The Ecclesiology of Vatican II

Author: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger


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

Conference of Cardinal Ratzinger at the opening of the Pastoral Congress of the Diocese of Aversa (Italy)

On the afternoon of 15 September 2001, at the invitation of Archbishop Mario Milano, His Eminence, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, opened the Pastoral Congress of the Diocese of Aversa (Italy) dedicated to a re-reading of the documents of the Second Vatican Council. This is a translation of Cardinal Ratzinger's opening lecture in Italian.

Just after the First World War, Romano Guardini coined an expression that quickly became a slogan for German Catholics: "An event of enormous importance is taking place: the Church is awakening within souls". The result of this awakening was ultimately the Second Vatican Council. Through its various documents it expressed and made part of the patrimony of the whole Church something that, during four decades full of ferment and hope (1920 to 1960), had been maturing in knowledge gained through faith. To understand Vatican II one must look back on this period and seek to discern, at least in outline, the currents and tendencies that came together in the Council. I will present the ideas that came to the fore during this period and then describe the fundamental elements of the Council's teaching on the Church.

I. The Church, the Body of Christ

1. The Image of the Mystical Body

"The Church is awakening within souls". Guardini's expression had been wisely formulated, since it finally recognized and experienced the Church as something within us—not as an institution outside us but something that lives within us.

If until that time we had thought of the Church primarily as a structure or organization, now at last we began to realize that we ourselves were the Church. The Church is much more than an organization: it is the organism of the Holy Spirit, something that is alive, that takes hold of our inmost being. This consciousness found verbal expression with the concept of the "Mystical Body of Christ", a phrase describing a new and liberating experience of the Church. At the very end of his life, in the same year the Constitution on the Church was published by the Council, Guardini wrote: the Church "is not an institution devised and built by men ... but a living reality.... It lives still throughout the course of time. Like all living realities it develops, it changes ... and yet in the very depths of its being it remains the same; its inmost nucleus is Christ.... To the extent that we look upon the Church as organization ... like an association ... we have not yet arrived at a proper understanding of it. Instead, it is a living reality and our relationship with it ought to be—life" (La Chiesa del Signore, [English translation: "The Church of the Lord"]; Morcelliana, Brescia 1967, p. 160).

Today, it is difficult to communicate the enthusiasm and joy this realization generated at the time. In the era of liberalism that preceded the First World War, the Catholic Church was looked upon as a fossilized organization, stubbornly opposed to all modern achievements. Theology had so concentrated on the question of the primacy as to make the Church appear to be essentially a centralized organization that one defended staunchly but which somehow one related to from the outside. Once again it became clear that the Church was more than this—she is something we all bring forward in faith in a living way, just as the Church brings us forward. It became clear that the Church has experienced organic growth over the centuries, and continues to grow even today. Through the Church the mystery of the Incarnation is alive today: Christ continues to move through time. If we were to ask ourselves what element present from the very beginning could still be found in Vatican II, our answer would be: the Christological definition of the Church. J.A. MöhIer, a leader in the revival of Catholic theology after the devastation of the Enlightenment, once said: a certain erroneous theology could be caricatured with the short phrase: "In the beginning Christ created the hierarchy and had thus taken adequate care of the Church until the end of time". Opposed to this concept is the fact that the Church is the Mystical Body; Christ and His act of founding are never over but always new. In the Church Christ never belongs just to the past, He is always and above all the present and the future. The Church is the presence of Christ: He is contemporary with us and we are His contemporaries. The Church lives from this: from the fact that Christ is present in our hearts and it is there that Christ forms His Church. That is why the first word of the Church is Christ, and not herself. The Church is healthy to the extent that all her attention is focused on Him. The Second Vatican Council placed this concept masterfully at the pinacle of its deliberations; the fundamental text on the Church begins with the words: Lumen gentium cum sit Christus: "since Christ is the Light of the World ... the Church is a mirror of His glory; she reflects His splendour". If we want to understand the Second Vatican Council correctly, we must always go back to this opening statement....

