The Ecclesiology of the Constitution on the Church, Vatican II, 'Lumen Gentium'

Author: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger


Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger,Prefect of the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

This article appears in English translation for the first time. Cardinal Ratzinger made the presentation at a symposium on the reception of the Council held in Rome in November 2000. In the article the Cardinal alerts us to the need to keep before us in a global way the Council’s teaching on the Church, in order to appreciate its richness. Grasping the richness of the mystery of the Church keeps us from forgetting that the Church is a mystery of faith that no one theology or pastoral plan can ever encompass.

At the time of the preparation for the Second Vatican Council and during the Council itself, Cardinal Frings often told me of a small episode which moved him deeply. Pope John XXIII had not personally decided on themes for the Council, but invited the world's bishops to make their suggestions, so that the subjects to be treated by the Council might emerge from the lived experience of the universal Church. In the German Bishops' Conference, topics were presented for the Council but, not only in Germany but throughout the Catholic Church, it was felt that the theme of the Council should be the Church. The First Vatican Council was unable to complete its ecclesiological synthesis because it had been cut short by the Franco-Prussian War, and had to leave the chapter on the primacy and infallibility of the Roman Pontiff to stand by itself. To offer a comprehensive vision of the Church seemed to be the urgent task of the coming Second Vatican Council. The focus on the Church flowed from the cultural atmosphere of the time. The end of the First World War had brought a profound theological upheaval. Liberal theology with its individualistic orientation was completely eclipsed, and a new sensitivity to the Church had been arising. Not only did Romano Guardini speak of a reawakening of the Church in souls. The Evangelical Bishop Otto Dibelius coined the formula "the century of the Church", and Karl Barth gave to his dogmatic synthesis of the reformed (Calvinist) tradition the programmatic title Kirchliche Dogmatik (Church Dogmatics). He explained that a dogmatic theology presupposes the Church; without the Church it does not exist. Among the members of the German Episcopal Conference there was consequently a broad consensus that the theme of the Council should be the Church.

Speak of Church within discourse on God

But the senior Bishop of Regensburg, Bishop Buchberger, who came to be esteemed and respected far beyond his diocese for having conceived of the 10-volume Lexikon für Teologie und Kirche, now in its third edition. He asked to speak—as the Archbishop of Cologne told me—and said: "Dear brothers, at the Council you should first of all speak about God. This is the most important theme". The bishops were deeply impressed; they could not ignore the seriousness of his suggestion. Of course, they could not make up their minds simply to propose the theme of God. But an unspoken concern lingered, at least in Cardinal Frings, who continued to ponder how the bishops might satisfy this imperative.

The episode came to mind when I read the text of the conference given by Johann Baptist Metz in 1993 at the time he retired from his chair in Münster. I would like to quote at least a few significant phrases of his important address. Metz says: "The crisis reached by European Christianity is no longer primarily or at least exclusively an ecclesial crisis.... The crisis is more profound: it is not only rooted in the situation of the Church: the crisis has become a crisis of God. To sum up, one could say 'religion yes', 'God no', where this 'no', in turn, is not meant in the categorical sense of the great forms of atheism. There are no longer any great forms of atheism. Today's atheism can effectively return to speaking of God—distractedly or calmly—without really intending him [his person].... Furthermore, the Church has her own concept of immunization against the crisis of God. She no longer speaks today of God—as, for example, she still did at the Second Vatican Council—but only—as she did at the Council—of God proclaimed through the Church. The crisis of God is codified ecclesiologically". Words like this from the mouth of the creator of political theology cannot fail to capture our attention. They rightly remind us that the Second Vatican Council was not only an ecclesioiogical Council, but that first and foremost, spoke of God, and this not only within Christianity, but to the world, of the God who is the God of all, who saves all and is accessible to all. Perhaps the Second Vatican Council, as Metz seems to say, only accepted half the legacy of the First Vatican Council? Obviously a treatment of the ecclesiology of the Council has to deal with this question.

Basic Thesis

Right now I want to state my basic thesis: the Second Vatican Council clearly wanted to speak of the Church within the discourse on God, to subordinate the discourse on the Church to the discourse on God and to offer an ecclesiology that would be theo-logical in a true sense. Until now, however, the way the Council was received has ignored this qualifying characteristic in favour of individual ecclesiological affirmations; it has highlighted single phrases that are easy to repeat, and has thus fallen away from the broad horizons of the Council Fathers. Something similar can be said about the first text on which the Second Vatican Council focused—the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. The fact that it was placed at the beginning was basically due to pragmatic motives. But retrospectively, it must be said that it has a deeper meaning within the structure of the Council: adoration comes first. Therefore God comes first.

