is, the visible Church “sojourning on earth,” is necessary for salvation. This is because Christ is the sole mediator and way of salvation, and He is present to us in His Body, the Church. Baptism is the means of entering the Church, so to refuse baptism is to refuse entry. Anyone aware of Christ’s affirmation of the necessity of faith and baptism for salvation is obligated to enter and remain in the Church in order to be saved.
Those who are united to the visible bodily structure of the Church, ruled by Christ through the Pope and bishops, are “fully incorporated in the society of the Church.” Men are visibly bonded to the Church through “profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion.” Yet the one who “does not persevere in charity” is not saved, even though he is part of the body of the Church, yet not “in his heart.” Bodily membership in the Church is no guarantee of salvation. “All the Church's children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.” (LG, 14)
“Catechumens who, moved by the Holy Spirit, seek with explicit intention to be incorporated into the Church are by that very intention joined with her. With love and solicitude Mother Church already embraces them as her own.” (LG, 14) This is the so-called “baptism of desire,” which is sufficient for salvation if death should intervene before the catechumen can be baptized with water. It is not mere human volition, but the Holy Spirit moving the catechumen to faith, that saves.
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“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) Here we find the Council’s first “ecumenical” gesture, acknowledging a bond with non-Catholic Christians. The Catholic Church had always implicitly acknowledged such a bond, by recognizing the validity of non-Catholic baptism. In the apostolic letter Praeclara gratulationis (1894), Pope Leo XIII acknowledged that even those who do not profess the entire Catholic faith bear the name of Christians. Yet Pope Leo added that “they could never be united to Jesus Christ, as their Head if they were not members of His Body, which is the Church; nor really acquire the True Christian Faith if they rejected the Legitimate teaching confided to Peter and his Successors.” While the Council confirms that those outside the Church lack the unity which depends on communion with Christ’s Vicar, at the same time it says they are “united with Christ” through baptism. That is to say, they retain the indelible character imparted by baptism, which as St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, is a “participation in Christ’s priesthood, flowing from Christ himself.” (Summa Theol., III, 63, 3)
The Council describes other Christians as belonging to “Churches or ecclesiastical communities.” (LG, 15) This roughly corresponds to the Orthodox and the Protestants, respectively. Though lacking full communion with the universal Church, the Eastern Orthodox had long been tacitly recognized by the Catholic Church as Particular Churches, by acknowledging the validity of their episcopacy and their Eucharist, which constitute the basis of unity in a Particular Church. In Rerum Orientalium (1928), Pope Pius XI spoke of the Orthodox as “those brethren and sons of Ours, so long separated from Us.” Pope Pius XII, in Orientalis Ecclesiae (1944), called the Orthodox “our separated brethren and children,” and invoked the blessing of St. Cyril: “Behold the sundered members of the Body of the Church are reunited once again, and no further discord remains to divide the ministers of the Gospel of Christ.” Clearly, the Churches of the East retain some degree of communion with the Catholic Church, by participating in a valid Eucharist, yet their status as Particular Churches is “wounded” by their lack of communion with the Holy See, which “is not an external complement to the particular Church, but one of its internal constituents,” as Cardinal Ratzinger explained in a 1992 letter to all Catholic bishops.
The Council acknowledges that supernatural gifts are given even to non-Catholic Christians: “Likewise we can say 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. Some indeed He has strengthened to the extent of the shedding of their blood.” (LG, 15) These graces are not something external to the Catholic Church, for as was said earlier, all such “elements of sanctification” are “gifts belonging to the Church of Christ.” (LG, 8) Such graces are found among non-Catholic Christians only to the extent that they still retain some degree of communion with the Catholic Church, through baptism, the Eucharist, or the profession of faith.
Since it is the same Holy Spirit that gives grace to all Christians, this Spirit impels them toward unity, in accordance with Christ’s will:
In all of Christ’s disciples the Spirit arouses the desire to be peacefully united, in the manner determined by Christ, as one flock under one shepherd, and He prompts them to pursue this end. Mother Church never ceases to pray, hope and work that this may come about. She exhorts her children to purification and renewal so that the sign of Christ may shine more brightly over the face of the earth. (LG, 15)
The Council is not saying there is anything deficient in the unity of the visible Catholic Church. On the contrary, it was earlier stated that the visible Catholic Church is the Church of the Creed, which is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” (LG, 8) Rather, those who are in imperfect communion with the Catholic Church, by virtue of the same sanctifying Holy Spirit, are impelled to seek that perfect union which is willed by Christ. (John 17:21) The Council’s teaching makes plain the error of setting up ecumenism in opposition to a call to conversion. Christians outside of visible Catholic unity are sanctified not by their local virtues, but by the Holy Spirit that unifies the Body of Christ as a living Body. To the extent that there are authentic elements of sanctification outside the visible structure of the Catholic Church, those elements will direct men toward Catholic unity. If it were otherwise, Christ would be impossibly opposed to Himself.
This ecclesiology can make sense only if we appreciate that Christians are saved not merely as individuals, but as “one people” (LG, 9) in a corporate unity, the Body of Christ. It is through this union that men are saved. Vatican II’s discussion of “the people of God” cannot be understood in the sense of classical liberal democracy, consisting of autonomous individuals entering a compact to guarantee their private rights. In contrast with Lockean individualism, the Church is strongly communitarian: “if one member endures anything, all the members co-endure it, and if one member is honored, all the members together rejoice.” (LG, 7) This is in strict continuity with the attitude of ancient Israel, where the sins of one affected the entire community, and all were responsible for the welfare of widows and the poor. This solidarity is in marked contrast with the “mind your own business” individualism of libertarian democracy.
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The “people of God,” we recall, consists of all those who live as the Body of Christ with Christ as their Head. Yet as St. Thomas Aquinas taught, Christ is potentially the Head of all living men, since his power suffices for the salvation of every living human, provided their consent by free will. Therefore, as long they live on this earth, every unbaptized man is potentially in the Church. (Summa Theol., III, 8, 3) With reason, then, the Council declares that “those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God.” (LG, 16)
“On account of their fathers [the Jewish] people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues.” (LG, 16) Here the Council gives its first clear statement of the positive value of the Jewish people. While it may seem obvious to us now, at the time it was commonly believed that the Jews were cursed by God for having executed Christ, though no such teaching was ever sanctioned by the magisterium. On the contrary, the Catechism of the Council of Trent taught that Christians who sin are more culpable than the Jews for Christ’s suffering.
