Dr George Karakunnel

             To understand the theology of the Church in Vatican II one needs to see both the background from which it has come and the various stages of its own development.

Historical Background

            In early centuries the Church was vividly experienced and believed in, but her nature was not analysed.  Even in the great age of scholasticism there was no treatise “De Ecclesia”: none will be found in St.Thomas’ “Summa Theologica”.  Such a treatise first appeared at the end of the Middle ages, but chiefly as a creation of Canon Law. Then came the reformation and the need to oppose the Protestant concept of the Invisible Church and to prove that the Roman Church was the only true one.  To do this the idea of the Church as a “perfect society” was much developed, and a fully visible society – “as visible as the Kingdom of France” said St.Robert Bellarmine, the leading counter-reformation controversialist.  Moreover, in discussing the nature of this society little was considered beyond its governmental aspect, and that was seen again in secular terms: those of monarchical government.  Thus a sort of typical ecclesiology for the period from the 16th to 19th century grew up.

            To sum it up:

–         It was apologetic in approach.

–         It defined the church as a “perfect society” understood in terms similar to those of a secular state.

–         It was mostly concerned with the visible aspect of the Church.

–         It spoke chiefly of the governmental side of the society.

–         It explained that government in terms of monarchy.

The best way to show this ecclesiology from which the Second Vatican Council has now finally delivered us is to give an example. So, here is a brief summary of the “De Ecclesia Christi” of Cardinal Billot, 4th edition, 1921. Billot was probably the most distinguished and influential Catholic theologian of the first quarter of this century. His treaties has 870 pages, divided into three parts. Namely;

–         The first part (267 pages) is straightforward apologetics. It proves that the Roman Catholic Church is true and all sects separated from her false.

–         The second part is the most important; its 450 pages are devoted to the Church’s internal constitution. The first chapter is on the members of the Church (all the baptized except those cut off by heresy or schism.)

All the other nine chapters are on ecclesiastical authority: first in general, then the powers of order, of teaching, of jurisdiction. There follow 200 pages on the monarchical character of the Church and on the Roman Pontiff. Finally there are 13 pages divided between bishops and councils.

The third part considers the relationship of the Church with civil society, the two ‘powers’. Its first chapter deals with the error of Liberalism, the second proves that the State is (indirectly) subordinate to the Church, the third and the last speaks of the Church’s immunity.

Why go into all this? Because it shows us so clearly what is new in the “New Ecclesiology”. The old ecclesiology – the teaching of most manuals up till a few years ago – had a terribly juridical and rather secular view of what the Church is.  One finds in Billot’s work no account of the people of God or even of the body of Christ; no reference to the sacraments other than the initiation of baptism; not concern with the laity or even with the priests except as ‘subjects’ for authority; no treatment of the Church’s mission, etc. The old ecclesiology appeared as principally concerned with power in the Church and then chiefly with that of the Pope. Bishops and councils between them got a bare 13 pages. The central thesis of the whole thing was undoubtedly ‘the Church’s monarchy as instituted in St. Peter’ even though Billot – unlike many theologians of his time did temper this by recognizing the existence of a true ‘college of bishops’. The old ecclesiology was not wrong in its chief affirmations;  we cannot reject the visible hierarchical and papal aspects of the Church – but it was very one-sided.

Twentieth Century Developments

            In the forty years following 1921 ecclesiology has been in a constant state of change as the influences of Scripture, the Fathers and Liturgy have been growing, in place of those of canon Law, apologetics and comparisons with civil government. In particular we may note the following developments:

–         The theology of the “Mystical Body” coming back especially in the years after 1925.

–         The Lay Apostolate Movement, greatly encouraged by Pope Pius XI and Pius XII

–         The theology of the People of God, coming in chiefly after 1940.

–         A closer linking up of the Church with sacramental theology.

–         The beginning of ecumenical contacts with non-Catholics.

The manuals of theology written or revised in those years often tried to bring in some of these new ideas (especially, of course, that of the mystical body after the encyclical of 1943), but on the whole they stuck to the old framework and you get some odd results as when the mystical body is mentioned indeed but in a ‘corollarium’!


The first text of the “De Ecclesia” to appear at the Council, that produced after much discussion by the Preparatory Commission and debated during the last week of the first session, did much of this.

Many new ideas appeared here and there but the general impression was still strongly of the old point of view in its order, its stresses and its terminology. The bishops strongly criticized it as too heavily institutional and juridical. Although not specifically rejected by the Fathers it was clear that this draft was not acceptable, and it was almost entirely rewritten by the Doctrinal Commission between the first and second sessions.

This new draft  (B) was an enormous improvement. It was very carefully discussed in the second session and a great many further amendments and additions many of them of the first importance, were proposed. It was also decided to add two further chapters, one eschatological, the other Marian. This resulted in a further extremely careful writing or rewriting of the various parts; these were prepared in a number of sub-commissions which included many of the most distinguished international theologians. The new draft (now eight chapters) was sent out to the Fathers in July, 1964. Further small but significant amendments had still to be made to it during the third session and in that form it was finally voted on and approved.

Let us compare the order of the three chief drafts by chapter divisions.


          A                                                  B                                                      C

Presented in Session I                Presented in Session II               Presented in Session III

  1. Nature of the militant Church
  2. Members of the militant Church
  3. Episcopate and Priesthood
  4. Residential Bishops
  5. The states of perfection
  6. Lay people
  7. Teaching authority
  8. Authority and obedience in the Church
  9. Relations of Church and State
  10. Necessity of Universal Evangelization
  11. Ecumenism
  1. The mystery of the Church
  2. The hierarchy
  3. The people of God and the laity
  4. The vocation of all to holiness; religious
  1. The mystery of the Church
  2. The People of God
  3. The hierarchy
  4. The Laity
  5. Call of the whole Church to holiness
  6. Religious
  7. Eschatological nature of the pilgrim Church and her union with the heavenly Church

8.  The role of Mary in the  mystery of Christ and the Church


–         The original text clearly what we may call ‘Billot’s general order and approach’ while inserting some new sections in what seems a rather arbitrary way.

–         However, text A did already include many ideas of the ‘New Ecclesiology’, e.g. the terms ‘people of God’ and ‘body of Christ’ appear at once in c. l. ; lay people were given a separate chapter which speaks of the universal priesthood.

–         Yet the ‘old approach’ was still too clear: four different chapters were devoted to the organs of clerical authority, while the tone of the actual text was in many places very juridical.

–         The later texts have put everything that was to be said about the ‘hierarchical ministry’ into a single chapter (a long one).

–         The final text develops the idea of ‘God’s people’ before speaking of the hierarchy.

–         The Church’s spiritual and invisible purpose, ‘holiness’, appears clearly in the later texts.

–         ‘The Laity’ were treated after religious in the first text before them in the second and third.

–         The traditional chapter on the two ‘potestates’ (powers) ‘Church and State’- is simply left out in the later texts; other matters such as the Church’s missionary character, which appears in the first text as a sort of ‘corollarium’ are integrated into the general treatment; on the other hand quite new themes (especially concerning invisible aspects of the Church) make their appearance.

–         The term ‘militant’ falls out; the term ‘pilgrim’ comes in.

–         Already this brief analysis of Chapter headings shows us quite a lot about the way thinking on the Church developed during the Council. But to understand that development properly what we must examine is the text itself of the final constitution, for, the whole ‘new theology’ of Christian life in the church is really to be found within its chapters.



