From De Ecclesia to Lumen Gentium

Giovanni Sale, SJ

 Giovanni Sale, SJ / Church Life / 15 November 2017

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The schema of the preparatory doctrinal commission

On November 23, 1962, while the conciliar assembly began to discuss the text on the Mass Media, the much-awaited schema De Ecclesia was distributed. For a great number of the bishops, it represented the raison d’être of the Council. In fact, many thought that the Council’s task should be to complete – and balance – the doctrine of the Church presented in the Vatican I constitution Pastor aeternus, which was entirely based on the prerogative and powers of the pope, in particular the doctrines of papal primacy and infallibility.

That Council, convoked on December 8, 1869, decided to debate only one part of a more fully elaborated ecclesiological schema. This part was, at the time, considered both the most urgent and controversial, as it had been attacked both by the secular world and from some internal elements in the Church linked to nation-state legates. In any case, Vatican I, because of the Franco-Prussian war, was interrupted and adjourned sine die in the summer of 1870. So about a century later many fathers interpreted the convocation of a new Council as the continuation and completion of the previous one. However, this was not the intent of Pope John XXIII, who presented in his inaugural speech, Gaudet mater ecclesia, a completely different direction, envisaging a Council for pastoral aggiornamento (updating), open to the world, and above all free from the burdens of the past.

De Ecclesia was debated in the Council after the assembly discussed two important schemata: that on liturgy, which in some way suggested a new image of the Church, and one on the sources of Revelation, which had been severely criticized both for the incongruities of the schema written during the preparatory phase, and for being rather distant from the directives given to the Council by the pope. Meanwhile, the fathers’ awareness of their own role had matured: they had not been convoked merely to approve texts prepared in advance by Roman commissions, but to become active protagonists in the life of the Council, and to help the Church in its mission of aggiornamento (updating) and renewed proclamation of the Gospel to respond to the spirit of the times.

The schema on the Church had been drafted by the preparatory theological commission presided over by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, with Jesuit Fr. Sebastian Tromp being the commission’s secretary. It was seen as a kind of super-commission, charged with the most important texts – the doctrinal ones – which would be brought to the Council. Many of its members believed that this commission alone had the exclusive right to debate such topics.

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