Ecumenism in Roman Catholic theology: Lumen Gentium analysed for Ecumenism.


Summary – Lumen Gentium as an Ecumenical document

Lumen Gentium, (“Light of Nations”, Vatican II, 1964) changed nothing in the ecclesiology of the Roman Catholic Church, and it was designed that way. But the whole process of Vatican II, including this document, did prove to be a catalyst for ecumenical dialogue in many ways. Again, this was by design.
Often, the document presents what appears to be a remarkable change in theology in a given chapter, but in each case all such novelty is subtly disclaimed, redefined and qualified back into the traditional Roman Catholic understanding of “Church”.
In the areas most contested by Evangelical Protestants, including the Marian Cult, for example, the theology is defended mostly by Church Tradition. The areas better attested by Scripture, such as the Mystery of the Church, are almost completely agreeable to an Evangelical. “Almost”, because in many cases, the Biblical emphasis is actively undermined by subsequent Traditional exposition.
I find that, despite the existence of some other specific doctrines that I don’t agree with, overall there is only one which prevents the Roman Catholic Church from being compatible with my ecclesiology: The office of the Pope, as it is now understood in the church: This office prevents a true collegiate brotherhood of Christian church movements, which would best fit my own concept of ecclesiology: there is only one church.

Detail – Lumen Gentium as an Ecumenical document

What did Lumen Gentium mean to Ecumenism?

The Roman Catholic Church is now a key player in the modern global ecumenical inter-church dialogue. Vatican II in 1964 was a move which set her in a leadership posture by hinting at bold changes in her ecclesiological emphases designed to stimulate new ecumenical possibilities. The reality for Lumen Gentium (LG)[1] was that it produced both “something” and “nothing”: “Nothing”, because it purposefully retained the status quo in every identifiable doctrine; But “something”, in that it presented the Roman Catholic ecclesiology in terms that provided hope to the then young Ecumenical Movement. Forty Five years on, the effects of this “something” still resonate in the movement.[2]

How to approach Lumen Gentium

The traditional way to define ecclesiology is by identifying the “marks of the church”. The Roman Catholic tradition considers that there are four marks of the true church, which are taken from the Council of Constantinople (381),[3]ecclesia una, sancta, catholica, et apostolica”, or “unity”, “sanctity” (or ”holiness”), “catholicity”, and “apostolicity”. But these terms have become so loaded through their usage in Roman Catholic tradition and elsewhere that, as Snyder observes, “the four classical marks are highly ambiguous. Through the centuries theologians have debated just what they mean and how to interpret them. The marks can be understood in nearly opposite ways.”[4] Furthermore, various reformers have proposed different marks as being definitive at various times,[5] so to employ such “marks” would be to enter into the debate about their meaning. Therefore, the Lumen Gentium document must be evaluated under its own headings, of which there are eight.


First, “THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH” is an expression of the Church as, in Kasper’s words, “a transcendent saving reality which is revealed and manifested in a visible way”.[6] This represents, according to Young, a “turn” and a “new emphasis”,[7] but he is careful not to call it a “departure” from previous ecclesiology.

There are many aspects of this section which provide ecumenically agreeable reflection on Scripture. There are also some distinctively Roman Catholic expressions such as, “as often as [the Eucharist is celebrated], the work of our redemption is carried on” (LG 3), and “governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him” (LG 8).

In my view this section reveals some emphases characteristic of Roman Catholic ecclesiology which I don’t sympathise with, but I find few of the specifics disagreeable and there is much that I find very useful, for example, that the visible and invisible aspects of the Church are “not to be considered as two realities”, but rather “form one complex reality”, which is “embracing in its bosom sinners”, and also is “at the same time holy, and always in need of being purified” (LG 8).


Second, “ON THE PEOPLE OF GOD” defines who is included in “the People of God” and who is not. The information provided exposes the Roman Catholic worldview in quite a candid way. Underscoring it is the understanding that the Roman Catholic Church “is necessary for salvation” (LG 14).