A Brief  Commentary

Chapters 1 and 2

                       I.     Ecclesia                        a.1.      Introduction: the Council intends to set

                  de Trinitate                               forth the nature of the Church

                  a. 1-4.                          a.2.      the Father’s work.

                                                      a.3.      the Son’s.

                                                      a.4.      the Holy Spirit’s.

1.The mystery

   of God’s gift

                                                                        a.5.      Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom.

                                                      a.6.      Images of the Church:

                                                                  sheepfold, flock, olive tree, vineyard;

                                                                  building, temple of God, holy city;

                                                                  bride of Christ.

      II.         Aspects of the mystery

                  a.5-8                            a.7.      the body of Christ.

                                                      a.8.      a visible, hierarchial society; but one of

                                                                  service not of power.

III.       Nature of the people

                  a. 9-12                         a.9.      constituted by the new covenant with

Christ as head.

                                                      a.10-11.priestly character.

                                                                        a.12.    prophetic character, including charisms.

2.The People

   of God.

                        IV.       Relationship                  a.13.    universality of the people.

                                    with the human race.     a.14.    fullness of incorporation.

                                    a.13-17.                       a.15.    separated Christians.

                                                                        a.16.    non-Christians.

                                                                        a.17.    the mission of universal


The Title:

The conciliar documents, like papal encyclicals, are to be known by the first words of their latin text, and so special care was presumably taken to make these significant.  The words LUMEN GENTIUM which open the constitution on the Church appeared with the 1963 text.  That of 1962 began AETERNUS UNIGENITI PATER, rather reminiscent of Vatican I’s PASTOR AETERNUS.  The words LUMEN GENTIUM look outwards and stress the universal mission of both Christ and the Church.  They are an implicit quotation from Isa. 42:6, but ‘gentes’ here of course no longer means the gentiles in opposition to Israel but simply all the peoples of the world.  We may be especially glad that this phrase entitles the Council’s greatest document not only because of its missionary significance but also because it was a phrase very dear to Pope John, and was used as the key words of his radio message to the world on 11 September, 1962, just before the Council opened.  It is Christ who is the light of the nations, but his light shines through the Church.

Common theme of these two chapters:


The first two chapters of the constitution stand together, providing a rich basic  theology of the Church.  In draft B of the document the order followed was: c.1, Mystery of the Church; c.2, the Hierarchy; c.3, the People of God and the Laity.  But it was pointed out in the second session that the term ‘People of God’ includes the whole Church, the hierarchy as well.  Laity and hierarchy are divisions within God’s people, and therefore a study of the People of God must come before one of the hierarchy.  PEOPLE OF GOD, in fact, is an important name for the Church, while the hierarchy is a ministry within the Church (or rather, those performing that ministry).  We have to see the Church as a whole before we speak of a ministry within her.  Hence a chapter on the People of God was placed before that on the hierarchy.

The matter of c.2 might in fact have been merged into c.1.  It was kept apart both to stop c.1 from becoming too long and then because of a certain difference of approach: c.1 deals more with the divine, c.2 with the human side of the Church’s nature.  The Church on earth is a gathering of men by God: he forms and gives this gathering its special characteristics.  So, in studying the Church’s nature, there are two aspects to be considered – that of the gift, and that of those who receive it.  Roughly speaking, c.1 deals with the first aspect: the Church’s mystery as a gift of God; c.2 deals with the second aspect: the human community, the people of God.  But the two sides are so completely inter-involved that not only is there of course no division between them, but even a distinction should not be pressed.

The very existence of these two well-developed chapters on the Church’s general nature, placed before any treatment of the hierarchy, is the first and possibly even the most important contribution of the constitution to our understanding of the Church.  Never again will others be able to say that we seem only to speak about the governmental side of the Church; in the past that was often almost true.  From now on it cannot be.  In these two chapters on the nature of the Church there is no detailed mention of the hierarchy at all.  The body of the Church is described, and only when that has been done does the constitution go on to speak in detail of the ministry within the Church.

Note that each of these two chapters is fairly clearly divided into half, as in the summary above; if the four units are seen as such a study of the main lines of thought will be greatly assisted.

Chapter – 1:


The essence of the Church is very finely expressed in a.1.  The Church is the sacrament of  UNION WITH GOD and of unity among men.  That is where we start from – not a juridically conceived ‘perfect society’ but ‘union with God’, of which the Church as we know her is the sacrament, that is to say the visible sign and embodiment.

Union with God means union with the three persons of God, Father, Son, Holy Spirit.  The Church is indeed DE TRINITATE.  In order to gather men into this unity of God, the Father sent the Son in whose life and especially in whose death and paschal sacrifice the Church is inaugurated.  It is in the eucharistic sacrifice and sacrament that what Christ did then is continually expressed and made effective for us: in this way the unity of men, the body of Christ, is brought about.  But it is the Holy Spirit who continually vivifies, sanctifies, and rejuvenates the Church of God: Christ provides the ‘shape’ of the Church, the Spirit the breath of life.

This opening section is concluded with the fine sentence: ‘Thus the universal Church is revealed as “a people brought into unity from the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” (a.4).  These four opening articles really provide an exquisite summa of essential ecclesiology and deserve deep meditation.

a.5 provides an extension of a.3: the historical work of Christ especially in terms of the kingdom.  The meaning of the kingdom is not easy to express precisely.  The kingdom of God is the fullness of humanity’s service of God.    Preaching the kingdom, Jesus inaugurates the Church, and the Church is continually bringing the kingdom nearer to realization, but the two cannot simply be identified – at least until the end of time.

 In a.6 we find the presentation of a wide variety of scriptural images for the Church.  Drawn from the life of the countryside and the common trades they can be specially valuable for catechetical work in non-industrialized societies.  The images given in a.6 could very well form the basis for a course of sermons.  Note that the ‘body of Christ’ in a.7 is not given simply as another image.  This title cannot be put on the same level as the images previously referred to, as it has a deeper and more precise theological meaning.

In a.8 for the first time we meet the word ‘society’.  The Church is indeed a visible society.  We live in a visible world.  Christ was a visible man and the divine communion he came to bring, which has been described up till now, must take a visible and social form.  It involves the gathering of men in a human society  which requires leadership, etc. like other human societies.  Therefore the divine fellowship, the body of Christ existing in the visible world, must take the form of a visible society, the earthly (hierarchical) Church.  The identity of the two was stressed in Pius XII’s encyclicals MYSTICI CORPORIS and HUMANI GENERIS; it is repeated here, but in a modified form.  The single Church of Christ cannot be simply and absolutely identified with the one visible Roman communion, for the Council recognizes important ‘ecclesial elements’ separated from the latter.  The visible Church as sacrament (manifest and effective sign) of union with God is one and exclusive, but what it signifies extends beyond its visible frontiers.  Hence, whereas draft B stated unequivocally ‘This Church is the Roman Catholic Church’, the final text declares ‘This Church SUBSISTS in the R.C. Church’.  The implications of this tiny verbal modification may be very great.

Chapter – 2:


a.9 is a fundamental one.  The PEOPLE OF GOD is the Councils characteristic name for the Church.  Note that the description of the people starts with the fact of the covenant.  The Church is God’s new people.  Why? Because Christ instituted a new eternal covenant in his blood of cross and Eucharist.  We cannot understand this term ‘people of God’ without the covenant idea: the historical agreement whereby a group of men are made into God’s chosen people.

