The Teaching of Vatican II on The Church and The Future Reality of Christian Life
Our subject is the Second Vatican Council. Innumerable people have said innumerable things about it. I do not think that my task can be to act as chronicler of the Council and above all of its third session. What would have to be said on that score is clear enough. Everyone knows what schemata were approved and the main lines of their contents; everyone has heard of the not particularly gratifying circumstances that accompanied the last week of the third session. These were often represented in an exaggerated way -- there was exacerbated feeling on the side of the majority too -- but in fact they made no difference to the actual result intended by the Council. I should, therefore, prefer not to chronicle the Council nor step by step to go through the contents of the schemata that were accepted. I should like to ask you to allow me to adopt a more subjective attitude, to make marginal comments as it were on the Council’s teaching and decisions.
If, therefore, I am to say something to you as a dogmatic theologian about the themes dealt with by the Council, only the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church enters into consideration, if we omit the schema on Revelation, which has not yet been completed at the moment at which I am speaking. Only these two decrees formed the subject matter of the work of the Theological Commission of the Council, for the celebrated Schema 13 really fell within the competence of the Commission on the Lay Apostolate and the schema on Ecumenism which was passed, its radiance dimmed a little here and there but not substantially affected, belonged to Cardinal Bea’s Secretariat, of which I was not a member. As, however, the schema on the Church will probably be the most important product of the Council, as far as it is yet possible to judge, this restriction on the themes I am in a position to deal with is of no great moment.
The situation of Christians in the future
To promote understanding for some of the most important features of this decree (since it is impossible to deal with it in its entirety, and since most of it is already familiar to you), I may perhaps be permitted a small mental experiment. If it succeeds, well and good; if not, I have nobody but myself to blame, and that is not a bad thing. I want to place myself in the situation of an ordinary Catholic of the future, particularly that of a layman, and ask what will strike him especially in that document. Whether the situation will come about in 20, 30 or 100 years hence, does not matter. I am no prophet, and if I am in fact attempting to describe this situation of a future Catholic, as the necessary presupposition of the experiment, then the description is not a prophecy but a dream. Whether it is a nightmare, a blissful Utopia or nonsense, is a question that need not be raised either.
At that future date there will be Christian or Catholic communities all over the world, though not evenly distributed. Everywhere they will be a little flock, because mankind grows quicker than Christendom and because men will not be Christians by custom and tradition, through institutions and history, or because of the homogeneity of a social milieu and public opinion, but -- leaving out of account the sacred flame of parental example and the intimate sphere of home, family and small groups -- they will be Christians only because of their own act of faith attained in a difficult struggle and perpetually achieved anew. Everywhere will be diaspora and the diaspora will be everywhere. The stage of human history will be even more a single unity than it already is; everyone will be everyone’s neighbour and the action and attitude of each will contribute to determining everyone’s concrete historical situation. And "each" means each nation, civilization, historical reality and, proportionately, each individual. No doubt the field of universal history will be very different in quality from place to place with some parts in contradiction, but it will form a unity in which all will historically interact. And since the Christians will form only a relatively small minority with no independent historical domain of existence of their own, they will all, though in varying degrees, live in the "diaspora of the Gentiles". Nowhere will there be any more "Catholic nations" which put a Christian stamp on men prior to any personal decision. Everywhere the non-Christian and the anti-Christian will have full and equal rights and may perhaps by threat and pressure contribute to give society its character and may perhaps even coalesce in powers and principalities as forerunners and manifestations of Anti-Christ. And wherever in the name of the necessity of uniform education and organization the State or perhaps the future super-State determines on imposing a single ideology with all the means of modern pressure and formation of the enormous mass of men, it will not be a Christian philosophy which is proclaimed as the official ideology of society. The Christians will be the little flock of the Gospel, perhaps esteemed, perhaps persecuted, perhaps bearing witness to the holy message of their Lord with clear and respected voice in the polyphonic or cacophonous chorus of ideological pluralism, perhaps only in an undertone, from heart to heart. They will be gathered round the altar, announcing the death of the Lord and entrusting the darkness of their own lot -- a darkness which no one will be spared even in the super-Welfare State of the future -- to the darkness of the death of their Lord. They will know that they are like brothers and sisters to one another, because there will be few of them any more who have not by their own deliberate decision staked their own heart and life on Jesus the Christ, for there will be no earthly advantage in being a Christian. They will certainly preserve faithfully and unconditionally the structure of their sacred, unworldly community of faith, hope and love, the Church, as it is called, as Christ founded it. They will certainly freely make use of everything that the future offers them in means of organization, mass media, technology etc.
