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By all means some of the central contributions of Vatican II were its pronouncements on the new ecclesiology which was to guide the Catholic church. Fundamental differences over the nature and the constitution of the church had already formed the basis for heated debates in the course of the rise and decline of what I have termed the first wave of Left Catholicism from the 1930s to the 1950s.14 What happened at Vatican II is that, to a significant extent, the demands and expectations aired by this earlier generation of Catholic reformers now became official doctrine of the church. Discussions and negotiations surrounding various drafts and redrafts of what eventually became the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium (LG)) took up a significant percentage of the council sessions. For it was, in fact, clear from the very beginning that the relevant texts presented by the preparatory commission were too timid to express majority opinion on this topic at the council. And a variety of alternative projects soon superseded the quickly abandoned original scheme.

Given several crucial interventions by John XXIII and Paul VI allowing bishops greater freedom to move within council deliberations, and given the fact that bishops—along with their theologian consultants—were the prime immediate beneficiaries of the new winds blowing at the Vatican, it comes as little surprise that some of the most innovative passages of Lumen Gentium concern the role of bishops within the newly defined church. LG 27 stipulated, for instance, in its opening passage that bishops are to be regarded as ‘vicars and ambassadors of Christ’, and that they should not be regarded as ‘the vicars of the Roman pontiff, for they exercise an authority that is proper to them, and are quite correctly called “prelates”, heads of the people whom they govern’. LG 22 had already prepared the terrain by stressing the importance of the principle of collegiality and the desirability of the creation of episcopal conferences to formulate policy, thereby suggesting that the episcopacy should have important powers returned to them which, over the past centuries, Rome had removed. And LG 22 also stipulated that bishops have ‘supreme and full power over the universal Church, provided we understand this body together with its head the Roman Pontiff and never without this head.’ Finally, in this select highlighting of the free space Vatican II was attempting to carve out for the episcopacy, LG 23 underscores that dioceses are ‘particular churches’ which already carry within themselves the essence of the universal church rather than constituting ever so many constituent parts of the church, with each diocese by itself lacking what it takes to be considered the church.

Yet it is also true that Lumen Gentium already carried within itself important qualifiers and latent contradictions. On the one hand Lumen Gentium includes formulations which clearly widened the space for autonomous manoeuvres by the episcopacy. And on 15 September 1965, Paul VI went yet one step further and indeed established a world council of bishops by his motu proprio Apostolica Sollicitudo. Yet this act fell short of a true emancipation of the episcopacy, as the pope retained the exclusive right to convoke the synod,


See Horn, Western European Liberation Theology, passim.

to set its agenda, and to determine the remit of such synods.[1] And thus the discussion surrounding episcopal rights and liberties within the hierarchical constitution of the church showcased both the promises and the limitations evoked and set by Vatican II.[2]

If even the episcopacy could not legislate its own unequivocal emancipation within the upper rungs of the hierarchy, somewhat less was to be expected for the various members of the church on lower levels. True to form, on the one hand Chapter IV of Lumen Gentium, addressing the role of the laity, and the conciliar Decree on the Lay Apostolate, Apostolicam Actuositatem, certainly included important improvements in the role and status of laypersons in the church, which led Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimmler, in their commentary on the corpus of documents approved by Vatican II, to suggest that to continue ‘to keep down and to disenfranchise the laity within the church’ must henceforth be regarded as an impossible path to pursue.[3] But, certainly in hindsight, the following prescient observation by Giuseppe Dossetti less than one year after the closure of Vatican II turns out to have been more appropriate. The Italian eminence grise of progressive Catholicism noted in his reflections that the entire range of council documents dealing with the role and status of laypersons turns out to have been ‘particularly deficient and that, for all practical purposes, it has not marked much progress with respect to the very first preparatory schemes’.[4]