God’s people is ‘a kingdom of priests’.  Until recently we have greatly neglected the truth of the priesthood of all the faithful, so stressed by Lutherans.  Here it is called the ‘common priesthood’ as distinguished from the ‘ministerial priesthood’ of holy orders.  Note that both are sacramental in origin and expression and, of course, that all ministers share in the common or universal priesthood.  This is a real participation in Christ’s Priesthood, and it is actuated in the whole of the Church’s worship centred upon offering the Eucharist, to which every Christian is called.

The final paragraph of a.11 speaks of the universal vocation of Christians to perfect sanctity; it anticipates the theme of c.5.

Besides the priestly and prophetic gifts which are common to all the christian people, there are many other special one to this person or that which are given by the Holy Spirit for the good of the Church.  These are called ‘charisms’’; some may be remarkable others very simple.  They are to be welcomed by the hierarchical ministry, but their genuineness and proper use may require testing.

Articles 13-17 must again be seen as a unit.  The key to all five is the initial sentence: ‘All men are called to belong to the new People of God’.  The whole section works out the implications of this statement.  The picture of God’s people is one of an ever richer diversity in unity as the universality of its vocation is little by little realized through historical growth.  Catholics in a state of grace and the communion of Rome are fully incorporated into the unity of the one people, but non-Catholic Christians too are joined to it in many ways – by baptism and the Scriptures and faith and the Holy Spirit: a.15 must, of course, be studied with the Decree on Ecumensim.  Non-Christians as well (Jews, Muslims, everyone) are positively related to the one people in one way or another, for all God’s sons have been called to membership of the new people.  Nevertheless here and now they still lack much; to give it to them and so achieve the desired fullness missionary work is absolutely necessary.  This is not a valuable extra in Church life.  On the contrary: “Proclaiming saving truth to the ends of the earth’ expresses the very purpose and being of the Church and without it the Church would not indeed be here self.  Only thus can we bring to achievement the Catholicity and unity of God’s people: all humanity fully within the one Church, and the one Church fully diversified with the variety of mankind.

Notice that we have said ‘Roman Catholics in a state of grace are FULLY incorporated into the one people’.  Draft B of a.14 had declared that ONLY Catholics are REALLY incorporated into the Church (‘Reapse et simpliciter…illi tantum’); this was a repetition of the words of the encyclical MYSTICI CORPORIS (‘Reapse illi soli’).  But the Fathers preferred to replace the above words with ILLI PLENE.  Full membership, to the mind of the Council, furthermore implies not only fulfilling the external conditions of belonging to the Roman communion, but also includes possession of the Spirit of Christ: ‘Dead” members cannot be ‘full’ members.  If Catholics are incorporated into the ‘full communion’ of the visible Church, non-Catholic Christians are truly but not fully members of the visible communion.  This does not PER SE limit their sharing in the fellowship of faith and love which is signified, but at the sign level at least their communion with the great Church is not complete.  This is an important advance on earlier official teaching.

This beautiful treatise on the Church ends as it began, with the three persons of God, from whom (in a.1) our eucharistic communion and mission comes and to whom (a.17) it returns.  The universal mission must bring about a universal Eucharist-in the prophetic words of Malachi, ‘In every place there is a sacrifice’-that in this way ‘the fullness of the whole world may pass into the People of God, the Body of the Lord and the Temple of the Holy Spirit, that in Christ, the head of all things, all honour and glory may be rendered to the creator, the Father of the universe’.



1. Introduction.                                                             a.18.    purpose of the chapter

                                   I. Its origin                                a.19.    the apostolic college.

                                                                                    a.20.    bishops are the apostles’

                                                                                                successors by divine institution.

                                                                                    a.21.    entry through consecration-the

                                                                                                fullness of Holy orders.

2. The Episcopate         II. Its nature                              a.22.    the Episcopal college and the

                                                                                                Position of its head.

                                                                                    a.23.    mutual relations of bishops;

                                                                                                world missionary responsibilities

                                    III. Its work                              a.24.    the ministry in general.

                                                                                    a.25.    teaching, and ecclesial infallibility

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            a.26.    sanctifying.

                                                                                    a.27.    pastoral rule.

                                                                                    a.28.    the priesthood.

3. Lesser Orders                                                          a.29.    the diaconate.

Chapter 3 is the longest in the constitution.  Certain points in it were discussed very extensively and finally formulated with great precision, but it would be a mistake to limit the significance of this chapter to those points.  The chapter as a whole is very rich in its teaching.  Its general characteristics are as follows: It is clear in the New Testament that Christ entrusted the direction of His Church to the twelve as a body, a collective unit, and they acted as such in the early days described in the Acts. To them was given full authority: Peter was one of the twelve , their leader. He could not act except as an apostle because that is what he was; but he was not merely their president.  What was given to the Twelve collectively, was explicitly given to him individually.  The one fullness of authority bestowed by Christ was given both to the college and to its head – they not being their collective whole without him, while he in principle acted always as leader of the Twelve.

Peter’s primacy was passed to the popes; the apostles’ ministry to the bishops.  Catholics have never doubted that.  What has not been so clear is that bishops have not merely succeeded individually to a limited charge, but also collectively to the universal one-to a real shared responsibility for the whole Church. It should have been clear, of course, because it was implied by the whole long history of ecumenical councils.  What this chapter now teaches us is just how the character of the Church’s ministry has remained, as it was in apostolic times, collective-cum-individual.  Papal authority is no less than Vatican  I defined it, but it looks rather different when seen as the divinely planned headship of a continuing college.

It will take time to shape the Church’s concrete institutions effectively according to this new vision of collegiality.  We can say in fact that the administration of the Church in the last two or three centuries has been rather un-collegial: instead it has been over-centralized and curial.  Pope Paul’s establishment of the Synod of Bishops in 1965 and its first meeting in October, 1967, is a step in the direction of a regular, practiced collegiality, though of course Pope John’s calling of the Council itself was the first great modern recognition that the Church really needs collegial leadership.

The old ecclesiology frequently described the Church as MONARCHICAL.  Neither the word ‘monarchy’ nor its adjective appear anywhere in the constitution.  We may judge that they are not really very suitable words for our subject, for two reasons: firstly, the concept of a monarchy is too different from that of a college, whose head has indeed a quite unique authority, but of which he is still a member.  Secondly, ‘Monarchy’ is a too secular term, brought in from comparison with civil government; its use was rather characteristic of the general secularization of ecclesiology after the fourteenth century.  Some people today are saying ‘Monarchy is out; democracy is in’.  That is not the sense of the constitution.  These terms fit the government of civil states, but neither really suits the Church, though doubtless they can both in some way be used of her.  “Hierarchical’ is a more helpful word, just because it is not used so characteristically of civil society, and because its general sense is not in itself precise.  To describe what sort of pattern the Church’s hierarchical ministry takes, we may now use the word ‘collegial’.  But its precise meaning is to be ascertained from revelation, not from secular parallels: it signifies that unique balance, first existing between the twelve apostles and their leader, now perpetuated in the permanent pattern of the Church’s ministry.

a.18. Note again the immediate stress on pastoral ministry and service in the opening paragraph.  The job of the hierarchy is ‘to serve its brothers’.  This theme is taken up again later, especially in the last para of a.20, in a.24, and in a.27 where its repetition balances and softens the juridical statement that bishops have proper, ordinary and immediate ecclesiastical authority.

