A Prophetic Vision: ‘Dogmatic Constitution on the Church’ 50 years later

Imagine going to a performance of Mozart’s great opera “Don Giovanni”—and hearing it minus the Don. Imagine the baritone fell ill a minute before the curtains went up and there was no stand-in. The music would still be undeniably beautiful, the drama tense, the resolution disturbing, but it might be hard to follow the plot. The missing backbone of the whole would make the parts flop. The “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” is the Don of the Second Vatican Council. Without it, the council, in nearly all its aspects, cannot be properly appreciated or implemented. The 1985 Synod of Bishops taught that the constitutions of the council should always be used to interpret the decrees and declarations. Fifty years after the council, the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” has not lost its prophetic baritone voice or commanding role. Some would argue its greatest performance is yet to be enacted.

However, the light of the constitution (known in Latin as “Lumen Gentium”) has sometimes been hidden. Some have ignored it when looking at a theme of the council. An example: the Catholic Truth Society of England and Wales published a valuable booklet, “The Gift of Dialogue,” in 2014. It included the full text of Pope Paul VI’s dialogue encyclical, “Ecclesiam Suam” (1964); the “Decree on Ecumenism”; and, least in rank but high in impact, the “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.” But it left out Nos. 14 to 16 of the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” which can be called the orchestral director of the included decree and declaration. Some quipped uncharitably that the publisher should be called the Catholic Half-Truth Society. Such an oversight is not untypical.

The other diminishing is done by from those who emphasize parts rather than the whole. This happens among Catholics of a variety of political leanings within the church. What causes one group to party causes the other group to leave early.

For example, Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., noted in an essay in 2008 that Gregory Baum hailed the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” as a “‘Blondelian shift’ away from extrinsicism toward human experience and immanence” and that the Rev. Richard P. McBrien spoke of a Copernican revolution that “overcame the unhealthy ecclesiocentrism” (we could also call it churchiness) of the past. John W. O’Malley, S.J., has also described the teachings of the constitution as a revolution rather than a development, and Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre would have agreed. All are rightly picking up on important melodies in the document. It movingly emphasizes the central goal of the Catholic life, the call to holiness and charity—but mediated through the sacramental life of the church.

The “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” speaks of the deep inner conversion to Christ that is required, but that conversion is achieved through faithful adherence to the teachings and practices of the church. The word “revolution” rhetorically and rightly reflects the impact of the teachings of the constitution but it hides the doctrinal continuity. These half-truths obscure the balance of conservative and radical within the document hiding its proper dynamic.

The constitution talks about almost everything: the nature of the church, the people, the hierarchy, the laity, the universal call to holiness, the religious, the eschatological pilgrimage and the Marian church. To test my possibly tendentious claims above, I will pick one theme and its implications.

The Path to Salvation

A central theme in the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” is that the Catholic Church was founded by Christ as the path to salvation for all women and men—an ancient teaching, but now developed. In 1949, the Holy Office, in a letter censoring the anti-Semitic American priest Leonard Feeney, S.J., clarified that the concept “no salvation outside the church” could not be applied literally to every person or community who was not Catholic. Due attention should be paid to their state of knowledge or ignorance of the Catholic Church. Many peoples had never heard of the church, and their destiny could not depend on this geographical and historical contingency. The Holy Office added that there can be an implicit desire for the church that would suffice as the primary pre-condition for salvation for an adult.

Many argue that the constitution finally overthrew the archaic teaching of “no salvation outside the church” after the chink in the armor of 1949. They note that No. 15 acknowledges the validity of non-Catholic Christian “churches or ecclesiastical communities” and positively promotes ecumenism. No. 16 acknowledges that non-Christians can be saved outside of the Catholic Church and emphasizes the new importance of interfaith dialogue. Changes of doctrine? Certainly changes in practice.

It is correct to see the council as engaging with the modern world in these passages, but the council did so by drawing on earlier doctrinal teachings, playing old notes in a fresh context that allowed new tunes to emerge. “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” did not renounce the core: that the Catholic Church still visibly represents the way God chose for all women and men to be saved. Rather, it built on that core outward, sometimes drawing on the best thinking in theological circles at the time and sometimes being prophetic in its vision.

“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” No. 15 acknowledges valid baptism and participation in Christ by non-Catholic Christians, drawing upon a rich patristic inheritance on this matter. It also affirms the special and different gifts such Christians enjoy, including prayer, the episcopate and several of the sacraments. It affirms the importance of ecumenism for Catholics, following Christ’s command to be “one flock under one shepherd.” The “Decree on Ecumenism” goes on to unfold this profound insight in further detail. Immediately after the council, serious and innovative bilateral ecumenical conversations were opened up with different Christian churches. In Europe and the United States, the Reformation began to thaw. In the East and elsewhere, dialogue with the Orthodox moved (with a few bumps along the way) slightly nearer to full unity. The lifting of the mutual excommunication at the close of the council was a gigantic step to begin that long journey.

The achievements of ecumenism are plentiful, not least the church’s learning from the blessings and gifts found in other churches or ecclesial communities. Pope Francis says of the Orthodox: “We Catholics have the opportunity to learn more about the meaning of episcopal collegiality and their experience of synodality” (“The Joy of the Gospel,” No. 246). He has already struck a deep chord with some evangelicals with his biblical and personalist concerns, just as St. John Paul II had done. The learning and growth together have yet to unfold and flower fully.

This ecumenical legacy has been supported by every postconciliar pope. But these popes have also recalled, with varying emphases, the balance in “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” No. 15, which recognizes that many non-Catholic Christians “do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve the unity of communion under the successor of Peter.”

