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A lover of the liberal arts, especially antiquity in its diverse forms, I am nonetheless wholly devoted to, utterly transformed by divine revelation. I seek to know the thought of the past, articulate my deepest longings aroused by the wise, and understand the uneasy relationship between reason and revelation; all for the sake of proper action and contemplation, both now and in the future.


On the Second Vatican Council IV (Lumen Gentium I)

Lumen Gentium has eight chapters (these titles are my own, because Vaticanspeak is sometimes less than clear, but they are all at least derived from the official chapter headings):

  • Introduction to the Church (sections 1-8)
  • The People of God, considering all the faithful in common (ss. 9-17)
  • The Hierarchy, with an emphasis on the Episcopate (ss. 18-29)
  • The Laity (ss. 30-38)
  • The Call to Holiness (ss. 39-42)
  • The Religious (ss. 43-47)
  • The Church and the Apocalypse (ss. 48-52)
  • The Blessed Virgin Mary, the Glorious, the All-Holy One (ss. 53-69)
Chapter I begins by naming the Church a Mystery, deliberately choosing language evoking the Divine Mysteries, of which there are seven (in Latin, sacramentum); intended also is the analogous understanding of the Church as sacrament - if only qua being sign and instrument - as stated later on. 

The motive behind Lumen Gentium is totally missionary: to draw all men (no qualification is given here) to full union in Christ, a task the Council calls "urgent," possibly because, as hinted further on, a false unity might be sought within technological and cultural bonds alone. In 1964, Christianity was already collapsing in Western Europe, a collapse almost total today; for modern man, God is indeed dead. The technological and cultural bonds, then, would seem to be post-Christian bonds: "Act with consent" and "Live as you please", titillated and distracted by a pervasive technological progress, which itself fosters the growth of this soft nihilism in a way unimaginable to the Council Fathers - just think of the Internet, and how it has altered the nature and force of public opinion. There is a certain unity to be found here, it is true, but it is the unity of Babel, founded on the universal language of mathematical physics, our new common tongue. And as Genesis intimates, Babel is destructive of humanity, and thus much more so of revelation. It might not be an overly dramatic exaggeration to say that this new Babel is the competition of the Antichrist, that the Council was convened to show us the way out. 

That solution is startlingly simple: Draw men into the mystery of the Church; mystagogical initiation, mystical catechesis. The solution to the Antichrist's Babel is a retrieval of the Holy. We do not present a better version of the secular unity, we show men the Sacred, the mysterium tremendum, in thought, word, and deed. That is why we emphasize today, following the Council, the Church as Mystery (mysterium) over the earlier formulation of Perfect Society (societatem perfectum), even though the latter is true, necessary, and perfectly clear; mysterium cuts right across the worldliness' withered heath and undercuts it, indicating that the solution the Church gives to the problem of human division and/or conflict is radically different from any secular project, any secular endeavor. Her unity stems from Her mysterium, not technological progress.

She is a mystery of intimate union with God; She is the sign and the instrument of this union; She is an image of it and through Her it is accomplished. Her origin is the ad extra work of the Holy Trinity, and Her mystery is ordered and orders toward that ineffable, inexhaustible wonder of intimate communion. Through Christ, the Head of the Mystical Body, we return to communion with the Blessed Trinity. It is through the Church, then, that we have the means to share in the life of the Trinity, and become partakers in the Divine Nature Itself.

The Trinity created the Church, but various aspects are ascribed to the Three Persons, probably because of fittingness and tradition. Naturally we begin with the Father, Who, when He created the heavens and the earth, forming man in the Divine Image, He beheld the incipient Church. One might say the whole heaven, all the earth, was created for the sake of the Church. Further, Christ our God inaugurates the Kingdom of God - the Church - when He walked amongst us. He is Her Origin, Her Head, Her Guide, and Her End. Finally, the Holy Ghost dwells within the Church (and within the souls of each individual member of the Church) as in a temple; He is the witness that we are adopted sons; as adopted sons, we are granted an adoptive yet transformative share in divinity - yet another image of our participation in the Divine Nature. Thus the Holy Ghost is the soul of the Church. 