But that Church will have been led by the Lord of history into a new epoch. It will be dependent in everything on faith and on the holy power of the heart, for it will no longer be able to draw any strength at all, or very little, from what is purely institutional. The latter will no longer support men’s hearts but the basis of all that is institutional will be men’s own hearts. And so they will feel themselves to be brothers and sisters because in the edifice of the Church each of them, whether holding office as a service, or not in office, will depend on every other, and those in office will reverently receive all obedience from the others as a wonderful free and loving gift. It will not only be the case but will also be clear and plain to see that all dignity and all office in the Church is uncovenanted service, carrying with it no honour in the world’s eyes, having no significance in secular society. Unburdened any more with any such liability, perhaps (who knows?) it will no longer constitute a profession at all in the social and secular sense. The Church will be a little flock of brothers of the same faith, the same hope and the same love. It will not pride itself on this, and not think itself superior to earlier ages of the Church, but will obediently and thankfully accept its own age as what is apportioned to it by its Lord and his Spirit and not merely what is forced on it by the wicked world.
If a man of that Church of the future reads the Constitution on the Church, what will he underline, what will particularly strike him? What will he read as an almost prophetic voice to him out of the past? What will be quoted in a future Denzinger if only a few passages are to be chosen from a decree which runs to 66 pages?
The Church is the sacrament of the world’s salvation
One of the first things that will come home to our imagined Christian is the statement that the Church is the sacrament of the salvation of the world. That is found in the introduction to the decree, though the final alterations to the text make it less clear than it was in the earlier version.
That future Christian will be living as a member of the little flock in an immeasurably vast world of non-Christians. How in such circumstances is he to think of his Church? How is he to live with the Church’s inalienable consciousness that it is founded by God, by Christ the Lord of all history, that it is the sole eternally valid religion? How is he to do so when the day when all mankind will be Christian will seem to him unimaginably more distant than it is even for us, because no force of a homogeneous society and tradition will operate any longer in favour of the Church? He will be able to do it only if he views the Church as the sacrament of the salvation of the world. This expression will bring enlightenment and consolation, and he will be grateful to find it mentioned for the first time in an official ecclesiastical document of our age. And when he studies the history of this Council which we are living through, he will be astonished that this statement was made at the Council quietly and spontaneously without opposition, without surprise, without anyone’s appearing to notice just what was being said. Sacramentum salutis totius mundi: sign of the salvation of the world.
For Christendom in earlier times the Church was the plank of salvation in the shipwreck of the world, the small barque on which alone men are saved, the small band of those who are saved by the miracle of grace from the massa damnata, and the extra ecclesiam nulla salus was understood in a very exclusive and pessimistic sense. But here in the conciliar text the Church is not the society of those who alone are saved, but the sign of the salvation of those who, as far as its historical and social structure are concerned, do not belong to it. By their profession of faith, their worship and life, the human beings in the Church form as it were the one expression in which the hidden grace promised and offered to the whole world emerges from the abysses of the human soul into the domain of history and society. What is there expressed may fall on deaf ears and obdurate heart in the individual and may bring judgment instead of salvation. But it is the sign of grace which brings what it expresses, and not only in cases where it is heard in such a way that the hearer himself visibly and historically joins the band of those who announce and testify to this word of God to the world. The Church is the sacrament of the salvation of the world even where the latter is still not and perhaps never will be the Church. It is the tangible, historical manifestation of the grace in which God communicates himself as absolutely present, close and forgiving, of the grace which is at work everywhere, omits no one, offers God to each and gives to every reality in the world a secret purposeful orientation towards the intrinsic glory of God.
