Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Church’s Nature as Explained by the Second Vatican Council


This week we celebrate the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Since that time, the Church’s faithful and others have encountered diverse, sometimes conflicting explanations about the Council’s work. In some instances the diversity is well-founded because it is based on reasonable interpretations of the texts produced by the Council’s labors. However, other descriptions of the Council’s work are problematic because they reinvent or revise the history of the Council and the fruits of its labor; moreover, the accompanying interpretations produced by this second category of descriptions of the Conciliar documents are flawed because the interpretation fails to take stock of all the documents that concern related issues. As one trained in the law, I have come to understand the importance of texts and their meaning which are essential to an objective comprehension of what they signify and what they do not. The significance of texts is important to both theology, philosophy, literature, history and the law.

One of the major disagreements over the work of the Council concerns the nature of the Church and how her members are to interact with and to relate to one another. What is essential to minimizing or eliminating this conflict is to read together the several documents issued by the Council that address this subject.

The Council heralded the dignity of the human person and the societies to which the individual person belongs in several of its documents—texts which reveal the intent, objectives, and contexts of the Council’s work. In the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes (GS), the Council Fathers offered an important expression relevant to this posting, i.e., it is the dignity of the human person that establishes the foundation for relationship—relationship with others, with the world, and with the Church. The crucial theme of relationship, and therefore the nature of the Church, is reflected in Jesus’s exhortation found in John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5  

Regarding the Church’s nature, the Council Fathers agreed that the Church is a family constituted by Christ to be a society that is established on relationships and is directed to the purposes just mentioned in the temporal and eternal spheres. Again, the image of the vine and its branches suitably explains this. As a leaven for the “soul for human society,” the Church relies on the “talents and industry” of her individual members. How she does this is explained in the several documents explaining the relationships amongst the clergy (including the bishops), men and women religious and consecrated, and the laity.

Many questions about what the Conciliar documents mean must be addressed by objectively reading the texts individually and, then, together. This seems to be an obvious and promising approach, but all too often texts, and the common or related themes that they address, are read and, therefore, understood in a fragmented fashion. Consequently, their authentic meanings can be lost as a result of this fragmentation. In the final analysis, all relevant documents of the Council are critical to the task is seeking the best possible understanding of what the Council said and what it did not say. When this approach consisting of a careful reading and consideration of the relevant documents has been neglected, understandings of the Council’s work product are flawed. This becomes acutely patent when the nature of the Church is the question under investigation.

It has been almost a half century since the Council concluded its work on December 8, 1965. Since then, Catholics have encountered explanations of the meaning of the Council by fellow Catholics and others which are based less on the texts of the Council and more on the ambiguous spirit of Vatican II. The documents which the Council fathers produced are, in fact, the authentic source of the spirit of the Council because they are the product of the Council that was presented to Pope Paul VI for his approval. Still, there are occasions when some opinions argue that the spirit of the counsel is elsewhere. It might be in the notes of certain bishops or the journals of periti and other documentation that are extrinsic to the Constitutions, Declarations, and Decrees issued by the Council and approved by the pope. These arguments are problematic when the “spirit” they project constitute a revision of the fruits of the Council as recorded in the official texts and a reading-together of all the texts that address the same subject matter.

When the Church’s nature is the topic of discussion or investigation, the documents which must be examined together are: the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, (Lumen Gentium); the document on the bishops (Christus Dominus); the texts on priests (Presbyterorum Ordinis) and priestly formation (Optatam Totius); the document on religious and consecrated life (Perfectae Caritatis); and, the text on the laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem).

While these texts when viewed individually demonstrate something about the diversity of the Church’s members, reading them together demonstrates that the Church is a unity of holiness. This means that each class (clerical, religious, or lay) has and exercises different responsibilities. Nonetheless, the call to holiness requires that all disciples—clerical, religious, or lay—must seek the virtue of love and perfect it. Living a well-grounded life based on the sacraments is an important step in responding to the call to holiness, in being faithful to one’s discipleship, and in nurturing and defending the nature of the Church.

The Church and her members also need a requisite measure of freedom to accept and exercise these rights and duties. Here we must turn to the Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humane Personae (DH), to understand as best we can the role of freedom in the nature of the Church which is the means by which her members exercise their prudent judgment to seek the truth and justice by which the Church exists in the temporal world. Significantly, it is this text which asserts that “the one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church” by which God spreads this religion among all people. But the freedom of which the Council Fathers spoke is not simply individual, it must also be a freedom of the Community—the Church, the People of God, the Body of Christ. The freedom, then, that properly belongs to the Church is not private, rather, it is one that must be exercised in public for the individual believer and for the community of believers, i.e., the Church. It would be contrary to the nature of the Church if one or some of her members take and defend a position, internally or externally to the community of believers, that brings harm to the rest of the community or any of its members. This would not be an exercise of freedom or conscience, but it would be a threat that undermines the Body of Christ and antithetical to the nature of the Church.


RJA sj



Araujo, Robert | Permalink

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