On the whole, however, Lumen Gentium is a milestone in the direction of greater autonomy for subordinate elements in the church’s hierarchy, despite the fact that often the second half of a sentence partially rescinds the gains announced in the sentence’s opening passage. In fact, the diplomatic manoeuvres surrounding the making of Lumen Gentium, including the wording of the final product, are an excellent example of the frequent observation by participant-observers that, quite often, the official documents emanating from the council, when placed under close textual scrutiny, fall short of the proverbial ‘spirit of Vatican II’. The Galician theologian Andres Torres Queir- oga put it like this: ‘The extraordinary meaning of the Council far surpasses the actual letters of its texts which do not convey the true significance which animates them except when one places them in the context of the Council’s grand design.’[5] And the ubiquitous Giuseppe Alberigo pointed out yet another rather important aspect of Vatican II, which has often been overlooked in the relevant literature, and which should be mentioned in this particular context. Whereas in the official council deliberations most of the bishops present played a rather passive role, the atmosphere in ‘Off-Vatican’ Rome presented a rather more lively picture. A constant flow of ‘presentations, workshops, episcopal assemblies, informal conversations in cafes or inside buses during travel’ to and from various venues contributed their own fair share to the fashioning of a positive view of the overall meaning of council deliberations by sympathizers of the progressive council majority.[6] It was at least in part due to this atmosphere surrounding the four sessions that the council deliberations were regarded by many as an open-ended and hopeful experience. Thus, despite the contradictory pluralism of quite a number of key text passages, what entered collective memory as the event of Vatican II was a perception of council procedures which did not always mesh with the reality of sometimes tense discussions in the corridors of power.

There was one aspect of the drafting of Lumen Gentium which symbolically captures the much invoked joyful and progressive ‘spirit of Vatican II’. In October 1963, one year before the final approval of Lumen Gentium, the draft document on the constitution of the church, then still referred to as De Ecclesia, underwent an important change in the sequence of its chapters. Chapter 1 remained a reflection on the nature of the church, itself quite significant in part because, in its final passages, it is stressed that ‘the Church encompasses with love all who are afflicted with human suffering, and in the poor and afflicted sees the image of its poor and suffering Founder’ (LG 8). Yet the real novelty consisted in the reshuffling of Chapters 2 and 3. The original second chapter, which focused on the ecclesiastical hierarchy, was moved to Chapter 3. And the former third chapter, a discussion of the church as the People of God, now moved up to second place. The articles of what became Chapter 2 highlighted that all members of the church, via the act of baptism, were equal and united and thus form together the People of God. To place this enlightened discussion of the People of God prior to the disquisition on the hierarchy was a symbol-laden act and was understood as such on all sides of the debate. ‘The very succession of topics would demonstrate their decreasing theological importance.’[7]

  • [1] See the discussion of the motu proprio in Gilles Routhier, ‘Finishing the Work Begun. TheTrying Experience of the Fourth Period’, in Giuseppe Alberigo and Joseph A. Komonchak (eds),History of Vatican II, Vol. V: The Council and the Transition. The Fourth Period and the End ofthe Council. September 1965-December 1965 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2006), pp. 55-61.
  • [2] A number of contributions to the five-volume history of the Second Vatican Council editedby Alberigo and Komonchak include vital information on aspects of the fashioning of LumenGentium. Of particular detail is Alberto Melloni, ‘The Beginning of the Second Period: The GreatDebate on the Church’, in Giuseppe Alberigo and Joseph A. Komonchak (eds), History ofVatican II, Vol. III: The Mature Council. Second Period and Intersession. September 1963-September 1964 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000), pp. 1-115.
  • [3] Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimmler, ‘Einleitung’, in Karl Rahner and HerbertVorgrimmler (eds), Kleines Konzilskompendium. Alle Konstitutionen, Dekrete und Erklarungendes Zweiten Vaticanums in der bischoflich genehmigten Ubersetzung (Freiburg: Herder, 1966),p. 117.
  • [4] Giuseppe Dossetti, Il Vaticano II. Frammenti di una riflessione (Bologna: Mulino, 1996),p. 48.
  • [5] Andres Torres Queiroga, ‘Vatican II et sa theologie’, in Melloni and Theobald (eds),Vatican II, p. 35.
  • [6] Giuseppe Alberigo, ‘Vatican II et son histoire’, in Melloni and Theobald (eds), Vatican II,p. 49.
  • [7] Alberigo, Brief History, p. 49.
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