Thoughts of a Living Christian

Musings of an amateur theologian and hopeful writer

Archive for the month “October, 2011”

Ecclesiological Vision of the Roman Catholic Church


The ecclesiological vision of the Catholic Church is one consisting of approximately 2000 years of tradition. Approaches to ecclesiology, beginning with the Patristics, such as Augustine (4th century), to the Council of Trent (16th century), to the First Vatican Council (19th century) have slowly adapted and changed, often influenced by external pressures. The Second Vatican Council, potentially the largest church council in history, was a movement to give the Catholic Church a greater sense of identity.[1] Held over four sessions between 1962 and 1965, this important council was chaired by Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, and revolutionized the Catholic Church’s approach to ecclesiology and ecumenism. Exhorting the Church to become more involved in the world and society, and encouraging laity to become more active in ministry, the Council influenced the years to come. This essay analyses Vatican 2, in light of pre-conciliar ecclesiology, it’s two “twin pillars” (Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et spes), and post-conciliar ecclesiology, with an eye to the future.

Leading Up To Vatican 2

In 1868, the Roman Catholic Church held the First Vatican Council in response to rising political and social challenges,[2] at which papal infallibility was dogmatized,[3] and strong hierarchical and political structures were formulated to govern the church. This revealed the inequality among members within the church, “not only because among the faithful some are clergy and some are laity, but because there is in the church the power from God by which it is given to some to sanctify, teach, and govern, and to others it is not.”[4] Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the church came to see itself as a perfect society, defined primarily by its institutional and visible aspects.[5] Further, the church asserted itself as the one true Church – salvation was not found elsewhere.[6]

The inequality began to receive criticism, as theologians argued the early church had no such structure, but began in post-Apostolic times.[7] The biblical idea of communion carried the idea of sharing life, an idea which was a “powerful corrective to the purely institutional conceptions.”[8] This led to the calling of Vatican II, which Pope John XXIII announced on January 25, 1959.[9] This announcement came as a shock, as Pope John was merely considered as someone who would “keep the chair of Peter warm,”[10] and was not expected to do much, especially at the age of 77.[11] The first council meeting was in 1962, at which Pope John expressed his desire for the Council to be a new outpouring of the Spirit, a “New Pentecost.” [12] After Pope John died the following year, Pope Paul VI continued the Council, with three more meetings in 1963, 1964, and 1965.[13] It is considered to be one of the most important Councils of the modern era, consisting of over 3000 participants.[14]

The Second Vatican Council

Potentially the two biggest advances in Catholic ecclesiology as a result of the Council had to do with the relationship between clergy and laity, and the relationship between the Church and the world. It was a movement to give the Catholic Church a greater sense of identity,[15] and Pope John “regarded the modern world not as the enemy of the church, but rather as the very place in which God was working out his plan for the salvation of the human race.”[16] Evident was a new spirit of openness, and, whilst confessing the Catholic Church was the only legitimate Christian Church, the Council admitted that Christ may be found outside it, such as in Protestant churches.[17] For the first time, Protestants and Anglicans were thus considered Christians.[18] There was also openness towards non-Christian faiths, especially Judaism: while only Christ can save, rays of truth could be found in other religions.[19]

The Council marks the surrender by the Catholic Church to holding the monopoly on salvation,[20] an acknowledgement of the charismatic movement and a moving away from the traditional approach to tradition.[21] In Pope Paul’s opening statement on September 29, 1963, he listed four aims of the Council: “the development of a clear idea of the Church, its renewal, the unity of all Christians, and dialogue between the Church and the world.”[22] Throughout the sixteen documents which focus on these four aims, six basic overall theological themes are evident, as argued by the Catholic theologian, McBrien. These themes are (1) the mystery of the Church, or the Church as sacrament, (2) the Church as People of God, (3) as servant, (4) as communion, (5) as ecumenical community, and (6) as an eschatological community.[23]

McBrien labels two documents of the Council as the “Twin Pillars” of the Council’s ecclesiology: Lumen Gentium (“The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church”) and Gaudium et spes (“Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”). Early in the Council’s proceedings, Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens asserted that the Council must address the inner life of the Church (ad intra) and its relationship with the world (ad extra). These two documents address these issues, respectively.[24]

Lumen Gentium

According to McIntire, Lumen Gentium continued the work of Vatican 1, affirming the authority of the Pope, but centralizing authority of the bishops, as well as arguing that the Church is one whole, including both clergy and laity.[25] Lumen Gentium initially discusses the mystery of the Church, stating that the “Church is in Christ like a sacrament or instrumental sign of close union with God.”[26] The Creator Father did not leave humanity alone, but sent his Son, into whom humanity can enter into, by the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying power. The Church “strains toward the completed kingdom,”[27] is unified by the Spirit, with Christ as head, communicating salvation to the world.