In this guilt are involved all those who fall frequently into sin; for, as our sins consigned Christ the Lord to the death of the cross, most certainly those who wallow in sin and iniquity crucify to themselves again the Son of God, as far as in them lies, and make a mockery of Him. This guilt seems more enormous in us than in the Jews, since according to the testimony of the same Apostle: If they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory; while we, on the contrary, professing to know Him, yet denying Him by our actions, seem in some sort to lay violent hands on him. (Roman Catechism , The Creed, Article 4)
The Council takes the next logical step, and recognizes that the present-day Jews cannot be accursed for that for which they are not chiefly culpable. Yet it goes further, and says they are actually “dear to God,” not on account of their unbelief, but “on account of their fathers.” As surely as God loves Abraham and the other patriarchs, He will surely honor His promise to bless their carnal descendants. God’s preference for the Jews was expressed by Christ: “I was not sent but to the sheep that are lost of the house of Israel.” (Matt. 15:24) “And when he drew near, seeing the city, he wept over it.” (Luke 19:41)
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. (LG, 16)
Since God’s “plan of salvation” is implemented solely through the Church, the Council is here asserting that the Church is linked in some way to all who believe in the Creator. This is most obviously the case with the Muslims, who share our belief in the one God of Abraham. It cannot be said that the God of Islam is another false god, even if the Muslims might differ from Christians in theological doctrines. They clearly give honor to the Creator, not a mere creature, and respect His sovereignty over all men. This ability to recognize the one God is a gift of the Holy Spirit administered through the Church. Going further, St. Paul famously commended the Athenians for honoring a mere “unknown God.” (Acts 17:23) Though they had no positive understanding of the one God as the Muslims do, they at least had the inclination to honor that which transcended their understanding of creation. This seeking is also a gift of the Holy Ghost to the Church. We should not be surprised to see this salvific activity beyond the visible structure of the Church, given the Savior’s desire for all men to be saved. (1 Tim. 2:4)
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. She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life. (LG, 16)
The possibility of salvation for the inculpably ignorant is not a new teaching, but was already articulated a century earlier by Bl. Pope Pius IX in Quanto Conficiamur (1863):
There are, of course, those who are struggling with invincible ignorance about our most holy religion. Sincerely observing the natural law and its precepts inscribed by God on all hearts and ready to obey God, they live honest lives and are able to attain eternal life by the efficacious virtue of divine light and grace. Because God knows, searches and clearly understands the minds, hearts, thoughts, and nature of all, his supreme kindness and clemency do not permit anyone at all who is not guilty of deliberate sin to suffer eternal punishments. (Quanto Conficiamur, 7)
This acknowledgement of the salvation of those not visibly connected to the Church does not contradict the ancient doctrine extra ecclesia nulla salus, for these divine gifts are administered through the Church. Pope Pius, in fact reaffirms the traditional doctrine in the words that follow:
Also well known is the Catholic teaching that no one can be saved outside the Catholic Church. Eternal salvation cannot be obtained by those who oppose the authority and statements of the same Church and are stubbornly separated from the unity of the Church and also from the successor of Peter, the Roman Pontiff… (Quanto Conficiamur, 8)
The hope of salvation for the “invincibly ignorant” is no cause for relief among those who consciously and virulently oppose the Catholic Church. Salvation outside her visible structure, being the work of the same Spirit that unifies the Church, can only impel non-Christians to view the Church more favorably. Whoever hates the Catholic Church does not have the Holy Spirit, and opposes Christ. “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you, rejects me, and he who rejects me, rejects him who sent me.” (Luke 10:16) “He who does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16) Unbelief is culpable only when the Gospel has been clearly presented and consciously rejected. There can be no opposition among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so there can be no salvific action where there is opposition to the Son and His Body the Church.
The Church nonetheless has an urgent mission, because of the real danger of the loss of salvation among those outside her visible structure:
But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature,” the Church fosters the missions with care and attention. (LG, 16)
There is no salvation for those who put their trust in perishable things, as do those who devote their life to the pursuit of wealth and worldly pleasure. This foolish idolatry is shared even by those intellectuals who effectively ascribe divine power to natural objects, conceiving them as having no need of a Creator. The prevalence of this belief is due to vanity, not intelligence, for the philosophically sophisticated will recognize the radical contingency of the natural order, even when this order is expressed in mathematical terms. In these materialist cultural tendencies, we see an aversion to salvific action, as misguided people seek a false self-sufficiency that can only end in death, as they would cut themselves off from the Source of life. Others separate themselves from God not because they have misplaced trust in mere creatures, but because they despair altogether. In all these cases, the Church is doing an inestimable service by preaching the Gospel, offering wisdom to vain fools and hope to the disconsolate.
The modern Church has not abandoned her imperative to preach the Gospel to all nations: “For 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.” (LG, 17) As the Church brings the Gospel to those in “the slavery of error and of idols,” she purifies and perfects “whatever good lies latent in the religious practices and cultures of diverse peoples.” The obligation to evangelize binds all the faithful, though “the priest alone can complete the building up of the Body in the eucharistic sacrifice.” Committed to evangelizing all nations, “the Church both prays and labors in order that the entire world may become the People of God.” This sense of universal mission has no hint of religious indifferentism, and is consistent with the Church’s perennial conviction that the Gospel is the perfection and fulfillment of all that is good in the hopes of the nations.
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The Council’s continuity with tradition is reiterated as Lumen Gentium affirms the hierarchical constitution of the Church.
This Sacred Council, following closely in the footsteps of the First Vatican Council, with that Council teaches and declares that Jesus Christ, the eternal Shepherd, established His holy Church, having sent forth the apostles as He Himself had been sent by the Father; and He willed that their successors, namely the bishops, should be shepherds in His Church even to the consummation of the world. And in order that the episcopate itself might be one and undivided, He placed Blessed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and communion. And 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. (LG, 18)
Here the Council unequivocally states its intent to retain the First Vatican Council’s teaching about apostolic succession and the primacy of the Pope, as traditionally interpreted, and this teaching is de fide. There is no basis for the claim that Vatican II altered the basic monarchical constitution of the Church.
By the will of the Lord Jesus, the Church was “established on the apostles and built upon blessed Peter, their chief, Christ Jesus Himself being the supreme cornerstone.” (LG, 19) The apostle were organized as a college with Peter as their head, with the mission that they “might make all peoples His disciples, and sanctify and govern them.” They passed on to their successors “the duty of confirming and finishing the work begun by themselves.” In particular, those appointed to the episcopate received the apostolic office in an unbroken succession, as St. Irenaeus (2nd cent.) testified.
Bishops, assisted by priests and deacons, preside in place of God over the flock, acting “as teachers for doctrine, priests for sacred worship, and ministers for governing.” (LG, 20) Just as the special office of Peter is passed on to his successors, so does the “apostles’ office of nurturing the Church” permanently persist among the bishops. The bishops are shepherds appointed by Christ, and he who hears them, hears Christ, while he who rejects them, rejects Christ. (Lk. 10:16) The apostolic teaching authority of all bishops had long been acknowledged by the Popes (e.g., Leo XIII in Et sane), and is not construed in a way that derogates from the Church’s monarchical constitution. The college of the apostles, the Council said earlier, was ordered with Peter at the head, and so a bishop can only truly act in his apostolic office if he is union with Peter’s successor, or else we would have to say that Christ opposes Christ.
The Council teaches that in episcopal consecration the fullness of the sacrament of Orders is conferred. Priests and deacons, who are ordained to assist bishops, lack the fullness of the apostolic office, though they perform various ministerial functions. Thus only bishops can admit other members to the episcopate. Incidentally, by specifying that only bishops have the fullness of Orders, while the others have a limited ministry, the Council renders practically irrelevant the historical disputes as to whether the various specific ministries were clearly distinguished in the first century, or what the terms episkopoi and presbyteroi signified in the New Testament. All that matters is that only some received the fullness of apostolic authority, while others were restricted to an auxiliary role.
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The collegiate nature of the episcopate is evidenced by the various councils held from the earliest ages, in order to ensure that the various particular Churches acted in accord. “But 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.” (LG, 22) The Pope is “Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church,” having “full, supreme and universal power over the Church.” He can exercise his power freely, while the bishops can exercise their universal power only with the consent of the Roman Pontiff, when assembled in an ecumenical council. “A council is never ecumenical unless it is confirmed or at least accepted as such by the successor of Peter; and it is prerogative of the Roman Pontiff to convoke these councils, to preside over them and to confirm them.” (LG, 22) Again, there is no hint of any anti-monarchical or conciliarist tendency in Lumen Gentium.
Just as the Pope is the visible source of unity among the world’s bishops and all the faithful, so is each bishop the source of unity in his particular church. Apart from the exercise of local authority, each bishop is called “to be solicitous for the whole Church, and this solicitude, though it is not exercised by an act of jurisdiction, contributes greatly to the advantage of the universal Church.” (LG, 23) In the Patristic era, we find numerous examples of bishops who sought to safeguard unity of faith and discipline among the various particular churches, though they claimed no jurisdiction outside their diocese.
Although the Council is not altering the Church’s constitution, it is reminding the bishops of their ancient duty to participate in affairs beyond the diocesan level. They “are obliged to enter into a community of work among themselves and with the successor of Peter.” (LG, 23) After the Council, the bishops would take a much more active role in universal Church affairs, either through national conferences or special commissions headed by the Vatican. These may be seen as successors to the regional synods and other episcopal collaborations that were frequent in the first millennium.
