Church: People of God, Body of Christ, Temple of the Holy Spirit
Brian Mullady, OP
In the middle 60s there were many theologians who were either at the Council or were returning from the Council who gave us lectures on the new teaching of Vatican II. Often, to illustrate the teaching of Vatican II on the Church, these theologians drew a pyramid and placed the Pope at the top. They then proceeded to label the pyramid in descending order as cardinals, bishops, priests, religious and laity. They would cross this out and then draw a circle in which they inscribed the term “People of God.” According to them, Vatican II had completely suppressed the old idea of the hierarchical Church in such a way that all the members of the Church were now equal as in a democracy.
Another watchword of this generation was that WE were the Church – the implication being that the hierarchy was not. Another way of expressing this idea was to say that there was no distinction any more between the ecclesia docens (teaching church) and the ecclesia discens (learning church). The hierarchy had to consult the laity who possessed the sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful) and exercised infallibility in believing and was to be treated like a constituency in a democracy. A further variation on this theme was the later much-discussed idea that there was a rival Magisterium to the Magisterium of the Pope and bishops. This was the Magisterium of the theologians. A Dominican friend of mine once explained as justification for dropping the word “men” from the words of institution in the Eucharist (before it was approved by the hierarchy) that the bishops were the ordinary way of doing things in the Church and the theologians were the extraordinary way.
The teaching of Vatican II is very different. It is clear that one must examine the whole document, Lumen Gentium, to be able to discern the teaching of the Council on the subject of the Church. In this article, I would like to discuss the general outline of Lumen Gentium, and demonstrate how the basic structure actually gives us three great images of the Church: People of God, Body of Christ and Temple of the Holy Spirit. All of these images must be affirmed and none of them can be understood without the others. Pope John Paul II expressed this idea very well in a summary of Vatican II, which he wrote while Archbishop of Cracow:
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 781-801) treats the Church under the three-fold division of People of God, Body of Christ, and Temple of the Holy Spirit. This demonstrates that the Church wishes this division to be the authentic interpretation of the text of Lumen Gentium. In fact, this is born out by the text itself. Meditation on the complete text of Lumen Gentium serves as a firm foundation for all thinking about the Church. The sad thing is that because of the influence of the “paracouncil,” this meditation is almost completely lacking in the contemporary Church. In addition, meditation on the three images of People of God, Body of Christ and Temple of the Holy Spirit helps us to understand the exact place of the Roman Pontiff in this beautiful ecclesiology.
The examination of Lumen Gentium must begin with a primordial text that summarizes the whole thrust of the document and sets the tone of the treatment of the Church into the classic three images (chapter 1). After a brief introduction and three paragraphs summarizing the missions of the three Persons of the Trinity in history, the Fathers of the Council quote a text from St. Cyprian, which is also reflected in St. Augustine and in St. John Damascene, who represents the Eastern Fathers: “Hence the universal Church is seen to be a people brought into unity from the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”5
The purpose of the Church, as of any society, is to allow the members of the Church to realize their human potential in a more perfect and complete manner than a solitary man could. This social unity is an expression of the mission of the Trinity.
Mission has a twofold aspect when it comes to God. “Mission . . . in God means procession according to origin.”6 The Father sends the Son and the Father and the Son send the Holy Spirit eternally by relation of origin. This same relationship is expressed in time in the manner in which God is revealed to the Church.
This introduction sets the tone for the first part of the document, which distinguishes between the being of the Church (chapters1-4) and the act of the Church (chapters 5-8). The section on the being of the Church first discusses those general things that set it apart from all other religions, which is expressed in the term “People of God” (chapter 2). “People of God” expresses the vertical relationship of a society that has God as its rector or head and the general horizontal relationship between this society and all other human societies and religions. This society is a true commonwealth of God.8 This treatment occupies paragraphs 4-17.