This introduction corresponds to the norm of the Benedictine Rule: Operi Deinihil praeponatur [Let nothing be placed before the work of God, the divine office]. As the second text of the Council, the Constitution on the Church should be consideredas inwardly connected with the text on the liturgy. The Church is guided by prayer, by the mission of glorifying God. By its nature, ecclesiology is connected with the liturgy. It is, therefore, logical that the third Constitution should speak of the Word of God that convokes the Church and renews her in every age. The fourth Constitution shows how the glorification of God is realized in the active life, since the light received from God is carried into the world and only in this way becomes fully the glorification of God. In the history of the post-Conciliar period, the Constitution on the Liturgy was certainly no longer understood from the viewpoint of the basic primacy of adoration, but rather as a recipe book of what we can do with the Liturgy. In the meantime, the fact that the Liturgy is actually "made" for God and not for ourselves, seems to have escaped the minds of those who are busy pondering how to give the Liturgy an ever more attractive and communicable shape, actively involving an ever greater number of people. However the more we make it for ourselves, the less attractive it is, because everyone perceives clearly that the essential focus on God has increasingly been lost.

Partial Interpretations

As regards the ecclesioiogy of Lumen gentium, certain key words continue to be kept in mind: the idea of the People of God, the collegiality of the bishops as a reappraisal of the bishops' ministry in relation to the primacy of the Pope, the reappraisal of the local Churches in relation to the universal Church, the ecumenical openness of the concept of Church and openness to other religions, lastly, the question of the specific position of the Catholic Church, expressed in the formula which holds that the Church, defined in the Creed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, subsistit in Ecclesia catholica. For now I will leave the famous formula untranslated, because—as was foreseen—it has received the most contradictory explanations—which range from the idea that it expresses the uniqueness of the Catholic Church united to the Pope to the idea that it expresses the equivalency of the other Christian Churches with the Catholic Church and that the Catholic Church has given up her claim of being distinctive. In the early stages of the reception of the Council, the concept of "People of God" predominated together with the theme of collegiality; the term "people" was understood in terms of ordinary political usage; later in the context of liberation theology it was understood in terms of the Marxist use of the term people as opposed to the dominating classes, and even more widely, in the sense of the sovereignty of the people, which would now finally be applied to the Church. This in turn gave rise to broad discussions about her structures, in which People of God was interpreted, according to the situation, either in a more Western way as "democratization", or in the Eastern European way as "popular democracy". Gradually these "verbal fireworks" (N. Lohfink) around the concept of People of God burned out, on the one hand, and above all because the power games became empty and had to make room for ordinary work in parish councils, and, on the other, because sound theological work has incontrovertibly shown that the politicization of a concept that comes from a totally different context cannot be supported. As a result of his careful exegetic analyses, the exegete of Bocum, Werner Berg, to take one example, states: "Despite the small number of passages that contain the expression 'People of God', from this point of view 'People of God' is a rare biblical expression, but nevertheless a common idea emerges: the phrase 'People of God' expresses 'kinship' with God, a relationship with God, the link between God and what is designated as 'People of God', hence a 'vertical orientation'. The expression lends itself less to describe the hierarchical structure of this community, especially if the 'People of God' is described as a 'counterpart' to the ministers.... Nor, starting with its biblical significance, does the expression lend itself to a cry of protest against the ministers: 'We are the People of God'". Josef Meyer zu Schlotern, the professor of fundamental theology of Paderborn, concludes the examination of the discussion about the concept of "People of God" by observing that the Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council ends the pertinent chapter in such a way as "to outline the Trinitarian structure as the foundation of the ultimate definition of the Church ...". Thus the discussion is led back to the essential point: the Church does not exist for herself, but must be God's instrument, in order to gather man to Himself to prepare for the moment when "God will be all in all" (I Cor 15,28). It was the concept of God that lost out in the "fireworks" sparked by the expression, and in this way the expression, People of God, lost its meaning. In fact, a Church that exists for herself alone is superfluous.And people notice it immediately. The crisis of the Church as it is reflected in the concept of People of God, is a "crisis of God"; it is the consequence of abandoning the essential. What remains is merely a struggle for power, There is enough of this elsewhere in the world, there is no need of the Church for this.

