With the substantial completion of discussion of the schema on the nature of the Church, the Second Vatican Council has placed the keystone which will determine the direction of all the other schemas to be considered.
The only task still to be accomplished by the council Fathers on the study of the nature of the Church is to formulate the role of the Virgin Mary in Christian fellowship.
The reason why the second session of the council began with a discussion of the nature of the Church is that all other questions follow as corollaries from this important study.
What the council Fathers have achieved is a highly significant piece of work. It will be a source of orientation for theologians and preachers for years to come.
It will be profitable to take a closer look at the basic principles that the council Fathers have enunciated in their discussions and votes on this paramount subject.
First of all, the council tried successfully to follow the lines proposed by the Pope who fathered the council, John XXIII, whose memory is highly revered by the council Fathers.
The council has deliberately avoided schoolroom logicalism which proceeds by dialectic deductions from an abstract, a priori set of definitions. In its stead, a Scriptural mode of speaking and thinking was followed. Perhaps there will be some scholars who will find fault with the use made of some of the Scriptural texts, but it is imperative to understand that the council was not concerned with the positive exegesis of this or that Biblical locus. Rather it was seeking for a saturation of mind with the total Biblical message, and in this mood it spoke to the people of our time.
It is rather important to make this observation, lest it be thought that a rigorous and formal task of the exegesis of Scriptural texts was undertaken. What we have is the proclamation of the Gospel burden done in the Biblical spirit.
The very beginning of the constitution is true to the Scriptures. The Church is not defined according to the canons of Aristotelian method. The Church is considered a mystery.
Not once in the pages of Holy Writ is the Church strictly defined. Her reality is left to be experienced by the believer in terms of his faith. Any mystery is ultimately beyond the comprehension of rational analysis, but much of a mystery can be known, and the very mystery excites us to know more about it. In the Bible some 100 images are employed to direct us to a fuller knowledge of the reality in which and by which we are in contact with the saving God.
It is for this reason that the first chapter of the council constitution opens its own doctrine on the “Church” with an explicit profession of its mysteriousness. The Church is not being examined with an empirical eye, but with the eyes of faith.
Under the stimulating image of the Mystical Body of Christ, important but general things are said about it for the needs of current man. It is here that a long vexing question is answered. Instead of posing an ambiguous problem of membership in this body, there is a discussion of belonging to it.
There are very many ways in which its life-giving energy can be transfused and, in consequence, nonChristians through faith, Baptism, the Scriptures, the Christian sacraments and worship belong to Christ. They must not be classified with those who know not the Lord Jesus. Nor must we forget that there is a Baptism of the Spirit given to those for whom the sacrament of water is impossible, even though their hearts are filled with faith and the perfect love which flows from it.
Nor is the visibility of the Church ignored. It is a fellowship of men and for men. It is like its Master, made of flesh and blood. To understand this dimension of its reality, another Biblical image is used. The Church is the People of God. In this light the dignity, the equality, the dynamism of each and every believer is brought out into clear view.
There are indeed distinctions in the vital functions of diverse believers, but the functions are of the same animating Spirit and the equal dignity of all believers derives precisely from their being gripped by Him.
This thought leads to the contemplation of the classes of functions in the Church. The basic equality of all believers is first affirmed. Only then are those dedicated to differentiating functions examined. It was stated previously that no function raises the agent above others in their all-embracing Christian reality, dignity and rights. But the meaning of organic function must be studied.
The hierarchs are first considered. However, the way the thought is expressed does not use categories of human law. It is clear that some believers must dedicate themselves to the weal of the People of God directly. They will function in the administration of the activity of the Church. As we usually say, they are engaged in the ministry.
The First Vatican Council devoted most of its energies to the clarification of the function and powers of the prime minister, the Bishop of Rome. Since the First Vatican Council did not have the time to complete its total program, the place of the papacy was defined without speaking about the work of the other ministers. The earlier doctrine needed no repetition but the undone work had to be done now.
The Second Vatican Council deals with the other non-papal functions in the Church. The meaning of bishops was first explained and in a way whereby they were more substantial than mere shadows of the pope.
In describing the nature of episcopate a notion was introduced which, though not new, was not fully stressed in the recent past. This notion was that of “collegiality.” The word is indeed new, invented during the last 20 years. But it is only a verbal prolongation of the idea of the episcopal college, which has been with us a thousand years.
The principle expressed assumes as the basic truth in all Catholic doctrine that all action in the Church proceeds from the indwelling Holy Ghost. In an organic rather than merely organized union, this power is rendered visible in a system instead of by independent and isolated units. The episcopate is such a system — like the nervous system in the human body. The episcopal system forms a corporate circuit within the People of God.
The Bishop of X diocese directs his church, but only insofar as he is the terminal point whereby the total episcopate meets the organs in action. The total corporate episcopate runs the total Church.