The People of God
in the Mystical Body of Christ
In the third and last section, the Council treats man as a Temple of the Holy Spirit. This is holiness and this holiness is the act as well as the purpose of the Church. The horizontal dimension of the Church as a society begins in the vertical dimension. This horizontal dimension finds its origin in the Trinity and its destiny must also be there. “It [the Redemption] is the meeting-place of the two dimensions clearly described by Vatican II – the vertical dimension constantly extends into the horizontal and transforms it again into the vertical.”9
The holiness of the Church includes the universal call to holiness (chapter 5); the religious life, which is the embracing of the state of perfect holiness here on earth (chapter 6); the completion of holiness, which is the vision of the God in heaven (chapter 7); and the perfect model of holiness, Our Lady (chapter 8). The Church as the Temple of the Holy Spirit is the theme of the whole second half of the document and occupies paragraphs 39-69.
Obviously, it is not possible to separate any of the truths about the Church contained in one of these terms from the truths about the Church contained in the others. Rather, like the Trinity whose missions these terms represent, each of these terms can only be understood completely as complementary to the others. Pope John Paul II calls this the “principle of integration.”10 Each of these terms can only be understood in the context of the whole Creed.
Let us apply these general ideas to particular points. The missions of the Trinity are expressed in the images used of whole Church. The term “sacrament” is used to express the dual dimension. The Church is not a sacrament in the formal sense that Trent gave to the term. It is not an outward sign instituted by Christ that in itself causes grace ex opere operato. Still, the use of this term to describe the Church is not completely equivocal to the term of Trent. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church so neatly explains, “The Church, then, both contains and communicates the invisible grace she signifies. It is in this analogical sense, that the Church is called a sacrament.”11 This society of the Church is brought into being by the very grace of the Holy Trinity.
The communion of the Persons of the Trinity in heaven is imaged in sign here on earth in the communion of the members of the Church with one another. This communion is a hieratic and hierarchical one because it images heaven and supernatural life, and participates in the next life in exactly the same order as we find among the Persons of the Trinity in their communion with each other. Though the communion on earth is not the same as the Persons of the Trinity, it is caused by the Divine communion, images the Divine communion and has as its purpose participation here on earth and in heaven in that communion.
The concept of communion lies “at the heart of the Church’s self-understanding,” insofar as it is the mystery of the personal union of each human being with the Divine Trinity and with the rest of mankind, initiated with the faith, and, having begun as a reality in the Church on earth, is directed towards its eschatological fulfillment in the heavenly Church.
If the concept of communion, which is not a univocal one, is to serve as a key to ecclesiology, it has to be understood within the teaching of the Bible and the patristic tradition, in which communion always involves a double dimension: the vertical (communion with God) and the horizontal (communion among men).12
The mission of the Father is expressed in the distinction between the Church as a whole and other religious expressions. First, there is no other society, religious or secular, like the Church because the Church is directly founded by Christ.13 Various images are used in Holy Scripture for this foundation, including the sheepfold, the cultivated field, the building of God, family life and marriage.14
The greatest of these images is the Mystical Body of Christ because this emphasizes the primacy of Christ as the Head of creation and the Church, the conformity of the members with the Head, the increase of the Body under the influence of Christ in heaven, the activity of the Spirit who is sent into the Church by the Head and the fullness of the Church received by the Head.15 The purpose of this section is to emphasize that the mystery of the Church is present and clearly seen in the concrete everyday society we experience. The visible and the spiritual assembly are not two things, but one complex reality, which is both the means of salvation and the fruit of salvation.
The Church is one, but there are what the doctrinal commission of Vatican II calls “ecclesial elements” (elementa ecclesialis) outside the Church. Far from being a rival community of salvation, these elements are naturally found in the Church and naturally impel toward unity with her. “Since these are gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, they are forces impelling toward Catholic unity.”16 The famous change from “is” to “subsists in” (subsistit in) is understood by the doctrinal commission to better correspond to the teaching that there are ecclesial elements outside the Church which are directed in formation in an accidental way to her.17
The second chapter then takes up the integration of People of God with Mystical Body in terms of what both terms share. This chapter is not an exhaustive analysis of every facet of the communion enjoyed by the People of God. In this chapter “first the general conditions of the People of God are indicated and then membership . . . either in act or in potency.”18 The Church is declared to be the successor of the commonwealth of God prepared in the Old Testament. The New Covenant ratified in the death and resurrection of Christ is the definitive foundation of the society of God on earth. This new People is characterized by the very indwelling Holy Spirit, which roots it firmly in the unity of the Trinity mentioned in paragraph 4, even though the consummation of that unity is found only in heaven.