In the individual’s life a particular sacrament, baptism, penance etc., not only signifies and effects grace at the moment of reception, but also gives grace which roots a man in the eternal life of God even in apparently secular moments and seasons of life. Similarly, the Church is not simply the sign of God’s mercy for those who explicitly belong to it. It is the mighty proclamation of the grace which has already been given for the world, and of the victory of this grace in the world. Of course this grace of the world has an inner dynamic tendency to assume tangible historical form in the Church, just as individual justification by pure faith, conversion and penance has an intrinsic tendency to take on tangible, external, social, ecclesiastical form in the sacraments of rebirth and penance. But in the finite time and limited conditions of the individual, this does not always happen, even though Justification and salvation may be given him. Grace can be present and operative to an immeasurable extent in the world and its history, without everywhere in the course of history finding tangible social expression in the Church. Yet for precisely all this grace the Church is a sign, proclamation, promise of the salvation of this world.
On these grounds our future reader of Denzinger, although he belongs to the small, poor flock of the Church, will have a proud and calm attitude to the non-Christian world around him. He will not have the impression of belonging to a small, unimportant, submerged group of esoterics or fanatics and yet of having to maintain that these few alone are in possession of truth, grace and salvation. This future Christian will regard himself and other professed Christians as only the advance party of those who, on the roads of history, are travelling to God’s salvation and eternity. The Church for him is something like the uniformed units in God’s array, the point at which the inner character of man’s divinized life is manifested in tangible historical and sociological form or, rather, in which it is most clearly manifested because, to the enlightened gaze of faith, grace does not entirely lack visible embodiment even outside the Church. This Christian of the future -- encouraged by this statement of Vatican II in the Constitution of the Church and really authorized by it, in fact officially for the first time -- knows that the morning light on the mountains is the beginning of the day in the valley, not the light of day above condemning the darkness beneath. The Christian will, therefore, go out into the world serenely, without anguish.
New understanding of the mission: anonymous Christianity
The conciliar statement of which we are speaking will also make him understand a quite new and profounder theology of the true nature of the mission. He will not anxiously scan statistics to see whether the Church is really the biggest ideological organization or not, or whether it is growing proportionately quicker or slower than world population. He will indeed go out into the world with missionary zeal and bear witness in the name of Christ. He will wish to give of his grace to others, for he possesses a grace which the others still lack, for the explicit self-awareness of grace in the Church is itself a grace. But he will know that if his zeal is serene and patient it will have a better chance of success. He will know that he can imitate God’s forbearance which, according to St Paul, is of positive significance for salvation, not condemnation. He knows that God willed this world as it is, for otherwise it would not exist, and that even what is merely "permitted" is only permitted as a factor in something divinely willed (and not merely permitted), and that what is willed can and must be hoped for, not only as the revelation of God’s justice but also as the revelation of his infinite loving kindness to man. Consequently, the Christian will meet boldly and hopefully as brothers those who do not wish to be his brothers in his "view of the world". He will see in them persons who do not yet know what in fact they are, who have not yet clearly realized what in the depths of their life they are, it is to be assumed, already accomplishing. (This is so much the case that we are in duty bound hopefully to presume it. It would be uncharitable to assume less. For can I, as a Christian, simply take it for granted that others are not in the grace of God?) He sees, in others, anonymous Christianity at work in innumerable ways. He will not call their kindness, love, fidelity to conscience, "natural" virtues, which are only really found in the abstract. He will no longer say, as Augustine did, that they are certainly only the "specious vices of the heathen". He will rather think that the grace of Christ is at work even in those who have never yet expressly invoked it, but who in their inexpressible nameless longing have nevertheless already desired it. He will see in them persons in whom the unutterable sighs of the Spirit have invoked, requested and accepted the silent mystery which penetrates all human existence, which we Christians know as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. When the Christian of the future sees a "pagan" die willingly, when he sees him accept to fall in death into an unfathomable abyss which he has never plumbed (because in order to grasp God he would have to be infinite), confessing by such readiness that the abyss is one of meaningful mystery and not of emptiness and perdition, the Christian will see in him the man nailed at the right hand of Christ on the saving cross of human life. For indeed, alas, it is not impossible for a man to employ the last strength left to him in absolute protest and cynical doubt, whereas the reality which that man is personally accomplishing and accepting in his death cries without words: Lord remember me when thou shalt come into thy kingdom. Why should that not be so?