Ecclesiology of Communion

It can certainly besaid that, at the time of the extraordinary Synod of 1985, which was to attempt an evaluation of the 20 yearsfollowing the Council, there appeared a new effort to sum up conciliar ecclesiology in a basic concept: the ecclesiologyof communio. I received this new focus of ecclesiology with joy and did my best to prepare it. Even so, it should be recognized first of all that the word communio does not have a central position in the Council. But if it is properly understood it can serve as a synthesis for the essential elements of conciliar ecclesiology. All of the essential elements of the Christian concept of communio are combined in the famous text of I Jn 1,3, which can be taken as the criterion for the correct Christian understanding of communion: "That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you also may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing this that our joy may be complete". Here the starting point of communio isbrought to the fore: the encounter with the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who comes to men and women through the Church's proclamation. So there arises communion among human beings, which in turn is based on communio with the Triune God. We have access to communion with God through the realization of the communion of God with man which is Christ in person; the encounter with Christ creates communion with him and thus with the Father in the Holy Spirit; and from this point unites human beings with one another. The purpose of all this is full joy: the Church carries an eschatological dynamic within her. In the words "full joy", we can glimpse a reference to the farewell discourse of Jesus, to the Easter mystery and to the return of the Lord in his Easter appearances, which prepare for his full return in the new world: "You will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy ... I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice .... ask,and you will receive, that your joy may be full" (Jn 16; 20; 22; 24). If the last sentence is compared with Lk 11,13—the invitation to prayer in Luke—it clearly appears that "joy" and "Holy Spirit" are one and the same, and that the word "joy" in I Jn 1, 3, conceals the Holy Spirit who is not expressly mentioned here. The word communio therefore, based on the biblical context has a theological, Christological, salvation historical and ecclesiological character. It therefore has within it the sacramental dimension which in Paul appears explicitly: "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one Bread, we who are many are one body..." (I Cor 10,16 f.). The ecclesiology of communion is a profoundly Eucharistic ecclesiology. It is thus very close to the Eucharistic ecclesiology which Orthodox theologians have developed convincingly in our century. Ecclesiology becomes more concrete and at the same time remains totally spiritual, transcendent and eschatological. In the Eucharist Christ, present in the bread and wine and giving himself ever anew, builds the Church as his body and through his risen body unites us to the Triune God and to one another. The Eucharist is celebrated in different places, and yet at the same time it is universal, because there is only one Christ and only one body of Christ. The Eucharist includes the priestly service of the repraesentatio Christi and thus the network of service, the synthesis of unity and multiplicity, which is already expressed in the word communio. Thus it can be said without a doubt that the concept incorporates an ecclesiological synthesis, which unites the discourse on the Church with the discourse on God and with life from God and with God, a synthesis that takes up all the essential intentions of the Second Vatican Council's ecclesiology and connects them in the right way.

For these reasons I was grateful and pleased when the Synod of 1985 made the concept of communion once again the focus of reflection. However, the years that followed show that no word is safe from misunderstandings, not even the best and most profound.

Partial Interpretations

To the extentthat communio became an easy slogan, it was devalued and distorted. As with the concept of "People of God", here too a gradual "horizontalism" should be pointed out, with the giving up of the idea of God. The ecclesiology of communion began to be reduced to the theme of the relationship between the local Church and the universal Church, which in turn degenerated gradually into the problem of the division of the areasof competence between them. Of course, the egalitarian cause, which claimed that there could only be complete equality in communio, was again disseminated. Thus once again the disciples' discussion on who was the greatest became operative, which, of course, will not be settled in any generation. Mark mentions it with the greatest insistence. On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus had spoken for the third time to the disciples about his forthcoming Passion. On arriving in Capernaum he asked them what they had been discussing on the way. "But they were silent", for they had been discussing which of them was the greatest—a sort of discussion of primacy (Mk 9,33-37). Isn't it still the same today? As the Lord walks towards his Passion, while the Church, he himself within her, is suffering, we reflect on our favourite theme, the discussion of our rights of precedence. And if he were to come among us and ask us what we were discussing along the way, how embarrassed and silent we would have to be!

This does not mean that the Church should not also discuss the proper order and designation of responsibilities; and naturally, imbalances will always be found in her that will require correction. Of course, there can be an excessive Roman centralism, which must be identified and purified. But such matters cannot detract from the Church's true task: the Church must not speak primarily of herself but of God; and only in order that this may happen with integrity, there are also certain intra-ecclesial criticisms for which the connecting of her discourse on God and on common service must provide the proper direction. Finally, it is not by accident that what Jesus said about the last becoming first and the first becoming last returns in various contexts of the evangelical tradition—as a mirror, that always reflects everyone.

CDF Letter on Communion

To confront the reduction of the concept of communio which has taken place since 1985, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith saw fit to prepare a Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on "Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion", which was published on 28 June 1992.