The purpose of the Council here is to follow up Vatican I, proclaimed the ministry of the pope, Peter’s successor and the visible principle of unity in the Church, by speaking of that of the bishops, the successors of the apostles.  Most of a.18 (except the first paragraph) is in fact taken word for word from Vatican I.

At the end of a.20 comes the first of the particular truths which the Fathers wished to state definitely in this chapter and around which their earlier discussions had centred: ‘Bishops have by divine institution taken the place of the apostles as pastors of the Church’.

In a.21 comes the second precise point of teaching: ‘The fullness of the sacrament of Orders is conferred by Episcopal consecration’.  This fullness includes not only the ministry of sanctifying (i.e. the power to administer certain sacraments) but also that of teaching and ruling.  The ‘high priesthood’ of bishops, as received in their consecration, implies this whole circle of work, being a true presentation amid the faithful of the high priesthood of Jesus Christ himself.  It cannot be seen, then, as simply a gift of ‘orders’ to which jurisdiction may be added, even though its actual exercise does require subsequent (normally territorial) delimitation to be settled by the Episcopal college or (as generally at present) its head.

Note that almost nothing is said about whether bishops have specifically sacramental functions (e.g. ordination) absolutely proper to them, that is to say which other priests cannot perform: only episcopal consecration itself is mentioned: it is for bishops to consecrate other bishops.  Even here, however, an earlier text which read that ‘only bishops can admit…. was modified to say simply ‘it is for bishops to admit’.  The sacramental fullness of the episcopate is not to be seen, then, in terms of some isolated sacramental powers but as the sacramental imparting of a total office and function in the Church.

a.22  gives us the heart of the doctrine of Episcopal collegiality and merits especially careful reading.  (The authoritative comment entitled the NOTA PRAEVIA and attached to the constitution at its end bears especially upon the interpretation of this article).  As Peter and the apostles formed one apostolic college, in a similar way the pope and the bishops form one Episcopal college.  Membership of this college depends on consecration AND hierarchical communion with its head and members (a consecrated bishop could exclude himself or be excluded from the college on account of failure to co-operate in the work of the hierarchical ministry).  Both the college and its head permanently possess the fullness of Church authority, but the college is not meaningful without its head and cannot act without at least his approval or concurrence.

a.23 deals with the continuous ‘collegial’ aspect of a bishop’s work-his extra-diocesan responsibilities of one kind and another, including that of helping missionary work; a bishop is by his nature not only a minister for the communion, he is also a minister for the mission.

a.25 is another long and important one.  It presents a summary of doctrine on the Church’s magisterium.  The first section deals with the ordinary non-infallible teaching authority of bishops and pope; the second part with infallible authority seen both in the universal episcopate and in the pope.

What should be particularly noted are the following two points:

The stress is on ECCLESIAL infallibility, on what the Council calls’ the Church’s charism of infallibility’ present both in the pope and in general council.  Whereas draft A, having spoken of papal infallibility, went on to say that the definitions of a general council enjoyed the same infallibility as those of the pope, the final text stresses that ‘the infallibility promised to the Church’ is present in the body of bishops as in the pope.  This is in fact in strict line with the way of speaking of Vatican I.

The text twice stresses the relationship between the infallible teaching authority of the Church and the deposit of revelation.  The former extends as far as the latter and is ruled by it.  It is very important to be clear about this because there have been tendencies to interpret the Church’s infallible authority as extending far beyond revelation, and this was indeed proposed also in draft A.

a.26-27 speak of other sides of the bishop’s work.  Note that every bishop is called a ‘vicar of Christ’; also that the meaning of a bishop’s office is expressed in terms of a local church centred upon the Eucharist.

The last two articles (28 and 29) speak of the ministry of priests and deacons, who also form part of the Church’s divinely instituted hierarchy and share in almost every side of the bishops’ ministry.  Let us note that the general pattern of collegiality is seen as applying to the particular church (the diocese) as well as to the universal Church.  The priests of the diocese form, with their bishop, a sort of sacerdotal college, a single PRESBYTERIUM, which does not limit the bishop’s authority but indicates the way his ministry should be mediated to his whole flock across the co-operation of his co-workers.  The old idea of a ‘monarchical episcopate’ is as misleading as that of the monarchical papacy.

Article 29 quietly indicates what brings about a further revolution in the ministry in coming years.  For long the DIACONATE has been no more than a stage in seminary life.  This article points out its real purpose in the service of the people of God, and of how many functions – at present in practice reserved to priests – deacons can carry out.  With the present growing shortage of priests, it would be most valuable in many countries to have a permanent diaconate restored, but as it would surely be difficult to find many unmarried men for this work the Council envisages the ordination of married men as deacons in the future.

As with priests, bishops, the pope himself, their ordination and status will be for the service of God’s people, the building up of the body of Christ.  (For further treatment of collegiality see the decree on Bishops).


Chapter 4 THE LAITY:


a.30. Introduction.

a.31. What we mean by laity.

a.32. Their ecclesial character in general.

a.33. Their apostolate in general.

a.34. The laity share in the priesthood of Christ.

a.35. They share in his prophetic office.

a.36. They share in his kingly power.

a.37. Co-operation with the clergy.

a.38. Conclusion.

Note that this chapter on the laity is linked very closely both with c.2 (they were originally joined together) and with the decree on the lay apostolate where, of course, its practical implications are developed.

In a.31 the meaning of the word ‘laity’ is considered under two aspects:

NEGATIVELY – all the faithful who are not in the hierarchy or religious orders.

POSITIVELY – the laity are those of the people of God who have a properly secular character, their normal activities being the activities of the world.  Whereas the characteristic activity of the clergy derives materially from the nature of the Church, the characteristic activity of the laity derives materially from the nature of the world, of ordinary human society .  Both must equally seek the kingdom of God.

a.32. The laity are full members of the body of Christ, of the people of God.  Variety of functions in the body causes no inequality in essentials; what unites clergy and laity is of far greater importance than what distinguished them.  What unites them is Christian brotherhood in grace and a common call to perfection; what distinguishes them is diversity in service and function.  Note how here as in a.30, the theology of the laity grows naturally out of the doctrine of the Church as the body of Christ: the unity of many diverse members.

The basic sense of the lay apostolate is established in a.33.  The laity have an apostolate because they are laity.  They share in the mission of the Church just because they are living members of the people of God; appointed to this mission by the very fact of their consecration in baptism and confirmation.  In the past the lay apostolate was sometimes defined as ‘the co-operation of the laity in apostolate of the hierarchy’.  This was not a good definition.  The hierarchy have an apostolate proper to them and so have the laity.  The lay apostolate comes primarily, not from a special offer to do part of the hierarchy’s job for it, but from the obligation of every baptized Christian to share actively in the mission of Christ.  Evidently many laymen are called over and above this to join in the apostolate of the hierarchy, and this work may be very important.  But basically the lay apostolate is precisely that apostolate which is proper to laity as laity, i.e. as Christians not sharing in the hierarchical ministry.

a.34 is really a repeat of a.10 – 11, and a.35 in part of a.12.  They were inserted when the old chapter on ‘the People of God and the laity’ was split into two and the former sections dealing with the priestly and prophetical aspects of Christian living were carried to c.2.