The pure transcendence of man’s mind, no longer perverted into a means of asserting man’s earthly life, can after all, if it is accepted and persevered in, be elevated by grace. Then, freed from its downward tendency to the finite, it can effect the dynamism towards the God of eternal life who, in his innermost reality as communicable and as communicated, is the goal and end of man’s supernatural vocation. And this higher and liberating orientation by grace of man’s transcendence as spirit, changing as it does in good Thomistic doctrine the very horizon of spiritual activity (the "formal object"), constitutes by the nature of the case a "revelation", even if it presents no new conceptual object to the mind, and therefore, if accepted, is faith. Why then, in the present order of God’s supernatural salvific will, should it be impossible for a man’s acceptance of the inalienable endlessness of his transcendence -- an acceptance of it not as it is explicitly grasped by us but as beyond any control of ours it comprises us -- to be more than simply and solely the transcendence of the created spiritual nature as such? Why should it not in fact by God’s action in us be the dynamism which carries us into God’s life? And if in fact someone is not given more, not through his own fault but perhaps even the better to ensure his salvation, why should it not be sufficient for him to accept this dynamism by willingly permitting the incomprehensible in its very incomprehensibility to dispose of him? Need we emphasize that in this of course all the requirements of natural and supernatural ethics and religious sentiment are to be thought of as implicitly contained and implicitly accepted ? This will be done in such a way of course that, as the experience of pagans and also of Christians shows, a right orientation towards God can be accomplished in the concrete, "subjectively", even where extremely grave errors are present regarding particular specific maxims of morality and religion.
The Church as the visible form of what is already interiorly binding
In preaching Christianity to "non-Christians", therefore, the future Christian will not so much start with the idea that he is aiming at turning them into something they are not, as trying to bring them to their true selves. Not, of course, in the modernist sense that Christianity is only the full development of a natural religious need, but because God in his grace, in virtue of his universal salvific will, has already long since offered the reality of Christianity to those human beings, so that it is possible and probable that they have already accepted it without explicitly realizing this. The future Christian’s way of looking at the Church will correspond to such perspectives. He will not see it as something rare and exceptional asserting itself with difficulty, as one of the many "sects" into which mankind is split, or as one of the many components of a heterogeneous society and intellectual life. He will see the Church as the visible embodiment of what is already interiorly binding, as the historical concrete form of what is universal and in fact taken for granted as a matter of course (despite the fact that it is something freely posited by God -- but by God and not by some finite being!). The Church for him will represent the nature of man as God planned him to be -- his "historical" nature, to which his supernatural vocation belongs. It will be the sacrament of a grace which, precisely because it is offered to all, even where no sacrament is yet conferred, tends towards its own historical embodiment in the sacraments. And precisely as such, that grace is never simply identical with its own efficacious sign; on the contrary, by the sign which it now posits and by which it is posited (both statements are necessary), it gives promise that it is powerful everywhere.
If the history of mankind (and of the Church, as the Constitution stresses) is a unity in which all men from Abel to the last human being belong together, and each is significant for every other throughout time and not merely by their immediate contacts in time and space, then the Church is the leaven not only where it can clearly be seen to be a fragment at work in the rest of the meal, but always and for everyone, in every age and even where the meal has not yet, as far as one can see, been visibly permeated by the leaven. To our future Christian the Church will appear as a promise also to the world which is not the Church, and not only to the extent that the world itself has already become Church. The promise is not only that the world will gradually become part of the Church, but that salvation of the world through the Church is possible even where the world has not yet, as far as can be historically ascertained, become part of the Church.