No bishop is exclusively of one diocese. He, in and with his brother bishops, are always the directors of the Universal Church. In the episcopal union, and never outside of it, the bishop leads the individual local church. In simple words, the directive force of the Holy Spirit manifests itself and operates externally through the episcopal system. There is no other system for such action.
This position immediately raises a question. Where does the pope stand in such a doctrine? Are the definitions of the First Vatican Council being buried? Not at all. The Bishop of Rome, that ancient and yet abiding title of the pope, is the center and visible source of episcopal unity. He is not only another bishop, but the prime bishop without whom there is no college of bishops at all. The many bishops, either gathered together in one place and at one time, or scattered throughout the world, form the one dynamic pulsation only by being directly united with him. The system can produce action operating as a whole or in him alone. No definition of the First Vatican Council is weakened. That council’s doctrine is now more fully explained.
What many theologians have already seen is now officially proclaimed. There is no power in the Church except it be the power of the Spirit, and such power for the authentic direction of the Church is visibly and humanly mediated to all believers by the episcopate functioning as a corporate unity. There is no other human official control over the People of God. The pope’s power is episcopal with the fullest possession of that power in his own individual person. But even when he so uses it, it is still the action not of one agent but of the total college of which he is the head.
In the ministry we find different orders. The bishop does not stand alone. The priest, called in Latin the presbyter, and the deacon also participate in the administration of the Church. How is their work to be understood? By the principle that there is no directive power in the visible Church outside of the episcopate, it becomes clear that the bishops sacramentally and administratively empower the presbyters to assist them within definite limits. Episcopal power is shared with them, but not in its fullness. The presbyter can offer the sacrifice of the Mass and he is a priest of the second order forever.
The deacon ministers to the Church on a lower level, but he does so by the sacramental empowerment of the bishop in whose function diaconal duties lie, though it is more important for the total Church that the bishop give his time to more urgent tasks.
No one in the Church is passive. In a living body no cell but a dead one is exempt from the job of working for the whole. Hence Church action cannot be restricted to mere administration. Its universal task is its thrust outwards. Administration lays down guidelines, but the work is done by all. Hence in the life and the activity of the Church, the non-hierarchs, that is, those whose work in the Church is not immediately administrative, the laity had to be considered most of all, for the laity make up most of the Church.
The council taught a clear doctrine on this point. In Peter’s epistles the body of believers is described as a royal priesthood. In pursuance of this thought the council reminds the faithful that they are sharers in the Body of Christ Himself. He is our sole high priest and intermediator.
The royal priesthood forms the universal priesthood of all of those who are one in Him. It is not the sacramental priesthood which stamps its own distinctive, functional character, but that sacramental priesthood itself supposes the universal priesthood in order to make the latter real and tangible to us. The ministerial priest shares as do all believers in the universal priesthood and the laity, through it, shares in the sacramental priesthood of bishops and presbyter.
What is more, the principle that all power and action in the Church is the Spirit Himself visibly mediated to us, has wider application than the explanation of episcopate. Only for moderating and directive functions of the communal Church do we need a ministry.
However, much enters into Church life which needs no explicit moderation of the hierarchs. Besides, the hierarchs themselves need conscious light from the Spirit to fulfill their own mission. Nor is the Spirit unmindful of the Church’s needs. He acts not only through the administration but also directly on all believers. He gives light, energy and pushes any and all believers to act for the Church and even to speak prophetically to the ministers. Such action is called charismatic.
The laity are reminded that they too are recipients of charismatic gifts of the Spirit and they must employ them bravely and faithfully. The hierarchy are reminded that they must not try to extinguish the action of the Spirit on laymen and laywomen but rather receive such light with gratitude. As administrators, they have to test the spirits to see if they be of God, but they must never deny the initiative of the Holy Ghost nor make themselves judges of God Himself.
After the situation of the different functional classes is examined, a chapter deals with the universal call of believers to holiness. All are instructed — bishops, priests, Religious and laity — that the Christian is called by his vocation to Baptism ever to increase in closer imitation of Christ through love of God and neighbor. It is clearly stated that holiness is not the restricted reserve of priest or monk. There are many ways by which sanctity can be pursued toward the impossible goal of holiness to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect.
Ecclesiology, the theological study of the Church, has many questions to ask. The council did not answer all, or even many of them. However, it did solve problems for men of our day, living in a world that challenges Christian endeavor. The days and the years will bring out many facets of the council’s teaching which its new appearance cannot yet reveal. It will be highly significant to see the consideration of the Virgin Mary precisely in this context and this is one of the tasks being essayed now.
Father Gustave Weigel, SJ
Father Weigel is professor of ecclesiology at Woodstock, Md., College. He has attended the daily sessions of the Second Vatican Council as the Fathers debated the important questions concerned with the nature of the Church. He has served as an interpreter of these discussions for the English-language press in his capacity as a member of the press panel set up in Rome by the American bishops.