The Council also alludes to the Eastern Churches (“the ancient patriarchal churches”) as a model of collegiality, noting that a shared liturgical and spiritual heritage causes closeness among bishops in each rite. This unity in a common interest is a model for collegiality in other parts of the Church.
A principal mission of bishops is to proclaim the Gospel, and they accordingly have a divine teaching authority. “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent.” (LG, 25) A special submission must be shown “to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra.” Reverence and adherence to papal teaching is not limited to formal, infallible definitions, but applies to all judgments made “according to his manifest mind and will.” The Pope’s “mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.”
It is already evident that the post-conciliar spirit of dissent among “liberal” Catholics has no basis whatsoever in the Second Vatican Council. The Council unambiguously reaffirmed the supremacy of the papal magisterium over that of the bishops, and commanded religious obedience to every papal judgment on faith and morals. Any Catholic who pretends to have the Council’s blessing in opposing the teaching of the Pope (or one’s bishop) is either profoundly ignorant of what the Council teaches, or completely uninterested in the truth. The intellectually honest will recognize that the spirit of dissent is not found in Vatican II. Instead, it may be found in Martin Luther’s doctrine of private interpretation, or in John Locke’s principle of individual sovereignty, or in Friedrich Nietzsche’s enshrinement of the will as its own arbiter of right actionin a word, in any one of the numerous modern ideologies that would make each man his own pope, subject to few, if any, higher criteria. To be opposed to authority as such (rather than just the abuse of authority) is an attitude more in line with Milton’s proud Lucifer than with the humble Son of Man who was obedient unto death.
Catholics had long recognized that some teachings not only command religious obedience, but are properly infallible and irreformable, due to Christ’s promise that he would never allow His Church as a whole to fall into error. Earlier in this document, it was mentioned that a matter of faith is infallibly true if it is held as such by the entire body of the faithful. The First Vatican Council formally defined that papal teaching is infallible when the Pope is acting in his role as universal pastor. Papal infallibility was not defined until the nineteenth century, because only then did the Pope’s supreme magisterium face serious internal challenge. Yet the infallibility of the ecumenical councils was never formally defined, though it is no less certainly part of Catholic tradition. The present document briefly addresses this topic.
Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through 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. This is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church, whose definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith. (LG, 25)
The indefectibility of the Church entails that it is impossible for all the bishops to be in error on a matter of faith. When all the bishops in communion with the Pope agree that a certain position on faith or morals is to be held definitively, this judgment is infallible and de fide. It is not necessary for them to be physically convened in a single location to exercise this infallibility, though the mechanism of an ecumenical council obviously facilitates the clear and definite expression of the will of all the bishops at once. The authority of ecumenical councils, then, derives from the grace of infallibility that the bishops have as a corporate whole, though not as individuals, just as the body of the faithful are infallible as a corporate whole, not as individuals. This collectivist notion of infallibility re-emphasizes the essentially corporal nature of the Church, as contrasted with the individualism of those who would make private judgment the measure of faith and morality. Infallibility, like indefectibility in general, derives from unity in Christ, not from individual human members.
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The doctrine of papal infallibility does not contradict the principle just articulated, for the Pope makes ex cathedra pronouncements not as a private individual, but as the visible source of unity in the Church. Communion with the Pope is the standard for inclusion in the college of bishops with the grace of infallibility, and it is also the standard for inclusion in the body of the faithful who cannot err when they are in universal agreement on Christian faith or morals. The Pope, then, as the source of unity, cannot fail to give authentic teaching when acting as Pope:
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… (LG, 25)
It is doubtful that even the most resourceful Catholic dissident can find here any diminution of the notion of papal infallibility pronounced at the First Vatican Council. Whoever denies the infallibility of the Pope’s definitive teaching opposes Vatican II.
We see in the higher tiers of infallibility a safeguard for when there are divisions of opinion within the Church. If the faithful are divided in opinion, then the common agreement of the bishops, as expressed in ecumenical councils for example, suffices as a sure guide for authentic Catholic teaching. If the bishops are divided, as has happened on many occasions in history, then a definition by the Pope will “confirm his brethren,” the bishops, and settle their dispute. Non-Catholics often erroneously suppose that Catholic teaching on controversial matters is to be settled by opinion polls of the laity, but the faithful represent authentic Catholic teaching only when they are in practically unanimous agreement, not when they are divided. Controversy is to be settled by each bishop in his diocese, and if there are disputes among bishops, we do not take a poll of the bishops, but refer matters to the Pope. A divided college of bishops cannot guarantee authentic teaching, which is why no document of an ecumenical council is approved by a simple majority, but near unanimity is required. Doctrinal controversy in the Church is not resolved by simple majoritarianism, as in democracy, but by more direct application to the visible source of unity, the Pope.
The Pope and the bishops, when pronouncing judgments, are bound by “Revelation which as written or orally handed down is transmitted in its entirety through the legitimate succession of bishops and especially in care of the Roman Pontiff himself.” (LG, 25) These teachers of the Church “strive to inquire properly into that revelation and to give apt expression to its contents; but a new public revelation they do not accept as pertaining to the divine deposit of faith.” That is, definitions expound the deposit of faith given to the apostles, but do not add any new revelation.
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“This Church of Christ is truly present in all legitimate local congregations” (LG, 26) by virtue of celebration of the Eucharist, through which all are assimilated to Christ and united in Him. “Every legitimate celebration of the Eucharist is regulated by the bishop,” so there can be no Church of Christ without a governing bishop, though local congregations under pastors are rightly called churches.
A bishop governs his particular church with a power that “is proper, ordinary and immediate, although its exercise is ultimately regulated by the supreme authority of the Church, and can be circumscribed by certain limits, for the advantage of the Church or of the faithful.” (LG, 27) That is, the bishop’s power is not derived from the Pope, but nonetheless the Pope may circumscribe that power for the good of the universal Church. Bishops can make laws and pass judgments in their dioceses. “The pastoral office or the habitual and daily care of their sheep is entrusted to them completely; nor are they to be regarded as vicars of the Roman Pontiffs, for they exercise an authority that is proper to them, and are quite correctly called ‘prelates,’ heads of the people whom they govern.” The bishop governs not to be served, but to serve, caring for the faithful as his sons. He should therefore listen to them and cooperate with them. He must care even for “those who are not yet of the one flock,” that is, non-Catholic Christians or catechumens in his diocese. He is responsible for the souls of all those entrusted to him. The faithful, for their part, “must cling to their bishop, as the Church does to Christ.”
The bishops, sent into the world like their predecessors the apostles, may grant degrees of participation in their ministry to others to assist them. First among these are priests, who “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,” since they can offer the Sacrifice of the Eucharist. They are also consecrated to preach the Gospel and shepherd the faithful. They are true priests, partaking in Christ’s function as sole Mediator. (LG, 28)
Priests cooperate with their bishops, whom they assist, and “constitute one priesthood with their bishop although bound by a diversity of duties.” In a sense, they make their bishop present in their local communities. Priests should reverently obey their bishop as a father, while the bishop should regard priests as co-workers, sons and friends.
All priests are bound together in a common brotherhood by virtue of their ordination, and they each have the duty to minister to all the baptized in their care, even those who have left the faith. They must set a good Christian example in their lives, and they should combine, under the leadership of the bishops and the Pope, to “wipe out every kind of separateness, so that the whole human race may be brought into the unity of the family of God.” (LG, 28)
Deacons are ordained “not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service.” (LG, 29) They serve the bishop and his priests. His duties are “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) These are all traditional functions of the order of deacon, but in practice the diaconate was a preparatory stage for the priesthood. There did not seem to be a need for deacons who were not priests, as had been the case in the early Church.