However a.35 adds some special stresses on the most characteristic lay aspects of implementing Christ’s prophetic role.  In many circumstances evangelization, witnessing to Christ, can be done only by them; moreover, at the very heart of human life-the family – it is for married people to be witnesses of  Christian faith and give love to one another and to their children.

Laymen have a special function in the carrying through of the royal work of Christ (a.36).  This work entails the re-ordering of the earth and of human society so that across the attainment by the terrestrial city of human culture, distributive justice, personal freedom, the light of Christ will be manifested and creation enabled to give greater glory to God.  But all this work belongs principally to the laity – the ensuring that the kingdom of Christ is advanced not only by the progress of the Church but also by the progress of the world.

a.37 earnestly advocates a truly active co-operation between clergy and laity, even though its style remains rather clericalist.  While all Christians have a duty of respect and obedience in Church matters towards their pastors, they have also a duty of free action and personal responsibility.  What is required is a two–way traffic.  Suggestions, initiatives, criticisms, if given in the right way, are needed from the laity who, when competent, must be ready to speak out and act with confidence and courage.  The health of the Church depends upon mutual trust and sharing of responsibilities between hierarchy and laity.

The whole chapter stresses the outward-looking side of the Church.  In Pope Paul’s words ‘the Church is for the world’.  Now this world-serving character of the Church is born especially by the laity.  It is in a way for the clergy to serve the laity, the laity to serve the whole human society.  This theme of course is developed in the constitution on the Modern World and in the decree on the Lay Apostolate.  The present chapter is the link between the constitution on the Church and those other more obviously ‘outward-looking’ documents.  The layman, it concludes, must be the sacrament of the living God before the world.  What the soul is in the body, let Christians be in the world.

‘The apostolate which deals with the temporal order itself and seeks to imbue it with a Christian spirit is normally the special responsibility of the layman, so that in this task he has a larger role than the cleric, whose first responsibility is that of preaching the word of God and dispensing the divine mysteries.  In the relation of the faithful to the Church hierarchy the principle of subsidiarity should be followed…..This means that those things which parish priests can do by themselves should not be taken over by the bishop’s curia, and just as those things which – leaving the hierarchical structure of the Church intact-can be done by bishops or bishops’ conferences should be left to them, so also those things which the layman can accomplish on his own initiative and responsibility should not be taken over by the clergy, always with the proviso that the hierarchical structure of the Church is preserved’. (From a council speech of Bishop Hoffner of Munster).

Chapters 5 and 6 HOLINESS:

5. The universal call to holiness              a.39.    the Church is holy with the holiness of

                                                                        Christ, her spouse and head.

a.40.    all her members are called to share in this

                                                           a.41.    every condition of life has its own way to


                                                           a.42.    but the heart of holiness for everyone is love.

6. The particular call through the

religious life                                           a.43.    definition of the religious state: a stable way of

                                                                        life embodying the evangelical counsels.

                                                            a.44.    personal and ecclesial reasons for its existence

                                                           a.45.    relation to ecclesiastical authority.

                                                           a.46.    relation to human society.

                                                           a.47.    conclusion.


History of the text:

The 1962 text of the constitution followed the order: bishops, priests, religious, laity; and the chapter on religious was entitled ‘the states of perfection’.  As we saw, in the course of the council this order was changed.  The hierarchy – laity division is basically part of the essential structure of the Church, and should therefore be treated first.  Religious, on the other hand, as the constitution states, are really divided between hierarchy and laity: some belong to one group, some to the other.  Their special state can be better understood when the positive characteristics of both hierarchy and laity have been explained.  Hence the 1963 text adopted the order: hierarchy, laity, religious.  However, the last chapter was given a quite new title, “The Vocation to Holiness in the Church’, and its first section spoke briefly of that vocation as universal’.  The passage ‘Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect’ was quoted, and as referring to all men.  Its second section then spoke of the particular vocation to religious life, still described as the ‘state of perfection’.

This was not the end of the story.  As a result of the discussions of the second session, further drastic alterations were undertaken.  Among them we may note: (a) The section on the universal vocation to holiness was greatly enlarged, ceasing to be little more than an  ‘opener’ to a treatment of religious.  It had become the most striking part of the chapter.  (b) All reference to the ‘state of perfection’ (or ‘state of acquiring perfection’) was dropped from the text of the section on religious, as (previously) it had been dropped from the title – though traditional, it is a misleading term, for all men are called to perfection, not just religious; equally in this life no one attains it.  The term had a juridical rather than a theological meaning.  (c) This second section now stresses the ecclesial and eschatological significance of the religious life.

Questions still remained, however, on the dividing and placing of this matter.  Should it continue to form a single chapter, or be divided clearly into two? Again, many urged that now a fine section on the universal vocation to sanctity had been written, it was in fact in the wrong place.  It should not follow the chapters on the hierarchy and the laity and precede that on religious; it should precede all these chapters and be linked with that on the people of God.  The order would then have been:

The People of God.

Its vocation to sanctity.

The hierarchy.

The laity.


In principle this might well have been the best and most logical plan.  However, it would have involved a very big rewriting of many sections of the constitution at a late date, and would also have cut in half the treatment of matters which were really linked together in the two sections of this chapter.  It was agreed therefore to retain the existing order, while inserting in c.2, a.11 a brief paragraph pointing forward to c.5 Secondly, it was decided (by a general vote of the fathers in the third session, 30 September, 1964) to constitute these two sections as two separate chapters.  This division shows the importance of the religious life for the Church as a whole, and that surely corresponds to the facts of the case.  Many fathers had feared that, with the new stress on the universal vocation to holiness, there was a danger of minimizing the significance of the religious vocation.  They felt that a separate chapter would counteract this danger.  The chapter as finally written shows this significance as a truly theological ore; the religious state, as canonically established in the church, constitutes a sign-a visible human embodiment-of the deep things of spiritual life and of the other-worldliness of the Church of God.

Chapter 5:

The Church is essentially holy, as we affirm in the Creed.  This holiness is of God, not of men.  She is holy because Christ, her lord and her head, has made her holy.  Being a member of her necessarily means being called to share in this holiness; one cannot be a Church member and not be so called.  Though given by God, the holiness of the Church will then be manifested in the lives of her members.  Called to grace in baptism and faith, all Christians must develop in their lives the holiness they have received from God.  This chapter really offers a very fine SUMMARY OF CHRISTIAN MORAL THEOLOGY-of a morality wholly informed by love.  God is love; being given his life means being invited to love and to grow up into a fullness of charity-love of God, love of one’s fellow men.  For bishops and priests this takes a predominantly pastoral form; for married people a faithful commitment to the family, for workers, for the disabled, for every group and every individual person the holiness of love takes on its special form.  It is a pity that the sentence in a.41 referring to the widowed and the unmarried from this point of view is so very weak.  In fact the treatment of the variety of people described in a.41 on `the forms and tasks of life` is very over-weighted on the clerical side. This is a point where the Council`s intended width of view did not quite come across in the form of words used.  But anyway the whole of the preceding chapter was really concerned with the holiness of the laity and the principle is here: diversity of human life and character combined with unity in the transforming love that comes from God to be the very life and purpose of the Church. One and all we are called to `the pursuit of perfect love`.