This is so because the Church is the promise of salvation for the world which lived and died before it. Just as Christ in his concrete historical reality (and not only as the eternal Logos of the world) is the salvation of all men, even of those who lived before his time, through hundreds of thousands of years of an immeasurable, toiling history, obscure and unintelligible to itself, the same applies, mutatis mutandis, to the Church. If we ask: by what is it manifest, by what is it promised with historical clarity and in created, objective form (and not only in the never absolutely certain testimony to grace of the mind in the depth of conscience) to the world of all ages, that it stands under the mercy and not under the judgment of God, the only answer can be: solely through Christ and his Body which is the Church. We accept without special difficulty the idea that the Church was the visible efficacious sign of salvation for past ages anterior to Christ and the Church, when salvation had not yet appeared ecclesiastically although it was salvation from the Church. It will not be found surprising then by those who accept that, if the ages after Christ also fit into the perspective of Christian and ecclesiastical salvation, even though they do not yet belong to the Church in the tangible sociological sense. Moreover, if it is true that the Church will remain until the end a sign that is contradicted, that amounts to saying in different terminology that the Church, viewed sociologically, superficially and as an institution, will always be only one reality within a world that remains one of heterogeneous philosophies. It is in that way that the Church is the sign of the salvation which is offered to all. The Christian works for the "victory" of the Church while remaining aware of that fact, conscious that the Church will never be absolutely victorious in this world. Moreover, he knows that not from calculations but from the word of God. Yet he will not cease to hope that the whole world will be drawn into and consumed in the flame of the love of God, because ultimately speaking it is impelled by the power of God’s love in Christ for it. And so he cannot regard the Church otherwise than as the promise that through the very midst of the world’s contradiction to God its deeper consent to God is nevertheless being accomplished through the predominance of God’s grace. He will not see the Church as an armed camp standing opposed to the camp of the evil one, both on an equal footing and equally powerful and equally absolute, both simply comprised within the unrevealed will of a God who fundamentally has remained silent about the ultimate meaning of this drama. He will regard the Church as the audible Yes of consent which he may hope God has spoken even to the No of the world, and across it, the Yes which remains victorious and has long superseded the world’s No. He will always refuse in the last resort (provisionally it is a different matter) to regard the Church as an affirmation which stands in contradiction to what is really meant in the very depths of the affirmations of others, so that ultimately there has to be a choice. He will often patiently and self-critically (for even the Church’s knowledge has to grow more and more) say No to what others assert, but in order to say Yes to what they really mean. And he will think of the Church in its true nature as the historic audibility of God’s comprehensive Yes to the world, in which God (and that means him outside of whom there is nothing) triumphantly promises himself to the world. He will understand more and more that all that can be really opposed to this Yes of God is an empty No, the nothingness of which becomes more and more evident, for even this No only lives and has force from the partial or total Yes which is in it or behind it, and which belongs with the Yes which is the Church.
Sin reduced to insignificance?