Thus by naming the Church Mysterium, the Council intends us to understand that She is the fruit of the Blessed Trinity, a shadowy image of Its union, and the means by which we participate in Divinity Itself.

Since the Church is a mystery, She cannot be exhaustively, precisely defined. Though Her nature can be hinted at, indicated, intuited, and illustrated by analogy, it can never be perfectly grasped - much like how Otto explains the idea of the Holy. So we might say, "She is like this x and not like this y. Can you not see for yourself now what She is?" Nevertheless, Her aspects can still be articulated, at least so far as our intent is to deepen our love of the mystery, not replace it with a sterile formula. The Council names three ways Her mystery is shown: the fulfillment of the divine oracles, the preaching of Christ our God, and in the Divine Person of Christ Himself. The last way seems most of all to warrant further explanation. How does the Person of Jesus manifest the mystery of the Church?

Perhaps because as God-Man, His Nature is the form, the look of the Church; one Person, two natures. If that be the case, the mystery of the Church would at least be analogous to the mystery of the Incarnate Word, the mystery of the Incarnation. Or perhaps because the Person of Christ, especially in the Holy Triduum, is perpetuated down through the centuries by the suffering Church Militant; the Passion of Christ continues in Her suffering children. Again, perhaps it is because the power "to draw all men to Myself when I am lifted up" has been granted by God Himself to the Church. There would seem to be, then, the closest connection between "crucifixus, mortuus, et sepultus" and "resurrexit tertia die;" and likewise between these things and Holy Mother Church. The hidden power of the Incarnation, the strength in apparent weakness; caritas, humility, and self-sacrifice; slow, hidden growth - such are absolutely Hers. 

Similarly, other titles describe, but do not totally comprise or define, various aspects of Holy Mother Church: Sheepfold, Flock, Field of God, Choice Vineyard, Temple of God, House of God, Dwelling-Place of the Most High, Mother. All of these are drawn from Sacred Scripture, and the Council does little more than list them. One of these, Mystical Body of Christ, it develops at length - again, primarily using the images given in Sacred Scripture. 

The Word used humanity as the instrument to accomplish salvation; His humanity was the means through which Divinity acted to redeem fallen man. Redemption involves reception of the Holy Spirit, Who unites us into one Body. The Sacred Mysteries are particularly important here, since they are powerful, efficacious images of the Triduum - the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ our God. He is our Model, meaning that especially through our trials and tribulations, we travel the path of His Passion; we perpetuate it ("fill up what is lacking") through history. We suffer with Him, and if we persevere we shall like Him be glorified.

In order to safeguard us on this Way of the Cross, the Holy Spirit, Who purifies the Church, is given to Her, and He grants Her the great charisms which declare the glory of God; not, however, as autonomous tools of the given, but as under the authority of the Apostles and their successors, that harmony be preserved and discord avoided. Again, the Holy Spirit is given that the Church may always be renewed, and always be a dynamic, powerful force, not a stagnant, ossified structure. Thus again (and yet again!) the Holy Spirit is the soul of Holy Mother Church, the source of our spiritual life, and how we participate in Divinity Itself.

The end of the chapter explains the relationship between the Mystical Body of Christ and the visible Church on earth. It is through the Church that Christ our God communicates His grace and love. This topic is explosive - in speaking of this, one is necessarily walking in a minefield. The Council thus takes care to avoid several errors - the "hierarchical society" (note the precise, unmysterious language here!) and the Mystical Body (a Mystery of the first order) are not two separate realities; rather, the apparently banal is united to the invisible, intelligible Mystery; similarly, the Church Militant is not separated from the Church Triumphant; no, there is only one Church, and She contains a divine and a human element, analogous (as Leo XIII teaches in Satis Cognitum) to the Mystery of the Incarnation. Christ our God's assumed humanity is an instrument similar to how the communal structure of the Church serves the lifegiving, salvific Spirit. Divinity saves - the Church, by the ineffable will of the Holy One, is but the means. 