The Church is the united People of God, made up of both clergy and laity.[28] Lumen Gentium addresses the hierarchical structure, affirming the Pope’s primacy, yet asserting also the authority of the bishops, with whom “our Lord Jesus Christ, the supreme high priest, is present.”[29] Next, the term laity is defined as any Christian who is not in a religious, or leadership role. They are called to live in the world “by God so that by carrying out their own special function in the spirit of the gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world,”[30] and each are witnesses to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.[31] All members are called to holiness, not simply those in a religious order, including Bishops, deacons, parents and married couples, and the sick and disabled.[32] Furthermore, the Church – labeled a “Pilgrim Church” is an eschatological Church, in that the Church is unified in Christ but looking toward perfect unity with heaven. Lastly, Lumen Gentium discusses the “Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God,”[33] arguing that she remained sinless and – like Jesus as Lord of Lords – becomes Queen of all[34] and is the Church’s mother.[35]

Gaudium et spes

“The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” is the Vatican 2 document pertaining to the ad extra notion. It is divided into two sections, referring to the Church and man’s calling, and then specific problems the church must address. The document is thoroughly aimed outwards toward the world.

The document begins by arguing for man’s need for communion with God; “The root reason for human dignity lies in man’s call to communion with God,” and “man would not exist were he not created by God’s love and constantly preserved by it.”[36] God is father, hence humanity is family. We are, therefore, called – by the very nature of God’s love for us – to love one another as brothers.[37] Man is made for community,

This communitarian character is developed and consummated in the work of Jesus Christ…Willingly obeying the laws of his country, he sanctified those human ties, especially family ones, which are the source of social structures. He chose to lead the life proper to an artisan of his time and place.[38]

This idea of community is core to Gaudium et spes’ ecclesiology, and we are called to follow Christ’s example to live in the society of modern culture. This document is a call to greater participation in the world, expressing and implementing Christian values. As in Lumen Gentium, this document expresses eschatological themes, as the Church awaits the fulfillment of these values.[39] Furthermore, laymen, whilst exhorted to give due respect and teaching authority to clergy members, should take on their distinctive and important roles as members of the secular world to seek the goals of the Church and of Christ.[40]

The second part addresses serious problems in society that the Church must concern itself with, such as encouraging the sanctity of marriage and family, and of world peace, as well as the development of culture, economic, social and political life. The Church must shine the light of Christ onto these issues.[41]

In sum, the ecclesiology presented in the Second Vatican Council can be presented as:[42]

Pre-Vatican 2 Ecclesiology                                         Vatican 2 Ecclesiology

Church as institution.                                                    Church as mystery.

Church as hierarchy.                                                     Church as People of God.

Mission: Word and sacrament.                                  Mission: Word, sacrament and service.

Church as absolute monarchy.                                 Church as communion.

One, true Church.                                                           Church as ecumenical community.

Triumphalism (Church as Kingdom).                     Church as eschatological community.

Hence, quite a drastic shift is obvious.

Post Vatican 2 and the Future of Catholic Ecclesiology and Ecumenism

It may seem to some that nothing really came of this Council, that their goals and objectives failed. Oviedo describes two parties who have responded negatively in the aftermath of Vatican 2. The first is the “Disappointed Party,” who expected much more than what eventuated; the second, the “Alarmed Party,” who felt too much was changing, too quickly.[43] Hagstrom notes that even today the teachings are not well known.[44]

However, closer inspection will reveal that the Council influenced a lot. Smith argues that lots of activity, joint prayer gatherings and ecumenical discussions occurred immediately after.[45] The generation of Catholics of the time experienced “a sense of euphoria similar to the time of the Enlightenment…Many people in the Church felt a sense of freedom and progress as never before.”[46] Some ecumenical progress, albeit minimal, has been made. The Pope has met with Anglican leaders, evangelical protestants and has engaged with social and political issue.[47] It should, therefore, be seen that since Vatican 2, the Catholic Church’s engagement with ecumenism and with the world has increased. Furthermore, more laypeople are assisting services, and more Catholics are reading the bible for themselves.[48]