Next, with this point of departure, we must establish both the feature of her interiority and of her communitarian nature. The Church grows from within and moves outwards,not vice-versa. Above all, she is the sign of the most intimate communion with Christ. She is formed primarily in a life of prayer, the sacraments and the fundamental attitudesof faith, hope and love. Thus if someone should ask what must I do to become Church and to grow like the Church, the reply must be: you must become a person who lives faith, hope, and charity. What builds the Church is prayer and the communion of the sacraments; in them the prayer of the Church comes to meet us. Last summer I met a parish priest who told me that for many years there hadn't been a single vocation to the priesthood from his parish. What ought he do? We cannot manufacture vocations, it is the Lord who raises them up. Should we therefore stand by helpless? The priest decided to make a pilgrimage every year, a long and difficult pilgrimage to the Marian Shrine of Altötting to pray for vocations, and invited those who shared in this intention to join him in the pilgrimage and common prayer. Year after year the number of participants in this pilgrimage grew until finally, this year, the whole village with great joy, celebrated the first Mass in living memory said by a priest from the parish....

The Church grows from within: this is the meaning of the expression "Body of Christ". The phrase implies something more: Christ has formed a body for himself. If I want to find Him and make Him mine, I am directly called to become a humble and complete and full member of His Body, and, by becoming one of His members, becoming an organ of his Body in this world, I will be so for eternity. The idea of liberal theology that whereas Jesus on his own would be interesting, the Church would be a wretched reality, contradicts this understanding completely. Christ gives Himself only in His body, and never as a pure ideal. This means that He gives Himself, and the others, in the uninterrupted communion that endures through time and is His Body. It means that the Church is not an idea, it is a Body. The scandal of becoming flesh that Jesus' incarnation caused so many of His contemporaries, is repeated in the "scandalous character" of the Church. Jesus' statement is valid in this instance: "Blessed is he who is not scandalized in me".

The communitarian nature of the Church necessarily entails its character as "we". The Church is not somewhere apart from us, it is we who constitute the Church. No one person can say "I am the Church", but each one of us can and ought to say, "we are the Church". This "we" does not represent an isolated group, but rather a group that exists within the entire community of all Christ's members, living and dead. This is how a group can genuinely say: "we are the Church". Here is the Church, in this open "we" that breaches social and political boundaries, and the boundary between heaven and earth as well. We are the Church. This gives rise to a co-responsibility and also the possibility of collaborating personally. From this understanding there derives the right to criticize but our criticism must be above all self-criticism. Let us repeat: the Church is not "somewhere else"; nor is she "someone else". We ourselves build the Church. These ideas matured and led directly to the Council. Everything said about the common responsibility of the laity, and the legal forms that were established to facilitate the intelligent exercise of responsibility, are the result of this current of thought.

Finally, the concept of the development and therefore of the historical dynamic of the Church belongs to this theme. A body remains identical to itself over the course of its life due to the fact that in the life process it constantly renews itself. For the great English Cardinal, Newman, the idea of development was the true and proper bridge to his conversion to Catholicism. I believe that the idea of development belongs to those numerous fundamental concepts of Catholicism that are far from being adequately explored. Once again it is Vatican II to which we owe the first solemn formulation of this idea in a Magisterial document. Whoever wants to attach himself solely to the literal interpretation of the Scriptures or to the forms of the Church of the Fathers imprisons Christ in "yesterday". The result is either a wholly sterile faith that has nothing to say to our times, or the arrogant assumption of the right to skip over 2,000 years of history, consign them to the dustbin of mistakes, and try to figure out what a Christianity would look like either according to Scripture or according to Jesus. The only possible result will be an artificial creation that we ourselves have made, devoid of any consistency. Genuine identity with the beginning in Christ can only exist where there is a living continuity that has developed the beginning and preserved the beginning precisely through this development.

2. Eucharistic Ecclesiology

Let us go back and look at developments in the pre-Conciliar era. Reflection on the Mystical Body of Christ marked the first phase of the Church's interior re-discovery; it began with St Paul and led to placing in the foreground the presence of Christ and the dynamics of what is alive (in Him and us). Further research led to a fresh awareness. Above all, more than anyone else, the great French theologian Henri de Lubac in his magnificent and learned studies made it clear that in the beginning the term "corpus mysticum" referred to the Eucharist. For St Paul and the Fathers of the Church the idea of the Church as the Body of Christ was inseparably connected with the concept of the Eucharist in which the Lord is bodily present and which He gives us His Body as food. This is how a Eucharistic ecclesiology came into existence.