Christ gave his disciples  both counsels and commands.  There is no clear distinction between them, but Christian writers and ecclesiastical tradition concentrated on three of the former as the foundation  for a special life of detachment from the world and christened them `the evangelical counsels`-virginity, poverty, obedience.  In fact there are many counsels in the New Testament, though obedience is not clearly among them.  The vows are means approved by the Church as of special value upon the road to holiness; but the counsels are elements in Christ`s teaching which concern the whole Christian community, and are therefore spoken of in c.5 and not only in c.6




Chapter 6:


Nevertheless the exteriorization of the counsels in a clearly visible form has an importance of its own for the Church.  And that is what has happened.  Historically they have been embodied in various `stable ways of life`, proper to different religious orders and societies, whose membership can be most helpful for attaining the full supernatural end of man; sound teaching, a fraternal communion, the continual harmonizing of freedom with obedience, fidelity to vowed resolutions-all these things can help man greatly on `the road of love`.

A chapter on the religious life in a constitution DE ECCLESIA must, however, necessarily consider it not so much from the personal viewpoint as from that of the strict ecclesial significance of this particular form of living.  The immediate purpose of the profession of the evangelical counsels is two-fold: to cut away hindrances to the service of God  and to be consecrated positively and wholly to that service.  Now, for the baptized, the service of God has always to be given in and across the life of the Church.  Christian spirituality is personal, but personal IN THE CHURCH.  The ecclesial sense of religious profession can be summed up in three points:  Firstly, it is an explicitation and affirmation, by a most deliberate human action, of the baptismal consecration of this Christian and of every Christian; by it the fruit of the original consecration can become more abundant.  Secondly, it is a visible sign of the Church`s nature-both of her bridal union with Christ and of her `other-worldliness`.  The Church transcends the needs and aspirations of the earthly city.  True religious manifest this transcendance in their lives.  Thirdly, it is made effectively fruitful for the whole Church by the kind of life and work proper to each institute: prayer, teaching, nursing……No religious society may be `useless` as regards the life of the whole body, but this does not mean that each  society must undertake external apostolic activities.  Contemplatives are at least as ecclesially fruitful as active orders.

In the past there has been an age-old rivalry between `seculars` and `regulars` between the local diocese and its authority and the `exempt` international religious society. Councils have traditionally been an occasion for bishops to try and bring EXEMPTION to an end, by imposing Episcopal authority upon the local members of a religious order.  This Council witnessed something of the kind but like previous attempts it was largely rejected.  The need for exemption is restated in a.45.  As a matter of fact, if members of religious orders have often seemed uninterested in the pastoral needs  of the local church, members of the secular clergy have often seemed uninterested in the wider missionary and intellectual needs of the universal Church. The solution of such rivalries and misunderstandings is not to be found in a chance of legislation, but rather in a greater awareness upon both sides of the fullness of the body of Christ and the variety of its needs.   Religious societies must indeed be willing to share in the life and work of the local church under the authority of its bishop, but the general good of the whole Church requires too wider organizations which could not function without some measure of canonical exemption of congregations from local authorities.

There is a paradox in religious life which parallels and indeed reflects a paradox in the Church`s own nature-the linking of retreat from the world and from some ordinary human patterns of living with the SERVICE OF THE WORLD and of human society.  In the nature of the Church one may say that laity and religious manifest opposite aspects: the function of the lay state is the service of God within the pattern of the most normal human life and the consecration thereby of the human city to God; the function of the religious state is the renunciation of much normal human life and the erection of a sign that the Church believes in another world and that `the people of God has here no lasting city` (compare a.44 with a.36).  Nevertheless any individual Christian, in either state, has to live the fullness of the Christian vocation, not just that side of it which is symbolized by his state: thus the layman needs to practise supernatural hope, the religious must reach spiritual maturity across a truly human development.  Each state has its own temptations to be avoided, related to an unbalanced grasping of its own particular ideal.  Hence (in a.46) the Council stresses that the religious life, when accepted and lived in the right way, is opposed neither to human maturity, nor to spiritual freedom, nor to the service of human society.  On the contrary.  It is because the Church is essentially other-worldly that she can so disinterestedly and fruitfully serve this one.  The religious life must be the visible sign of both these things.  The more fully religious live the meaning of their vows, the more effective will be their ministry among their fellow men.  In it the Church wishes to portray, in a specially manifest way, Christ and his ministry.



A chapter on this theme was explicitly asked for by Pope John, but it only materialized late in the council’s deliberation.  In fact there was no discussion on c.7 in general congregation until the third session.  The text had only been prepared in theological commissions in the course of that year, 1964, and it was little changed in the third session, except for some substantial additions in a.48.  The fact that it did not elicit much controversy does not lessen its importance in helping to provide a really full picture of what the Church is.

Its aim is not to describe the Church in heaven or in purgatory, so much as to show how the pilgrim Church on earth is journeying towards heaven and remains united with those who have gone before us to pass from earth to purgatory or the contemplation of God.  We are ‘seeking the city which is to come’, the condition of the Church as we know it is essentially temporary; we are on our way to something perfect and eternal.  This chapter is concerned with the whole vista of the ‘beyond’ and our relationship to it – a beyond whose fall pattern is future and collective: a ‘renewal of all things’ with the manifest perfecting of the universe and the whole human race under the kingship of Christ.

Concern with all this is what we mean by ESCHATOLOGY-a key word in modern theology and scripture interpretations: the doctrine of the last things.

Eschatology deals then with the ‘last things’: death, judgement, hell and heaven.  However, if we compare the eschatology which we find in the scriptures (located chiefly in Matt. 24 and 25, 1 and 2 Thess., and Rev.) with the usual treatises of theological manuals on this subject we cannot help noticing that the former is much more collective in its concern, the latter individualist.  The manuals lay more stress upon the individual’s judgement and eternal reward in heaven or punishment in hell; the scriptures the ‘last times’ of the world, the collective judgement, the full establishment of the kingdom of Christ, the new heaven and the new earth.  In fact the initial draft constitutions, sent to the bishops, before the Council began, included one on the deposit of faith which had a chapter devoted to the ‘last things’.  This was very much akin to the approach of the manuals, an individualistic approach; it included a lengthy section on the punishments of hell.  This draft constitution never, in fact, got discussed at all, but the last things reappeared two years later in our c.7, but now with an altered approach.

It is vitally important in eschatology to balance the collective with the individual, and the future with the present.  It is this that c.7 tries hard to do.  A teaching on the ‘last things’ cannot be silent upon the fate of the individual: the judgement that follows death, the states that can follow judgement-and a.48 speaks explicitly of all this.  Nevertheless the fate of the individual, to be understood aright, must be seen within the context of the fate of the body to which he belongs.  What this chapter shows so finely is that a treatise ‘on the last things’ must be an ecclesial treatise, that the body of Christ itself has a future and a final condition.  The beatitude of the individual only makes full sense within the context of the wedding feast of the Lamb and his bride, the new Jerusalem.  Moreover, the new Jerusalem is not only the Church perfected, but also the world.  Eschatology is a doctrine about the cosmos: all things must be renewed.

Every aspect of the pilgrim Church must be seen in the light of the heavenly Church, not as two parallel organizations, but as sign and reality, or as that which is in process of becoming and that which it will finally be.  However, if this is a relationship between present and future, it is also true that it involves a relationship within the present, because the heavenly Church does already exist.  Many missions of members of the body of Christ have passed out of the state of wayfaring into that of glory and the Church on earth shares their active communion.  This is the difficulty in eschatology: it is dealing both with the final state of completeness when the pilgrim Church will no longer exist and the whole of creation is reformed in Christ, and with the already arrived heavenly state of the holy dead and of their relations with the still existing pilgrim Church.  Hence eschatology refers both to the future and to something already realized in the present, and concerns both the collective fate of Church and world at the end of time and the individual fate of the human person whose span of earthly pilgrimage is short and quickly over.

