By Christopher Zehnder

The following article was first published in New Oxford Review. I republish it here as a response to recent criticisms, leveled by Traditionalists, of Vatican II.  

Many are the opinions about the Second Vatican Council and its effects on the Church – some Catholics praising them and others deploring them. But, while many have discussed and debated what the council did, few seem to take interest in what the council said, and what it intended to accomplish.

Council Fathers

It is commonly said that the council set out to “update” the Church – and this is true, but not in the crude sense it which it sometimes is taken. The intent of the Second Vatican Council was to outfit the Church so that she could better promote and cultivate communion – a more intense communion among the members of Christ’s body, the Church, and between the Church and the world. In seeking communion with the world, the council called for some accommodation on the part of the Church, but not to confound the Church with the world; rather, the council wanted to better equip the Church to draw the world to herself, and through herself, to Christ. The council had an essentially missionary, evangelical thrust. Its inspiration was the Great Commission, not the craven and abject spirit of capitulation. This I shall try to demonstrate in what follows.

From Essence to Praxis

The Second Vatican Council expressed its goal of communion in the documents that might be called the hinges on which the entire council turns – Lumen Gentium, the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” and Gaudium et Spes, the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.” In its very first chapter – indeed, in the very first sentence — Lumen Gentium calls Christ the “light of humanity” and expresses the Church’s intention to “bring to all men that light of Christ which shines out visibly from the Church.” (LG 1) In Gaudium et Spes, the council expresses its friendship, respect, and love for the entire human family and declares its desire to address in the light of the Gospel the problems, questions, and challenges faced by modern men. The Church, says Gaudium et Spes, offers “to cooperate unreservedly with mankind in fostering a sense of brotherhood,” but not in order to inspire a vague spirit of togetherness. Rather, the council wanted to encourage the brotherhood of man to remove an obstacle to an understanding of the fatherhood of God, which can only be comprehended by the brothers of Christ, who “entered this world to give witness to the truth.” (GS 3) To see this as its intent, we must understand Gaudium et Spes in light of Lumen Gentium.

Communion implies communication, and to commune with the modern world the Church must effectively communicate with different segments of that world. Throughout the constitutions, decrees, and declarations of the Second Vatican Council, the Church addresses how her sons might most effectively communicate the Gospel to various segments of modern society. Yet, even before it addresses the how of evangelization, the council addresses the what of the Church. For, though many and varied are the ways the Church addresses herself to mankind (becoming, like St. Paul, “all things to all men” – I Cor. 9:22), she may only act in accordance with her nature. It was thus the council issued Lumen Gentium, to declare to the world the essence of the Church — the basis of her universal mission to all the world. (LG 1).

Thus, before Vatican II could effectively summarize the various ways the Church speaks to mankind, it had to say both why the Church could and needs to do so. The council had to show what it means for the Church to be sacramentum seu signum et instrumentum intimae cum Deo unionis totiusque generis humani unitatis – “the sacrament or sign and instrument of intimate union with God and of the unity of all human kind.” (LG 1)

The Sacrament of the Church

In calling the Church a sacrament, the council alludes to the traditional definition of sacrament — a sign of grace that effects what it signifies. As the council expresses it, the Church is not only a sign but an instrumental cause of that grace, which is the union of the human race with God. By means of the Church, God works, not only in individual hearts but in the whole human family. Through the Church, he draws mankind’s disparate parts into union, not only or principally with each other, but with himself. By and through the Church, all mankind comes to participate in God as in its universal common good. The Church, therefore, is not an exclusive, inward looking institution, but an inclusive, outward-tending dynamism that, radiating from its inner mystery, enters the world of men to draw all things back to God.

The Church is thus a sign, not for one race or one condition of men, but for all mankind. Nor is she a sign for the righteous alone; but, like her Lord, who “while we were yet sinners” (Rom. 5.8 ) died for us, the Church seeks to draw into her fold even those who have wandered farthest from God. Thus, the Church must not look only to the faithful or to those who believe in God; rather, she has a duty to minister to every person or class of persons outside her unity.

This essentially outward tending character of the Church is implicit in the council’s use of the phrase “People of God” to express the mystery of the Church. This phraseology invokes the image of a political commonwealth – indeed, as a people, says the council, the Church has her own head, condition of citizenship, law (of love), and common good (union with God). (LG 9). People of God expresses the Church’s openness to the world. It contrasts with and complements the traditional description of the Church as the “Body of Christ”; for a body has in itself an integrity and completion that does not admit the inclusion of new elements, whereas a human society is more open to invitation.