Rahner, the Jesuit theologian born 1904, was a leading thinker behind Vatican 2,[49] despite receiving a period of censorship leading up to the Council.[50] He saw the Church “as the continuing presence of God’s salvific will in the world,” and was not a “spiritual-welfare organization.”[51] He himself stated in 1975, that “the Church can be described as the fellowship in the Spirit which is manifested sacramentally…[and] is continually developing and moving toward its eschatological completion.”[52] Thus, Rahner’s influence on Vatican 2, and vice versa, is evident.[53]

Another influential thinker was Schillebeeckx. Perceiving a greater biblical slant in the documents of Vatican 2, Schillebeeckx poured over and incorporated recent biblical studies into his theology regarding the meaning of Christian faith.[54] Furthermore, he stated shortly after the Council, “The fundamental gain of this constitution is that it broke the clergy’s monopoly of the liturgy,”[55] and then, in 1989, “the co-responsibility of all believers for the church on the basis of our baptism and the Spirit essentially includes the participation of all believers in decisions relating to church government.”[56] Hence, he was influenced by Vatican 2’s encouragement of the ministry of the layperson.

Vatican 2 expressed openness to greater ecumenical discussion, furthered by Rahner and Schillebeeckx, among others in post-conciliar years. Gaudium et spes notes that “the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the gospel,”[57] and “under the light of Christ…the Council wishes to speak to all men in order to shed light on the mystery of man and to co-operate in finding the solution to the outstanding problems of our time.”[58] McIntire argues that the solution to the divisions is not returning to Rome, but in an open future.[59] Furthermore, in light of the efforts made already, Sundberg is convinced there is a future for ecumenism.[60] Others agree, some going further to call for a Third Vatican Council.[61] The controversial Catholic writer, Hans Krüng was among them, in 2001, arguing that the Church “should convene a Vatican 3, which will lead this church from Roman Catholicism to an authentic Catholicity.”[62]


After the shock announcement by Pope John XXIII that a new Council was planned, Vatican 2 quickly built up momentum, and became the largest and one of the most important Church Councils of modern history. The Council marked the Catholic recognition of other Christian faiths and a new spirit of ecumenism. Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et spes, the two most influential documents to come out of the Council, asserted, along with the other 14 documents, that the Church is a mystery, more so than an institution; a People of God, more than hierarchy; a servant; communion; ecumenical, rather than the Catholic Church as the only true Church; and an eschatological community, awaiting the coming of the Kingdom of God. The Council bred a new wave of ecumenism, particularly discussion with Protestant groups, and encouraged the laity to take on their role of ministers to the secular world. While there has only been a little effect toward the goal of an ecumenical Church, there is still hope for the future. Because little has happened yet, does not mean universal ecumenism has plateaued. Perhaps in the near future, the positive roots of ecumenism encouraged at Vatican 2 will have effect and, semantically, ‘Catholic’ will cease to refer to simply a denomination.


Clowney, Edmund P. The Church. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1995.

Corduan, W. “Karl Rahner.” In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.

Council, Second Vatican. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. Melbourne: A.C.T.S. Publications, 1964.

Council, Second Vatican. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Melbourne: A.C.T.S. Publications, 1965.

Grenz, Stanley J. Theology for the Community of God. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994.

Hagstrom, Aurelie A. The Emerging Laity: Vocation, Mission, and Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 2010.

Hill, Jonathon. The New Lion Handbook: The History of Christianity. Oxford: Lion Hudson 2007.

Kennedy, Philip. Schillebeeckx. Collegeville, USA: The Liturgical Press, 1993.

Kung, Hans. The Catholic Church: A Short History. New York: Modern Library, 2001.

McBrien, Richard P. The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism. New York: HarperCollins Publisher, 2008.

McGrath, Alister. Christian Theology: An Introduction (5th Ed.). London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

McIntire, C. T. “Vatican Council 2.” In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.

Neuhaus, Richard John. “What Really Happened at Vatican 2.” First Things October (2008): 23-27.

Oviedo, Lluis. “Should We Say That the Second Vatican Council Has Failed?” The Heythrop Journal 49, no. 1 (2008): 716-730.

Rahner, Karl. “Church: Constitution of the Church.” In Encyclopedia of Theology, edited by Karl Rahner. London: Burns & Oates, 1975.

Roberts, Louis. The Achievement of Karl Rahner. New York: Herder and Herder, 1967.

Schillebeeckx, E. Vatican 2: The Real Achievement. London: Sheed and Ward, 1967.