Now, however, the Council saw that the duties enumerated “can be fulfilled only with difficulty in many regions in accordance with the discipline of the Latin Church as it exists today.” (LG, 29) There was a shortage of priests to perform such tasks, owing to the stringent disciplinary criteria for the Latin priesthood, most especially the requirement of celibacy. A permanent diaconate (as opposed to the “transitional” diaconate of the seminaries) could provide needed assistance in such areas, but only if they were dispensed from some of the disciplinary criteria required of priests. Thus the Council proposes that “the diaconate can in the future be restored as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy,” and that this order can, with the Pope’s consent, “be conferred upon men of more mature age, even upon those living in the married state.” The territorial conferences of bishops may determine whether and where it is opportune to establish permanent deacons. The permanent diaconate “may also be conferred upon suitable young men, for whom the law of celibacy must remain intact.”
Pope Paul VI established the permanent diaconate in 1967, and various territorial conferences petitioned Rome thereafter to establish diaconates in their territories. It is often said that the Pope “restored” the diaconate, following the language of the Council quoted above. While it is true that having a diaconate that is permanent rather than temporary is a restoration of early Church practice, the modern permanent diaconate differs significantly from its ancient predecessor. Ancient deacons were bound by all the disciplines required of clerics, including continence (cf. St. Epiphanius Haer., lix, 4), wearing clerical garb, and abstaining from various secular activities forbidden to clerics. Also, the ancient deacons did not perform baptisms or other sacraments except in grave necessity; ordinarily, they only assisted the priests at these ceremonies, having care of the sacred vessels. Some of these limitations are reflected in the practice of the Eastern Orthodox, who still have permanent deacons to assist the priests with the liturgy. Orthodox deacons are not even allowed to give sacramental blessings. The modern Latin diaconate, then, should be understood as a new discipline reflecting distinctively modern needs.
In practice, the new permanent diaconate consists almost exclusively of married men, though the Council and Pope Paul also made provision for celibate young men. The higher age requirement for married deacons (thirty-five rather than twenty-five) is explained in the 1983 Code of Canon Law as allowing time for the candidate to have proven stability and responsibility in his family life. Although canon law still requires continence of all clerics (1983 CIC 277), this is not strictly demanded of married deacons. A 1998 directive issued by the Congregation for the Clergy calls for a “chastity which flourishes, even in the exercise of paternal responsibilities, by respect for spouses and the practice of a certain continence.” (Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons, 61)
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The Council now turns its attention specifically to the laity, namely those members of the People of God who belong neither to the clergy nor to the religious orders. The laity in their own way participate in the prophetic, priestly, and kingly roles of Christ.
“What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular nature.” (LG, 31) Since they are engaged in secular activities, their vocation is to “seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God.” In this way, they help sanctify the world even in its secular operations. Thus the laity are not just Christians who happen to be in the world, but they are positively called to bring Christianity into their worldly activities. We can see how the secularist notion of separating religious and temporal affairs is fundamentally incompatible with the Christian religion. Christianity, the religion of the Incarnate God, would have us “work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven.”
The Church is composed of many members, who do not all have the same function, yet they all work for a common goal, and are united in “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” (LG, 32) Since we all have the same calling to perfection and one salvation, there is “in Christ and in the Church no inequality on the basis of race or nationality, social condition or sex.” (cf. Gal. 3:28) Although different members may proceed along different paths, and “by the will of Christ some are made teachers, pastors and dispensers of mysteries on behalf of others, yet all share a true equality with regard to the dignity and to the activity common to all the faithful for the building up of the Body of Christ.”
The distinction of those in ordained ministry from the laity is not a cause of division but of unity, since both work to a common goal and have mutual need of each other. The clergy have teaching authority in order to serve the good of the laity. They are superiors by virtue of their duty, but they are brothers of the laity as Christians, just as Christ is both Lord and brother of the elect. The Council cites St. Augustine: “For you I am a bishop; but with you I am a Christian. The former is a duty; the latter a grace.”
The laity are commissioned to participate in the Church’s salvific mission by virtue of baptism and confirmation. Their station in life enables them to carry the Gospel to areas that would otherwise be inaccessible. Besides this general commission to spread the Gospel, “the laity can also be called in various ways to a more direct form of cooperation in the apostolate of the Hierarchy.” (LG, 32) A similar exhortation was made by Pope Pius XII:
It is clear that the ordinary layman can resolve and it is highly desirable that he should so resolve to cooperate in a more organized way with ecclesiastical authorities and to help them more effectively in their apostolic labor. He will thereby make himself more dependent on the Hierarchy, which is alone responsible before God for the government of the Church. (Guiding Principles of the Lay Apostolate, 1957)
A more active laity is not conceived as rivalling the hierarchy, but rather as being more dependent on the latter’s teaching and government. Pope Pius found it foolish to speak of a vain power struggle between clergy and laity, for “the tasks before the Church today are too vast to leave room for petty disputes.” Instead, he reminds Catholics: “Respect for the priestly dignity has always been one of the most characteristic traits of the Christian community; on the other hand, laymen also have rights, and the priest must recognize them.”
The Second Vatican Council seems to go slightly further than Pope Pius, declaring that the laity “have the capacity to assume from the Hierarchy certain ecclesiastical functions, which are to be performed for a spiritual purpose.” (LG, 33) These functions would be identified later by the Council as including “the teaching of Christian doctrine, certain liturgical actions, and the care of souls. By virtue of this mission, the laity are fully subject to higher ecclesiastical control in the performance of this work.” (Apostolicam Actuositatem , 24)
The laity participate in the priestly role of Christ not only by participating at Mass, but also by their daily activities which, when done in the Spirit, are “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (Pet. 2:5) Christ’s role as Prophet is also exercised through the laity, by giving them understanding of the faith and the power to witness to the Gospel through speech and deed. This witness may especially shine forth in family life, which can be an “excellent school of the lay apostolate.” (LG, 35)
Christ’s kingship, whereby all things are made subject to Him “until He subjects Himself and all created things to the Father that God may be all in all,” is communicated to his disciples, so “that they might be constituted in royal freedom and that by true penance and a holy life they might conquer the reign of sin in themselves.” (LG, 36) The laity may spread Christ’s kingdom by serving others and helping each other live holy lives in their daily occupations, so that the world is permeated by the spirit of Christ. “The laity have the principal role in the overall fulfillment of this duty.” Through their labor and shaping of civic culture, they can ensure that created goods are ordered “according to the design of the Creator and the light of His Word.”
This Christian duty requires the laity to remember “that in every temporal affair they must be guided by a Christian conscience, since even in secular business there is no human activity which can be withdrawn from God’s dominion.” (LG, 36) Still, “it must be admitted that the temporal sphere is governed by its own principles,” so there is a distinction between one’s duty as a Christian and as a member of human society. This does not imply, however, a complete separation of religion and politics: “But that ominous doctrine which attempts to build a society with no regard whatever for religion, and which attacks and destroys the religious liberty of its citizens, is rightly to be rejected.”
In our day, it is fashionable to pretend that religious values have no rightful place in the shaping of civil society, and any attempt to let such values inform our civic code is viewed as an affront to religious liberty. The Council takes an entirely opposite view: on the contrary, religious liberty demands that citizens should be allowed to shape society according to consciences informed by religious values. Denying them such a prerogative would be to snuff out their religious life, rendering it impotent and fully internalized. Such a state of affairs would be no better than that of an atheistic dictatorship, for even there one is allowed to retain religion in private thought. Religious liberty, if it is to mean anything, must entail the right to act on one’s religious principles in the world. If we were to deny the legitimacy of any civic principle that is derived from religious values, we will be left with precious little of public morality, as the logic of recent liberalism is inexorably proving.
The Council affirms that the laity have the right as Christians “to receive in abundance from their spiritual shepherds the spiritual goods of the Church.” (LG, 37) This right was already guaranteed in the existing code of canon law. [Laici ius habent recipiendi a clero, ad normam ecclesiasticae disciplinae, spiritualia bona et potissimum adiumenta ad salutem necessaria. (CIC 1917, can. 682)] In view of this right, the laity should openly state their pastoral needs “with that freedom and confidence which is fitting for children of God and brothers in Christ.” They may express their opinions on the good of the Church in accordance with their knowledge and ability. This should be done through ecclesiastical norms, and “with reverence and charity toward those who by reason of their sacred office represent the person of Christ.”
