Who is the Church? 50 years since Lumen Gentium

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In 2014, the Church celebrates the 50th anniversary of three documents of the Second Vatican Council concerning the teaching on the Church, writes Archbishop Denis Hart for Kairos Catholic Journal.

Although Venerable Pope Paul VI promulgated all three documents on November 21, 1964, they had been prepared during the previous sessions of the council in the following order: the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium); the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio); and the Decree on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rites (Orientalium Ecclesiarum).

The most important document of the three, the one on whose teachings the other two are based, is the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.

St John Paul II once described the primary question that the council set out to answer in Lumen Gentium: ‘Church, what do you say of yourself?’

Fifty years ago, this was a pressing question. Without an answer to this question the Church could not respond to the challenges of the ecumenical movement or to the question of the internal relationships between the Catholic Churches of East and West.

Historically, this was a question that was to have been debated at the First Vatican Council in 1870. From the 1920s to the 1940s theologians explored the ancient Tradition of the Church, culminating in Venerable Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Mystici Corporis (1943). Pope Benedict XVI noted two outcomes of this exploration of the Church’s teaching:

'People were beginning to realise that the Church is not simply an organisation, something structured, juridical, institutional—it is that too—but rather an organism, a living reality that penetrates my soul, in such a way that I myself, with my own believing soul, am a building block of the Church as such.'

And, therefore, following from this, it could also be said that:

'We Christians, all together, we are all the living body of the Church … every single one of us, not a particular "we," a single group that calls itself Church... this "we are Church" requires me to take my place within the great "we" of believers of all times and places.'

The final dogmatic constitution has eight chapters. 

In particular, the Second Vatican Council here expounded the teaching that all the bishops of the Church, together with the Bishop of Rome, form one teaching magisterium or 'college.' Nevertheless, the Church is not to be identified with this ‘hierarchical’ priesthood, but includes also the laity, to whom the fourth chapter ‘On the Laity’ is addressed.

Read full article: Church: what do you say of yourself?' 50th anniversary of the constitution Lumen Gentium (Kairos)

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Dogmatic Constitution of the Church (Vatican)

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