06 March 2013

Vatican II: Lumen Gentium II

The second chapter of Lumen Gentium deals with the people of God.  The Council Fathers begin first by setting forth the history of God's people, from the first covenant with Israel through to the fulfillment of the old covenant and the establishment of the new by the coming of Christ.  Much of the first few paragraphs deal with the functions performed by the people of God and the gifts allotted to them.  The Fathers are clear in paragraph 13 that all men, whatever their state in life, work together to build up the Church:
In virtue of this catholicity each individual part contributes through its special gifts to the good of the other parts and of the whole Church. Through the common sharing of gifts and through the common effort to attain fullness in unity, the whole and each of the parts receive increase. Not only, then, is the people of God made up of different peoples but in its inner structure also it is composed of various ranks. This diversity among its members arises either by reason of their duties, as is the case with those who exercise the sacred ministry for the good of their brethren, or by reason of their condition and state of life, as is the case with those many who enter the religious state and, tending toward holiness by a narrower path, stimulate their brethren by their example.
The Council Fathers then turn their attention to the Church, Protestants, and non-Christians in three respective paragraphs.  With regard to those within the Church, the Council Fathers make it clear that the Church is the sole means of salvation:
Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.
The "harshness" of this passage, of course, hinges on one's interpretation of the word "knowing" -- must one only be made aware that the Catholic Church was founded by Christ, or must one come to know the Church's fundamental teachings?

The harshest words, though, are saved for those within the Church who do not live out their calling:
He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a "bodily" manner and not "in his heart." All the Church's children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.
With regard to non-Catholic Christians, the Council Fathers recognize that many such persons love Jesus deeply, honor Holy Scripture, and even profess a love and admiration for our Blessed Mother.  The Fathers do not pass judgment on whether non-Catholic Christians will be saved, though they do mention in passing that they "do not profess the faith in its entirety."

Finally, with regard to non-Christians, the Council Fathers state that they also have a place in the plan of salvation.  Persons of the Jewish and Moslem faiths, in particular, may be included by virtue of their belief in the God of Abraham.  The Council Fathers also addressed the place of those who do not know the Gospel or God:
Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life.
My initial thought was that in this day and age, it would be almost impossible to find anyone who has not heard the Gospel.  In reflecting on this further, I believe that there are countless persons in our world (especially in "advanced" societies) who have never truly heard the Gospel.  Though by this reasoning, those who do not know the Gospel are not necessarily condemned for that lack of knowledge, is it not much more beneficial for all men to hear the Gospel and be saved?

To that end, the Fathers close this chapter with a paragraph on the missionary nature of the Church: "For the Church is compelled by the Holy Spirit to do her part that God's plan may be fully realized, whereby He has constituted Christ as the source of salvation for the whole world. By the proclamation of the Gospel she prepares her hearers to receive and profess the faith." The obligation to proclaim the Gospel extends to all of the faithful according to their state in life -- not just the clergy or those whose vocation it is to teach the faith.

This could easily form the topic of another post, but suffice to say that this is one of the things with which I struggle most -- how can I most effectively witness for my faith as a working layman with a family?  I still haven't found a definite answer, but I know that God has put me in this place for a reason.  By His grace, I pray that I will be an effective evangelist.

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