Since it now seems to have become obligatory for theologians who want to make a big name for themselves to offer a negative appraisal of the documents of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, theologians created a storm of criticism over it from which it could hardly recover. It was the sentence that said that the universal Church is a reality that in its essential mystery is logically and ontologically prior to the particular Churches that was singled out for criticism. In the text, this was supported concisely by recalling that, according to the Fathers, the Church which is one and unique precedes creation and gives birth to the particular Churches (n. 9). Thus the Fathers take up a rabbinical theology which had conceived of the Torah and Israel as pre-existent: creation was considered to be so conceived that there would be room in it for God's will; but this would require a people who would live in accord with God's will and make it the light of the world. Since the Fathers were convinced of the ultimate identity between the Church and Israel, they could not see in the Church something that took place by chance at the last hour, but recognized in the gathering of the peoples in accord with God's will, the internal purpose of creation. The image is broadened and deepened on the basis of Christology: history—again in relation to the Old Testament—is explained as a love story between God and man. God finds and prepares a bride for his Son, the single bride who is the unique Church. Starting from the word of Genesis, that the man and his wife will become "one flesh" (Gn 2,24), the image of the bride is united with the idea of the Church as the body of Christ, a metaphor which in turn comes from the Eucharistic liturgy. The one body of Christ is prepared; Christ and the Church will be two "in one flesh", one body and thus "God will be all in all". This ontological precedence of the universal Church, the one Church, the one body, the one bride, over the concrete empirical realizations in the particular Churches seems to me so obvious that I find it hard to understand the objections to it. Indeed it seems to me that they are only possible if one does not want to see, or no longer succeeds in seeing, the great Church conceived by God—perhaps out of desperation at her earthly inadequacy—; she now appears as a theological fancy, so all that remains is the empirical image of the Church in the mutual relations and conflicts of the particular Churches. But this means that the Church as a theological subject has been obliterated. If from now on the Church can only be recognized in her human organization, then, in fact, all that is left is desolation. But then one has not only abandoned the ecclesiology of the Fathers, but also that of the New Testament and the conception of Israel in the Old Testament.

In the New Testament, however, it is not necessary to wait for the Deutero-Pauline Epistles and the Apocalypse to find the ontological priority—reaffirmed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—of the universal Church in relation to the particular Churches. In the heart of the great Pauline letters, in the Letter to the Galatians, the Apostle does not speaks to us of the heavenly Jerusalem as of a great eschatological reality, but as of one that precedes us: "But the Jerusalem above is our mother" (Gal 4,26). In this regard, H. Schlier points out that for Paul, as for the Jewish tradition from which he draws inspiration, the heavenly Jerusalem is the new aeon. However, for the Apostle, this new aeon is already present "in the Christian Church. This is for him the heavenly Jerusalem in her children".

Lucan Vision of the Church

Even though the ontological priority of the one Church cannot seriously be denied, the question concerning her temporal priority is certainly more difficult. The Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is referring here to the Lucan image of the birth of the Church at Pentecost through the work of the Holy Spirit. There is no intention to discuss the question of the historical aspect of this account. What matters is the theological affirmation which Luke has at heart. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith called attention to the fact that the Church began in the community of the 120 gathered around Mary, especially in the renewed community of the Twelve, who are not members of a local Church, but the Apostles who will take the Gospel to the ends of the earth. As a further clarification, one can add that in their number, 12, they are both the old and the new Israel, the one Israel of God, which now—as atthe outset was fundamentally contained in the concept of the People of God, is extended to all the nations and founds the unique People of God among all peoples. This reference is reinforced by two other elements: the Church at the time of her birth already speaks all languages. The Fathers of the Church have rightly interpreted this account of the miracle of tongues as an anticipation of the Catholica—the Church from the very first moment is oriented kat'holon—she embraces the whole universe. The counterpart to this is Luke's description of the multitude of those who listened as pilgrims coming from all over the earth on the basis of the table of 12 peoples, by which he intends to allude to the all-inclusiveness of the hearers. Luke has enriched this Hellenistic table of peoples with a 13th name: the Romans, with which he doubtless wanted to stress once more the idea of the Orbis. The precise meaning of the text of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is not fully conveyed when a German theologian says of it that the original community of Jerusalem was in fact the universal Church and the local Church at the same time, and then continues: "This certainly represents a Lucan elaboration, in fact, in the historical perspective presumably several communities existed from the very start, with communities in Galilee alongside the community of Jerusalem". Here it is not a matter of the question, ultimately insoluble for us, of when and exactly where Christian communities came into being for the first time, but of the interior beginning of the Church, which Luke wants to describe and which he attributes, over and apart from any empirically verifiable fact, to the power of the Holy Spirit. However it does not do justice to the Lucan account to say that the original community of Jerusalem was simultaneously the universal Church and the local Church. The first reality in St Luke's account is not an indigenous community of Jerusalem; rather, the first reality is that in the Twelve, the old Israel which is unique becomes the new one, and this one Israel of God, through the miracle of tongues, even before it becomes the representation of the local Church of Jerusalem, is now revealed as a unity that embraces all time and places. In the pilgrims present who came from all countries, it immediately encompasses all the peoples of the world. Perhaps it is not necessary to overemphasize the question of the temporal priority of the universal Church which Luke clearly presents in his account. What is important is that at the beginning the Church is generated in the Twelve by the one Spirit for all peoples, hence even from the first moment she is directed to being in all cultures, and thus to being the one People of God: she is not a local community that grows gradually, but the leaven that is always destined to permeate the whole, and consequently, embodies universality from the first instant.