The Catholic faithful are “fully incorporated in the society of the Church”, but will not be saved unless they meet certain requirements (LG 14). For Catechumens, the intent to be Baptised is sufficient (LG 14), and in an unresolved paradox, other Christians are considered to be “united with Christ” by their Baptism, but are yet to be “peacefully united” with the Roman Catholic Church (LG 15).

The logical paradox is discussed in more detail in my comments on “Unitatis Redintegratio”, a Roman Catholic decree ostensibly on Ecumenism.

Carefully undefined, loaded terminology

Also, whereas the Roman Catholic Church is “linked” with other Christians, it is “related in various ways” to Jews, Muslims, seekers of God, and all others who are yet to “receive the Gospel” (LG 16). These three key terms[8] are not defined, rendering the whole passage completely ambiguous.

Pennington finds that this section presents the People of God as “a vast throng”,[9] rather than a mere clerical hierarchy. This, he says, represents “a fundamental shift in the magisterium’s basic perception of ourselves as Church”,[10] but the apparent “shift” is subtly undermined, in that the supposed “common priesthood” (LG 10) has been divided so that some elements actually still belong exclusively to the clergy, such as “teaching”, “sanctifying” and “ruling” (LG 33), while other elements are available to all the faithful. These two are said to “differ from one another in essence and not only in degree” (LG 10), so it is scarcely a “common priesthood”.

No Real Advance

In my view, this section appears to be designed simultaneously to appease traditionalists, universalists, non-Christian groups, and Christian ecumenical lobby groups, by using tricky word-play and without making any substantive advance on the existing exclusive ecclesiology, except perhaps for a barely detectable inference relating to the Church’s attitude towards the Eastern Orthodox Church.[11]


Third, “ON THE HIERARCHICAL STRUCTURE OF THE CHURCH AND IN PARTICULAR ON THE EPISCOPATE” reaffirms the Church’s hierarchical episcopacy; indeed, the Papal primacy in the Church is assumed to be “one of [the Church’s] internal constitutive principles”,[12] so that any other Christian community “cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called ‘Churches’ in the proper sense”.[13]

Subtle Hypocrisy

This section mentions “the charism of infallibility of the Church” (LG 23), and the Pope as “visible principle and foundation of unity” (LG 23). This is traditional Roman Catholic language, but there is the appearance of an important shift of emphasis. Young reports a “turn from a monarchical (papal) view of Church authority to a collegial, shared authority of pope and bishops. Leadership is not a position of prestige, but of service”.[14]

But for all the talk of collegiality, power is never actually dispersed from the Papal seat, because “the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power” (LG 22), and while servant leadership is depicted in Lumen Gentium for priests and bishops, it never gets directly applied to the Pope, as the leader who claims to be “greatest”, and whom Christ would therefore surely expect to be “very last, and the servant of all” (Mk 9:35).

It must also be said that the Pope has not been a “visible principle and foundation of unity” (LG 23) in the Universal Church for over 400 years, and at various times in the history of the Church before that time there were up to three Popes at a time competing for that honour.

The Nature of Pastoral Ministry

With respect to the church’s relationship with believers, the use of terms like “govern” (LG 20, 23) and “rule” (LG 6, 10, 32, 37) reveal the paternal nature of the Roman Catholic view of the pastoral ministry.

My own view of the ministry is that pastors are “serving” the congregation and the community rather than “ruling” them, and any “Vicar of Christ” should visibly do so all the more.


Fourth, “THE LAITY” is a distinction not universally recognised among Christians. In fact Saucy says, “The biblical viewpoint of the ministry provides no [such] distinction”.[15] The concept is important to the Roman Catholic tradition, however, and Volf provides a rationale for the doctrine in that, “the laity alone can say the liturgically necessary ‘amen’”,[16] but Stevens says, “when we enter the world of the New Testament we find only one people, the true laos of God, with leaders among the people”.[17]

Happily, in my view, the Laity is at least defined not merely in negative terms such as the “non-ordained” and “non-monastic”, but also in positive terms: “the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God” (LG 31).