What do we mean today by "Eucharistic ecclesiology"? I will attempt to answer this question with a brief mention of some fundamental points. The first point is that Jesus' Last Supper could be defined as the event that founded the Church. Jesus gave His followers this Liturgy of Death and Resurrection and at the same time He gave them the Feast ofLife. In the Last Supper he repeats the covenant of Sinai—or rather what at Sinai was a simple sign or prototype, that becomes now a complete reality: the communion in blood and life between God and man. Clearly the Last Supper anticipates the Cross and the Resurrection and presupposes them, otherwise it would be an empty gesture. This is why the Fathers of the Church could use a beautiful image and say that the Church was born from the pierced side of the Lord, from which flowed blood and water. When I state that the Last Supper is the beginning of the Church, I am actually saying the same thing, from another point of view. This formula means that the Eucharist binds all men together, and not just with one another, but with Christ; in this way it makes them "Church". At the same time the formula describes the fundamental constitution of the Church: the Church exists in Eucharistic communities. The Church's Mass is her constitution, because the Church is, in essence, a Mass (sent out: "missa"), a service of God, and therefore a service of man and a service for the transformation of the world.

The Mass is the Church's form, that means that through it she develops an entirely original relationship that exists nowhere else, a relationshipof multiplicity and of unity. In each celebration of the Eucharist, the Lord is really present. He is risen and dies no more. He can no longer be divided into different parts. He always gives Himself completely and entirely. This is why the Council states: "This Church of Christ is truly present in all legitimate local communities of the faithful which, united with their pastors, are themselves called Churches in the New Testament. For in their locality these are the new People called by God, in the Holy Spirit and with great trust (cf. 1 Thes. 1,5).... In these communities, though frequently small and poor, or living in the diaspora, Christ is present, and in virtue of His power there is brought together one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church" (Lumen Gentium, n. 26). This means that the ecclesiology of local Churches derives from the formulation of the Eucharistic ecclesiology. This is a typical feature of Vatican II that presents the internal and sacramental foundation of the doctrine of collegiality about which we will speak later.

For a correct understanding of the Council's teaching, we must first look more closely at what exactly it said. Vatican II was aware of the concerns of both Orthodox and Protestant theology and integrated them into a more ample Catholic understanding. In Orthodox theology the idea of Eucharistic ecclesiology was first expressed by exiled Russian theologians in opposition to the pretensions of Roman centralism. They affirmed that insofar as it possesses Christ entirely, everyEucharistic community is already, in se, the Church. Consequently, external unity with other communities is not a constitutive element of the Church.

Therefore, they concluded that unity with Rome is not a constitutive element of the Church. Such a unity would be a beautiful thing since it would represent the fullness of Christ to the external world, but it is not essential since nothing would be added to the totality of Christ. The Protestant understanding of the Church was moving in the same direction. Luther could no longer recognize the Spirit of Christ in the universal Church; he directly took that Church to be an instrument of the anti-Christ. Nor could he see the Protestant State Churches of the Reformation as Churches in the proper sense of the word. They were only social, political entities necessary for specific purposes and dependent on political powers—nothing more. According to Luther the Church existed in the community. Only the assembly that listens to the Word of God in a specific place is the Church. He replaced the word "Church" with "community" (Gemeinde).Churchbecame a negative concept.

If we go back now to the Council text certain nuances become evident. The text does not simply say, "The Church is entirely present in each community that celebrates the Eucharist", rather it states: "This Church of Christ is truly present in all legitimate local communities of the faithful which, united with their pastors, are themselves called Churches". Two elements here are of great importance: to be a Church the community must be "legitimate"; they are legitimate when they are "united with their pastors". What does this mean? In the first place, no one can make a Church by himself. A group cannot simply get together, read the New Testament and declare: "At present we are the Church because the Lord is present wherever two or three are gathered in His name". The element of "receiving" belongs essentially to the Church, just as faith comes from "hearing" and is not the result of one's decision or reflection. Faith is a converging with something I could neither imagine nor produce on my own; faith has to come to meet me. We call the structure of this encounter, a "Sacrament". It is part of the fundamental form of a sacrament that it be received and not self-administered. No one can baptize himself. No one can ordain himself. No one can forgive his own sins. Perfect repentance cannot remain something interior—of its essence it demands the form of encounter of the Sacrament. This too is a result of a sacrament's fundamental structure as an encounter [with Christ]. For this reason communion with oneself is not just an infraction of the external provisions of Canon Law, but it is an attack on the innermost nature of a sacrament. That a priest can administer this unique sacrament, and only this sacrament, to himself is part of the mysteriumtremendum inwhich the Eucharist involves him. In the Eucharist, the priest acts "in personaChristi",in the person of Christ [the Head]; at the same time he represents Christ while remaining a sinner who lives completely by accepting Christ's Gift.