Resistance to the affirmations of the pre-eminence of the universal Church in relation to the particular Churches is difficult to understand and even impossible to understand theologically. It only becomes understandable on the basis of a suspicion: "The formula becomes totally problematic if the one universal Church is tacitly identified with the Roman Church, de facto with the Pope and the Curia. If this occurs, then the Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith cannot be understood as an aid to the clarification of the ecclesiology of communion, but must be understood as its abandonment and an endeavour to restore the centralism of Rome". In this text the identification of the universal Church with the Pope and the Curia is first introduced as a hypothesis, as a risk, but then seems de facto to have been attributed to the Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which thus appears as a kind of theological restoration, thereby diverging from the Second Vatican Council. This interpretative leap is surprising, but obviously represents a widespread suspicion; it gives voice to an accusation heard everywhere, and expresses succinctly a growing inability to portray anything concrete under the name of universal Church, under the elements of the one, holy, catholic of the Church. The Pope and the Curia are the only elements that can be identified, and if one exalts them inordinately from the theological point of view, it is understandable that some may feel threatened.

Council on the universal Church

Thus we find ourselves concretely, after what is only apparently anexcursus, facing the question of the interpretation of the Council. We now ask the following question: what really was the idea of the Council on the universal Church? It cannot be rightly said that the Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith tacitly identifies the universal Church with the Roman Church, or de facto with the Pope and the Curia. The temptation to do so arises if at the start the local Church of Jerusalem and the universal Church had already been identified, that is, if the concept of Church has been reduced to that of the communities that are empirically discernible, and if one has lost sight of its theological depth. It is helpful to return with these questions to the text of the Council itself. The first sentence of the Constitution on the Church immediately explains that the Council does not consider the Church as a reality closed in on herself, but sees her in a Christological perspective: "Christ is the light of the nations; and it is, accordingly, the heartfelt desire of this sacred Council, being gathered together in the Holy Spirit, that ... the light of Christ, reflected on the face of the Church, may enlighten all men". With this background we can understand the image used in the theology of the Fathers, who see the Church as the moon that does not shine with its own light, but reflects the light of Christ the sun. Ecclesiology is shown to be dependent upon Christology and connected with it. But since no one can speak correctly of Christ, of the Son, without at the same time speaking of the Father, and, since it is impossible to speak correctly ofthe Father and the Son without listening to the Holy Spirit, the Christological vision of the Church necessarily expands to become a Trinitarian ecclesiology (Lumen gentium, nn. 2-4). The discourse on the Church is a discourse on God, and only in this way is it correct. In this Trinitarian ouverture, which offers the key to a correct interpretation of the whole text, we learn what the one, holy Church is, starting with and in all her concrete historical phenomena, and what "universal Church" should mean. This is further explained when we are subsequently shown the Church's inner dynamism towards the kingdom of God. Precisely because the Church is to be theo-logically understood, she is always transcending herself; she is the gathering for the kingdom of God, the breaking-in of the kingdom. Then the different images of the Church are briefly presented, which all describe the unique Church, whether she is described as the bride, the house of God, his family, the temple, the holy city, our mother, the Jerusalem which is above or God's flock, etc. This, ultimately, becomes even more concrete. We are given a very practical answer to the question: what is this, this one universal Church which ontologically and temporally precedes the local Churches? Where is she? Where can we see her act?

Baptism and Eucharist

The Constitution answers, speaking to us of the sacraments. First comes Baptism: it is a Trinitarian event, in other words , totally theological, far more than a socialization bound up with the local Church; this, unfortunately, is a common distortion. Baptism does not derive from the local community; rather through Baptism the door of the one Church is opened to us, it is the presence of the one Church and can only flow from her, from the heavenly Jerusalem, from the new mother. In this regard, the well known ecumenist, Vinzenz Pfnür, recently said: "Baptism is being incorporated into the 'one' body of Christ, opened up for us through the Cross (Eph 2,16), in which we ... are all baptized by means of the one Spirit (I Cor 12,13), that is, it is essentially more than the baptismal announcement in use in many places: "we have received into our community…" We come to belong to this one body through Baptism, "which should not be replaced by membership in a local Church, The 'one' bride and the 'one' episcopate also belong to it ... in which one participates, according to Cyprian, only within the communion of bishops". In Baptism the universal Church continuously precedes the local Church and builds her. Because of this, the Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on communio can say that there are no strangers in the Church: everyone is at home everywhere, and is not just a guest. The Church is always the one Church, one and the same. Whoever is baptized in Berlin, is as much at home in the Church in Rome or New York or Kinshasa or Bangalore or in any other place, as he is in the Church where he was baptized. He does not have to register for Baptism again, the Church is one. Baptism comes from her and gives birth within her. Whoever speaks of Baptism, speaks of, and, by that very fact, treats of the Word of God, which for the whole Church is only one and continuously precedes her in all places, summons her and builds her up. This Word is above the Church, yet it is in her, entrusted to her as a living subject. To be effectively present in history, the Word needs this subject, but this subject on her part does not subsist without the vital life-giving force of the Word, which first makes her a subject. When we speak of the Word of God, we also mean the Creed, which is at the heart of the baptismal event; it is also the way in which the Church receives the Word and makes it her own, in a certain way it is a word and also a response. Here too, the universal Church, the one Church, is present in a concrete way, and can be perceived as such.