The laity should, as all Christians, promptly accept in Christian obedience decisions of their spiritual shepherds, since they are representatives of Christ as well as teachers and rulers in the Church. Let them follow the example of Christ, who by His obedience even unto death, opened to all men the blessed way of the liberty of the children of God. (LG,37)
If there is one principle of Vatican II that should be remembered by all who speak in its name, it is this one. Christian obedience is not consequent to feudalism, or monarchism, or conservatism, but rather it follows the example of Christ Himself. There are many who can do a passable imitation of most Christian virtues, be it lovingkindness or concern for the poor and weak. Yet the surest distinction between the true Christian and the sweet-tongued wolf is humilitythe abject, self-effacing humility of obedience. Christ did nothing for Himself, but always obeyed the Father. St. Michael the Archangel did not dare rebuke even the devil, but asked God to do so. The Apostles, though they were sent by the Lord of all, humbly submitted to civil authorities. The saints, though frequently persecuted by others within the hierarchy, invariably submitted to their superiors. They did this not to idolize man, but in honor of divine authority.
The pastors, for their part, ought to exhibit similar humility, treating the laity with dignity, entrusting them with responsibility, and heeding their advice. With an enhanced sense of responsibility, the laity will more eagerly devote their energies to the projects of their pastors, and other worthy projects on their own initiative. The experience of the laity can also help pastors “more clearly and more incisively come to decisions regarding both spiritual and temporal matters.” (LG, 37)
Lumen Gentium’s call for greater participation by the laity does not involve giving them functions proper to clergy, but on the contrary takes advantage of their specifically secular duties in the world. Instead of “laicizing” the Church, the Council calls for the laity to sanctify the secular world. They may conduct such projects on their own initiative, or in collaboration with their pastors, so that clergy and laity utilize each other’s gifts for the benefit of the Church’s mission. Lay participation is not summoned merely for its own sake, but is entirely subordinate to the Church’s mission to serve as the light of the nations.
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Both the clergy and the laity are called to be holy, tending “toward the perfection of charity, thus causing the edification of others.” (LG, 39) Christians are truly made holy, not by their works, but by grace. Through baptism they share in the divine nature, and through further grace they persevere in holiness. For our offenses, we need God’s mercies repeatedly. (LG, 40)
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. (LG, 40)
Holiness is oriented toward the will of God, glorifying the Creator in all things, and imparting divine charity on our fellow men. Each person has different graces, and must pursue holiness in accordance with the particular gifts he has received and the duties demanded by his station in life. Bishops should be willing to lay down their lives for their sheep, while priests should abound in spiritual good and draw strength from contemplation. Deacons should shun every vice, and clerics should be constant in prayer. (LG, 41)
Married couples pursue holiness by remaining faithful in mutual love, and by imbuing their children with Christian doctrine and evangelical virtues. Christians may also exhibit charitable love in their labor, which can “raise all of society, and even creation itself, to a better mode of existence.” Those who suffer may be joined to the suffering Christ for the salvation of the world.
In all these holy pursuits, the faithful exhibit divine love or charity, “by which we love God above all things and our neighbor because of God.” (LG, 42) For this love to be fruitful, the faithful must “hear the Word of God and accept His Will, and must complete what God has begun by their own actions with the help of God's grace.” Such actions include receiving the sacraments, prayer, self-denial, fraternal service, and the exercise of virtue.
Christian charity is most perfect in those martyrs who imitate Christ in laying down their lives for their brethren. Although few are given the opportunity of martyrdom, all must confess Christ before men, even under “persecutions, which will never be lacking to the Church.”
The Church’s holiness is also fostered among those who keep the evangelical counsels, especially that of virginity or celibacy. “This is a precious gift of divine grace given by the Father to certain souls, whereby they may devote themselves to God alone the more easily, due to an undivided heart.” Such perfect continence for the love of God has long been revered in the Church, for it “is an incentive to charity, and is certainly a particular source of spiritual fecundity in the world.” (LG, 42) Likewise, the Church rejoices at those who renounce their freedom and adopt a state of poverty or of obedience, in imitation of the Lord who emptied himself as a slave.
In sum, each should pursue holiness according to his state in life, and no one should let “the use of the things of this world nor attachment to riches, which is against the spirit of evangelical poverty, hinder them in their quest for perfect love.” Instead, they should heed the Apostle: “And they that use this world, [should live] as if they used it not: for the fashion of this world passeth away.” (1 Cor. 7:31)
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The evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty, and obedience, repeatedly proclaimed by Christ and the Apostles, are a divine gift which the Church has the duty to safeguard. She interprets these counsels and regulates the practice of living by them. Numerous religious families have arisen over the years to provide fraternal support while living according to the evangelical counsels. This “religious state of life is not an intermediate state between the clerical and lay states.” Rather, faithful from both states may be called to enjoy this particular gift of the Church, and thus aid in her salvific mission. (LG, 43)
Religious are bound to the evangelical counsels by vows, by which they are “more intimately consecrated to divine service.” Commitment to these counsels enables the religious “to free himself from those obstacles, which might draw him away from the fervor of charity and the perfection of divine worship.” (LG, 44)
The religious are duty-bound to “implant and strengthen the Kingdom of Christ in souls and to extend that Kingdom to every clime.” This may be done by “prayer or active works of the apostolate.” The Church allows each religious institute to retain its own special character (i.e., contemplative or active).
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. (LG, 44)
The religious contribute to the Church’s mission by making the Kingdom present here on earth. Thus the religious state, “though it is not the hierarchical structure of the Church, nevertheless, undeniably belongs to its life and holiness.”
The hierarchy have the duty of regulating religious life, since they have the duty to lead the faithful to fruitful pastures. Out of docile respect for the prompting of the Holy Spirit, they will accept the rules presented by exceptional men and women for a proposed order, after making due adjustments.
A religious institute may be removed from the jurisdiction of local Ordinaries and made directly subject to the Pope (as is the case with the Jesuits), or to one of the patriarchs. Even so, religious are always bound to honor and respect bishops and other prelates.
By approving religious institutes, the Church gives the religious life a canonical status. She recognizes that religious professions are a consecration to God by administering the vows in a liturgical setting. (LG, 45)
Although religious vows entail “the renunciation of certain values which are to be undoubtedly esteemed,” this “does not detract from a genuine development of the human persons, but rather by its very nature is most beneficial to that development.” (LG, 46) When they are taken voluntarily, they lead to a purified heart, spiritual liberty, fervor of charity, and that detached life which Christ and His mother chose.
Let no one think that religious have become strangers to their fellow men or useless citizens of this earthly city by their consecration. For even though it sometimes happens that religious do not directly mingle with their contemporaries, yet in a more profound sense these same religious are united with them in the heart of Christ and spiritually cooperate with them. (LG, 46)
There is no hint here of any disdain for the contemplative life, nor of an erosion of the distinction between consecrated and unconsecrated life. The post-conciliar collapse in religious vocations and wholesale secularization of consecrated men and women cannot be explained by any invocation of the Council, either here in Lumen Gentium or later in Perfectae Caritatis. Rather, we must look to external social circumstances to explain that disaster. The Council did not prescribe letting the secular world determine the values of the consecrated life, but instead called for the opposite action: consecrated religious bring the light of Christ into the world.
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Christians have always recognized that the Church extends beyond the faithful here on earth, and includes the saints in heaven, who already inhabit the Kingdom of God that the Church brings to the world. Traditionally, Catholics have expressed this reality by speaking of a Church Militant, Church Suffering, and Church Triumphant. The Church Militant consists of those here on earth waging spiritual warfare against the devil and his allies, in order for the kingdom of God to be revealed for the salvation of the world. The Church Suffering consists of the souls in Purgatory, who have already fought the good fight, and endure their penance while awaiting their reward. The Church Triumphant already participates fully in Christ’s victory over the devil, sin and death, being free from all evil and delighting in the glory of God. Christians believe that, at the end of time, all the faithful will be in the Church Triumphant, as the kingdom of God is made fully manifest in the renewed heaven and earth. The Church on earth, therefore, continually labors for her eventual visible union with the Church Triumphant. In this sense, all Christians, not just Catholics, are “triumphalist.”
