Tag Archives: Vatican II

Gaudium et Spes – The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World by Peter Avvento


(This was to have posted a few weeks back… I entered it, posted it, but it seems to have disappeared. Here it is in its entirety! Apologies to Peter Avvento and to all of you.)

This was one of the most bitterly debated documents of the council. The original plan had called for one document on the church – “De Ecclesia”- but this changed largely due through the efforts of Leo Cardinal Suenens (Belgium) and his fellow bishops from Germany and the Netherlands. The pivotal point was the need to make a distinction between the church ad intra (the basic nature and structure of the Church) and the church ad extra (the church understood from the perspective of its mission to the world). Thus Vatican II produced two documents – “Lumen Gentium” (on the nature of the church) and “Gaudium et Spes” (on the mission of the church). One of the key speeches was that given by Dom Helder Camara of Brazil that bears repeating and should be emphasized to church leadership today, Are we to spend our whole time discussing internal church problems while two-thirds of humankind is dying of hunger?”


Part I of “Gaudium et Spes” establishes the theological framework for the church’s engagement in the world. It creates a theological anthropology that is grounded in the biblical notion of the human person as the “image of God”. Part II deals with the practical questions of moral application and addresses such topics as marriage and family, economic and social life and the fostering of peace.

Throughout the document there is an over-riding spirit of respectful dialogue with the world. On one hand, the church admits that it has much to learn from the world. On the other hand, the church offers to the world the “Good News” of Jesus Christ. The Church maintains that it is the guardian of the deposit of God’s Word and it draws religious and moral principles from it but it does not always have a ready answer to every question. While this may be frustrating to some it is part and parcel of the fact that life is filled with more “gray” than “black and white”, especially in moral matters.

One of the basic themes is an understanding of the Church (“all Christian faithful” as being called to a mission in the world. The Church believes that through each of us and all of us as a whole, we can make the human family even more human. Your actions and my actions have a social and a political impact. The metaphor of “leaven” (yeast) is most appropriate because it suggests that we are sent into the world to transform it from within. As a result, this document repudiates any attempt to define the church as being over and against the world as if it were so sort of autonomous entity (“a perfect society”) unaffected by the issues and concerns for humanity. The Church is NOT of ultimate importance – the Kingdom of God is. The Church exists as a UNIVERSAL SACRAMENT of SALVATION. As Christians we must be willing to “get our hands dirty” for the sake of the Kingdom.



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Lumen Gentium – by Peter Avvento

Once again, Peter Avvento offers some thoughts after another Adult Faith Enrichment evening at St. Edward the Confessor. If you are in the area, come by on any Monday night that the programs are offered – all are welcome. A free will offering will gladly be accepted, but no entry fee is required.

“Since the Church, in Christ, is like a sacrament – a sign and instrument that is of communion with God and of the unity of the entire human race…” (LG n.1)

The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, is, above all, an attempt to express in very broad strokes the doctrinal self understanding of the Catholic Church. It begins by speaking about the “mystery” of the Church. St. Paul uses this very same word (“mysterion”) to refer to the self revelation of God in Jesus Christ. This term carried with it the connotation of something that cannot be entirely explained or understood. And yet, St. Paul insists that the very mystery of God and of the divine love for humanity has been revealed in Jesus Christ.

It was a short step from Paul’s use of the term “mystery” with reference to God’s plan of salvation in Christ to its application by early Christian writers to the sacramental life of the Church. The mystery that we celebrate in the liturgy is nothing other than our participation in the paschal mystery of our redemption in Christ. Latin authors translated the word “mysterion” as “sacramentum”. By the 4th century, Christian authors began to use this language to speak about the ritual celebrations of the church (the sacraments with which we are very familiar).

The Mystical Body of Christ

During the Middle Ages, Catholic theology began to apply the category of mystery that was long understood to refer to the Mystical Body of Christ in the Eucharist to the Mystical Body that is the Church. The authors understood that the fruit of participation in the Eucharist is unity, the communion with God and with one another that constitutes the very foundation of Church.