The conciliar text passes from Baptism to the Eucharist, in which Christ gives his body and thus makes us his body. This body is one, and so again for every local Church the Eucharist is the place of incorporation into the one Christ, the becoming-one of all communicants in the universal communio, which unites heaven and earth, the living and the dead, past, present and future, and opens up into eternity. The Eucharist is not born from the local Church and does not end in her. It continuously shows that Christ comes to us from outside, through our closed doors; the Church comes to us continuously from outside, from the total, unique body of Christ and leads us into it. This extranos of the sacrament is also revealed in the ministry of the Bishop and of the priest: the truth that the Eucharist needs the sacrament of priestly service is founded precisely in the fact that the community cannot give itself the Eucharist; it must receive it from the Lord through the mediation of the one Church. Apostolic succession, which constitutes the priestly ministry, implies at the same time the synchronic aspect and diachronic aspects of the concept of Church: belonging to the whole history of the faith from the Apostles and being in communion with all who let themselves be gathered by the Lord in his body. The Constitution on the Church has notably treated the episcopal ministry in chapter three, and explained its meaning starting with the fundamental concept of the collegium. This concept, which only marginally appears in tradition, serves to illustrate the interior unity of the episcopal ministry. The bishop is not a bishop as an individual, but by belonging to a body, a college, which in turn represents the historical continuity of the collegiumApostolorum. In this sense, the episcopal ministry derives from the one Church and leads into it. Precisely here it becomes evident that there is no opposition between the local Church and the universal Church. The Bishop represents the one Church in the local Church, and builds up the one Church while he builds up the local Church and awakens her particular gifts for the benefit of the whole body. The ministry of the Successor of Peter is a particular form of episcopal ministry connected in a special way with responsibility for the unity of the whole Church. But Peter's ministry and responsibility would not even be able to exist hadthe universal Church not existed first. In fact he would have been moving in a void and representing an absurd claim. Without a doubt the right relationship between episcopate and primacy must be continuously rediscovered, even through hard work and suffering. However, this quest is only correctly formulated when it is seen in relation to the primacy of the Church's specific mission and, in every age, when it is oriented to and subordinated to it: that is, to the duty to bring God to men and men to God. The Church's goal is the Gospel, around which everything else must revolve,

'Subsistit in': Church of Christ 'subsists in' Catholic Church

At this point I would like to interrupt my analysis of the concept of communio and at least briefly take a stance regarding the most disputed point of Lumen gentium: the meaning of the disputed sentence ofLumen gentium, n. 8, which teaches that the uniqueChurch of Christ, which we confess in the Creed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, "subsists" in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the Successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him. In 1985 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was forced to adopt a position with regard to this text, because of a book by Leonardo Boff in which he supported the idea that the one Church of Christ as she subsists in the Roman Catholic Church could also subsist in other Christian Churches. It is superfluous to say that the statement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was met with stinging criticism and then later put aside.

In the attempt to reflect on where we stand today in the reception of the Council's ecclesiology, the question of the interpretation of the subsistit is inevitable, and on this subject the postconciliar Magisterium's single official pronouncement, that is, the Notification I just mentioned, cannot be ignored. Looking back from the perspective of 15 years, it emerges more clearly that it was not so much the question of a single theological author, but of a vision of the Church that was put forward in a variety of ways and which is still current today. The clarification of 1985 presented the context of Boff's thesis at great length. We do not need to examine these details further, because we have something more fundamental at heart. The thesis, which at the time had Boff as its proponent, could be described as ecclesiological relativism. It finds its justification in the theory that the "historical Jesus" would not as such have conceived the idea of a Church, nor much less have founded one. The Church, as a historical reality, would have only come into existence after the resurrection, on account of the loss of the eschatological tension towards the immediate coming of the kingdom, caused in its turn by the inevitable sociological needs of institutionalization. In the beginning, a universal Catholic Church would certainly not have existed, but only different local Churches with different theologies, different ministers, etc. No institutional Church could, therefore, say that she was that one Church of Jesus Christ desired by God himself; all institutional forms thus stem from sociological needs and as such are human constructions which can and even must be radically changed again in new situations. In their theological quality they are only different in a very secondary way, so one might say that in all of them or at least in many, the "one Church of Christ" subsists; with regard to this hypothesis the question naturally arises: in this vision, what right does one have to speak at all of the one Church of Christ?