All this is difficult, but eschatology is notoriously difficult.  Nevertheless the Council refused to leave it aside, and we cannot either.  The above considerations should help in understanding the themes which have been brought together in this brief but beautiful chapter so full of scriptural passages and liturgical references.  Let us note too that the eschatological aspect of the Church is not confined to this chapter;  it is woven into the whole constitution- for example, in the last sentences of a.2, 8 and 42 (see also L.a.8, MW. A.39, etc.).  Furthermore a.44 suggests the eschatological significance of the consecrated religious life and a.68 that of the Virgin Mary:  she is the sign offered in hope to the pilgrim Church of how the final perfection will be.

While a.48 is more concerned with the future, a.49 and 50 treat chiefly of the earthly Church’s present communion with the Church beyond the grave.  If the visible Church is a human society with ministry and sacraments, all this is a sign of the wider communion of all who are of Christ and share his Spirit.  This ultimate communion is one of charity and worship:  we love and we glorify God.

The union of the pilgrim Church on earth with the Church in heaven has then the following characteristics.

It is a UNION OF MUTUAL LOVE.  The saints are our friends and co-heirs in Jesus Christ, and their example shows us the way to grow in perfect union with Christ.

It is a UNION OF MUTUAL PRAYER.  We on earth pray for and to the dead.  We pray to the saints that they may pray for us; we know very well that they have no power outside Christ to hear or help us, but we know too that we and they form one body in Christ, that it is a body of mutual concern, and that this is what our head desires.

It is a UNION IN LITURGY.  Just as the whole constitution teaches that the life of the pilgrim Church is centred upon the Eucharist, so this chapter emphasizes that the union of the earthly and heavenly Churches is above all a liturgical one, and that it is in the celebration of the Eucharist that we are most united with the saints when we are most fully offering worship to God (cf.L.a.8).  For this reason the treatment of the subject is closed in a.50 with the words of the Roman canon.

The point of a.51 is pastoral.  Having stated the doctrine of the communion of saints (for which see also L.a.104), the Council recognizes that in fact there have been abuses whereby the cult of the saints has become almost disengaged from its essential Christological and ecclesiological context.  In reaction some have tended to deny all point to prayer and communion with them.  The Council wishes such wrong attitudes to be corrected:  a truly Catholic sense of union with all the blessed should rather excite in us a still greater determination to praise and glorify God both now and for ever in the heavenly Jerusalem.


History of the Text:

Chapter eight is entitled ‘The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God in the mystery of Christ and the Church’.  As other parts of the constitution this text stands at the end of a lengthy evolution, but one of its own.  In 1962 the Fathers were given a draft text for a dogmatic constitution on ‘The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Mother of Men’.  This text (A) was never debated but was reissued in April, 1963, with a new title-‘The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church’.  In the second session, when the second text of DE ECCLESIA was being extensively discussed, it was proposed that no separate document should be produced on Mary, but instead that a chapter devoted to her should be included in that constitution.  It was argued that this would better show Mary’s organic place within the pattern of redemption.  Others argued strongly to retain a separate Marian constitution as more in line with the various Marian developments of the last century.  The bishops voted on the question on 29 October, 1963.  By 1,114 votes to 1,074 it was decided to speak of her within the DE ECCLESIA.

A new text was therefore needed, which would fit in with the rest of the constitution.  A theological sub-commission, representing both tendencies, set to work and in March, 1964, after four previous versions, brought forth a fifth (B) which they judged satisfactory.  Very little of A remained in it.  B was then considerably revised in June by the Doctrinal Commission to produce C.  Then B and C were together dispatched to the bishops and C was discussed at the beginning of the third session.  Some further changes were made, to give us D, the final text, which was approved almost unanimously.

Differing Tendencies:

Clearly, the very considerable difficulties encountered in producing this text arose from the existence of two contrasting attitudes in the Church with regard to Mariology.  One point of view is more plainly Mariological, in an evident way.  It has rejoiced in the increasing number of Marian definitions, declarations, feasts and congresses of the last hundred years, and it hoped for a further notable ‘advance’ in Marian teaching from the Council.. For years this body of opinion has been concentrating on the title ‘Mediatrix of all graces’ and it expected the Council to produce a constitution firmly enshrining this idea.

The other point of view is more closely linked with the biblical, liturgical and ecumenical movements.  It has urged the return on all sides of the Church’s life to a more scriptural and liturgical way of viewing things, and it has wanted to apply this also to Marian teaching and devotion.  It has argued that while everything in Modern Marian developments and expression may be capable of theological justification, yet the impression given is still very different from that of scripture and the liturgy, and that a good deal of popular Marian devotion has been clearly unbalanced.  The need today is not so much to advance as to deepen and purify Marian devotion.  Moreover this point of view has stressed ecumenical considerations.  Protestants are very suspicious of Mariology.  Every Marian ‘advance’ seems to them to dig a new ditch between us and them.  The opportune thing for the life of the Church today is not then to press Marian doctrine to all its logical conclusions, but so to express it in such a scriptural and traditional way as to commend it to all non-Catholic Christians.

Both these points of view have full right to exist when the Church, and of course many people would hold a bit to both.  Nevertheless clearly two opposing tendencies have been present and it was the Council’s duty to produce a statement which, so far as possible, would prove satisfactory to all important bodies of opinion.  That it managed to obtain an almost unanimous final vote, after a practically fifty-fifty division one year before, is a measure of the balance of  this chapter and also, surely, of docility to the guiding of the Holy Spirit.

Clearly the basic decision to include a Marian text within the Church constitution had to be adhered to and this naturally determined the general treatment to some extent.  It was decided to make of it the final chapter.  This seemed the natural place.  The other chapters have a certain internal cohesion, leading up, in c.7, to the vision of the heavenly Church.  c.8 relates to this in two ways.  Firstly, it is clearly related to c.7.  Much of what is said there about the saints in general applies in a special way to Mary.  Paragraphs in c.7 on their position in the Church, intercession and cult prepare the way for comparable ones in c.8.  Secondly, this last chapter somehow sums up the whole constitution.  May as the type of the Church bears within her all its varied characteristics.  Having treated of them in the life of all Christians in the preceding chapters, the constitution concludes by showing them in her who most perfectly fulfilled the Church’s whole vocation in faith, charity and obedience.

It is explicitly stated in a.54 that the Church did not intend to say EVERYTHING about Mary or to rule out all approaches or ideas not appearing in the constitution.  It does appeal for balance and the awareness of ecumenical needs, but its aim is not to condemn those who would like to express their love for the Virgin Mary in rather different terms.  The freedom  which the Council has called for in so many other fields surely applies here too.

Chief characteristics:

This chapter offers a broad, rounded teaching about OUR LADY.  There is certainly no minimizing tendency.  It speaks of all the chief aspects of Marian doctrine and draws them together in a simple but beautiful synthesis.  Never before has a council of the Church offered such an extensive or profound statement upon the position of Mary in the plans of God.

