By Steve Landregan
Originally pubished in The Texas Catholic
Of the 16 documents generated by the Council, the foundational or seminal document is the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium, the Light of the World); it deals with the internal nature of the Church as opposed to the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World which deals with the external nature of the church.
In a sense it picked up where the First Vatican Ecumenical Council left off when it was suspended indefinitely in 1870 by Pope Pius IX, who had become a prisoner in the Vatican after the invasion of Rome by Italian troops. On Oct. 20, 1870 the pope suspended the council indefinitely. The council left unfinished consideration of the schema on the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, having only considered the role of the pope.
In 1960, the Central Preparatory Commission for the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council noted: The Constitution on the Catholic Church, which was prepared by the First Vatican Council, should be completed and perfected, especially concerning a) the Mystical Body of Christ, b) the episcopacy and c} the laity.” As a result at the first session, the Fathers of Vatican II were presented with an 11-chapter document on the church.
Debate on the document began Dec. 1, 1962, near the end of the first session, and continued until Nov. 21, 1964, when after much debate, numerous revisions, and sharp opposition the final version was promulgated by Pope Pius VI after the final formal voting.
As a result of the debates a number of other documents that had not been foreseen were spawned, including the Declaration on Non-Christian Religions, The Declaration on Religious Liberty, the Decree on the Contemporary Renewal of Religious Life and the Decree on Priestly Life and Ministry. Many of these were expanded into separate documents from a chapter in the original schema on the church document. Interestingly, what had originally been planned as a separate document on The Blessed Virgin, ended up as a chapter in the Constitution on the Church.
In its final form the constitution deemphasized the church’s hierarchical and juridical elements and rather placed emphasis on the church as mystery and sacrament guided by the Holy Spirit, and as the people of God on a pilgrimage. The servant dimension of the hierarchy as part of the people of God rather than the traditional pyramidal image was stressed. Scriptural images such as the Body of Christ and the Good Shepherd, were used to illustrate the pastoral nature of the church replacing the earlier representation of the church as a monarchical state. The concept of collegiality where the bishops in concert with the pope share a common collegial responsibility for the whole church was introduced.
Included in the final document was the restoration of the diaconate as a permanent order. Although such icons of holiness as St. Francis of Assisi and St. Lawrence were deacons, the office had fallen into disuse and become little more than a stepping stone on the way to ordination to the priesthood. Of significance is the fact that ordination to the Order of Deacon, part of the Sacrament of Orders, was opened to married men “of more mature age.”
The document emphasizes the laity as a priestly people, sharing in the priestly, prophetic and kingly offices of Christ and having their own role in the mission of the church by virtue of their baptism. Especially important for the laity is becoming the presence of Christ and the church in the secular world. Religious life, orders of priests, brothers and sisters are recognized as a particular gift to the church as witnesses of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. In closing, the document stresses the place of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Mystery of Christ, one who constantly intercedes to bring the world the gifts of eternal salvation.
Lumen Gentium does not define any new dogmas, rather it authoritatively presents the church’s understanding of her own nature. In his introduction to the document, the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., wrote: “With something like unanimity it has been hailed as the most momentous achievement of the Council, both because of its important contents and because of its central place among the Council documents.”