The consecration in the Holy Spirit is the common element of the two groups in the Church who participate in his action. The first is the priesthood of all believers, which is granted to them in baptism. The second is the ministerial priesthood, which is a further consecration in the Holy Spirit granted in Holy Orders. Though the two priesthoods are related to each other, they “differ essentially and not only in degree.”19 Ministerial priests serve the priesthood of the laity.
Paragraph 11 delineates the manner in which the whole consecrated community acts. This includes both those consecrated by baptism only and those further consecrated in a special way by Holy Orders. These acts are the sacraments and the virtues. Though this chapter clearly distinguishes between the hierarchical priesthood and the common priesthood, the purpose of the chapter is not to speak of hierarchical delineation, but of what all Catholics share in common as consecrated members of the new community of the Church.
Paragraph 12 takes up this same theme with respect to the prophetic office received by every Catholic in baptism, which is his share in the three-fold office of Christ as priest, prophet and king. This common prophetic office is shown in the infallibility of the faithful in believing. The Holy Spirit assists the intellectual participation of the whole Church in belief. This doctrine is not new. The doctrinal commission comments:
The Council then develops this idea of communion of all men in the missions of Christ and the Holy Spirit. The Council states that those who are fully members of the People of God and therefore incorporated into the Body of Christ are those who have the characteristics of profession of faith, unity of sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion of charity (collegialitas affectiva et effectiva) with the visible structure of the Church of Christ, who rules through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops.24 These criteria are traditional and correspond to the constant teaching of the Popes summarized very well already by Pius XII in Mystici Corporis.25
The Council Fathers went beyond traditional language by substituting the word full (plene) for only and simply (tantum, simpliciter, reapse). The Doctrinal Commission of the Council clarifies that the reason “full” was finally used in the document was so that children who had not yet reached the age of reason and also the more unevangelized Christians who are not instructed enough to fulfill or to know all the conditions for membership, would not be excluded from the Church.26 This paragraph also makes the traditional point that those who are in the state of mortal sin are like dead members of the Church.
The Council then takes up the question of the various Christian societies that do not participate fully under these criteria. Following the idea that other Christians are not fully incorporated because they are not in full communion with all the means of salvation, the Council nevertheless wished to emphasize certain de facto common possessions. These common possessions are very many with the Eastern Orthodox churches, which are truly described as “churches.” As for other Christian communities, the means of union are varied and disparate. Still, they are there and they may be means by which the Holy Spirit operates in sanctifying grace. The Council emphasizes the difference between these societies and churches by not using the word “church” to refer to them. Rather, they are called “ecclesial communities.”27 The Council also uses the expression that these communities have “some real joining” with the Catholic Church. 28 The Doctrinal Commission says that some of the Fathers did not want the word “some” used because this would seem to suppress the action of the Holy Spirit in non-Catholic Christians who were well-disposed.29 The Commission chose to keep this word to show that the “joining” of Protestant and Catholic was not perfect but added the word “true” (vera) to avoid a pejorative interpretation.
The same intention stands behind paragraph 16, which points out the various positive elements in non-Christian religions that orient them in potency to the Catholic Church. The doctrine invoked here is traditional. The interpretive device for understanding it is found in the note from Thomas Aquinas (note 18). In the text to which the Council refers (ST III, q. 8, a. 3, ad 1), St. Thomas teaches that all men are in some way joined to Christ the Head, except the damned who have been fixed in their choice against him. There are various degrees of membership in his Mystical Body. In fact, the term “Mystical Body” differs from a natural body because it includes both actual and potential members. In the Mystical Body, there is a progression of membership both actual and potential.