Instead, Catholic tradition has chosen another starting point: it puts its confidence in the Evangelists and believes in them. It is obvious then that Jesus who proclaimed the kingdom of God would gather disciples around him for its realization; he not only gave them his Word as a new interpretation of the Old Testament, but in the sacrament of the Last Supper he gave them the gift of a new unifying centre, through which all who profess to be Christians can become one with him in a totally new way, so that Paul could designate this communion as being one body with Christ, as the unity of one body in the Spirit. It then becomes obvious that the promise of the Holy Spirit was not a vague announcement but brought about the reality of Pentecost, hence the fact that the Church was not conceived of and established by men, but created by means of the Holy Spirit, whose creation she is and continues to be.

As a result, however, the institution and the Spirit have a very different relationship in the Church than that which the trends of thought I just mentioned would like to suggest to us. The institution is not merely a structure that can be changed or demolished at will, which would have nothing to do with the reality of faith as such. This form of bodiliness [body of Christ] belongs to the Church herself. Christ's Church is not hidden invisibly behind the manifold human configurations, but really exists, as a true and proper Church which is manifest in the profession of faith, in the sacraments and in apostolic succession.

The Second Vatican Council, with the formula of the subsistit in accord with Catholic tradition wanted to teach the exact opposite of "ecclesiological relativism": the Church of Jesus Christ truly exists. He himself willed her, and the Holy Spirit has continuously created her since Pentecost, in spite of being faced with every human failing, and sustains her in her essential identity. The institution is not an inevitable but theologically unimportant or even harmful externalization, but belongs in its essential core to the concrete character of the Incarnation. The Lord keeps his word: "The gates of hell shall not prevail against her".

Council: 'subsistit in' explains Church as concrete subject

At this point it becomes necessary to investigate theword subsistit somewhat more carefully. With this expression, the Council differs from the formula of Pius XII, who said in his Encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi: "The Catholic Church "is" (est) the one mystical body of Christ". The difference between subsistit and est concelas within itself the whole ecumenical problem. The word subsistit derives from the ancient philosophy as later developed in Scholastic philosophy. The Greek word hypostasis that has a central role in Christology to describe the union of the divine and the human nature in the Person of Christ comes from that vision. Subsistere is a special case of esse. It is being in the form of a subject who has an autonomous existence. Here it is a question precisely of this. The Council wants to tell us that the Church of Jesus Christ as a concrete subject in this world can be found in the Catholic Church. This can take place only once, and the idea that the subsistit could be multiplied fails to grasp precisely the notion that is being intended. With the word subsistit, the Council wished to explain the unicity of the Catholic Church and the fact of her inability to be multiplied: the Church exists as a subject in historical reality.

The difference between subsistit and est however contains the tragedy of ecclesial division. Although the Church is only one and "subsists" in a unique subject, there are also ecclesial realities beyond this subject—true local Churches and different ecclesial communities. Because sin is a contradiction, this difference between subsistit and est cannot be fully resolved from the logical viewpoint. The paradox of the difference between the unique and concrete character of the Church, on the one hand, and, on the other, the existence of an ecclesial reality beyond the one subject, reflects the contradictory nature of human sin and division. This division is something totally different from the relativistic dialectic described above in which the division of Christians loses its painful aspect and in fact is not a rupture, but only the manifestation of multiple variations on a single theme, in which all the variations are in a certain way right and wrong. An intrinsic need to seek unity does not then exist, because in any event the one Church really is everywhere and nowhere. Thus Christianity would actually exist only in the dialectic correlation of various antitheses. Ecumenism consists in the fact that in some way all recognize one another, because all are supposed to be only fragmentsof Christian reality. Ecumenism would therefore be the resignation to a relativistic dialectic, because the Jesus of history belongs to the past and the truth in any case remains hidden.

The vision of the Council is quite different: the fact that in the Catholic Church is present the subsistit of the one subject the Church, is not at all the merit of Catholics, but is solely God's work, which he makes endure despite the continuous unworthiness of the human subjects. They cannot boast of anything, but can only admire the fidelity of God, with shame for their sins and at the same time great thanks. But the effect of their own sins can be seen: the whole world sees the spectacle of the divided and opposing Christian communities, reciprocally making their own claims to truth and thus clearly frustrating the prayer of Christ on the eve of his Passion. Whereas division as a historical reality can be perceived by each person, the subsistence of the one Church in the concrete form of the Catholic Church can be seen as such only through faith.