One cannot make the Church but only receive her; one receives her from where she already is, where she is really present: the sacramental community of Christ's Body moving through history. It will help us to understand this difficult concept if we add something: "legitimate communities". Christ is everywhere whole. This is the first important formulation of the Council in union with our Orthodox brothers. At the same time Christ is everywhere only one, so I can possess the one Lord only in the unity that He is, in the unity of all those who are also His Body and who through the Eucharist must evermore become it. Therefore, the reciprocal unity of all those communities who celebrate the Eucharist is not something external added to Eucharistic ecclesiology, but rather its internal condition: in unity here is the One. This is why the Council recalls the proper responsibility of communities, but excludes any self-sufficiency. The Council develops an ecclesiology in which being Catholic, namely being in communion with believers in all places and in all times, is not simply an external element of an organizational form, it represents grace coming from within and is at the same time a visible sign of the grace of the Lord who alone can create unity by breaching countless boundaries.

I. The Church, as the People of God

After the initial enthusiasm that greeted the discovery of the idea of the Body of Christ, scholars analyzed and gradually began to refine the concept and make corrections in two directions. We have already referred to the first of these corrections in the work of Henri de Lubac. He made concrete the idea of the Body of Christ by working out a Eucharistic ecclesiology and opened it in this way to concrete questions about the juridical ordering of the Church and the reciprocal relations between local Churches and the universal Church. The other form of correction began in Germany in the 1930's, where some theologians were critical of the fact that with the idea of the Mystical Body certain relationships were not clear between the visible and the invisible, law and grace, order and life. They therefore proposed the concept of "People of God", found above all in the Old Testament, as a broader description of the Church to which one could more easily apply sociological and juridical categories. While the Mystical Body of Christ would certainly remain an important "image", by itself it could not meet the request of theology to express things using "concepts".

Initially this criticism of the idea of the Body of Christ was somewhat superficial. Further study of the Body of Christ uncovered its positive content; the concept of "People of God", along with the concept of the Body of Christ, entered theecclesiology of the Council. One wondered if the image of the Mystical Body might be too narrow a starting point to define the many forms of belonging to the Church now found in the tangle of human history. If we use the image of a body to describe "belonging" we are limited only to the form of representation as "member". Either one is or one is not a member, there are no other possibilities. One can then ask if the image of the body was too restrictive, since there manifestly existed in reality intermediate degrees of belonging. The Constitution on the Church found it helpful for this purpose to use the concept of "the People of God".It could describe the relationship of non-Catholic Christians to the Church as being "in communion" and that of non-Christians as being "ordered" to the Church where in both cases one relies on the idea of the People of God (Lumen Gentium,nn. 15, 16).

In one respect one can say that the Council introduced the concept of "the People of God" above all as an ecumenical bridge. It applies to another perspective as well: the rediscovery of the Church after the First World War that initially was a phenomenon common to both Catholics and Protestants. Certainly the liturgical movement was by no means limited to the Catholic Church. This shared character gave rise to reciprocal criticism. The idea of the Body of Christ was developed within the Catholic Church, when the Church was designated as "Christ who continues to live on earth" and so the Church was described as the incarnation of the Son that continues to the end of time. This idea provoked opposition among Protestants who saw in the teaching an intolerable identifying of the Church herself with Christ. According to Protestants the Church was in a way adoring herself and making herself infallible. Gradually, the idea struck Catholic thinkers who, even though they did not go that far, found that this understanding of the Church made her every declaration and ministerial act so definitive that it made any criticism appear to be an attack on Christ himself and simply forgot the human, at times far too human, element of the Church. The Christological distinction had to be clearly emphasized: the Church is not identical with Christ, but she stands before Him. She is a Church of sinners, ever in need of purification and renewal, ever needing to become Church. The idea of reform became a decisive element of the concept of the People of God, while it would be difficult to develop the idea of reform within the framework of the Body of Christ.