Square peg in a round hole?

Bartlett observes sardonically that “the hierarchy is called [in Lumen Gentium] to condescend to share some of its proper ministry with lay people”,[18] which reflects, in my view, the difficulties of maintaining such a transparently top-down, power-based, hierarchical system of authority while trying to couch it in collegiate terminology more compatible with Jesus’ teaching on “servant” leadership (Mk 9:35).


Fifth, “THE UNIVERSAL CALL TO HOLINESS IN THE CHURCH” is summarised and defended in that “The Church … is believed to be indefectibly holy … therefore in the Church, everyone … is called to holiness” (LG 39).

In my view, this section appears to be written for the consumption of the faithful and is topically familiar to most Christian traditions. It underscores the new Catholic emphasis on inclusion of the Laity in church life and therefore is relevant in the context of Vatican II, but its verbosity is due to the subtlety of argument in explaining how the otherwise unequal hierarchy is equally called to holiness.

In a non-Episcopate tradition, not having to explain away power structures, it could be much briefer. It would then much more closely resemble my own views.

RELIGIOUS (Monastics)

Sixth, “RELIGIOUS” are considered separately from “clergy” and “laity” as a third category. The Religious are living under the Evangelical Counsels, “Chastity, Charity, Poverty”, and “the profession of the evangelical counsels … appears as a sign … to attract all the members of the Church to an effective and prompt fulfillment of the duties of their Christian vocation” (LG 44).

This section anticipates certain misunderstandings (LG 46) but more generally it encourages the Religious, affirming their role in the life of the church.

An Alternative Suggestion

I find value in the inclusion of monasticism, as a concept, in the Church’s ecclesiology, but I don’t see the necessity for a life-long vow of commitment to it.

In my view there is a place for a less structured, and non-permanent form of monasticism in the ideal ecclesiology. Instead of the Roman Catholic life-long vows, and preferably without the hierarchical oversight commanded in LG 45, monasticism could be fruitfully used in sabbatical form, even for decades at a time if desired, but without the arbitrary burden of a lifelong commitment.


Seventh, “THE ESCHATOLOGICAL NATURE OF THE PILGRIM CHURCH AND ITS UNION WITH THE CHURCH IN HEAVEN” relates to the doctrines both of “the Communion of the Saints”[19] and “Purgatory”,[20] in which believers are in a present communion with the deceased saints in heaven, giving “recourse to their prayers, their power and help in obtaining benefits from God”, as well as those who are in Purgatory, “still being purified” (LG 50).

Gotta Laugh!

In my view, the exhortation, “we urge all concerned, if any abuses, excesses or defects have crept in here or there, to do what is in their power to remove or correct them” (LG 51), is so exquisitely ironic as to be positively humorous, considering that the unprecedented scale of such abuses formed at least “one of the indirect causes”[21] of the Protestant Reformation, and the ecclesiastical schism which is still lamented by the Roman Catholic Church four hundred years later (LG 15).

The efficacy of prayer

In my view the notion that the prayers of anyone else being more efficacious than my own prayers made by faith in Jesus’ name, undermines the core of the Gospel message in which Christ has called us friends (Jn 15:15), encouraging us each to pray in His name (Jn 15:16).


Eighth, “THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY, MOTHER OF GOD IN THE MYSTERY OF CHRIST AND THE CHURCH” appears to be superfluous and extra-biblical at best, in my view.

“superfluous and extra-biblical at best”

Mary is said to have “a place in the Church which is the highest after Christ and yet very close to us” (LG 54), but how the Pope’s vicarious role in the Church as “Christ” (LG 22) relates to this is unclear and this appears to be a contradiction.