This is a complex yet clear claim. It was not born from a triumphalist mentality, but one that sought to confirm that Christ prayed for the visible unity of all his disciples. That unity, for Catholics, had to be signified under the Petrine office. Hence, the most ecumenical of all postconciliar popes, St. John Paul II, saw the heart of ecumenism as requiring different Christian churches to reflect on how they might construe living “under one shepherd” so that “they may be one” (“That They May Be One,” 1995). Pope Francis has renewed this call for conversation and conversion about the Petrine nature of visible communion in “The Joy of the Gospel,” recognizing that new energy must go into this task that has only just begun. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had prophetically allowed for an Anglican ordinariate, affirming the patrimony of differing Christian spiritualities and liturgies becoming part of the wealth of the Catholic tradition. Sadly, in part because of the politics of this move, a remarkable ecumenical gesture was sometimes received as an ecumenical insult. Public relations on these fronts are always fraught and complex, and the Vatican has not always been on top of this game.

Many of the disappointments and hurts felt in ecumenical dialogues might have been avoided if the church’s careful balancing act had been integrated into ecumenism. After the 1990s, that integration slowly began to take place, but often, sadly, at the price of dampening ecumenical initiatives. Fifty years is a very short time. Every council has had ups and downs in its reception. Ecumenism is here to stay and has only just begun. Full visible unity is the goal.

Something similar happened in interreligious dialogue. The “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” and sections of the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” No. 16 nourished and gave birth to many rich dialogues all over the world. These happened at the village level—for example, with monastic communities sharing the life of the poor in Algeria. They also took place at the intergovernmental level, as when the Vatican and major Muslim governments acted in concord at the United Nations conferences in Rio de Janeiro (1992) and Cairo (1994) with respect to family and reproduction. To some, this felt like an unholy alliance.

There has also been high-level cooperation with Hindus and Muslims to counter sectarianism and violence in India. In the United States and Europe, good relations with the Jewish people have moved forward rapidly, despite controversies like the Williamson Affair (involving a British-born bishop convicted of Holocaust denial by a German court) and the ambiguities of “Reflections on Covenant and Mission,” a document by Catholic and Jewish scholars published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on its website in 2002. Any real, enduring relationship must weather the pangs of growing up together, but trust is a precarious reality. The church must seek what it has in common, not what divides, to work together and find fellowship.

Elements of the Tradition

Were these ecumenical initiatives doctrinally novel? The truths in Judaism and in Islam, long acknowledged in elements of the tradition but obscured by deeply negative views of Jews and Muslims, were suddenly able to take center stage. For example, the Jewish people shared the same ancient revelatory book and fed from the spiritual root upon which the Gentile church was grafted. This positive common root had been eclipsed by blame attributed to the Jewish people for the death of Christ and the notion that they had willfully rejected their own messiah. Thus, Catholic culture was generally anti-Jewish. Muslims did worship the same God, but the Koranic views of Jesus and the Trinity had created deep mutual misunderstandings. No theologian of stature ever questioned the true monotheism at the heart of Islam. They questioned the Koran and the teachings of the Prophet. They had to.

But none of the positive truths had been denied by the magisterium. What is striking about “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” is the magisterium’s teaching of these truths. Real and ancient bridges had existed. The smoke of battles and fires had hidden the paths to these bridges. After the council, Catholics could now cross these bridges to discover the riches and truths and profound challenges to be found in other religions. There can be no turning back. The fruits are plenty, and the process has only just begun.

But not all of the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” No. 16 has been emphasized, and this has led to discordance. Ralph Martin recently pointed out that most commentaries consistently ignore the last sentence of No. 16: “More often, however, deceived by the evil one, people have gone astray in their thinking and exchanged the truth about God for a lie....” He showed that the council fathers envisaged dialogue in the context of mission and witness, and not dialogue for its own sake.

This was also the vision of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical “Ecclesiam Suam” (1964). The missionary context is rarely mentioned, even though No. 16 of the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” formed the bridge to No. 17, devoted to the necessity of mission. The decline of Catholic missionary efforts has been part of a much wider and more complex crisis, and whether the new evangelization will help renew missionary zeal remains to be seen. Martin might have also mentioned the neglect of the first sentence of No. 16, where St. Thomas Aquinas’s term ordinantur is used to denote non-Christian religions. This captures the truth that they are all properly oriented to Christ and no one is excluded from the plan of salvation. But No. 16 has often been read as pointing to objective elements in other religions that are salvific in themselves.

Together the first and last sentences of No. 16 keep a genuine affirmation of these religions in close tension with the recognition of their objective incompleteness and insufficiency in the absence of Christ. Nothing derogatory is ever said about the personal piety, integrity and holiness of those from other religions. Without Christ, however, there is a lack. Some of this dynamic and dramatic tension was lost after the council. In the effort to redress this imbalance, there is a painful danger that non-Christian communities will be offended. Some Muslims and Jews have claimed that the council teachings are being reversed. Negotiating these difficulties is fraught with difficulty. Pope Benedict tried to shift interreligious dialogue into the wider political sphere to counter the spiritualizing of “religion.” Pope Francis seems to be keeping to this path and also draws deeply from his own personal Jewish friendships. In his dramatic gesture of bringing together the Jewish and Palestinian leaders to pray for peace, he welded the spiritual and political without reducing either.

This pattern of growth, imbalance and struggle can be seen in other areas regarding collegiality, the role of the bishops, the call to holiness and the role of the laity. Sometimes the imbalance has been a result of disarray in an over-centralized Vatican. One of the greatest fruits of the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” will be to redress that imbalance. The music of the Don singing with the entire opera, so that parts and whole are in harmony, is a performance to be savored.

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