There is a third factor that favoured the idea of the "People of God". In 1939 the Evangelical exegete, Ernst Käsemann gave his monograph on the Letter to the Hebrews the title, The Pilgrim People of God. In the framework of Council discussions, this title became right away a slogan because it made something become more clearly understood in the debates on the Constitution on the Church: the Church has not yet reached her goal. Her true and proper hope still lies ahead of her. The "eschatological" import of the concept of Church became clear. The phrase conveys the unity of salvation history which comprises both Israel and the Church in her pilgrim journey. The phrase expresses the historical nature of the pilgrim Church that will not be wholly herself until the paths of time have been traversed and have blossomed in the hands of God. It describes the unity of the People of God amid the variety, as in all peoples, of different ministries and services; yet above and beyondall distinctions, all are pilgrims in the one community of the pilgrim People of God. In broad outline, if one wants to sum up what elements relating to the concept "People of God" were important for the Council, one could say that the phrase "People of God" conveyed the historical nature of the Church, described the unity of God's history with man, the internal unity of God's people that also goes beyond thefrontiers of sacramental states of life. It conveys the eschatological dynamic, the provisional and fragmentary nature of the Church ever in need of renewal; and finally, it expresses the ecumenical dimension, that is the variety of ways in which communion and ordering to the Church can and do exist, even beyond the boundaries of the Catholic Church.

However,commentators very soon completely handed the term "people" in the concept "People of God" to a general political interpretation. Among the proponents of liberation theology it was taken to mean "people" in the Marxist sense, in opposition to the ruling classes, or more generally, it was taken to refer to popular sovereignty at long last being applied to the Church. This led to large-scale debates on Church structures. On occasion the expression was understood in a peculiarly Western sense as "democratization" or more in the sense of the so-called Eastern "People's Republics". Gradually this "verbal fireworks" (N. Lohfink) died down either because the power games ended in exhaustion and gave way to the ordinary work of parish councils, or because solid theological research had irrefutably demonstrated the impossibility of politicizing a concept that had arisen in an entirely different context. Bochum Werner Berg provides an example of the meticulous exegesis that characterized this theological research when he affirmed: "in spite of the small number of passages that mention the 'People of God' (it is a rare expression in the Bible) one common element is immediately apparent: the expression 'People of God' describes the relationship with God, the connection with God, the link between God and those designated as the People of God, it is therefore a 'vertical relationship'. The expression does not lend itself easily to a description of the hierarchical structure of this community, especially if 'People of God' is used in "contrast" to the ministers…" If we begin with the biblical meaning of this expression it can no longer be easily understood as a cry of protest against the ministers: "We are the People of God". Josef Meyer zu Schlochtern, the Professor of Fundamental Theology at Paderborn, concludes his discussion of the concept "People of God" with an observation on Vatican II's Constitution on the Church. The document concludes by "depicting the Trinitarian structure as the foundation of the final determination of the Church…". The discussion is brought back to the essential point: the Church does not exist for herself; rather, she is God's instrument to gather mankind in Himself and to prepare for that time when "God will be all in all" (I Cor 15,28). The very concept of God was left out of all the "fireworks" surrounding this expression, thus depriving the expression of its meaning. A Church which existed only for herself would be useless. People would realize this immediately. The crisis of the Church reflected in the expression "People of God" is a "crisis of God". It derives from our abandoning the essential. All that remains is a struggle for power. This sort of thing is already abundantly present in the world—there is no need for the Church to enter this arena.