Schillebeeckx, Edward. Church: The Human Story of God. London: SCM Press, 1989.

Smit, Peter-Ben. “The Developing Understanding of Authority and Primacy in Anglican-Roman Catholic-Old Catholic Dialogue after the Second Vatican Council.” International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 8, no. 3 (2008): 211-231.

Smith, Virginia. “Catholicism Welcomes the World.” In Vatican 2 Today: Calling Catholics to Holiness and Service, edited by Judy Ball and Joan McKamey. Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005.

Sundberg, Walter. “Does Ecumenism Have a Future?” Word and World 18, no. 2 (1998): 172-78.

Vorgrimler, Herbert. Understanding Karl Rahner: An Introduction to His Life and Thought. London: SCM Press, 1986.

Wintz, Jack, and John Feister. “Road Map for the Future: Teachings of Vatican 2.” In Vatican 2 Today: Calling Catholics to Holiness and Service, edited by Judy Ball and Joan McKamey. Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005.

[1] Jonathon Hill, The New Lion Handbook: The History of Christianity (Oxford: Lion Hudson 2007). 434.

[2] Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (5th Ed.) (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). 78.

[3] Hill. 434.

[4] McGrath. 389.

[5] Ibid. 388. This can be seen especially in regard to the laity, who were essentially treated as children, not really considered to have any major part in the mission of the church, and who “had not been the specific subject of conciliar teaching for four hundred years.” (Aurelie A. Hagstrom, The Emerging Laity: Vocation, Mission, and Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 2010). 11).

[6] Richard P. McBrien, The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism (New York: HarperCollins Publisher, 2008). 8. To clarify, this meant any Protestant, Orthodox or Anglican tradition were not considered part of the true church.

[7] McGrath. 389.

[8] Ibid. 390.

[9] Hill. 434. The Catholic theologian Hagstrom comments on the significance of the fact that this announcement occurred at the burial place of Paul, at the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. She notes that post-Reformation saw Protestantism focussing on Paul, Catholicism tended to respond by focussing on Peter. Thus, she argues, this important announcement taking place on a date of such Pauline significance signifies a coming together of Pauline and Petrine thinking for the Catholic Church. (Hagstrom. 9-10).

[10] Hagstrom. 10.

[11] Hill. 434.

[12] Hagstrom. 6.

[13] McBrien. 152-3.

[14] Hill. 434. Neuhaus remarks, “It is commonly said, and with good reason, that the Second Vatican Council was the most important religious event of the twentieth century.”(Richard John Neuhaus, “What Really Happened at Vatican 2,” First Things October, no. (2008). 23).

[15] Hill. 434.

[16] Hagstrom. 10.

[17] Hill. 437.

[18] C. T. McIntire, “Vatican Council 2,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001). 1240.

[19] McGrath. 439.

[20] Edmund P. Clowney, The Church (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1995). 14.

[21] McGrath. 140-41, 390. The Council took place at a time when there was great interest in the charismatic movement. Lumen Gentium includes recognition of this movement as an influence on the Council. Furthermore, the Council began to move away from the two-source belief, regarding Scripture and tradition, arguing that tradition refers to a “traditional interpretation of scripture,” (p. 141) and thus assuming the primacy of Scripture.

[22] McBrien. 153.

[23] Ibid. 164-180. To briefly outline each of these would reveal the Church as the visible presence of God, that the Church is no more or less than the people, the exhortation for the Church to serve the needy of the world and push for social justice, that the Church is made up of faithful united to Christ and the universal Church is a communion of local churches, the Church stretches beyond Roman Catholicism, and the Church is a means toward the Kingdom of God but is not the Kingdom itself (contra prior beliefs).

[24] Ibid. 182.

[25] McIntire. 1239. Furthermore, Oviedo asserts the empowerment the Council gave to some areas within the church, particularly with the laity. The laity “feel more free and able to express their own identity and exercise a greater influence in their socio-cultural milieu.” ( Lluis Oviedo, “Should We Say That the Second Vatican Council Has Failed?,” The Heythrop Journal 49, no. 1 (2008). 725.) Further regarding the laity, Hagstrom comments, “laypeople were exhorted to take on their dignity and equality as members of the church.” (Hagstrom. 12.)

[26] Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Melbourne: A.C.T.S. Publications, 1964). n.1.

[27] Ibid. n.5.