Since the Second Vatican Council was conscious of this paradox, it proclaimed the duty of ecumenism as a search for true unity, and entrusted it to the Church of the future.

Conclusion: call to holiness

I come to my conclusion. Anyone who desires to understand the approach of the Council's ecclesiology cannot ignore chapters 4-7 of the Constitution, which speak of the laity, the universal call to holiness, religious, and the eschatological orientation of the Church. In these chapters the intrinsic purpose once again comes to the fore: that is, all that is most essential to her existence: it is a question of holiness, of conformity to God, that there be room in the world for God, that he dwell in it and thus that the world become his "kingdom". Holiness is something more than a moral quality. It is the dwelling of God with men, and of men with God, God's "tent" among us and in our midst (Jn 1,14). It is the new birth—not of flesh and blood, but of God (Jn 1,13). The movement toward holiness is identical with the eschatological movement and indeed, from the standpoint of Jesus' message, is now fundamental to the Church. The Church exists so that she may become God's dwelling place in the world and thus be "holiness": it is this for which one should compete in the Church—not for a given rank in rights of precedence, or for occupying the first places. All this is taken up and formed into a synthesis in the last chapter of the Constitution, that presents Mary, the Mother of the Lord.

Marian Vision

At first sight the insertion of Mariology in ecclesiology, which the Council decided upon, could seem somewhat accidental. In fact it is true, from the historical viewpoint, that a rather small majority of the Fathers voted for the inclusion of Mariology. But from the inner logic of their vote, their decision corresponds perfectly to the movement of the whole Constitution: only if this correlation is grasped, can one correctly grasp the image of the Church which the Council wished to portray. In this decision the research of Hugo Rahner, A Muller, R Laurentin and Karl Delahaye played a great part, and thanks to them Mariology and ecclesiology were both renewed and more deeply expounded. Hugo Rahner, in particular, showed in a magnificent way from the sources that Mariology in its entirety was first thought of and established by the Fathers as ecclesiology: the Church is virgin and mother, she was conceived without sin and bears the burden of history, she suffers and yet is taken up into heaven. Very slowly there develops later the notion that the Church is anticipated in Mary, she is personified in Mary and that vice versa Mary is not an isolated individual closed in on herself, but carries within her the whole mystery of the Church. The person is not closed individualistically nor is the community understood as a collectivity in an impersonal way: both inseparably overlap. This already applies to the woman in the Apocalypse, as she appears in chapter 12: it is not right to limit this figure exclusively and individualistically to Mary, because in her we contemplate together the whole People of God, the old and new Israel, which suffers and is fruitful in suffering; nor is it right to exclude from this image Mary, the Mother of the Redeemer. Thus the overlapping of individual and community, as we find it in this text, anticipates the identification of Mary and the Church that was gradually developed in the theology of the Fathers and finally taken up by the Council. The fact that the two were later separated, that Mary was seen as an individual filled with privileges and therefore infinitely beyond our reach where the Church in turn [was seen] in an impersonal and purely institutional manner, has caused equal damage to both Mariology and Ecclesiology. Here are active the divisions brought about by Western thought in particular, and which otherwise would have their own good reasons. But if we want to understand the Church and Mary properly, we must go back to the time before these divisions, in order to understand the supra-individual nature of the person and the supra-institutional nature of the community, precisely where person and community are taken back to their origins, grounded in the power of the Lord, the new Adam. The Marian vision of the Church and the ecclesial, salvation-historical vision of Mary take us back ultimately to Christ and to the Trinitarian God, because it is here that we find revealed what holiness means, what is God's dwelling in man and in the world, what we should understand by the "eschatological" tension of the Church. Thus it is only the chapter on Mary that leads conciliar ecclesiology to its fulfilment and brings us back to its Christological and Trinitarian starting point.

To give a taste of the Fathers' theology, I would like as a conclusion to propose a text of St Ambrose, chosen by Hugo Rahner: "So stand on the firm ground of your heart!... What standing means, the Apostle taught us, Moses wrote it: 'The place on which you stand is holy ground'. No one stands except the one who stands firm in the faith ... and yet another word is written: 'But you, stand firm with me'. You stand firm with me, if you stand in the Church. The Church is holy ground on which we must stand.... So stand firm, stand in the Church, stand there, where I want to appear to you. There I will stay beside you. Where the Church is, there is the stronghold of your heart. On the Church are laid the foundations of your soul. Indeed I appeared to you in the Church as once in the burning bush. You are the bush, I am the fire. Like the fire in the bush I am in your flesh. I am fire to enlighten you; to burn away the thorns of your sins, to give you the favour of my grace".  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
19 September 2001, page 5

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069