III. The Eccelesiology of Communion

Around the time of the extraordinary Synod of 1985 which attempted to make an assessment of the 20 years since the Council there was a renewed effort to synthesize the Council's ecclesiology. The synthesis involved one basic concept: the ecclesiology of communion. I was very much pleased with this new focus in ecclesiology and I endeavoured, to the extent I was able, to help work it out. First of all one must admit that the word ''communio" did not occupy a central place in the Council. All the same if properly understood it can serve as a synthesis of the essential elements of the Council's ecclesiology. All the essential elements of the Christian concept of "communio" can be found in the famous passage from the First Letter of Saint John (1,3); it is a frame of reference for the correct Christian understanding of "communio". "That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship (communio) 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". The point of departure of communio is clearly evident in this passage: the union with the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who comes to mankind through the proclamation of the Church. Fellowship (communio) among men is born here and merges into fellowship (communio) with the One and Triune God. One gains access to communion with God through the realization of God's communion with man—it is Christ in person. To meet Christ creates communion with Him and therefore with the Father in the Holy Spirit. This unites men with one another. The goal of all this is the fullness of joy: the Church carries in her bosom an eschatological dynamic. This expression "fullness of joy" recalls the farewell address of Jesus, His Paschal mystery and the Lord's return in the Easter apparitions which prefigure His definitive return in the new world. "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 this verse is compared to the invitation to prayer in St Luke (Lk 11,13) it is apparent that "joy" and the "Holy Spirit" are equivalent. Although John does not explicitly mention the Holy Spirit in his first Epistle (1,3) he is hidden within the word "joy". In this biblical context the word "communio" has a theological, Christological, soteriological and ecclesiological characteristic. It enjoys a sacramental dimension that is absolutely explicit in St Paul: "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a communion in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a communion in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body ... " (ICor 10,16ff.). The ecclesiology of communion at its very foundation is a Eucharistic ecclesiology. It is very close to that Eucharistic ecclesiology that Orthodox theologians so convincingly developed during the past century. In it—as we have alreadyseen—ecclesiology becomes more concrete while remaining totally spiritual, transcendent and eschatological. In the Eucharist, Christ, present in the bread and wine and giving Himself anew, builds the Church as His Body and through His Risen Body He unites us to the one and triune God and to each other. The Eucharist celebrated in different places is universal at the same time, because there is only one Christ and only a single body of Christ. The Eucharist comprehends the priestly service of "repraesentatio Christi" as well as that network of service, the synthesis of unity and multiplicity which is expressed inthe term "communio". Without any possible doubt one could say that this concept conveys a synthesis of ecclesiology which combines the discourse of the Church with the discourse of God, and to life through God and with God. This synthesis assembles all the essential intentions of Vatican II ecclesiology and connects them with one another in an appropriate fashion.

For these reasons I was both grateful and happy when the 1985 Synod placed "communio" at the centre of their study. The following years demonstrated the fact that no word is safe from misunderstanding, not even the best and most profound word. To the extent that "communio" became an easy slogan, it was devalued and distorted. As happened to the concept 'People of God', one must point to a growing horizontal understanding that abandoned the concept of God. The ecclesiology of communion was reduced to a consideration of relations between the local Church and the universal Church; this in turn was reduced to the problem of determining the area of competence ofeach. Naturally the egalitarian thesis once more gained ground: only full equality was possible in "communio". Here again was the exact same argument that had exercised the disciples about who was the greatest amongst them. Obviously this was something that would not be resolved within a single generation. Mark's description of the incident is the most forceful. On the road from Jerusalem Jesus spoke to His Disciples about His coming Passion for the third time. When they arrived at Capernaum He asked them what they had been talking about on the road. "They were silent" because they had been discussing who among them would be the greatest—a sort of discussion about the primacy (Mk 9, 33-37). Isn't it just the same today? The Lord is going towards His Passion, while the Church, and in her Christ, is suffering and, we on the other hand are entangled in our favorite discussion: who comes first with the power. If He were to come among us and ask what we were talking about we would blush and be silent.

This does not mean that there should be no discussion of good government and the division of responsibility in the Church. It is certainly true that there are imbalances that need correcting. We should watch for and root out an excessive Roman centralization that is always a danger. But questions of this sort ought not to distract us from the true mission of the Church: the Church should not be proclaiming herself but God. It is only to assure that this is done in the purest possible way, that there is criticism within the Church. Criticism should insure a correlation between discourse on God and common service. To sum it up, it is no accident that Jesus' words "the first shall be last and the last first" occur more than once in the Gospel tradition. They are like a mirror constantly focused on us all.