Does this reduce the sin, error, darkness and danger of eternal perdition in the world to insignificance? Certainly not. It is not the case that any such optimism of faith comes easily to modern man -- unlike the optimism of prosperous security or of rationalism. For of course he knows darkness by experience, he suffers from the heterogeneity of the world, which amounts even to a physical threat. Men were probably never so little convinced of their own goodness, so aware of their fragility, so universally conscious of their vulnerability, the possibility and probability that their holiest idealism may be unmasked (and rightly) as fear, as a vital need of security, cowardice, lack of vitality. Man experiences his finiteness, his poverty, his vulnerability, his utter openness to question. If despite all this he is obedient to God’s word and thinks what is noble and holy of men, believes (it is not easy) that he is a child of God, loved by God and worthy of an eternal life which is already operative and growing within him, he will not be haughty and proud, will not-regard what is promised as a matter of course as his inalienable dignity. And if he finds it easier to think optimistically of others than of himself, his pessimism about himself will prevent exaggeration in that optimism. But it is permissible for the man of today to think hopefully about others. And this is almost the only thing that helps him not to despair about himself. It is almost easier for him to think great things about himself because he regards it as a moral duty and the safeguard of his life to think of man in general in that way, and so has to include himself in that evaluation almost in contradiction to his own experience. If, however, he has to think of man in general in that way because it safeguards his own life and is the way in which he can have some hope for himself (which after all is his Christian obligation), then he cannot regard the Church as the exclusive band of those who alone are predestined. He has to view it as a promise for the others, the revelation of what the others are -- and if in regard to those others it is not "certain" what they are, neither is it certain that those who are inside the Church belong to the band of the elect.
And that lessens the temptation represented by the fact that so few people in the world are Christians in the Church. The sign of the mystery of light in darkness can only be modest and almost insignificant. The message of what is to come (and that is what the Church is) cannot itself be what is to come; the Church of time is not as vast as the eternal kingdom of God. It cannot be said that such a view of the Church will inevitably hamper or render ineffective the missionary zeal of the apostolate of clergy and laity. On the contrary, it is easier and less restrictive to be able to say to someone: become what you are, than: destroy what you were until now. If Francis Xavier told his Japanese questioners that their ancestors were in hell, and they answered that they did not aim at any better lot than their ancestors, the story really sums up the whole problem, the progress which has been made in actual awareness of the faith since the sixteenth century, as well as the respective missionary advantages and disadvantages of both attitudes.
What has been said makes no claim to have underlined all those factors of devotion to the Church which are contained in the schema on the Church and which on the one hand are dogmatically enduring features of ecclesiology and on the other are likely to stand out particularly in future devotion to the Church. But it seems to me that those pointed out are the kind we were looking for. They present the Church as the Church of those who as sinners accept in faith the human life of all, with its ordinariness and its burdens, so that we experience our own lot as that of the Church, and ourselves as its members in that way; as the Church which is believed because we believe in God, the Church whose belief is not to be identified with what it experiences; above all as the Church which is the promise of salvation for the world which has not yet expressly recognized itself as part of the Church, the Church as the sacramentum of the world’s salvation.
God’s salvific will includes all who seek him with upright heart
All this already closely concerns the second statement which our future Christian will read with pleasure in the conciliar decree. "God’s salvific will also includes those who (without having received the Gospel) acknowledge the Creator . . . God is not far even from those who seek the unknown God in shadows and figures, for he gives to all life, breath and all things (cf. Acts 17:25-28), and the Redeemer wills all men to be saved (cf. 1Tim 2: 4). For those who through no fault of their own do not know Christ’s Gospel and Church but seek God with upright hearts and so in fact under the influence of grace seek to do his will, made known by the dictates of conscience, can attain eternal salvation."
Now even to people today this statement seems perfectly obvious as a matter of course. But anyone who knows the history of theology and of the Church’s doctrinal pronouncements will be filled with amazement at the fact that it was accepted by the Council without the slightest remark. Ringing in his ears are other affirmations: he who does not believe will be condemned. He thinks of the teaching of the great Augustine about the massa damnata from which God in his incomprehensible grace saves some few, while all who are not baptized remain in it by a just judgment. He remembers that there have been plenty of theologians down to the present day who by subtle doctrines and distinctions have not wanted to admit the meaning of that text from the Letter to Timothy, or who tried to evacuate its clear sense and force by saying that such non-Christians could not believe because they have not got the historical revelation of God’s word and so could not be saved, because without real faith salvation is impossible. He remembers those who argued that such non-Christians, like children dying without baptism, could at most go to Limbo, or who asserted that they were justly not touched by revelation and grace because by their own grievous sin against the natural law they had made themselves unworthy in advance of encountering the revelation of God’s word and divinizing grace. Or there was the supposition that they would need to have gleaned something of the original revelation of the Garden of Eden in order to have some possible object of faith. In this case it is not easy to see how such a primitive revelation could have been handed down during two million years. Of course the passage quoted is not easy to harmonize with the absolute necessity of faith, of revelation, and the necessity of the Church for salvation, which cannot be denied either, even now. In order to show this compatibility a very subtle theology of the possibility and existence of anonymous Christians would first have to be worked out on the basis of that conciliar statement. Yet the statement is there as though it were a matter of course, as though anything else were inconceivable.
