During the 50 years since the opening of the Second Vatican Council the question of the church has remained one of particular interest.
The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, identified the Church as the “People of God” nearly 50 times, which was understood by many as a clear shift in self-understanding, intentionally focused on her communal or “horizontal” aspect.
As is often the case, however, the desire to highlight one dimension of a complex reality over others leads to an impoverished understanding of the reality as a whole. To focus on one dimension of the church—in this case, the particular dimension that highlights the relationship of believers—likewise inhibits a robust appreciation of both the church herself and what the Council Fathers sought to assert about her.
Lumen Gentium employed other ecclesial images and definitions such as “Body of Christ” and “Temple of the Holy Spirit” but the most significant contribution of the conciliar teaching on the church was the decision to contextualize the question of the church within the broader question of God. In other words, the church exists because of the Father who willed her, Jesus Christ who established her and gave his life for her, and the Holy Spirit who continually sanctifies her. Apart from these truths, the church is not intelligible.
It is particularly telling that the opening line of Lumen Gentium is an affirmation regarding Christ, not the church: “Christ is the Light of the nations.” The Council’s first statement about the church is a statement about Christ. Apart from Christ and his Gospel, the church and her mission are rendered futile.
The same hermeneutic for understanding the Church was already employed in the thirteenth century by the Common Doctor of Catholicism, St. Thomas Aquinas. There exists in his collected works no systematic treatise on the Church. The thought of St. Thomas on the church is woven into his treatment of Christ and his salvific mission, the nature of faith, and the sacraments which mediate saving grace to the world. Without remaining deeply attuned to her divine origin, the church becomes a mere society of like-minded people, yet another interest group in the public square.
The publication of the Catechism, nearly 30 years after the conclusion of the Council, marked a necessary and corrective contribution to the ongoing discussion of the nature and mission of the Church. The church, the Catechism affirms, is indeed the people of God, but this concept does not explain in totality the relationship of the church to Christ as his Body nor does it negate the hierarchical structure of the Church which Christ himself ordained.
The multiplicity of vocations—those ordained to celebrate the sacraments, those consecrated to radical Gospel-living by the profession of vows and those called to bring the Gospel into the world—serves both the church’s unity and its mission.
While some are inclined to think of the church as a merely earthly reality, the Catechism, following Lumen Gentium, draws our attention to the Communion of Saints and the deep bond that unites believers—those on earth, those in purgatory and those in heaven—permitting them to share in and exchange common spiritual goods.
It may seem unusual that the Council’s teaching on the Blessed Virgin Mary is found within a treatise on the church, but as the Catechism explains well, Mary is our mother in the order of grace. She cooperated singularly in the mission of Christ and therefore in the mission of the church, a truth exemplified in Luke’s vision of the church at Pentecost when the apostolic community gathered around Mary to implore the gift of the Spirit. She embodies in her heavenly state the sign of what the church shall one day be.
Despite the church’s divine institution, she is called to minister in a fallen world. Through the saving sacraments which she celebrates, the church draws new members to herself and baptizes them unto forgiveness of sin and eternal life. While the church is rightly called holy—she possesses an intrinsic holiness because of Christ himself—her members often betray that holiness through actual sin. Again, the true nature of the church is revealed in her mission to forgive sin and reconcile her members to Christ and to herself through confession.
By inaugurating believers into the life of grace and sustaining them through her sacramental life, preaching and witness, the church’s members are configured more and more deeply to Christ himself, and in a special way to his own death and resurrection. Since Christ was raised from the dead, and our relationship with him is sealed by our participation in the life of the church, we too enjoy the promise of eternal life and the reunion of our soul with our body on the last day.
While the church tends to the needs of her members here on earth, she continually directs them to their supernatural end, which is union with God in heaven. She instructs them and admonishes them that at the end of our earthly journey they will experience judgment and will render an account of their lives to Christ. Some will require further purification and others will be admitted directly to heavenly glory. Still others, as a result of their own unrepentant sinfulness, will experience eternal separation from God.
The church never fails to propose to her children the hope of a new heaven and a new earth, where God will be all in all and the church will be presented to Christ as his spotless bride. Without this supernatural vocation in constant view, the church can be easily misunderstood and worse yet, become the vehicle for our own agenda rather than the Gospel of Christ.
Father Joseph Upton is the assistant pastor at St. Francis of Assisi Parish and chaplain at The Prout School, both in Wakefield. This column is part of a yearlong biweekly series on the Year of Faith by Father Upton and Father Ryan Connors.