Faced with the post-1985 reduction of the concept of "communio", the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith thought it appropriate to preparea "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion". The Letter was issued on 28 May, 1992. Today, any theologian concerned about his reputation feels obliged to criticize all documents from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Our Letter met with a storm of criticism—very few parts of the text met with approval. The phrase that provoked the most controversy was this statement: "The universal Church in her essential mystery is a reality that ontologically and temporally is prior to every particular Church" (cf. n. 9). There wasa brief reference to this statement beingbased on the Patristic notion that the one, unique Church precedes the creation of particular Churches and gives birth to them. The Fathers were reviving a rabbinical concept that the Torah and Israel were pre-existent. Creation was conceived as providing space for the Will of God. This Will needed a people who would live for the Will of God and would make it the Light of the world. Since the Fathers were convinced of the final identity of the Church and Israel, they could not envision the Church as something accidental, only recently created; in this gathering of people under the Will of God the Fathers recognized the internal theology of creation. Beginning with Christology this image was amplified and deepened: they explained history—under the influence of the Old Testament—as a story of love between God and man. God finds and prepares a Bride for His Son—the unique Bride who is the unique Church. In the light of Genesis 2,24, where man and woman become "two in one flesh" the image of the Bride merges with the idea of the Church as the Body of Christ—an analogy derived from the Eucharistic liturgy. The unique Body of Christ is prepared; Christ and the Church will be "two in one flesh", one body and in this way "God will be everything to everyone". The ontological priority of the universal Church—the unique Church, the unique Body, the unique Bride—vis-à-vis the empirical, concrete manifestations of various, particular Churches is so obvious to me that I find it difficult to understand the objections raised against it. These objections only seem possible if one will not or cannot recognize the great Church conceived by God—possibly out of despair at her earthly shortcomings. These objections look like theological ravings. All that would remain is the empirical image of mutually related Churches and their conflicts. This would mean that the Church as a theological theme is cancelled. If one can only see the Church as a human institution, all that remains is desolation. In this case one has abandoned not only the ecclesiology of the Fathers, but the ecclesiology of the New Testament and the understanding of Israel in the Old Testament as well. It is not just the later deutero-Pauline letters and the Apocalypse that affirm the ontological priority of the universal Church to the particular Churches (reaffirmed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith). This concept can be found in the great Pauline letters: in the Letter to the Galatians, the Apostle speaks about the heavenly Jerusalem not as something great and eschatological, but as something which precedes us: "This Jerusalem is our mother" (Gal 4,26). H. Schlier comments that for St Paul, inspired by Jewish tradition, the Jerusalem above is the new aeon. For St Paul this new aeon already exists "in the Christian Church. For him the Church is the heavenly Jerusalem in her children".

Let me conclude. To understand the ecclesiology of Vatican II one cannot ignore chapters 4 to 7 of the Constitution Lumen Gentium. These chapters discuss the laity, the universal call to holiness, the religious and the eschatological orientation of the Church. In these chapters the inner goal of the Church, the most essential part of its being, comes once again to the fore: holiness, conformity to God. There must exist in the world space for God, where he can dwell freely so that the world becomes His "Kingdom". Holiness is something greater than a moral quality. It is the presence of God with men, of men with God; it is God's "tent" pitched amongst men in our midst (cf. Jn 1,14). It is a new birth—not from flesh and blood but from God (Jn 1,13). Orientation towards holiness is one and the same as eschatological orientation. Beginning with Jesus' message it is fundamental for the Church. The Church exists to become God's dwelling place in the world, to become "holiness". This is the only reason there should be any struggle in the Church—and not for precedence or for the first place. All of this is repeated and synthesized in the last chapter of the Constitution on the Church that is dedicated to the Mother of the Lord.

As everyone knows, the question of dedicating a specific document to Mary was widely debated. In any event I believe it was appropriate to insert the Marian element directly into the doctrine on the Church. In this way the point of departure for our consideration is once more apparent: the Church is not an apparatus, nor a social institution, nor one social institution among many others. It is a person. It is a woman. It is a Mother. It is alive. A Marian understanding of the Church is totally opposed to the concept of the Church as a bureaucracy or a simple organization. We cannot make the Church, we must be the Church. We are the Church, the Church is in us only to the extent that our faith more than action forges our being. Only by being Marian, can we become the Church. At its very beginning the Church was not made, but given birth. She existed in the soul of Mary from the moment she uttered her fiat. This is the most profound will of the Council: the Church should be awakened in our souls. Mary shows us the way.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
23 January 2002, page 5

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