Here too we have atheism of the troubled, inquiring, seeking kind comprised within the scope of the grace of God. And who could say with certainty that some other person was not an inquiring and deeply concerned atheist but one rebelling against God in deadly guilt? What perspectives and attitudes of confidence, patience and gentleness are permitted to our future Christian, and indeed imposed on him by all this, amidst the radical heterogeneity of philosophies and ideologies in which his life is set, has already really been indicated.
But it is also clear what tasks await the theology of tomorrow if it takes seriously the passage we have quoted. It will have to show how divine grace is not simply the intermittent chance of salvation of an individualist kind granted to a few only and restricted in time and place, but that it is ultimately the dynamism of all human history everywhere and always, and indeed of the world generally, even though it remains a question put to the free decision of each and every individual. Theology will have to explain how grace understood in this way ipso facto constitutes revelation and therefore the possibility of faith -- revelation as a determination of the perspective, prior to all particular experience, in which man interprets his existence and accomplishes the work of his freedom; a revelation which radiates its light everywhere even in the midst of error and guilt, a revelation which culminates in the historically revealed word of the Old and New Testaments where it has its pure historical manifestation and eschatological finality. It will have to be shown that the other "revelation" may not be dismissed or denied in favour of this historical, explicit, verbally formulated revelation, and that revelation cannot simply be identified with the latter, any more than the conferring of grace is identical with the sacramental conferring of grace. It is still impossible to foresee all the theological consequences of these simple statements of the Council, which were scarcely debated, and not noticed at all by press and public opinion. But they are there, they will produce their effect and promote the growth of quite new attitudes in Christians.
The collegiality of the bishops and the solidarity of the faithful
A third group of statements from the Constitution De Ecclesia will please our future Christian. Perhaps he will even be rather surprised about the space devoted to it. We refer to the much-talked-of collegiality in the Church, particularly that of the whole body of bishops with the pope. This is not the place to expound once more the precise import of these statements in relation to canon law. I should only like to stress that on this point the declaratio which provoked such discussion in the last week of the third session alters nothing and in fact does not weaken anything of what the Theological Commission and the overwhelming majority of the Council worked out, stated and intended to state in the schema voted on and taught. These texts will be taken very much as a matter of course by the Christian of the future. His bishops, of course, will be men whose episcopal office confers no special social position, power or wealth. It will no longer be an earthly honour to be a bishop in the little flock. Socially the bishop will not look very different from any other official in a small voluntary group effectively dependent on the goodwill of that group. The Christian of the future will not feel himself reduced in stature or oppressed by his bishop. He will take it for granted that in the little flock of those who freely believe there must be a sacred order grounded in the Spirit of Christ. This will be all the clearer to him because of the terrible harshness with which the extremely complicated social structures of the future will have to protect their existence and unity. He will know that even in the community of the faithful there must be those who are responsible for binding decisions and action and that the Spirit of Christ who animates all, will be with such men. And that Christian of course is a Christian voluntarily in faith, not a product of social circumstance and tradition. He will feel the bishops to be those whose existence and activity support his own free obedience of faith. And for the bishop there will be nothing left for him, as in the ancient Church of the martyrs, but continually to invite such voluntary obedience and understanding for his decisions, in love and humility. He will have to carry out his office as a service because at his back there will no longer be any, or hardly any, earthly social power of tradition or the great mass of those who will always obey in any case.
