Council forged new understanding of nature of Church

September 2, 2013

The widespread understanding of the nature of the Church prior to the Second Vatican Council was that of a juridical body with a pyramidal structure that was external to the lives of baptized believers.

Seminary manuals of dogmatic theology emphasized the Church's structures of authority and Christ's institution of the Church as a monarchical society founded on the apostles.

The manuals argued from the apostolic origins of the Church, maintained the bishops are successors to the apostles, pointed to the primacy of Peter, described the pope as Peter's successor, and maintained the consequent infallibility of Peter and the pope.

In his A Manual of Dogmatic Theology, used widely in seminaries prior to the council, A.D. Tanqueray concluded: "The Roman Catholic Church and this Church alone is the true Church of Christ." Tanquerey's manual went on to maintain that the marks of the Church prove the "indestructible steadfastness," "extraordinary sanctity and unexhausted fruitfulness of the Catholic Church."

The vision of the Church espoused by such manuals was triumphalist, clericalist and fervently anti-ecumenical. No doubt this approach made the clergy who had been formed by such manuals proud to be Catholic and certain of the truth of the Church's teachings.

The schema on the Church first presented at the Second Vatican Council focused on an understanding of the Church as a pyramid.

The schema on the Church first presented at the Second Vatican Council focused on an understanding of the Church as a pyramid.

However, the lay people and religious who were not mentioned in this vision of the Church would be understandably inclined to see the Church as a society external to their lives, a hierarchical institution that established precepts and regulations that they were to follow unquestioningly.

This pyramidal understanding of the Church was reminiscent of those followers of John the Baptist in Ephesus who told St. Paul, "We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit" (Acts 19.2).

The first major crack in this monolithic understanding of the Church was Pope Pius XII's 1943 encyclical Mystici Corporis (On the Mystical Body of Christ). Mystici Corporis continued to emphasize the absolute identity of the Catholic Church and Christ's Mystical Body as well as the juridical nature of the Church.

However, Pope Pius made the astonishing statement for that era, "Christ has need of his members" (MC 44). Not only does Christ share his work of sanctification with the Church, "but he wills that it in some way be due to her action" (MC 44).


The supernatural life of Christ permeates the Church, nourishes it and sustains each of its members just as the vine makes fruitful each of the branches joined to it (MC 55). This divine principle of life in the Church is in fact the Holy Spirit.

"After Christ's glorification on the cross, his Spirit is communicated to the Church in an abundant outpouring, so that she and her individual members may become daily more and more like our Saviour" (MC 56).

Here was an account of the Church that took account of all of its members and from which those members could expect to draw spiritual life. It was a much different outlook than the cold institutional approach of the manuals. Moreover, it even made reference to the Holy Spirit.

As preparations began for Vatican II, the pre-conciliar Theological Commission was charged with preparing a draft statement (schema) for the council's consideration.


The Theological Commission's schema reflected the neo-scholastic thinking of the manuals. All references to the spiritual and supernatural character of the Church were subordinated to the Church's visible and societal character, Pope Pius' encyclical seemingly forgotten.

The schema ignored the more mystical theology presented in the 1943 encyclical Mystici Corporis by Pope Pius XII.

The schema ignored the more mystical theology presented in the 1943 encyclical Mystici Corporis by Pope Pius XII.

However, the Vatican's Secretariat for Christian Unity put forward a text of its own, one that stressed the Christological nature of the Church and introduced the notion of the Church as the People of God.

The secretariat's schema had a rich understanding of the Church's horizontal reality: "The Church is the group of believers, united by the bonds of faith and charity in the Holy Spirit, constituting a sacramentally structured community and supported by social bonds and authority."


The schema also asserted that non-Catholic Christians were members of the Church by virtue of their Baptism. The two schema presented sharply contrasting views of the nature of the Church.

When the Secretariat for Christian Unity's schema went to the Central Pastoral Commission that was vetting proposed texts, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, prefect of the Holy Office, darkly commented that the schema was guilty of "very strongly revealing the influence of contacts with non-Catholics."

Theologian Charles Moeller said some who opposed the schema felt Christian doctrine already had enough "mysteries" and that it would be counter-productive to view the Church itself in that light. They wanted instead to present the Church as "what one sees," namely, "a perfect society, endowed with powers, active in the struggle against error and violence."

Nevertheless, after lengthy debate and five different schema, the council fathers overwhelmingly approved Lumen Gentium in November 1964 in a form that more closely resembled the thinking of the Secretariat for Christian Unity than that of the Theological Commission.

Over the next several weeks, this series of articles will give a bird's eye view of Lumen Gentium, the document which, at least at the time of Vatican II, was widely seen as its most important statement.