The tone is nevertheless very MODERATE  and restrained, though no less devoted for that.  There is nothing here to jar on the ears of non-Catholics unless, of course, they are rather uncritically anti-Marian.  It is interesting to see that there is no single reference in text or notes to St Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Alphonsus Liguori or St. Louis-Marie De Montfort, the three great Marian writers of the post-patristic period, some of whose expressions nevertheless seem to some a bit extreme or overemotional.

Instead the text is extremely SCRIPTURAL and PATRISTIC.  References to the early Fathers, both Greek and Latin, abound and so do quotations from the New Testament, beginning with a brief but basic Pauline text.  Every effort has been made to show that Marian devotion is not-as critics have maintained-ainti-scriptural.

It is clearly shown how Marian doctrine and devotion fit into a completely CHRISTO-CENTRIC scheme of things.  In no way can Mary detract from Christ`s work or from the closeness of the union of Christians with him.  On the contrary she manifests just how perfectly a simple human being can be united with her saviour.

It is ECCLESIAL.  This indeed is its most striking positive characteristic as of course befits a chapter within DE ECCLESIA.  A rediscovery of patristic doctrine on the deep relationship of Mary and the Church has been a key aspect of modern scientific Mariology.  In the fullest way we here see Mary standing in all her glorious humility both in and for the Church.

Finally, as has been indicated, there is a deep ECUMENICAL PREOCCUPATION  running through the text and stressed explicitly in a.67.  Everything is to be done to help other Christians see the truth about Mary. That should be the great Marian `advance` of our time: not a new doctrine but the rediscovery by all believers of her place in the redemption.  Eastern Christians already venerate her most devoutly (a.69), as do very many Anglicans` and growing number of other Protestants.  We should pray that the teaching of this chapter  will help to increase their number still more in years  to come .  In the past,  as a matter of fact, Marian devotion has been a cause of division.  Instead we must make it today a cause of unity.



The central doctrine concerning Our Lady is shown to be the divine maternity.  All else follows from this that she was `the Mother of God` (a.53) and that she freely accepted to be so: she gave her assent to the World of God, committing herself whole-heartedly to his will in faith obedience (a.56).  The constitution stresses her faith: she did not understand everything but unhesitatingly she `advanced in her pilgrimage of faith` (a.58).  Just as in philosophy we find that AGERE SEQUITUR ESSE, so in theology it is universally true that the more we receive God’s grace, the more we share in the giving of it.  Mary` s singular adherence to God` s will made of her a singular sharer in her Son` s work of giving divine life to all men.  The fullness of her personal acceptance permitted a fullness of active co-operation and made of her truly the mother of men, especially the faithful (a.54, 60-62)

A word here must be said about the title `MOTHER OF THE CHURCH`.  It does not appear in the constitution.  It was part of draft A, especially with its revised title, but had no place in B or C. However, in one of the final changes of the third session an addition was made to the end of a.53  which in some way hints at this title without quite using it.  At the clost of the third session, 21 November, 1964, Pope Paul proclaimed the Virgin Mary ‘Mother of the Church, that is to say of all the people of God, of the faithful as well as of the pastors’.  It is clear that a majority of the fathers preferred not to use this title in the constitution, doubtless because in itself it is rather untraditional.  On the other hand the pope was perfectly free to make use of it himself if he saw fit; it is clearly only the phrase, not the idea, which is untraditional.  That Mary is the MATER FIDELIUM  is most traditional, and ‘the faithful’ is only another way of saying ‘ the People of God’.  Now that we are stressing the human side of the Church and that ‘the People of God’ is a highly fitting name for the Church, it is clearly the same thing to say ‘Mother of the faithful’ and ‘Mother of the Church’.  Pope Paul stressed this way of looking at it by repeating twice ‘the Church, that is to say the people of God’.  Mary remains a member of the Church, just as  the mother of a family remains a member of the family.  That the mother of Jesus is the mother of all his brethren is simply the full meaning of John 19: 26-7.

Type of the Church:

Mary is the type of the Church.  For many Catholics this may well be the most striking affirmation of this chapter.  It is stated explicitly in three separate articles (a.53, 63, 65).  It must be understood within a whole developing context.  First of all, in her full acceptance of the word of God, Mary represents humanity itself.  She is ‘the daughter of Adam’, the new Eve, as many of the earliest Fathers of the Church asserted (a.56). Representing all humanity in its passive need for God and potential active acceptance of his gift, she specially represented the chosen people of God, the children of Abraham, who had been prepared for the coming of the saviour.  She is not only ‘daughter of Adam’ but ‘daughter of Sion’ (a..55), faithfully accepting the promise made to her fathers.

The Church is the new Sion the new Israel.   Mary is a member of both the old people and the new, and she represents both.  Her undeviating faith and charity, her virginal surrender to God of her whole self, her fruitful motherhood, her presence at the foot of the cross: all this typifies the Church, virgin and mother.  Mary’s life on earth perfectly represents the life of the pilgrim Church, and her life in heaven perfectly represents the final fullness of the celestial Church after the resurrection of the dead.  God chose to manifest the character of humanity’s acceptance of his Son not only through the multiple community of the redeemed but also through the example of  a single historical personality, who typifies the perfection of the whole in the more easily understood career of one individual.  And for this he chose his mother.

In this way the constitution treats of Mary’s position less in terms of static privileges than as a dynamic sharing in the history of salvation.



a.62 touching on Mary as mediatrix ( or mediator) was undoubtedly a focal point of argument.  Some fathers were much in favour of proclaiming Mary mediatrix of graces, others were equally opposed to it.  The history of the texts is significant.  A included a strong section on the subject including the title ‘Mediatrix of all graces’.  Text  B omitted the word entirely.  C put it in a very restrained sentence.  Finally, in the third session, it was retained but joined with the title of ‘advocate, helper, benefactress’ which takes away from a technical sense.  Furthermore, a new paragraph (‘No creature could ever….’) was added at this last stage to prevent any possible misunderstanding in the use of the title.

This extra paragraph is in fact an important one for it expresses very clearly the principle of the active co-operation of the redeemed in every aspect of the redeemer’s work. We all share in his priesthood (mediation and priesthood are, moreover, very closely connected concepts), we share in his kingship, we share in his redemption – not only in receiving, but in giving. Mary is not unique in this role. It is part of the Christian vocation, But she is unique in the fullness of her response to it.


The concluding section of the chapter refers first to the liturgy and pastoral requirements of Marian devotion. a.66 and 67 can be compared with a.51, the point being the same: not emotion or vain credulity but solid faith and a special care to avoid scandalizing separated  Christians. Finally the Council proclaims Mary as a sign of hope and comfort for the pilgrim Church. As the Church is the sign of salvation lifted up among the nations, so is she a sign within the Church: a sure sign of how faith is fulfilled in beatitude, of the perfection to come, of the final transformation of humanity in the light of Christ to the glory of  God.

‘In the Blessed Virgin the Church learns to love the concrete and the limited: a basic antidote to pride’ (Cardinal Silva papal legate to the 1965 Mariological Congress).

‘You should concentrate on a deeper understanding and love of the mysteries of Mary rather than on theological extensions which are questionable and lead to division rather than union     ……You must restrain unbalanced and not very enlightened sentimentalities….You should encourage a serious and living devotion which moves within the great coherent framework of the liturgy’ (Pope Paul to the Mariological Congress of San Domingo, 1965).

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