[28] “All men are called to belong to the new People of God. Wherefore this people, while remaining one and only one, is to spread throughout the whole world and through all ages, so that the decree of God’s will may be fulfilled…In all nations of the world there is but one People of God, taking its citizens from them all, citizens of a kingdom which is heavenly not earthly in nature.” (ibid. n.13).

[29] Ibid. n.21. Furthermore, “Although individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they agree on something to be held definitively.” (n.25.)

[30] Ibid. n.31. It should be noted that this is drastically different to prior conceptions of the laity.

[31] Ibid. n.38.

[32] Ibid. n.39-42.

[33] Ibid. n.52.

[34] Ibid. n.59.

[35] Ibid. n.61. If Mary is Jesus’ mother, and the Church is united in Jesus, she is, therefore, the Church’s mother. Hence, as she loved and cared for Jesus, she loves and cares for the Church; “As the new Eve, she showed faith, not in the word of the ancient serpent, but in that of God’s messenger, a faith uncorrupted by doubt.” (n.63).

[36] Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Melbourne: A.C.T.S. Publications, 1965). n.19.

[37] Ibid. n.22.

[38] Ibid. n.32.

[39] Ibid. n.40.

[40] Ibid. n.43.

[41] Ibid. n.46 – n.90.

[42] McBrien. 181.

[43] Oviedo. 716.

[44] Hagstrom. 1. Hagstrom argues this is so, “because the sixteen documents produced by the council are not exactly beach reading.” (p.1).

[45] Virginia Smith, “Catholicism Welcomes the World,” in Vatican 2 Today: Calling Catholics to Holiness and Service, ed. Judy Ball and Joan McKamey(Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005). 44.

[46] Oviedo. 718.

[47] For example, in 1966 the Archbishop of Canterbury of the Anglican Church met with Pope Paul VI to establish the “Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission,” which has published several publications since formulation. (Peter-Ben Smit, “The Developing Understanding of Authority and Primacy in Anglican-Roman Catholic-Old Catholic Dialogue after the Second Vatican Council,” International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 8, no. 3 (2008). The ARCIC published The Church as Communion in 1990, The Gift of Authority in 1998, and in 2007 released a document on ecclesiology. (ibid. 213.).

In 1994, the Catholic Church and evangelical Protestants published a joint document on ecumenical ecclesiology. (Walter Sundberg, “Does Ecumenism Have a Future?,” Word and World 18, no. 2 (1998). 176.

In 1979, the Pope visited America, where he stated, “I want to greet all Americans without distinction. I want to tell everyone that the Pope is your friend and a servant of your humanity.” (Jack Wintz and John Feister, “Road Map for the Future: Teachings of Vatican 2,” in Vatican 2 Today: Calling Catholics to Holiness and Service, ed. Judy Ball and Joan McKamey(Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005). 6). The Catholic Church engaged with social and political issues, in 1983 on war and peace, 1986 on US economy, and 1999 and 2003 on civil responsibility. (ibid. 7).

[48] Wintz and Feister. 6. Interestingly, as laity involvement has increased, ordained ministers have decreased.

[49] W. Corduan, “Karl Rahner,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001). 979-80.

[50] Herbert Vorgrimler, Understanding Karl Rahner: An Introduction to His Life and Thought (London: SCM Press, 1986). He received censorship for what was then considered an uncomfortable liberalist approach to ecclesiology. This censorship was removed after overwhelming support. (pp.92-93). His liberalism dealt with the virgin birth, which according to Grenz, Rahner saw as object, not ground, of faith. (Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994). 319.)

[51] Louis Roberts, The Achievement of Karl Rahner (New York: Herder and Herder, 1967). 226-27.

[52] Karl Rahner, “Church: Constitution of the Church,” in Encyclopedia of Theology, ed. Karl Rahner(London: Burns & Oates, 1975). 212.

[53] Further, Rahner particularly appreciated Vatican 2’s employment of imagery such as mystery, sacrament and People of God. (ibid. 209).

[54] Philip Kennedy, Schillebeeckx (Collegeville, USA: The Liturgical Press, 1993). 13, 67.

[55] E. Schillebeeckx, Vatican 2: The Real Achievement (London: Sheed and Ward, 1967). 27.

[56] Edward Schillebeeckx, Church: The Human Story of God (London: SCM Press, 1989). 209.

[57] Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. n.4.

[58] Ibid. n.10.

[59] McIntire. 1240.

[60] Sundberg. 176.

[61] Neuhaus. 24.

[62] Hans Kung, The Catholic Church: A Short History (New York: Modern Library, 2001). 200.


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