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The Second Vatican Council updated the Church's understanding of sacramental marriage. Read about the restoration of the domestic church, the pastoral care of marriage, the changing roles of husbands and wives and the new outlook on mixed marriages, divorce and remarriage.

Vatican 2 Today

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Today's Church:
A Look in the Mirror

by Father William H. Shannon

What does the Church have to say about the death penalty? What is Church teaching on gay "marriage"? What position does the Church take on optional celibacy for priests? In the context of these questions, I want to put a different question to the reader: What reality does the word Church in such statements immediately bring to mind for you? When you hear the word Church, does it mean the pope and his Vatican officials? Or do you think of the bishop and his diocesan staff? Or perhaps Church brings to mind your local pastor and the various ministers in your parish community.

A fourth way of thinking 'Church'

Is there another way of thinking about Church? Would it occur to you to put the question this way: What do I think about these issues? What do my fellow parishioners think about them? What do Catholic people throughout the world think about them? Are these also viable ways of understanding Church?

It is probably true to say that before the Second Vatican Council most people would have been satisfied to accept the first three ways of thinking about Church as adequate descriptions. These views represent a hierarchical way of seeing Church, a top-to-bottom view. What was revealed at the Council was a new vision of Church. At least it was new to most people at the time. It actually goes back to a very early, biblical perspective.

Vatican II's vision of Church

Fundamental to Vatican II's vision is an emphasis on the Church as the People of God. True, the Church is a hierarchical community. I would have you note, though, that hierarchical is the adjective; community is the noun. Since nouns are more substantive than adjectives, it is fair to say that community trumps hierarchy. While hierarchy is important, the community must come first.

Preceding any distinction between lay and ordained is the reality of Christian Baptism. Baptism incorporates us all into an egalitarian community in which all are one and equal in Christ. A priest, bishop or pope receives his Christian identity in the same way as all God's people: through Baptism. As Cardinal Suenens said in a homily at a memorial Mass for Pope John XXIII, the most significant day in the life of a priest, bishop or pope is not the day of his ordination but the day he was baptized into Christ Jesus.

Yves Congar, one of the theologians of the Council, wrote that it is not laypersons who have to define themselves in terms of their relation to the hierarchy but rather the hierarchy that needs to define itself in relation to the whole People of God. It is most importantly the People of God of whom they are a part and whom they are called upon to serve.

All the baptized are the People of God. All are called to build up the Church: the members of the hierarchy in their way, and the rest of the baptized in theirs. Giving priority to people fits well with the derivation of the word used for Church in the New Testament. The Greek word for Church is ekklesia. Its literal meaning is "those who are called together by God."

Church buildings

Catholic church buildings may be called "churches" only in a derivative sense: They are not the Church, but the place where the Church, God's people, gather. In ancient times a pagan temple was the house of a particular god. The priest alone entered the temple; people prayed outside. The same was true of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem: It was the house of God. People gathered in courts outside the temple, and only the priest was allowed to enter it.

A Catholic church is very different. It is not God's house; it is rather the place where God's people assemble. You don't need a building to have the Church. It is people, not bricks and mortar, that make up the Church.


Return to a collegial model

The Council also set out to decentralize the Church. It did this by emphasizing the unique importance of each local Church. It made clear that each bishop is the vicar of Christ in the local Church over which he presides: "The bishops, as vicars and legates of Christ, govern by their counsels, persuasion and example the particular Churches assigned to them" (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, #27). The local bishop, therefore, is not primarily an agent of Rome but of the Holy Spirit.

This shift in focus meant a return to the principle of collegiality—so important in the first millennium of Christianity. Collegiality means that the Catholic bishops throughout the world, together with and under the leadership of the pope, possess supreme authority and pastoral responsibility for the whole Church. Besides the responsibilities they have in their local Churches, bishops are called to have concern for the universal Church.

The First Vatican Council asserted that the pope was able to exercise supreme authority without consulting the bishops. The Second Vatican Council, without denying that the pope can exercise such authority, suggested—at least hinted—that perhaps he ought not to do so. Before making any major statements, the pope would be well advised to consult with the bishops of the world so that what the Spirit is saying to the local Churches can be incorporated into statements intended for the entire world.

The Book of Revelation offers sound advice in this regard. In the letters addressed to the local Churches in Asia, each concludes with a similar message: "Whoever has ears ought to hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (e.g., Rev 2:7, italics added).