The passage that succinctly expresses the essence of the Church’s relation to the world is the following from Lumen Gentium, 8:

This Church, constituted and ordered as a society in this world, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in his communion, although outside its structure are found many elements of sanctification and truth, which, as gifts of Christ to the Church, impel to Catholic unity. (Haec Ecclesia, in hoc mundo ut societas constituta et ordinata, subsistit in Ecclesia catholica, a successore Petri et Episcopis in eius communione gubernata, licet extra eius compaginem elementa plura sanctificationis et veritatis inveniantur, quae ut dona Ecclesiae Christi propria, ad unitatem catholicam impellunt.)

We may divide this passage into three parts. The first (“This Church … in his communion”) states simply that the Church of Christ as constituted in this world subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the pope and the bishops. The second (“although outside its structure are found many elements of sanctification and truth…”) concedes an important point – that, even though the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church, the Church in some way is present outside the confines of the Catholic Church. The third part (“…which, as gifts of Christ to the Church, impel to Catholic unity”) indicates that the elements of the Church present outside the Church have an inner impulsion to the unity of the Church.

Since the 1960s, the language of the first part of this passage, at least as interpreted, has caused much confusion. Since the council, some theologians have seen in the phrase “subsists in” a weakening of the traditional identification of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church. However, Lumen Gentium contradicts such an assertion. “The society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ,” it asserts, “are not to be considered as two realities, nor are the visible assembly and the spiritual community, nor the earthly Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things; rather they form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element.” (LG 8) Elsewhere, too, the council identifies the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church. In Orientalium Ecclesiarum 2, the council states, “The holy Catholic Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ, is made up of the faithful who are organically united in the Holy Spirit by the same faith, the same sacraments and the same government.” [Emphasis added.] (For a fuller treatment of this question, the reader should consult “What is the Church of Christ,” by Thomas Storck.)

Pope Paul VI at the Second Vatican Council

When we turn to the second part of the passage from Lumen Gentium 8, we find an important concession – but before we can see why it is important, we must first understand what it does not concede. When the council states that elements of the Church can be found outside Catholic Church, it is not saying that the Church of Christ subsists in churches or ecclesial communions outside the Catholic Church. Rather, the council here only asserts that aspects or properties of the Catholic Church can be found outside her communion.

This is really no new assertion, for the Church has always taught, for instance, that non-Catholic Christians administer at least a valid baptism, possess Sacred Scripture, or teach some truths of the Faith or truths about God and man accessible to reason, unaided by grace. Yet, the council’s formulation is unique in that it says the presence of these elements constitutes what amounts to a virtual presence of the Church outside the confines of the Church. The Church herself is not present in her fullness or essence in non-Catholic communions, religions, or philosophies, nor are these non-Catholic groups or systems parts or aspects of the Church. The Church is present simply by virtue of her elements in other Christian communions, wherever sanctification and truth, the “gifts proper to the Church,” are found. She is even in a sense present in non-Christian religions and philosophies, for with their errors, these, too, assert truths about God and man. It is thus that, as Gaudium et Spes says, the Church acts as a leaven in human society and is to be “as it were” its very soul. For the Church is already, in a sense, the soul of the world, virtually present everywhere men teach what is true and do what is just, inspiring and quickening them to seek the fullness of the truth.(GS 40, 38) The Church is intimately involved in mankind, for in her alone is found in its fullness what men possess in a partial and imperfect way.

Icon of Pentecost

The proposition that elements of the Church are present in non-Christian religions and philosophies may seem to go beyond the meaning the council intended. It is clear that separated Christians possess Catholic elements, for such Christians belong to groups that have gone forth from the Church. Muslims, too, have derived beliefs and practices from the Catholic Church. But how can it be said that elements of the Church are present in religions and philosophies that developed in utter independence of the historical Christian faith?

Two considerations I think support this claim. First, Christ has entrusted all truths about God and man’s relation to God (including the precepts of natural law) to the Church; for, he has constituted her the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Tim. 3.15). Thus, whatever non-Catholic religions and philosophies possess of truth about God and man and of goodness and beauty belong by right to the Church, by the gift of God. She is the magistra and guardian of all saving truth. Truth, wherever and by whomever it is possessed, is the virtual presence of the Church among men who are separated from her unity.

