Friday, 7 December 2012

Lumen Gentium: On the People of God

Fish family

[Just a quick apology before you proceed - this post has turned out to be rather longer than I hoped for, but there was just so much of interest in this chapter of Lumen Gentium that I couldn’t be any more succinct. You may prefer to read it in parts rather than all in one go ...]

To have any chance of reading the full set of 16 Vatican II documents during this Year of Faith, I need to press on and take a look at the second chapter of Lumen Gentium, the council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church. In the first chapter, we got a view of who the Church is, as seen from God’s perspective - i.e., what the ultimate end of the Church is, while here, in chapter two, the focus is more on a view from the trenches: the People of God.

If you are reading this as an agnostic or a non-Catholic, let me first point you to the caveat in my post on Dei Verbum (paragraph 2), and re-iterate how this particular document does not use the most accessible language (e.g., with sentences like “Fortified by so many and such powerful means of salvation, all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord, each in his own way, to that perfect holiness whereby the Father Himself is perfect.”). While I would feel quite at ease recommending a direct reading of Dei Verbum to anyone interested in how the Church understands Scripture, I’d hesitate when it comes to Lumen Gentium. Nonetheless, if you consider Lumen Gentium to be like a patent is to a scientific paper and take the time to peel away its particular form, the substance it carries is well worth the effort.

The starting point of Chapter 2 is Jesus’ New Testament, which forms a new people (the People of God) by means not of genetics (as was the case in the Old Testament, where the Israelites are already called the “Church of God”) but of the Spirit. All who believe in Jesus, become members of His people through baptism and the actions of the Holy Spirit. “The state of this people is that of the dignity and freedom of the sons of God, in whose hearts the Holy Spirit dwells as in His temple. Its law is the new commandment to love as Christ loved us.” A clearer distinction is made here between those who are members of the People of God and those who are not than in the first chapter. The Church is presented as the salt or yeast from which the whole world can benefit: “although it does not actually include all men, and at times may look like a small flock, [the Church] is nonetheless a lasting and sure seed of unity, hope and salvation for the whole human race.” Looking back at chapter one and at Dei Verbum, this should not be taken as an indication of superiority, but simply as an attempt at specificity. Clearly not all of humanity believes that Jesus is God, who came to show us the way to Himself, and Lumen Gentium here strives to spell out what it is that those who hold this belief are like and how they live as a community. This positioning of the Church is particularly clear from the following: “Established by Christ as a communion of life, charity and truth, [the Church] is also used by Him as an instrument for the redemption of all.”

The role of the People of God is to “bear witness to Christ and give an answer to those who seek an account of that hope of eternal life which is in them.” This is done by all members of the Church by participating in the priesthood of Jesus, who is its head. Those consecrated to the “ministerial priesthood” “teach and rule the priestly people; acting in the person of Christ, making present the Eucharistic sacrifice, and offering it to God in the name of all the people.” The laity too participate in Jesus’ (“royal”) priesthood, which they exercise “in receiving the sacraments, in prayer and thanksgiving, in the witness of a holy life, and by self-denial and active charity.” The whole church therefore is a “priestly community.”

It is a community that operates through the “sacraments and the exercise of the virtues,” where members are “[i]ncorporated in the Church through baptism” (incorporated since the Church is the Body of Christ, as chapter one sets out). This membership is further perfected by confirmation, when “the Holy Spirit endows them with special strength so that they are more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith, both by word and by deed.” The Eucharist, which is “the fount and apex of the whole Christian life” strengthens them and “manifest[s] in a concrete way [the] unity of the people of God.” Through the sacrament of Penance, they “obtain pardon from […] God for the offence committed against Him and are […] reconciled with the Church.” Through the anointing of the sick, the People of God “associat[e] themselves freely with the passion and death of Christ.” Those who are consecrated by “Holy Orders[,] are appointed to feed the Church in Christ’s name with the word and the grace of God,” while those who receive the sacrament of Matrimony, “partake of the mystery of that unity and fruitful love which exists between Christ and His Church, help each other to attain to holiness in their married life and in the rearing and education of their children.” “From the wedlock of Christians there comes the family, in which new citizens of human society are born, who by the grace of the Holy Spirit received in baptism are made children of God, thus perpetuating the people of God through the centuries. The family is, so to speak, the domestic church.” What is crystal clear from the above is that the sacraments (shown in bold) are the “means of salvation,” helping the members of the Church to “bear witness to Christ.”

So far, so good, but what comes next in §12 is to me the most interesting part of Chapter 2 (as the preceding paragraphs were edifying, but had a sense of the taxonomical about them):
“The entire body of the faithful […] cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when “from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful” they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth. It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, in faithful and respectful obedience to which the people of God accepts that which is not just the word of men but truly the word of God. Through it, the people of God adheres unwaveringly to the faith given once and for all to the saints, penetrates it more deeply with right thinking, and applies it more fully in its life.”
This is strong stuff, both as it states that the entire body of the faithful “cannot err” when it comes to faith and morals and as it calls for careful thought being applied to these beliefs and for their ever more perfect putting into practice. To my mind the key takeaway here is that infallibility here is attributed to the “entire body of the faithful” - i.e., the Mystical Body of Christ that has Jesus as its head. If truly all the faithful hold a certain belief then I can well subscribe to that belief having to be taken seriously and having to be attributed to the Holy Spirit. What this view does is to place the whole of the Church in a position of tremendous importance and responsibility, far from the usual caricature where the hierarchy is seen as dictating to a flock that follows it blindly and unthinkingly. The flip side of such status is the responsibility we carry for disagreements and disunity within the Church, which prevents us from accessing the unerring insights that the Holy Spirit has prepared for us when we are united.1