Local collegiality

But collegiality need not stop with the college of bishops. This principle needs to be extended to the local Church. If the bishop wants to be a good teacher whose teaching reaches the minds and hearts of his people, he must also be a good listener.

He needs to hear what priests, religious and laity in his diocese are saying as they attempt to live out the gospel in their daily lives. When the bishop listens to them and incorporates their experiences into the teaching of the gospel, he will be better assured that his teaching will be vital as well as relevant.

The principle of collegiality deserves an even wider application. It should also find expression in the lives of the individual parishes in a diocese. After all, it is in their parish community that most Catholics experience the reality of Church. It is here that they are baptized, confirmed and celebrate the Eucharist. It is the place where they marry and where their children are baptized. It is with their fellow parishioners and their pastors that they share the joys and sorrows, the agonies and the ecstasies of life.

Pastors of parishes need to listen to the faithful in their parish: "The sacred pastors...should recognize and promote the dignity and responsibility of the laity in the Church. They should willingly use their prudent advice and confidently assign offices to them in the service of the Church, leaving them freedom and scope for activity. Indeed, they should encourage them to take on work on their own initiative" (LG, #37).

This should be especially true in areas where the laity have expertise that their pastors lack. "To the extent of their knowledge, competence or authority, the laity are entitled, and indeed sometimes duty-bound, to express their opinion on matters which concern the good of the Church" (LG, #37).

Other ecclesial communities

There is an intriguing sentence in Vatican II's document on the Church: "This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church" (LG, #8, italics added). If the Council Fathers who wrote this document had intended to say that the Christian Church is identical with the Catholic Church, they could have said so. The fact is that they chose not to say this; instead they picked a word that may be read to mean that perhaps the Church of Christ extends beyond the boundaries of the Catholic Church.

The Council even "hints" (I use the word "hints" advisedly) that it may be possible to extend the understanding of Church beyond the Catholic Church. The document on the Church says: "The Church has many reasons for knowing that it is joined to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian, but do not profess the faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity of communion under the successor of Peter" (LG, #15). Such groups are described as "churches" or "ecclesiastical communities."

It is worth noting that, while Sacred Scripture has always been an important part of our Christian heritage, it has only been since the Council that the Catholic Church has given due emphasis to it. Until then other Christian "ecclesiastical communities" were much more devoted to the Scriptures than were Catholics.


The Second Vatican Council repeats the teachings of Vatican I on the infallibility, under certain specified conditions, of the college of bishops with the pope or of the pope alone without that college. However, Vatican II adds significantly to our understanding of the Church's infallibility.

It points out that the People of God share in Christ's prophetic office. For this reason "the whole body of the faithful who have received an anointing which comes from the Holy One (see 1 Jn 2:20 and 27) cannot be mistaken in belief. It shows this characteristic through the entire people's supernatural sense of the faith, when 'from the bishops to the last of the faithful,' it manifests a universal consensus in matters of faith and morals" (LG, #12).

Is the vision of Vatican II fading?

I have tried to describe the vision of Church that emerged from Vatican II. We have to ask today, humbly but honestly: Is the vision of the Council being brought to fruition? Is the Church becoming the Church envisioned by the Council? Many would answer with a hesitant and regretful "no" or at least "not anywhere near what it should be."

Surely much has changed in the 40 years since Vatican II. Lay men and women are more and more involved in the life of the Church. This is a gain that can never be set back. Yet one cannot help but note the appearance of a strong current of thought and action aimed at gradually recentralizing the Church. More and more authority is being withdrawn from local churches and concentrated in Rome. As one theologian described the way in which things seem to be moving: "The pope is no longer the ultimate authority; he is the only authority."

Still, the vision of the Council is there, calling us to become the Church that it had hoped would come into being. Lay women and men have an important role to play in preserving this vision and moving it forward to fulfillment.

Question Box:

• What does the word Church mean to you? Has your perspective changed with the reading of this article? If so, how?

• How well does your principle of collegiality being modeled in your local Church—by your bishop? by your pastor? How open and prepared is your community to accepting the responsibilities that come with true collegiality?

• Father Shannon concludes his article by stating that lay women and men have an important role in moving forward the Vatican II vision of Church. What are you doing to preserve and promote this vision?


NEXT: Today's Church: Sign of Joy and Hope by Father William H. Shannon


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