From De Ecclesia to Lumen Gentium

Issue 1710

15 November 2017

The preparation of the Constitution on the Church was certainly one of the highest and most engaging moments of the Second Vatican Council. Using the interpretative category of “event,” which is concerned with historical research, reconstruction and critical evaluation of the facts, this article seeks to study, in its initial stage, the formation of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. It concentrates on the “passage” from the schema De Ecclesia that was drafted by the preparatory doctrinal commission (1960-62) to the “Philips schema” that would serve as a basis for the future constitution. Msgr. Gérard Philips was a professor from Louvain and a close confidant of Cardinal Léon-Joseph Suenens.

The choice of the new coordinating commission to orient themselves around the Philips schema – widely circulated among and supported by the transalpine bishops and theologians – seemed to many a good solution. In part this was due to the authority of Philips, who had supporters on both sides, and was considered a skilled mediator and “peacemaker.” It was also due to the moderate nature of the schema, a sort of “via media” between the positions supported by the old schema and those more progressive voices advanced by the “Franco-German school,” which had a remarkable following in the Council.

The restructuring from the initial schema had theological and ecclesiological significance that was very important: it marked the end of the hierarchical-pyramidal vision of the Church, and in particular showed that bishops, laity, and religious were all part of the people of God, and this discussion took precedence over the chapter on the hierarchy.

The Council, which continued its journey with Paul VI, discussed the new schema in the second session, which started with the prophetic words Lumen Gentium. In the end, the schema, with some important modifications, was able to gain the assent of the overwhelming majority of the Council fathers. It was a great victory for all, and, as Pope Paul VI said, a great blessing for the Church, which was finally entering into harmony with the contemporary world. Today, more than half a century later, it is possible for us to fully appreciate the importance and greatness of that event.

The author, Giovanni Sale, is on the college of writers for La Civiltà Cattolica.


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