LG 62 describes Mary as “mediatrix”, but still completely unnecessary for salvation, since Christ remains “the one Mediator”, and LG 67 appears to be a deliberately crafted boundary for the Marian Cult, firmly establishing some limits to the veneration of Mary.

In my view, the whole Eighth Chapter appears to serve the purpose of simultaneously appeasing the Marian Cult while also containing its excesses. It appears to form part of an internal Roman Catholic theological tug-o-war, much more so than any other part of the document does.

Summary – Status Quo

In summary, the Roman Catholic Church says that Lumen Gentium deliberately “developed, deepened and more fully explained” the traditional ecclesiology without changing it.[22] By using clever wording and subtly back-peddling on otherwise bold innovations, the status quo was successfully maintained but presented in a way which stimulated ecumenical hope.

Analysing Scriptural Support

There is an attempt to support each section with extensive Biblical references. There are 500 references to 470 distinct “notes”, of which 307 references are directly to Scripture[23] and the balance to supplementary sources. The supposed Biblical emphasis is sometimes “vitiated”[24] by employing Traditional[25] hermeneutics. Understandably, this occurs most in the areas of highest divergence between Evangelicals and Catholics, for example in Chapter 6 on the religious orders, in which only one of the 11 references is to Scripture, and Chapter 8 on Mary, with less than 50% to Scripture.

Conclusion, from the Ecumenical point of view

Although the question of the relationship between Tradition and Scripture is at the very root of Catholic/Protestant doctrinal divergence,[26] I view the hierarchical episcopate which undergirds the Roman Catholic ecclesiology to be the key point of difficulty for ecumenism. This structure, with the Pope as “vicar of Christ” (LG 3) and “visible principle and foundation of unity” (LG 23), may end up being the last remaining barrier to a truly collegiate communion of the Church Universal.[27] If so, one bold solution would be for the Pope to imitate his master who, “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped” (Phil 2:6), in that the Pope could metaphorically “lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13),[28] infallibly renouncing his claim to divinely sanctioned juridical primacy over the Church Universal (LG 3). The Papal See would almost inevitably then be “exalted”, in some real sense among other church leaders to be distinctly authoritative in the resulting global ecumenical collegiate, but out of brotherly deference rather than jurisdiction.

In my view, such a college of church movements would represent a substantial visible unity in the Universal Church despite ongoing doctrinal differences in many specific areas, not least the inevitable question of the membership criteria of the ecumenical body. Despite the difficulties, such a unity would fit better with my own ideals of ecclesiology in which there are “many parts”, but “one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:12-13 cf. Eph 4:3-6).


Bainvel, Jean. “Tradition and Living Magisterium. The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol 15.” Robert Appleton Company,

Bartlett, David Lyon. Ministry in the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.

Basden, Paul, David S. Dockery, and James Leo Garrett. The People of God : Essays on the Believers’ Church. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1991.

Callan, Charles. “Unity (as a Mark of the Church). The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol 15.” Robert Appleton Company,

Clowney, Edmund P., and Gerald Lewis Bray. The Church. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1995.

Douglas, J. D. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. Co., 1974.

Ferguson, Sinclair B., David F. Wright, and J. I. Packer. New Dictionary of Theology. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1988.

George, Timothy. Theology of the Reformers. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1988.

González, Justo L. The Reformation to the Present Day. 1st ed, The Story of Christianity. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.

Hanna, Edward. “Purgatory. The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol 12.” Robert Appleton Company,

Kasper, Walter. Theology and Church. New York: Crossroad, 1989.

Levada, William Cardinal. “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church.” Vatican,

Meyer, Harding. “The [Vatican I I ] Decree on Ecumenism : A Protestant Viewpoint.” Ecumenical Review 37, no. 3 (1985): 320-25.

Paul VI, Pope. “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.” Vatican,

Pennington, M. Basil. Vatican Ii : We’ve Only Just Begun. New York: Crossroad, 1994.

