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Lumen Gentium: The Unfinished Business

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2024

Paul Lakeland*
Centre for Catholic Studies, Fairfield University
1073 North Benson Road, Fairfield, CT 06824-5195. Email:


Using Lumen gentium as a focus, what can we say about the unfinished business of renewal? How does it work, and how must we read Lumen gentium in order to grasp “what remains to be done”? We consider four issues, each of them in dialogue with one of four theologians who reached their 60th birthday in 1964, the year Lumen gentium was completed. Bernard Lonergan helps us come to terms with the historically conditioned nature of Lumen gentium itself. Karl Rahner points the way towards a better grasp of Lumen gentium's discussion of the place of other religions in the economy of salvation. John Courtney Murray's influence on the Council fathers is a case study in the importance of the local church. And Yves Congar's willingness to rethink his own positions testifies to the importance of not making Lumen gentium into unchanging truth. Overall, the unfinished business of the document on the Church is to learn to treat it, in Lonergan's words, as “not premisses but data.”

Original Articles
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © The Dominican Council/Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2009

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1 “Vatican II as an ‘Event’,” in Vatican II: Did Anything Happen? edited by John W. O'Malley (London and New York: Continuum, 2007), pp. 24–51. Here on p. 36 Komonchak is quoting from Paul Veyne, Comment on écrit l'histoire (Paris: Seuil, 1978), p. 41. The three other essays are by O'Malley himself, Stephen Schloesser and Neil J. Ormerod.

2 Lonergan, B., A Second Collection (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974), p. 58Google Scholar.

3 A Second Collection, p. 57.

4 A Second Collection, p. 60.

5 A Second Collection, p. 61.

6 Planning is a temporal activity, and God the creator does not plan history, or there would be no human freedom. God's design allows for human planning, of course, but planning – like any activity in history, even that of God within history – is contingent, accidental, and open to failure.

7 A Second Collection, p. 58.

8 A Second Collection, pp. 65–66.

9 A second essay in the O'Malley collection (see n. 1 above) brilliantly analyzes the Council as an event of twentieth-century history. In the midst of continuing difference and disagreement, symbolized in the more or less exact coincidence of the opening of the Council and the Cuban missile crisis, Lumen gentium sees the Church as a sign and focus of unity. See Stephen Schloesser, ‘Against Forgetting: Memory, History, Vatican II’ in O'Malley, pp. 92–152.

10 Metz, Johann Baptist, ‘Productive Noncontemporaneity’ in Habermas, Jürgen (ed.), Observations on The Spiritual Situation of the Age: Contemporary German Perspectives (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1985), pp. 169180Google Scholar.

11 Rahner, Karl S.J., ‘Towards a Fundamental Theological Interpretation of Vatican II’ in Vatican II: The Unfinished Agenda, edited by Richard, Lucien, with Harrington, Daniel and O'Malley, John W. (New York: Paulist, 1987), pp. 921Google Scholar.

12 K. Rahner, The Unfinished Agenda, p. 14.

13 The Unfinished Agenda, pp. 13–14.

14 The text of the Pope's address is widely available, for example, at

15 Kasper took on Ratzinger initially in a book chapter, ‘Zur Theologie und Praxis des bischöflichen Amtes,’ in Auf neue Art Kirche Sein: Wirklichkeiten—Herausforderungen—Wandlungen (Munich: Bernward bei Don Bosco, 1999), pp. 32–48. Ratzinger responded in an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung for December 22, 2000, p. 46. Kasper argued further in On the Church: A Friendly Response to Cardinal Ratzinger,’America 184 (April 21–30, 2001)Google Scholar, and was answered yet again by Cardinal Ratzinger in America 185 (November 19, 2001). The easiest approach to this complicated set of exchanges is provided by an excellent overview from McDonnell, Kilian, ‘The Ratzinger/Kasper Debate: The Universal Church and Local Churches,’Theological Studies 63 (2002), pp. 227250CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 See Komonchak, , ‘Modernity and the Construction of Roman Catholicism’, Cristianismo nella storia 18 (1997): pp. 353385Google Scholar.

17 A Catholic Modernity: Charles Taylor's Marianist Award Lecture, edited by Heft, James L. (New York: OUP, 1999), pp. 1337CrossRefGoogle Scholar, esp. pp. 16–18.

18 Komonchak, p. 383.

19 Komonchak, p. 383.

20 It was Chenu in this text who really developed the idea of the importance of “reading the signs of the times,” and it was Chenu who had the greatest influence on the text of Gaudium et spes, a text declared too optimistic and to underplay “the cross” in favor of “the incarnation” by both Joseph Ratzinger and Karl Rahner. The text of Le Saulchoir: Une ecole de théologie is most easily obtainable as reprinted in a book by the same name, which also includes interpretive essays by Giuseppe Alberigo, Etienne Fouilloux, Jean-Pierre Jossua and Jean Ladrière, with a brief postscript by Chenu himself (Paris: Cerf, 1985).

21 There is an amusing essay to be written on the various places of exile to which suspect French theologians were sent in the 1950s. Not for them any Devil's Island, unless the theological equivalent of such might be Canada (Chenu), Cambridge, England and later Jerusalem (Congar) or, most improbable of all for a Frenchman, Daniélou's internal exile from the Jesuit house of studies at Fouvière near Lyons to Paris(!), where he became chaplain to a girl's lycée.

22 Paris: Cerf, 1953. ET: Lay People in the Church (Westminster, Md.: Newman, 1957)Google Scholar.

23 The Role of the Laity in the Church (Chicago: Fides, 1956)Google Scholar.

24 Lay People in the Church (1957), p. 17.

25 LG 31.

26 The comments are recorded in Fifty Years of Catholic Theology: Conversations with Yves Congar, edited and introduced by Lauret, Bernard (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988), p. 65Google Scholar.

27 On the volatility of theological truths, there is no better analysis than that to be found in Thiel, John E., Senses of Tradition: Continuity and Development in Catholic Faith (New York: Oxford, 2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.