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Holy Spirit Interactive: Vatican II: A Walk-Through - Constitution of the Church

Vatican II: A Walk-Through - Constitution of the Church

The First Vatican Council, ending so abruptly in 1870, is known as the Pope's Council, for it defined the dogma of papal infallibility and stressed the supremacy of the Holy See. It is likely that the Second Vatican Council will go down in history as the Council which explained the organic structure of the Church. This explanation is centred upon the Constitution De Ecclesia -- dealing with the Church itself. The main points of this Constitution are outlined below.

  1. Too often in the past, the sacramental nature of the Church has been lost to view. Some theologians used to describe the Church in terms of a perfect, independent society, often in competition with other social systems. Others preferred to see it as a complexity of legal systems, issuing laws to control man's spiritual destiny. Others, again, looked at age-old institutions, its fine buildings and palaces, the splendour of its ornaments, vestments and ceremonies, and saw in all these things evidence of triumph and victory -- "ecclesiastical triumphalism."

  2. The Constitution sees the Church, not as any of those things, but as "the sacrament of union with God, the sacrament of the unity of the whole of the human race." A sacrament is a sign which brings about what it signifies. The Church is the sign of unity. Through it, Christ, its founder, shows the power and presence of God, acting upon society, upon mankind, upon the world itself; and the action is the same as Christ's action on Cavalry -- bringing mercy and pardon to men.

  3. The Church is the sign because it is the community of the People o God. Divine redemption and the power of the Holy Ghost, act in and through God's people to save all mankind. The People of God are being sanctified; yet they remain weak and human, subject to temptation, liable to sin. This is not a Church of triumph, whose members can lord it over others, while remaining secure within its walls. It does not compete with other social systems and other cultures; it adapts itself to these systems, because it is an instrument which God uses to save mankind. It is a missionary Church -- the People of God are missionaries. They seek that union with God which is true holiness; they are the instruments through whom God unites and sanctifies mankind.

  4. The Catholic Church professes that it is the one, holy catholic and apostolic Church of Christ; this it does not and could not deny. But in its Constitution the Church now solemnly acknowledges that the Holy Ghost is truly active in the churches and communities separated from itself. To these other Christian Churches the Catholic Church is bound in many ways: through reverence for God's word in the Scriptures; through the fact of baptism; through other sacraments which they recognize.

  5. The non-Christian may not be blamed for his ignorance of Christ and his Church; salvation is open to him also, if he seeks God sincerely and if he follows the commands of his conscience, for through this means the Holy Ghost acts upon all men; this divine action is not confined within the limited boundaries of the visible Church.

  6. The Constitution then turns to the structure of the hierarchy which Christ established in his Church. It uses the word "college" in the sense of a unified, corporate body of men (just as cardinals are said to belong to a "sacred college"). Christ formed his Apostles "after the manner of a college," and over this college he placed Peter, whom he had chosen from their midst. The mission which Christ entrusted to the Apostles must last until the end of the world; accordingly the Apostles chose others to succeed them. It is therefore by divine institution that bishops have succeeded the Apostles. The college or body of bishops, however, has authority together with the Pope as its head. The Pope is the foundation of unity, of bishops as well as of the Faithful; so that supreme authority can be exercised by the college of bishops only in union with the Pope and with his consent.

  7. Bishops give to other individuals a share in the ministry. Priests and bishops are united in the priestly office. At a lower level is the hierarchy are deacons. When regional conference of bishops deem it necessary--and when the Pope consents--bishops can confer the diaconate upon men of mature years, even if these men are married.

In the third session of the Council, practical applications of the principle of collegiality were left over to await discussion in the draft scheme concerning bishops. These practical applications affect such problems as the division of dioceses and the powers to be used by episcopal conferences. Another important problem, related to the principle that the bishops and the Pope together form a "college," is the establishment of a central advisory council of bishops. The form which this advisory council takes is likely to resemble a "cabinet" in a civil state, in which the president or prime minister chooses a group of ministers and advisers. When Pope Paul VI, in February 1965, created many new cardinals and greatly increased the number in the "Sacred College" of cardinals, he spoke of the great importance of this senate of the Church. Since each cardinal is consecrated bishop (if he is not already a bishop), and since the College of Cardinals includes representatives from every part of the world, it seems to many observers that the cardinals themselves will form the "central advisory council," in which the collegiate responsibility of the bishops will be expressed.

The Holy See has also continued the work of "reforming" the roman Curia, adapting its structure and activities to bring it into harmony with the needs of modern times and including among its officials a greater proportion of non-Italians. An important instance of this reform is in the Holy Office, which now includes bishops of dioceses in France and in the United States.

Next: Decree on the Eastern Churches

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