The Second Vatican Council uses different terminology to express the same reality, speaking of a “pilgrim Church” on earth and a “Church in heaven.” These parts will be visibly united at the end of time, when “the human race as well as the entire world… will be perfectly re-established in Christ.” (LG, 48) This “restoration of all things” or apokatastasis has a sound Biblical basis, but the specific meaning of the doctrine was disputed even among the early Church Fathers. The Council will now treat of this matter.
The Council teaches that “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.” (LG, 48) Thus we may understand why the New Testament speaks of the messianic era as being truly “the last days”:
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. (LG, 48)
Until we appear with Christ in glory, we must strive to please God in all things, and “put on the armor of God, that we may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” We know not when the day of the Lord will come…
…we must be constantly vigilant so that, having finished the course of our earthly life, we may merit to enter into the marriage feast with Him and to be numbered among the blessed and that we may not be ordered to go into eternal fire like the wicked and slothful servant, into the exterior darkness where “there will be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.” (LG, 48)
The Council does not interpret apokatastasis to imply universal salvation, for we must be constantly vigilant in order to avoid “eternal fire,” which would hardly be necessary if salvation were guaranteed to all. The Church here does not speak of the fate of non-Christians, but only of those Christians who were wicked and slothful in their service to God.
Every person is judged according to the good or evil works performed through the body, and “they who have done good shall come forth unto resurrection of life; but those who have done evil unto resurrection of judgment.” (John 5:29) Clearly, the restoration of all things does not imply that none will be condemned. Quite the contrary, the imposition of perfect divine justice is essential to that restoration. The world can be free from sin only when the obstinately wicked are cast into the outer darkness. Those who lament that so much evil goes unpunished in this life cannot also complain, with any logical consistency, when the wicked receive their due on the day of judgment.
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. (LG, 49)
The Church Militant, Suffering, and Triumphant are here enumerated, and the Council affirms that these are all in a single communion. “For all who are in Christ, having His Spirit, form one Church and cleave together in Him.”
Those who are in heaven are most closely united with Christ, and constantly intercede for us, “showing forth the merits which they won on earth through the one Mediator between God and man.” Intercession by the saints does not imply insufficiency in Christ’s mediation, for all their merits were won through Christ. When the Father honors the saints’ merits, He is honoring His Son. The sufferings they endured in their flesh fill up “those things which are lacking of the sufferings of Christ for His Body which is the Church.” (LG, 49; cf. Col. 1:24) This does not mean that the sufferings of Christ were insufficient for the salvation of all. Rather, what is lacking is our participation in those sufferings as His Body, the Church. It is the saints who supply that deficiency, enabling the Church as a corporate whole to share the suffering of her Head. Again, we must recall that the Church has a communitarian constitution, so that the suffering of one part of the Body is shared by the rest. “Thus by their brotherly interest our weakness is greatly strengthened.”
The “pilgrim Church” has always been aware of her communion with the departed, and thus, from the earliest ages, has prayed for the dead and offered suffrages for them, that they may be freed from the penalty due to their sins. Conversely, she has besought the intercession of the holy martyrs, the Blessed Virgin and the angels, as well as other saints. (LG, 50)
The saints are venerated not only for their good example, but because they are most closely united to Christ in friendship, so we too may draw nearer to Christ by fraternal union with them. We give thanks to God for such benefactors.
We are especially joined to the Church in heaven through the sacred Liturgy, where we glorify God with “one song of praise,” and venerate the Blessed Virgin, St. Joseph, the apostles, martyrs, and all the saints.
The Council reaffirms the decrees of the Councils of Nicaea II, Florence, and Trent regarding the veneration of saints. The Second Council of Nicaea affirmed the legitimacy of venerating saints in their icons and relics. The Council of Florence, in joint declaration with the Greeks, affirmed that the suffrages of the living faithful may avail those who died “in the love of God before they have made satisfaction for acts and omissions by worthy fruits of repentance.” (Session 6) The Council of Trent (Session 25) confirmed and elaborated traditional doctrine on purgatory and veneration of the saints. Thus the Second Vatican Council cannot be said to have abandoned or diminished belief in purgatory or the cult of the saints, and whoever claims otherwise is not preaching the message of the Council, but another gospel.
Devotion to the saints should be purged of abuses, and the faithful should be taught “that the authentic cult of the saints consists not so much in the multiplying of external acts, but rather in the greater intensity of our love.” We look to the saints for “example in their way of life, fellowship in their communion, and aid by their intercession.” This authentic devotion “in no way weakens, but conversely, more thoroughly enriches the latreutic worship we give to God the Father, through Christ, in the Spirit.” (LG, 51)
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From the Council’s discourse on the pilgrim Church’s communion with saints, there logically follows a discussion of the Queen of the saints and supreme intercessor, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Without this continuity, it might seem strange to discuss Marian doctrine in a document on the constitution of the Church. Yet the theme of the Blessed Virgin returns us to the mystical heights contemplated in the opening chapter. The Church, being the Mystical Body of Christ, is fundamentally a mystery, and the Blessed Virgin again points us to that same mystery of incarnation.
The Virgin Mary “received the Word of God in her heart and in her body and gave Life to the world,” and is “truly the Mother of God and Mother of the Redeemer,” as well as “the beloved daughter of the Father and the temple of the Holy Spirit.” Due to her office and dignity as Mother of the Son of God, “she far surpasses all creatures, both in heaven and on earth.” Yet she is also among the saved, and is “the mother of the members of Christ.” (LG, 53)
The Council intends to describe “both the role of the Blessed Virgin in the mystery of the Incarnate Word and the Mystical Body, and the duties of redeemed mankind toward the Mother of God.”
It does not, however, have it in mind to give a complete doctrine on Mary, nor does it wish to decide those questions which the work of theologians has not yet fully clarified. Those opinions therefore may be lawfully retained which are propounded in Catholic schools concerning her, who occupies a place in the Church which is the highest after Christ and yet very close to us. (LG, 54)
The Council avoided trying to define what is meant by Mary as Mediatrix, Co-redemptrix or Advocate, though many Fathers had shown interest in such dogmatic definitions. The reason for this omission was in part to avoid giving unnecessary scandal to non-Catholics by declaring a doctrine that seemed to compromise the singular mediation of Christ. The Council wanted to strengthen the Church’s bonds with other Christians, not create further obstacles to reunion. More generally, Pope Paul wanted to avoid dogmatic controversy in order to focus on pastoral concerns, and to guarantee that the Church spoke unanimously.
Nonetheless, the Council would at least incidentally touch on new dogmatic matters by validating some of Mary’s honorific titles, as we shall see later. For the most part, however, it would simply reaffirm and elaborate the Church’s established teaching.
The Council attests that the role of the Blessed Virgin is foretold in the Old Testament, citing Genesis 3:15 and Isaiah 7:14. Just as Eve contributed to our death, so does the new woman contribute to our life. The mother of Jesus “gave to the world Him who is Life itself and who renews all things,” and so “was enriched by God with the gifts which befit such a role.” Some of the Fathers accordingly “called the mother of God entirely holy and free from all stain of sin, as though fashioned by the Holy Spirit and formed as a new creature.” (LG, 56) The Council says the Virgin was “adorned from the first instant of her conception with the radiance of an entirely unique holiness,” in reference to her immaculate conception.
By consenting to the divine Word, she “became the mother of Jesus, the one and only Mediator.” The Council thus confirms that Christ alone is Mediator, yet also says something about Mary’s service in the work of redemption:
Embracing God’s salvific will with a full heart and impeded by no sin, she devoted herself totally as a handmaid of the Lord to the person and work of her Son, under Him and with Him, by the grace of almighty God, serving the mystery of redemption. Rightly therefore the holy Fathers see her as used by God not merely in a passive way, but as freely cooperating in the work of human salvation through faith and obedience. For, as St. Irenaeus says, she “being obedient, became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race.” (LG, 56)
The Council affirms that Mary co-operated in the work of redemption in a subordinate way, yet nonetheless actively.