Secondly, every single truth strains after the fullness of truth. For instance, merely to know that God exists does not satisfy our intellectual longing; we want to know who and what God is. Our understanding (by natural reason) of who God is in relation to ourselves and the universe stirs us to seek the knowledge of God as he is in himself. This knowledge, as far as we can attain it in this life, has been entrusted to the revelation given to the Church. Too, we understand natural law in terms of our end or purpose; but what is our purpose? Why do we exist? Only the Church possesses the complete answer to this question, for she has been given the foretaste of what God has prepared for those who love him. Because of the incarnation, all things natural and merely human have received a new unction. They are the voices gone out to all the world, whispering to us and stirring our hearts with the longing that can only be fulfilled in Christ, who reveals himself through his Church. Everyone who seeks truth, implicitly seeks the Catholic faith. Every partial truth is a Catholic truth yearning for its consummation in the Catholic faith, the Faith of the Church.

The magnetic tendency of every truth for the fullness of truth is expressed in the third part of the passage quoted from Lumen Gentium 8 (“…which, as gifts of Christ to the Church, impel to Catholic unity.”) The gifts proper to the Church, but found outside her visible confines, have a homing tendency for Catholic unity. This fact places an obligation on non-Catholics to seek unity with the Church; but, more importantly, it obliges the Church to draw to herself those outside her fold. The Church is compelled by her very nature to be missionary.

The Church’s missionary character is a frequent theme of Vatican II. In its various documents, the Second Vatican Council insists on the Church’s duty to “make disciples of all nations, (LG 17) not only by spreading the Gospel among those who do not follow Christ, but by gathering all separated Christians “into the unity of the one and only Church, which Christ bestowed on his Church from the beginning” – a unity that “subsists in the Catholic Church … until the end of time” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 4). If the gifts found outside the Catholic Church impel to unity, the Church, too, has that which compels her to spread the Faith – Christ’s commission to the apostles and “that life which flows from Christ into His members.” (Ad Gentes, 5)

Thus we can see that, according to the council, the Church, in her very nature as a “sacrament,” has an inherent orientation to communion and, hence, to the communication of herself through evangelization. Because the Church virtually interpenetrates the religions and philosophies, the institutions, customs, and aspirations of mankind, she must work to make this virtual communion fully actual. She must direct all her powers to draw all men to Christ by leading them into full and explicit communion with herself.

Communion and Communication

Having seen that Vatican II asserts that the Church, as a sacrament, is inherently missionary, we now can address the question: how, according to Vatican II, is the Church to communicate herself to mankind? The message the Church must communicate is one thing; the manner in which it is communicated is another. That there must be different ways of communicating the Gospel is clear from the Acts of the Apostles; for instance, Peter’s sermon to the Jews on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2.14-36) differs strikingly from Paul’s address to the Athenians at the Areopagus (Acts 17.16-33). Different audiences require different approaches.

The Second Vatican Council recognized this and so suggested different ways of communicating the Gospel to people of the “Modern World.” Despite its apparent and much vaunted uniqueness, the Modern World is rather like other ages of the world: besides Catholics, it is (outside the Church) divided into two general categories — Christians separated from the Church, on the one hand, and those who do not believe in Christ, on the other. We can further divide these two categories. Separated Christians include those, who, like the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, are constituted in true, particular Churches, with a hierarchy, apostolic succession, and sacraments; and the Protestants who possesses some sacraments and honor the Scriptures, though they do not form true Churches. The non-Christians are divided into religious believers (such as Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and the various polytheists and animists) and those who have no religion or, even, belief in God.

To the Nations

In the decree, Ad Gentes, the council lays out principles that must guide the Church’s missionary outreach, to whomever it is directed. For instance, the decree says that missionaries must first and foremost witness to the Gospel by the conduct of their lives. They must then strive to discover “by sincere and patient dialogue what treasures a generous God has distributed among the nations of the earth.” (Ad Gentes 11) (That is, missionaries should try to discern the elements of the Church present in the cultures and peoples among whom they labor.) Further, missionaries should not dedicate themselves merely to religious instruction but should collaborate in the regulation of political and economic life of nations – not, however, to realize “a mere material progress and prosperity for men” but to promote “their dignity and brotherly union, teaching those religious and moral truths which Christ illumined with His light” (AG 12). In this task, Christians gradually unfold “a fuller approach to God.” Finally, Christians must assiduously respect the inherent freedom of all men and never use force as a means of conversion.

Ad Gentes emphasizes an important aspect of the mission ad gentes – that its goal is not just the conversion of individuals, but the establishment of particular Churches. Particular Churches have a stable episcopacy and clergy; they are leavened by the presence of religious orders, and are fecund with a mature and active laity (AG 19). The particular Church is united with the universal Church and, as a part of that Church, is itself missionary (AG 19-20).