Those who are infidels, although they are not in the Church in act are nevertheless in her in potency. This potency is founded on two things: first and principally, on the power of Christ, which is sufficient to save the whole human race; secondly, on free will.30
This doctrine is also found in many of the Fathers of the Church, who refer to things such as “seeds of truth,” “affinity between the creature and Creator” and “divine pedagogy” in natural religions. These elements, which presumably are reflections of the natural law, are stated by the Doctrinal Commission to be “divinely given preparation”31 for the Gospel, but are not identified with the Gospel.
The Hierarchical Constitution
of the Church
The hierarchy exhibits “ministries” (ministeria) that truly are invested with sacred power (qui sacra potestate pollent).32 The Council affirms the teaching of Vatican I about the central power of the Pope in the visible communion of the society of the Church. The expression could not be stronger.
With respect to the latter point, the Council is clear, first of all, that the bishops do not receive their authority to teach from the Pope. Each bishop in his own diocese is the center of communion with the teaching authority of Christ and the Trinity. He receives this from his ordination. He is not a papal legate. Each bishop is a successor in his own right of the apostles, as the Pope is of Peter.34 Ordination, then, is the source of the being or existence of the bishop’s authority.35
Yet, the second point is no less essential. Since this power is rooted in the People of God and is an extension of the mission of the Son and the Spirit, it must be exercised in union with the whole Mystical Body. This power must be exercised in act collegially. The duties of teaching and ruling “of their very nature can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and members of the college.”36 This means that the episcopal college is not a parliament or government of equals or a constitutional monarchy replete with checks and balances. Such an authority structure would be incompatible with the mission of the Triune God, who imparts his truth and life to the whole Church. The college and the collegial unity demanded of this teaching cannot occur in opposition to the Tradition of the Church, nor to the teaching of the Pope.37 Even if the whole episcopacy of a country were to vote against the teaching of the Pope, those bishops would only be speaking as private persons and not in their office. They would not be able to bind the consciences of the faithful.
The Council affirms the infallibility of the ex cathedra papal magisterium as taught by Vatican I and goes a step further in proclaiming the infallibility of the episcopal college. According to the “paracouncil,” Vatican II taught less about the infallibility of the Magisterium. In fact, it taught more. The infallibility of the Magisterium shows that the authority of the Church has no relation whatsoever to the authority of the state, but is a unique example of authority because it is the authority of Christ and therefore of the whole Church. The Pope is the visible center of unity of that authority, which is not a vague primacy of honor, but truly involves the ability to bind the conscience through teaching, as the Pope is assisted by a charismatic grace to proclaim what Christ and the Spirit through his Church have always taught.
The Temple of the Holy
Chapter 5 speaks to the universal call to holiness of everyone in the Church because they receive communion with the Trinity through sanctifying grace. Chapter 6 explains the special call of religious to encourage others to live and desire this holiness because religious are “eschatological signs” of what the consummation of the Church and the resurrected life will be. Chapter 7 was especially requested by John XXIII to combat any earthly triumphalism. Therein the consummation of the Church is situated in the communion with God of vision in heaven. Chapter 8 summarizes the whole document with an examination of she who is the holiest one in the Church, our Lady.
Our Lady is not a member of the hierarchy, but in her the whole reason for the existence of the hierarchy is seen. From her, the body of Christ came forth and in her the Holy Spirit dwells in as a shrine. She summarizes all of the characteristics of the People of God because she is the Daughter of Zion who is faithful to the end.
Vatican II contributed much to the understanding of the horizontal dimension of the Church. But that very contribution cannot be assessed unless it includes the vertical dimension of the Trinity with which it begins, of which it is an image and to which it is oriented as a goal. The “paracouncil” fails on all points.
In the 1960s, it was customary to hang banners in the Church for the liturgy. One of the common quotes used for these banners was from St. Irenaeus, “The glory of God is man fully alive!” This seems to affirm the intention of the “paracouncil.” Those who put these banners up forgot to include the second half of the quote, which exactly situates Lumen Gentium in its proper context. St. Irenaeus actually says, “The glory of God is man fully alive! But man fully alive is man when he sees God!”39
Fr. Brian Mullady, O.P., teaches theology at Holy Apostles Seminary.
This article first appeared in Catholic Dossier