Mary’s union with Christ in his salvific work is in evidence throughout their life together. “This union is manifest also at the birth of Our Lord, who did not diminish His mother's virginal integrity but sanctified it…” (LG, 57) Here is the first statement by an ecumenical council that Mary’s physical integrity as a virgin was preserved at the Nativity, following what had been taught at the Lateran Council of 649: “in giving birth to him, her virginity remained uncorrupted, and even after the birth her virginity remained intact.”
Mary also prayed with the apostles for the gift of the Spirit on the day before Pentecost. “Finally, the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all guilt of original sin, on the completion of her earthly sojourn, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen of the universe…” (LG, 59) Here the Council recapitulates the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, and adds, for the first time by a universal synod, the fact that she was crowned Queen of all creation in heaven. The coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary is here presented as a fitting consequence of the dignity implied by the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. The purpose of this exaltation, the Council says, is “that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son…” Thus, the exaltation of the Blessed Virgin does not distract from the Son’s dignity, but directs us toward the Lord of lords.
Although the Council does not endeavor to “give a complete doctrine” or decide questions “not yet fully clarified” by theologians, it does have much to say about Marian doctrine. For the first time, the universal magisterium offers some clarification about Mary’s role with respect to the mediation of Christ.
The maternal duty of Mary toward men in no wise obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows His power. For all the salvific influence of the Blessed Virgin on men originates, not from some inner necessity, but from the divine pleasure. It flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on His mediation, depends entirely on it and draws all its power from it. In no way does it impede, but rather does it foster the immediate union of the faithful with Christ. (LG, 60)
Mary’s salvific influence derives all its power from the mediation of Christ. She is not an intermediary between Christ and the faithful, but rather she facilitates an “immediate union” of the believer with Christ.
Mary cooperated in a singular way for the salvation of the world, by conceiving, bearing, and nourishing Christ, presenting Him to the Father, and being united with Christ in compassion as He died on the Cross. For this, she is our “mother in the order of grace.” We can see why she is considered to participate really in our salvation when the Council says that she was predestined to be the Mother of God by the same divine decree that determined the Incarnation of the Word (Beata Virgo ab aeterno cum Verbi divini incarnatione tamquam Mater Dei praedestinata). (LG, 61) The salvation of the world is in the Incarnation of the Word, and Mary is jointly predestined as Mother of God with Jesus as God Incarnate. It is understandable, then, why many pious Catholics, including saints and popes have given Mary the exalted titles of Mediatrix and Co-redemptrix.
The Council amplifies its discussion of Mary’s maternal role, and in the process touches upon her honorific titles. Her maternity in the order of grace began with the Annunciation and continues “until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect.” She constantly intercedes “to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation.” For these reasons, “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) The Council thereby proclaims the legitimacy of all these titles, but does not define their meaning except negatively, to say that they do not alter the singular mediation of Christ.
For no creature could ever be counted as equal with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer. Just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by the ministers and by the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is really communicated in different ways to His creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source. (LG, 62)
Mary’s role as “Mediatrix” is not to perform a mediation additional to that of Christ, but rather to cooperate in Christ’s singular mediation, as do priests and laity according to their station. Mary, it is true, cooperates in a singular, most exalted way, but it is nonetheless “subordinate” to the single mediation of Christ. The Council does not give a clear positive definition of the Blessed Virgin’s mode of cooperation with Christ’s mediation, so this falls short of declaring a “fifth Marian dogma” of Mary as Mediatrix. Nonetheless, the Council’s declaration imposes some constraints on what such a definition might contain, clearly eliminating any interpretation where the singular mediation of Christ is somehow compromised.
The Blessed Virgin is an exemplar of the Church, as both virgin and mother. Following St. Ambrose, the Council says she “is a type of the Church in the order of faith, charity and perfect union with Christ.” In her obedience, she showed an undefiled faith and brought forth the Son, who is the “firstborn of many brethren,” hence the faithful too are her sons and daughters.
The Church too is a virgin and mother, keeping the pure faith and bringing forth children of God. She has already achieved perfection of the faith in the Blessed Virgin, while Christians still strive to perfect their faith. The Church seeks to become “more like her exalted Type” and progress in faith, hope and charity.
Given the intimate relation between Mary and the Church, we can better appreciate why the Marian dogmas are not something incidental or superadded to essential Christianity. To have a proper understanding of Christ’s salvific mission, one must take heed of the Incarnation and of the Church, bringing the kingdom of God into the world. Yet the Mother of God is united to the Incarnation from eternity, and she is the Type of the Church in the order of faith. How, then, can the Catholic Church give a full account of her faith without reference to her Type? How can she proclaim the Word made flesh abiding in the world without reference to the Mother of God, jointly predestined with the Incarnation? Wherever there is perfection of the faith, there is increased devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is by no means an accident that devotion to the Blessed Virgin has grown over the centuries, as the Church has progressed in perfection. It is also no accident that devotion to the Virgin is more prominent among those Christians who are closest to possessing the fullness of orthodox doctrine and catholic unity.
“Placed by the grace of God, as God's Mother, next to her Son, and exalted above all angels and men, Mary intervened in the mysteries of Christ and is justly honored by a special cult in the Church.” (LG, 66) This singular cult is higher than the veneration given to the saints, yet it “differs essentially from the cult of adoration which is offered to the Incarnate Word, as well to the Father and the Holy Spirit, and it is most favorable to it.” The special cult of the Virgin Mary should not be construed as detracting from the divine worship due to the Holy Trinity, but rather her cult directs us toward such worship, since she is a model of faithful obedience to God.
The Council “admonishes all the sons of the Church that the cult, especially the liturgical cult, of the Blessed Virgin, be generously fostered, and the practices and exercises of piety, recommended by the magisterium of the Church toward her in the course of centuries be made of great moment…” (LG, 67) There is no hint of any inclination to downplay the role of Mary in the Church’s devotion, including the sacred liturgy. However, the Council also “exhorts theologians and preachers of the divine word to abstain zealously both from all gross exaggerations as well as from petty narrow-mindedness in considering the singular dignity of the Mother of God.” While no one should attribute to the Blessed Virgin what is proper to God, neither can we deny that as Mother of God, she “has a certain infinite dignity from the good of God,” as St. Thomas teaches. (AAS 46 , p. 679) She is thus a truly singular member of the body of Christ.
Catholics should look to “Sacred Scripture, the Holy Fathers, the doctors and liturgy of the Church” for proper illustration of the Christ-oriented duties and privileges of the Blessed Virgin. “Let them assiduously keep away from whatever, either by word or deed, could lead separated brethren or any other into error regarding the true doctrine of the Church.” (LG, 67) The faithful should know “that true devotion consists neither in sterile or transitory affection, nor in a certain vain credulity, but proceeds from true faith, by which we are led to know the excellence of the Mother of God, and we are moved to a filial love toward our mother and to the imitation of her virtues.”
The Blessed Virgin is honored also by the Churches of the East as Mother of God and Ever-Virgin, and the faithful pray that she intercedes “until all families of people, whether they are honored with the title of Christian or whether they still do not know the Saviour, may be happily gathered together in peace and harmony into one people of God, for the glory of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity.” (LG, 69) The universal salvific will of Christ is also attributable to Mary, who conforms herself in all things to the divine will. Thus she may intercede for all people, Christian and non-Christian, as her mission is no less universal than that of the Church.
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When examined in its entirety, the constitution Lumen Gentium presents an ecclesiology that is in striking conformity with the Church’s perennial tradition, and has nothing of the radical or anti-traditional impulses that are frequently attributed to the Council. We recapitulate this ecclesiology in a schematic discussion.