Ad Gentes is careful to insist that the new particular Churches not be cultural outposts of the mother Churches from which they have sprung.  Missionaries must discern the elements of truth and goodness among the people to whom they minister, so that “whatever truth and grace are to be found among the nations, as a sort of secret presence of God, He frees from all taint of evil and restores to Christ its maker, who overthrows the devil’s domain and wards off the manifold malice of vice” (AG 9). The new particular Churches should be “endowed with the riches” of the culture of the nations in which they are established and “deeply rooted in the people” (AG 15)  Missionaries must take care, however, to separate the wheat from the tares, so that adaptation of the Church to local cultures excludes “every appearance of syncretism and of false particularism” (AG 22). The new particular Churches must be fully orthodox in their faith and catholic in their devotion to the universal Church

The council’s insistence on the establishment of particular Churches and their sound inculturation underlines an important aspect of Catholic evangelization. Faithful to the call of her Lord to “preach the Gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15) and to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19 ), the Church seeks not only to transform individual souls, but whole peoples, together with their societies and cultures. It is thus that the mission ad gentes must be multi-pronged and include political, social, and cultural aspects along with the preaching of the revealed Gospel and ministration of the sacraments.

A holistic missionary outreach should characterize not only the mission to those who have never known Christ, but also the Church’s work among the peoples of what was once Christendom. In seeking to restore these nations and peoples to Christ, the Church, says Gaudium et Spes, must first read the “signs of the times” and understand all the various aspects of the world in which she works. (Gaudium et Spes 4). The Church must recognize and honor what is true in modern, Western society, while addressing the problems, questions, and challenges the men of our time confront (GS 3). In speaking to modern man, the Church must offer the wisdom of her social teaching for the better ordering of society (GS 23), while her sons and daughters actively engage themselves in “humanizing” the societies in which they live, even when this does not include matters that are specifically religious (GS 40).  But Catholics must not confuse their “secular” outreach with the task of evangelization; for work in the secular sphere is but a preparation of the “ground” of human life for the reception of the Gospel. It is not the Gospel itself (GS 40).

For the Second Vatican Council, the Jews hold a unique place among the non-Christian groups whom the Church wishes to evanglize. Though the Church, says the decree Nostra Aetate, holds some things in common with other religions, only with the Jews does she share a common origin. For the Jews, the call of salvation does not come entirely from without; for, naturally, the Jews belong to the good olive tree to which the Gentiles have been grafted as “a wild olive shoot” (Rom. 11:17). Too, Christ’s faithful “as men of faith are sons of Abraham” and “are included in the same patriarch’s call” – the call of the father of the Jewish people according to the flesh. “The Church keeps ever before her mind the words of the apostle Paul about his kinsmen: ‘they are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race according to the flesh, is the Christ’ (Rom. 9.4-5), the son of the virgin Mary.” Again citing St. Paul, Nostra Aetate says “the Church awaits the day, known to God alone, when all people will call on God with one voice and serve him ‘shoulder to shoulder’” (NA 4, Rom. 11:1-24).

Because the elements of the Church are present in Judaism in a more complete way than in any other non-Christian religion, the Church wants “to encourage and furnish mutual understanding and appreciation. This can be obtained, especially, by way of biblical and theological enquiry and through friendly discussions.” (NA 4). It is true that Nostra Aetate does not specifically call for attempts to convert the Jews, but this can be explained by the character of the document. The goal of Nostra Aetate is merely to declare the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions and to “foster unity and charity among individuals, and even among nations” (NA 1). We have already seen that the council calls for the evangelization of all nations so that all might come to the fullness of truth. Other conciliar texts at least imply that the Church must spread the Gospel even to the Jews, for the Jews are numbered among “all men.” The Church is “fully present to all men or nations” so that “she may lead them to the faith” (Ad Gentes 5). The Church is for all men, and for each man, the visible sign of their unity in salvation (Lumen Gentium 9)

The Mission of Ecumenism

Having dealt with the Church’s mission to non-Christians, we turn to her relations with the separated Christian brethren. The condition of separated Christians is, of course, markedly different from that of non-Christians. Non-Catholic Christians have been, at the very least, incorporated into Christ by baptism. Their communions have some of the endowments of the Church, which belong by right to the Catholic Church; and, says the conciliar decree, Unitatis Redintegratio, because these endowments convey grace, the communities in which they are present “have not been deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation.” Nevertheless, non-Catholic Christian communities suffer from defects and lack the fullness of the means of salvation found only in the Catholic Church (Ad Gentes 12, 13).