The Mystical Body of Christ - also called by the general term 'Church of Christ' - is said to "subsist in" the Catholic Church. This is the link between the Church as Mystery and the Church as historical reality. But why the word 'subsistit' instead of 'est'? What does 'subsist' mean?

'Subsist' seems to be a term used in philosophy. Aquinas uses it to refer to the existence of substances; it is predicated of substances, independent things, οὐσίαι. Only substances subsist, whereas an attribute 'is'. 'Actuality' might be a decent synonym - in Greek, ἐντελέχεια. 'The Church has actuality in the Catholic Church', perhaps. Thus 'subsist' is more precise than 'est,' and moreover, as clarified by the CDF, can be predicated of the Catholic Church alone. 

On the other hand, it seems (as far as I can tell from the secondary reading I've done) as if this word was chosen to indicate that there are elements of the Church in separated Churches and churchlike communities. But if so, this is an unnecessary reason, since that very thing is explicitly stated in the next sentence. It would seem better, qua clarity at least, to use a different structure in s.8: a) this Church of Christ is the Catholic Church; b) moreover, this identification is that between a substance and its existence; it exists in Her in the way of substances, not in the way of attributes or accidentals - hence the word 'subsist'. c) This being so, it is still the case that elements of salvation and sanctification may be found outside Her visible structure. 

It is not as if the identification of the Mystical Body of Christ and the Catholic Church is lacking in Lumen Gentium, but one needs to read all the sections (1-8) in light of each other - when read closely, the beginning as illuminated by the end, the proper interpretation is not difficult. But it presupposes proper instruction in the earlier pronouncements, which tended more towards the dogmatic than to the pastoral. One must already be steeped in Tradition to profit from Lumen Gentium (and I shall guess that this will be evident in the other documents as well); lacking this, one is apt to err, the more so as one is influenced by the spirit of the world instead of Holy Tradition. Therefore the Council documents of themselves might not be sufficient for instruction - they require supplement from the definitions provided by Tradition.

It should be remembered, though, that this is probably true of most pastoral writing, not merely the Council documents. In defining dogma and writing theological instruction, the hierarchy of truths is seen as a whole, a pulsating harmony; in pastoral writing, however, one or another aspect is emphasized as the situation dictates. A one way street emerges - only from precisely defined dogma can one embark on the pastoral task; not the other way around. Saying that pastoral writings are inherently misleading is quite wide of the mark, but if read as if they were dogma, instead of correcting some deficiency or other, they will inevitably be misinterpreted.

The identification of the Catholic Church with the Mystical Body of Christ also links Her to Christ; He is Her Model and Master; therefore She imitates Him by definitively renouncing temporal glory. Instead, She must communicate the Truth Himself amidst trial, suffering, and persecution; humility and self-sacrifice must be Her identity, for these things were His identity. Only this way of life enables Her to see Christ in the poor and the oppressed, and only this will remind Her that to serve them is to serve Her Lord.

The introduction closes with the need for purification looking forward to the end of the world. While Christ knew no sin, the Church, though holy and purifying sinners through Him, stands in need of being ever renewed. Thus She must pursue a path of perpetual penance and purification, returning again and again to the Sacred Scriptures, the Fathers, and the witness of the Saints. Only this way will give Her members the divine wisdom to respond to the pastoral problems, dilemmas, and questions which arise in Her particular time and place, for She will be able to answer from the perspective of divine revelation, not influenced by public opinion. This definitively establishes Her as a stranger in a strange land, an exiled vagrant, having here on earth no lasting city. She is an image of the Suffering Christ: amidst the oppression of Evil, She proclaims only one message - the Triumph of the Cross. Like Him, Holy Mother Church suffers from within and without, and often (even necessarily, perhaps?) Her most grievous wounds are inflicted by Her own children. Even then, She reveals the Mystery of the Lord faithfully; but in a shadowed, hidden way, until the Apocalypse.

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