Two aspects of the above strike me as relevant: first, that this is not a new idea, but instead a centuries-old idea that has had new light shed on it and second, that it again points to the continuing action of the Holy Spirit. In terms of the first aspect, the basic idea can be seen already in the Latin proverb: “Vox populi, vox Dei” (“The voice of the people is the voice of God”) which has been quoted as a proverb already in the 8th century AD. The second aspect then is particlarly clearly illuminated by what Pope Benedict XVI in fact said just today:
“This gift, the sensus fidei, constitutes in the believer a kind of supernatural instinct that has a connatural life with the same object of faith. It is a criterion for discerning whether or not a truth belongs to the deposit of the living apostolic tradition. It also has a propositional value because the Holy Spirit does not cease to speak to the Churches and lead them to the whole truth.”
To underline the profound vocation of every single member of the People of God, Lumen Gentium points to the Holy Spirit’s gifts being bestowed on anyone whom He chooses: “[T]he Holy Spirit sanctifies and leads the people of God and enriches it with virtues, “allotting his gifts to everyone according as He wills.” He distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank. By these gifts He makes them fit and ready to undertake the various tasks and offices which contribute toward the renewal and building up of the Church.” This acknowledges very clearly that it is not the hierarchy of the church alone who have a role of leadership in the Church, but that the Holy Spirit can choose anyone to contribute to its renewal, “but judgment as to their genuinity and proper use belongs to those who are appointed leaders in the Church, to whose special competence it belongs, not indeed to extinguish the Spirit, but to test all things and hold fast to that which is good.” A very careful balance is presented here between the hierarchical and the “charismatic” aspect of the Church, which underlines again the fact that the Church are all the People of God.

Paragraph 13 then focuses on there being only one People of God, “which takes its citizens from every race, making them citizens of a kingdom which is of a heavenly rather than of an earthly nature.” This “takes nothing away from the temporal welfare of any people. On the contrary it fosters and takes to itself, insofar as they are good, the ability, riches and customs in which the genius of each people expresses itself.” All the diversity in the Church then has as its goal the fulfillment of St. Peter’s words: “According to the gift that each has received, administer it to one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10).

In paragraph 14 we turn to the role of the Church in the context of salvation and we start with a warning: “Whosoever, […] knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.” Membership in the Church requires acceptance of “her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and [being] united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops.” Even membership (for those who know that it is necessary for salvation) is not sufficient though: “He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.”” And it gets even worse! Those who “fail […] to respond to [the grace of Christ] in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.” Reading Chapter two very much gives you a sense of growing wonder as you proceed towards the end of §13, only to be followed by a cold shower and stark warnings!

So, what does §15 hold? First, it starts by acknowledging that there are Christians outside the Catholic Church:
“They lovingly believe in God the Father Almighty and in Christ, the Son of God and Saviour. They are consecrated by baptism, in which they are united with Christ. They also recognize and accept other sacraments within their own Churches or ecclesiastical communities. Many of them rejoice in the episcopate, celebrate the Holy Eucharist and cultivate devotion toward the Virgin Mother of God. They also share with us in prayer and other spiritual benefits. Likewise we can say that in some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them too He gives His gifts and graces whereby He is operative among them with His sanctifying power.”
The key to me here is not only the extensive list of similarities that the Catholic Church sees in other “churches and ecclesiastical communities” but also the warmth of the language used (“lovingly believe,” “consecrated by baptism,” “rejoice in the episcopate,” “cultivate devotion,” “joined with us in the Holy Spirit”). There is a real yearning and well-wishing here and a desire to “pray, hope and work” towards being “peacefully united.”

Paragraph 16 then talks about where the Catholic Church sees non-Christians in this picture and there is again a sense of openness, warmth and yearning here. First come the Jews, “from whom Christ was born according to the flesh”: “this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues.” Next, come the Muslims “who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.” Then there are all others who seek God: “Nor is God far distant from [them], for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Saviour wills that all men be saved.” Finally, all those of good will are in the picture too: “Divine Providence [does not] deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life.” The message is very clear: all are called to salvation and each has to take advantage of all the means they are offered for reaching it, according to their conscience and understanding.

Finally, Chapter 2 closes with a reminder of Jesus’ words: “Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. And behold I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world” (Mathew 28:19). All members of the Church have an “obligation of spreading the faith” so that “whatever good is in the minds and hearts of men, whatever good lies latent in the religious practices and cultures of diverse peoples, is not only saved from destruction but is also cleansed, raised up and perfected unto the glory of God.” All this is done so that “the entire world may become the People of God,” which instead of being an attempt to conquer or colonize is one of striving for unity in diversity.

1 I would just like to tip my hat to my bestie PM, who has essentially arrived at this point without having read Lumen Gentium!