Who can tell, perhaps in the actual details of life as well as in theoretical questions, and in view of the unmanageable complexity and difficulty of action and thought in the future, the official Church in its magisterium and pastoral care will simply no longer be in a position to do anything but leave very many things, or even most things which involve particular concrete decisions, to the conscience of the individual. It may even be that in cases where such official decisions still can and must be taken, they will simply impose by the nature of things prior discussion and deliberation of a very fraternal kind. For on the one hand it will be impossible any longer for decisions to be taken solely from above in paternalist wisdom, and on the other, no one in the Church will any longer have any mind or inclination to exercise in the social forms of earlier ages the right -- which of course will still subsist, and which does not belong to everyone -- of making such binding decisions. It may be that the Church will then observe that in doctrine and practice what is decisive is not an ever subtler casuistry in dogmatic and moral theology, but the preaching of the old fundamental truths in new tongues, in new depth and spiritual power: that the mystery which we call God is close to us, saving, loving and forgiving; that all the apocalyptic abysses of human existence are ultimately those of eternal love; that death is life and Jesus of Nazareth is he in whom God has become absolutely present and close to us in tangible historical form and has initiated the epoch in which alone mankind has found its way quite afresh to its own possibilities and tasks.
The necessary and salutary reflection of the Church about itself in Vatican II will not be the final stage of theology. Another even more important one will come, for which this Council will be seen to have been simply a forerunner and indirect preparation. The ultimate truth and hope of the Church, God and his Christ, will be expressed anew as though what in fact has always been preached were really understood for the first time. The doctrine of collegiality will endure, it will be meditated upon and, above all, lived. But the page on which it is written will look to the future Christian more like a palimpsest, and when he scrapes it the even more sacred characters will appear: fraternity in Christ. So the Christian of the future will read the second and fourth chapters of the Constitution De Ecclesia frequently and reverently, but with a slight smile at its rather hierarchical and clerical tone, even when it speaks of the people of God and the laity. Yet he will love them because fundamentally they say that we are all one in Christ, that really the ultimate differences only derive from greater love for God and the brethren; that distinctions of office are necessary but entirely secondary and provisional, transitory things lovingly conceded by brother to brother because they are only a burden, a service, a sacred responsibility.
Growth of the new seed
Have I made too little mention of the Council itself? I do not think so, though of course it is true that very little has been chosen out of so much. But that little holds the seed of so much. The most important thing about Vatican II is not the letter of the decrees, which in any case have to be translated by us all into life and action. It is the spirit, the deepest tendencies, perspectives and meaning of what happened that really matter and which will remain operative. They may perhaps be submerged again for the time being by a contrary wave of caution, fear of one’s own courage, terror of false conclusions which people may like to draw. It may seem to some short-lived and short-sighted people that after much talk and fuss everything is much as it was. But the real seeds of a new outlook and strength to understand and endure the imminent future in a Christian way have been sown in the field of the Church. God himself will provide the climate in which this crop will grow -- the future historical situation of the Church which he, as Lord of history, will bring about. The Church entrusts itself to history; it cannot and will not be reconstructed according to the abstract schemes or blueprints of theologians, clerical politicians, journalists and impatient theorists. The Church exists, lives, intends to remain, true to tradition and to the future. The Church has manifold facets and is a perpetual enigma to itself despite all theoretical reflection on its own nature. It does not know its own earthly future but pursues its pilgrim way because, guided by the incomprehensible God, it only seeks to be the guide of humanity into the mystery of its God. Yet the Church knows that it is sacrament and testimony, not for its own salvation, but for that of the world, that it serves the God of the Covenant (which is the Church) by permitting and confessing him to be greater than itself, so that the grace of which the Church is the enduring sign is victoriously offered by God even to those who have not yet found the visible Church and who nevertheless already, without realizing it, live by its Spirit, the Holy Spirit of the love and mercy of God. The Church knows that it is only what it should be if it is a community of brothers and sisters who love one another, knows that the Church too must say: If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.