The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, with Christ Himself as her Head. The faithful, collectively known as “the people of God,” receive Christ’s life poured out for them in the sacraments, and the Holy Spirit acts as the Body’s living principle, ordering its members to a common end. This Spirit impels the members to unity, which is realized on several levels. Most fundamentally, they are united in “one Lord, one faith, one baptism,” yet this unity is to be realized in an incarnate, visible society. The Lord, who is Himself the ultimate principle of unity, ordained that his Church be governed by an apostolic college, with Peter as its head. Each bishop or successor of the apostles is the sign and basis of unity in his local church, while the Pope, successor of Peter, is the sign and basis of unity of the college of bishops, and therefore of the universal Church.
The people of God consist of the clergy and the laity. The clergy are entrusted with administering divine gifts through the sacraments, teaching and governing the rest of the faithful, and serving as a basis of unity. They do not rule the faithful as masters over slaves, but as fathers serving the good of their sons. The laity, for their part, owe respect and obedience to their pastors, yet at the same time have the right and duty to make their spiritual needs known. While only the ordained may participate in Christ’s priesthood in persona Christi, the laity also participate in this priesthood in a different way through the sacraments.
All Christians are called to become holy; to some is granted the grace to keep the evangelical counsels, and these are organized into religious houses under the guidance of the hierarchy. The religious may come from the laity or the clergy, and they serve as a witness to the more perfect realization of the kingdom of God on earth, and serve the Church through contemplation or an active apostolate.
The Church so described may be depicted schematically as follows:
The vertical axis represents the order of authority, but should not be construed as depicting the living connections among members. Christ is directly connected to all the faithful, for example, though His authority is represented through the Pope and the hierarchy. To belong to the people of God, it is necessary to be united under a bishop, and for a bishop to belong to the apostolic college, it is necessary for him to be under the Pope (as emphasized in the Appendix to Lumen Gentium). The college cannot act as a college without its head, and the faithful cannot act as a particular church unless they are united in obedience under a bishop. This hierarchical constitution is necessary to make the Church “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” Since only the Catholic Church meets these criteria, it alone is the concrete realization of the Church of Christ.
Although it may only be said of the Catholic Church that “This is the Church of Christ,” there are nonetheless real “elements of sanctification” to be found among other communities of Christians. All of these elementswhich include faith, baptism, Scripture, Eucharist, Holy Orders, and various charismsare gifts of the Holy Spirit administered through the Catholic Church. To the extent that a Christian community possesses these gifts, it is in communion with the Catholic Church, albeit imperfectly. Since the Spirit of Christ wills that all Christians should be one, all these gifts, of themselves, impel Christians toward the unity that the Catholic Church already enjoys in its fullness.
We may schematically depict the relations of the Catholic Church to other Christians as follows:
The Eastern Orthodox retain a valid episcopate and sacraments, so they lack only communion with the Pope in order to attain catholic unity. This communion with the See of Peter is essential not only to membership in the universal Church, but also to the constitution of a particular Church. Thus the Churches of the East are “wounded” or deficient in their status as particular Churches. Although their bishops do not belong to the apostolic college, they still share with the Catholic Church a valid apostolic succession and thus the fullness of priestly consecration. They are therefore able to confect a valid Eucharist and other sacraments, thus attaining an imperfect communion with the body of Christ.
The Protestant sects have varying degrees of imperfect communion with the Catholic Church. Lacking valid Holy Orders, they do not even resemble duly constituted particular Churches, so they are called “ecclesial communities.” That is, they have no true clergy, but are essentially lay organizations. Nonetheless, recalling that even the laity have some participation in Christ’s priesthood, we find that there are many graces or sanctifying elements in these communities, including the gift of preaching. Most Protestants share with the Catholic Church (to varying degrees of perfection) baptism, Holy Scripture, and the Patristic heritage. Whatever prophetic gifts or other charisms they may enjoy comes from the one Holy Spirit, the same who animates the Catholic Church. The Spirit does not act extraneously to the Catholic Church, but through the Church. The Protestants enjoy the gifts of the Spirit to the extent that they share the faith and heritage of the Catholic Church. However, lacking the sure guide of a living magisterium, they are not always able to distinguish true inspiration from error. Still, as they are baptized in Christ (either through water or the desire of faith), they have some palpable connection to the body of Christ.
Those who do not profess faith in Christ may nonetheless be related to the Church, not in an actual communion of faith, but in a potential communion or aspiration for unity. The Jews are still dear to God, in honor of their fathers the patriarchs. They are carnal descendants of the original Church of God, whose members are now in heaven with the Church Triumphant. They still retain the Old Covenant, which is the gift of the same Holy Spirit of the New Covenant. Thus the divine gifts of the Jews exist in virtue of the Church, so they are in some way connected to the Church.
The Muslims also possess some knowledge of the Abrahamic covenant, and adhere to a deep faith in the one God who is above all creation. This faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit, administered by the Church, which prays for the salvation of all men.
Those who seek an unknown God are also peripherally connected to the Church, since this seeking is itself a gift of the Holy Spirit. Such as these may even be saved if they remain in ignorance through no fault of their own, yet try to follow the divine will as best as they can. Even those who inculpably have no knowledge of a God at all may be saved if they live a good life by God’s grace. All these are saved not by their own human virtues nor by their erroneous ideas, but by the divine aid of the Holy Spirit, in honor of the Church’s prayer.
Thus the Church is at least potentially connected to all mankind, as shown in the diagram below:
Our concern for ecclesiology is motivated by a deeper concern over the extent of Christ’s salvific mission. We know that Christ desires for all men to be saved, but also that men can resist this desire by a voluntary refusal to receive divine grace. The gifts of the Spirit are not evenly distributed, and they are all administered through the Church, with the faithful acting as real co-operators in the work of salvation. The Church strives for the day when all will be united in Christ’s Kingdom, when the heavens and earth are renewed. Until then, she labors while besieged by temptations and scourges, acting as a witness to the Kingdom before the world and guiding the faithful to serve God vigilantly, lest they should be counted among the wicked servants.
At the last judgment, the wicked will be cast into the outer darkness, while the restored heaven and earth will be filled with the elect. The Church does not predict who will be saved and who will be condemned, as this is determined by the mysterious judgment of God. Not all Christians will be counted among the good servants, and those who are nominally ignorant of Christ may nonetheless receive His grace unto eternal life. Without pretending to depict the relative proportion of the saved, we show the relation of the Church on earth to that in heaven, as well as its eschatological tendency:
Christ the sole Mediator has redeemed the whole world in His sacrifice at Calvary. The entire Church participates in this sacrifice, uniting with Christ unto life everlasting. The Blessed Virgin Mary, in a singular way, co-operated with Christ’s salvific work, and so she is said to be the source of our salvation. The Council did not specify the nature of this co-operation in a formal definition. The Blessed Virgin is herself the most perfectly redeemed creature, and intercedes continually for the rest of the Church.
Although Christ’s suffering sufficed for the redemption of the world, it remained for the members of his Body to participate in that suffering. This has been achieved by the martyrs and saints, whose merits, won by the blood of the Cross, are offered to the Father to petition graces on our behalf. The pilgrim Church on earth may pray to the Virgin Mary and the saints for such intercession. Veneration of the saints can encourage emulation of their obedience to the divine will, and so it is oriented toward divine worship.
The faithful on earth may also pray for the souls in Purgatory who, having completed the time of labor, can no longer help themselves. They are fully redeemed, but must make just reparation for their offenses before receiving their reward and full freedom as sons of God. In honor of the petitions of the faithful, God may freely choose to deliver the souls from their punishment, though He is not bound to do so.
As the Church and the world approach the day of reckoning, eventually all the faithful who have lived (save those wicked servants reserved for the eternal fire) will be in the Church in heaven. The sufferings of purgatory are only finite in duration, as is the present order of things on earth. When Christ returns, heaven and earth will be renewed, as the prayer “thy Kingdom come” will be fully realized. The heavenly and earthly Church will no longer be visibly separated, and they will obtain in the flesh that communal unity they already enjoy in spirit.
© 2012 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org