During the period of the Reformation and Counter Reformation we see a further development. For the Protestant Reformers, the true church of Christ was no longer visible due to the corruption that had eroded its visible institution. It was hidden from view and should be known only as a spiritual reality. Catholic theology, led by the illustrious Jesuit, St. Robert Bellarmine (to whom this author has a personal devotion although I disagree with much of his theology) placed a strong emphasis on the continuity between the visible reality of the institutional church and the true church established by Christ.

What was Bellarmine’s vision? He understood the Church as a “visible” and “perfect” society, equipped with everything necessary for the salvation of its members. This vision dominated the Catholic theology manuals and textbooks down through the early 20th century. The teaching of Vatican II is an effort to restore a balance between understanding the inner, spiritual dimensions of the church and its concrete, historical reality.

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“Dei Verbum” – Vatican II Declaration on Divine Revelation by Peter Avvento

(This is an excerpt from the Monday night Adult Faith Enrichment series on Vatican II, written by Peter Avvento)

In the centuries after the Council of Trent the Church assumed a defensive posture and created a “fortress mentality”. This posture was understandable in that the Church had been under attack by the Reformers, the rise of modern science and the Age of Enlightenment. The theological texts of these times were theological “manuals” which gave the impression that divine revelation was little more than a collection of truth statements. During the 19th century and early 20th century the dominant theological method in Catholic theology was “neo-scholasticism” whose approach to theology was the use of the “dogmatic manual”. Seminary texts were prepared to offer students the necessary defensive “weapons” to defend the truths of the Catholic faith.

Let’s look briefly at this model, usually referred to as the “Propositional Model”. Although the truth statements contained in these books had their remote origin in Scripture and tradition, their immediate source of authority was the magesterium (teaching function of the church). The magesterium became the immediate rule of faith for ordinary Catholics. Hence the phrase – “What does the official Church have to say about this or that?” So Scripture became the remote rule of faith, a rule that needed the magesterium for guidance. In this model, faith was conceived as an intellectual assent to truths that were contained in propositions – very mathematical to be sure but not very theological!

In the preparatory stages of Vatican II the theological commission, comprised mostly of Roman scholastic theologians, presented a draft document on revelation which was simply a rehash of the dogmatic manuals with little emphasis on scripture which had been receiving new energy through the biblical renewal movement ushered in by the 1943 encyclical of Pope Pius XII, “Divino Afflante Spiritu”. This commission expected a rubber stamp approval and was stunned when good and wise Pope John XXIII intervened and rejected their document. He created a new commission who would eventually come up with the document that we have today – “Dei Verbum” (“Word of God”).
The key to this document lies in its “personalist viewpoint” evident most especially in paragraph 2 which shows a theological shift away from the old propositional model. Now we read that God does not reveal to us a collection of information; rather, God shares his very self with us. God comes to us as a person, Jesus Christ, who is both “mediator and the sum total of revelation”.

The document refers to the character of divine revelation as the “most intimate truth” communicated by God. This is a radical departure from the traditional emphasis on “truths” or “mysteries of faith”. Revelation is not a collection of statements, theses, propositions, axioms or teachings but is the “single intimate truth” of God’s love for us in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. In order for God to communicate with us He must communicate in a manner that is appropriate to our status as finite creatures. This is an old axiom that was held by St. Thomas Aquinas and the scholastics, “quidquid recipitur, recipitur ad modum recipientis” (“that which is received is received according to the mode of the receiver”). Sarcastically, it can be translated as “we only hear what we want to hear”. The truth of that statement lies in the fact that we must be “open” to hear God’s loving Word in order to “believe” it and “act” upon it.

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Feast of All Saints

On this great feast of our church, I share with you a video from James Martin, SJ. This is an excerpt from the larger project, Who Cares About the Saints?, from Loyola Press.  This particular portion shows Fr. Martin speaking about Bl. John XXIII, which I thought was appropriate as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council!

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