Saucy, Robert L. The Church in God’s Program. Chicago: Moody Press, 1972.

Snyder, Howard A, and John G. Stackhouse. “Evangelical Ecclesiology : Reality or Illusion?” Paper presented at the Regent College Theology, Conference, Grand Rapids, Mich., 2003.

Sollier, Joseph. “The Communion of Saints. The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol 4.” Robert Appleton Company,

Stevens, R. Paul. The Other Six Days : Vocation, Work, and Ministry in Biblical Perspective. Grand Rapids, Mich.; Vancouver, B.C.: W.B. Eerdmans ; Regent College Pub., 1999.

Volf, Miroslav. After Our Likeness : The Church as the Image of the Trinity. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1998.

[1] Pope Paul VI, “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” Vatican, Accessed 1st September, 2011.

[2] See under “The ‘effect’ of the Decree”, and “The ‘effects of the effect’” – Harding Meyer, “The [Vatican I I ] Decree on Ecumenism : A Protestant Viewpoint,” Ecumenical Review 37, no. 3 (1985): 321-22.

[3] Charles Callan, “Unity (as a Mark of the Church). The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol 15,” Robert Appleton Company, Accessed 1st September, 2011.

[4] Howard A Snyder and John G. Stackhouse, “Evangelical Ecclesiology : Reality or Illusion?” (paper presented at the Regent College Theology, Conference, Grand Rapids, Mich., 2003), 84.

[5] Clowney identifies three Protestant Reformation “marks”, but the “Radical Reformer” Menno specified six.

  1. Edmund P. Clowney and Gerald Lewis Bray, The Church (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 142.
  2. Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1988), 287.

[6] Walter Kasper, Theology and Church (New York: Crossroad, 1989), 151.

[7] Paul Basden, David S. Dockery, and James Leo Garrett, The People of God : Essays on the Believers’ Church (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1991), 260.

[8] “linked”, “related in various ways”, and “receive the Gospel”.

[9] M. Basil Pennington, Vatican Ii : We’ve Only Just Begun (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 23.

[10] Ibid., 23.

[11] William Cardinal Levada, “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church,” Vatican, Accessed 1 September, 2011.

[12] Ibid., Fourth Response.

[13] Except the Easter Orthodox Churches – ibid., Fourth and Fifth Questions and Responses.

[14] Basden, Dockery, and Garrett, 260.

[15] Robert L. Saucy, The Church in God’s Program (Chicago: Moody Press, 1972), 128.

[16] Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness : The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1998), 131.

[17] R. Paul Stevens, The Other Six Days : Vocation, Work, and Ministry in Biblical Perspective (Grand Rapids, Mich.; Vancouver, B.C.: W.B. Eerdmans ; Regent College Pub., 1999), 26.

[18] David Lyon Bartlett, Ministry in the New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 5.

[19] Joseph Sollier, “The Communion of Saints. The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol 4,” Robert Appleton Company, Accessed 1st September, 2011.

[20] Edward Hanna, “Purgatory. The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol 12,” Robert Appleton Company, Accessed 1st September, 2011.

[21] Justo L. González, The Reformation to the Present Day, 1st ed., The Story of Christianity (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), 21.

[22] Levada.

[23] Including Supplementary Notes: Ch III:(4*) and Ch III:(50*) and excluding Note (273)

[24] J. D. Douglas, The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. Co., 1974), 1013.

[25] Jean Bainvel, “Tradition and Living Magisterium. The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol 15,” Robert Appleton Company,

[26] Ibid., Paragraph 3. Accessed 1st September, 2011. Paragraph 3.

[27] “For non-Catholics the chief difficulties remain papal claims that lack scriptural support” – Sinclair B. Ferguson, David F. Wright, and J. I. Packer, New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 490.

[28] Or else as the “perfect duty of pastoral charity” – LG 41

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