The Church’s outreach to non-Catholic Christian communions goes by the name, “ecumenism.” According to Unitatis Redintegratio, the goal of ecumenism is not to reconcile or convert individuals to the Catholic Church, though it is not opposed to this; rather, says the council, ecumenism is directed to reconciling communions as communions to the Catholic Church. Its purpose is not simply to encourage good relations between separated communions and the Catholic Church. This, says Unitatis Redintegratio, is only a means to the desired end — that “all Christians will be gathered, in a common celebration of the Eucharist, into the unity of the one and only Church” that “subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose…” (Unitatis Redintegratio 4).

What does it mean to reconcile Christian communions to the Church? How would such unions look? Unitatis Redintegratio does not address this clearly, but it does speak to the status of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox communions, which are composed of true particular Churches, albeit separated from the unity of the Catholic Church. The council notes that, from earliest times, the Churches of the East have followed their own disciplines and possessed their own customs and observances. Union with the Catholic Church would not jeopardize this ancient condition; instead, by uniting with Rome, the Eastern Churches would continue to govern themselves according to their own disciplines (Unitatis Redintegratio 16-17). Presumably, this would include the maintenance of the patriarchal form of government, the regulation of their liturgical life, and perhaps even the canonization of saints by particular Churches. In other words, the pope (saving the “full, supreme, and universal power” proper to him — Lumen Gentium 22) would not exercise the same governance over the Eastern Churches as he does over the Churches of the West.

The case with the Christian communions resulting from the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century would, it seems, be quite different. Since they have no true episcopacy or valid priesthood, they do not form true particular Churches. Yet, if their reconciliation to the Church amounts to more than simply the conversion of individuals, it would seem that the Church would in some measure recognize the corporate existence of Protestant groups seeking unity with her. The Church’s establishment of a personal ordinariate for Anglicans – where Anglicans returning to the unity of the Church are ruled by their own ordinaries and are allowed to continue the liturgical practices based on the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer – may be an example of what the council had in mind. It is conceivable that similar arrangements could be made for other groups. Lutherans, for instance, could be granted their own particular episcopal government and be allowed to maintain a peculiar though purified liturgical order, along with the tradition of the Lutheran chorale. How such arrangements might work with other Protestant groups is more obscure.

In pursuit of such unions, the council called on all Christians  (both Catholic and non-Catholic) to seek interior conversion and holiness of life, to engage in dialogue, and cooperate with each other in work that seeks to ameliorate the material conditions of the world. Though the council encouraged Catholics to express the faith of the Church in terms the separated brethren can understand, it warned against “false irenicism.” True union and communion must rest on the fullness of the truth entrusted to the Church. To diminish the expression of truth for the sake union, says the counicl, is “foreign to the spirit of ecumenism” (Unitatis Redintegratio 10-12)


As this brief survey of the council documents indicates, the Second Vatican Council did not cast aside Christ’s great commission to the Church. Rather, the council underscored with thick, black lines the Church’s essentially missionary character. In accord with the traditional emphasis on saving souls, the council stressed the unification of all men, as gathered in societies, in the one, true Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church. This is not a new emphasis, but a recapitulation of the vision of St. Paul, that in Christ God seeks “to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col.1.20). Indeed, the council’s inclusion of what might seem purely secular works in the task of evangelization agrees with Paul’s sense – reiterated, incidentally, in the social teachings of the popes from Leo XIII onward – of the cosmic effect of Christ’s plan “for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1.10). Even a cursory reading of the conciliar documents could hardly miss the sense of urgency underlying the council’s call for evangelization.

It is perhaps on account of some of the means of evangelization (such as ecumenism) the council suggested that some have thought the Church has moved away from a traditional notion of missionary outreach to mankind. Yet, for the council, even ecumenism exists for one purpose – the union of all Christians with the true Church of Christ. Ecumenism and, for that matter, inter-religious dialogue are not ends in themselves, but means to union in Christ in his Church. One may wonder if the means, as means, were happily chosen, but one cannot doubt their evangelical intent – unless he wishes to follow some elusive “spirit of Vatican II,” born of his own imagination, rather than the clear sense of the conciliar texts. And Vatican II is clear: the Church as “sacrament” is not an optional means to salvation; it is a necessary “instrument of intimate union with God and of the unity of all human kind.” Through his human instruments, God seeks to draw mankind into the bosom of his Church. This is the task Vatican II has enjoined upon the Church and all her faithful.