The Drafting of "Lumen Gentium"

Interview With Father Peter Gumpel

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ROME, NOV. 3, 2004 ( Nov. 21 will mark 40 years since the promulgation by Pope Paul VI of the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution, «Lumen Gentium.»

To better understand the way in which this document was written, ZENIT interviewed Jesuit Father Peter Gumpel, who collaborated day by day in the drafting of the document.

Q: How did you become involved in the writing of the document?

Father Gumpel: Pope Paul VI asked me to form part of the council’s highest commission, but working in close collaboration with Father Paolo Molinari who had already been appointed.

I rejected the offer, explaining that there were other works to be done in the curia of the Society of Jesus and that it was not possible for both of us to participate in the sessions, which took place every day, including on Saturdays and Sundays.

Moreover, it was obvious that Father Molinari was in need of help, so we divided the work. He participated in the council, while I studied in depth the documents to which the Pontiff had given me access.

I spent many days studying in libraries to examine further those points of the debate that were more delicate, and to furnish documentary material to Father Molinari.

Q: Of what importance was «Lumen Gentium» in Vatican II and what issues does it address?

Father Gumpel: «Lumen Gentium» is a dogmatic constitution, a document of the highest level of the ordinary magisterium and of the council, although in the end it added no new dogmatic definition.

There were discussions on each one of the chapters of the dogmatic constitution. The first two chapters are very profound, presenting the nature of the Church from an eschatological perspective and also as the pilgrim People of God. The problem was that Pope Pius XII, who had prepared a possible council, had planned to emphasize the aspect of the Church as Mystical Body of Christ.

In the discussion, according to the official commentary of these two first chapters, it was said that when considering the intrinsic nature of the Church, there is no affirmation that is more valid than that of the Church in eschatological pilgrimage toward heaven.

Later, some said that this definition was not in agreement with Pius XII’s doctrine on the Mystical Body. But there is no reason for concern, because in regard to the internal structure of the Church, there is no concept that is more valid than the Mystical Body of the Church.

Q: According to some, the most intense discussions took place on the collegiality of bishops and the role of the pontiff.

Father Gumpel: Indeed, it was the third chapter of «Lumen Gentium,» regarding the collegiality of bishops and the role of the pontiff in the governance of the Church.

Q: Surely the bishops must have responsibility not only before their own dioceses, but also before the whole Church. But how is this responsibility exercised?

Father Gumpel: The formula is clear: «with and under Peter» — «cum et sub Petro.» But the formulas initially presented were not sufficiently clear, to the point that 18 cardinals and general superiors of several religious orders wrote to the Pontiff so that those ambiguities would be avoided.

They complained to the Pope, saying that it was necessary to add clarifications, as the text was vague and prone to two different interpretations.

Initially, Paul VI did not attach much importance to these criticisms. But later, precisely before the vote on the writing of the third chapter, the Pope realized that certain ambiguities would give rise to confusions on the role of the Pontiff and for this reason, introduced the «Nota Previa.»

Q: What is it about?

Father Gumpel: The Pope realized that it was very dangerous to promulgate a document of such importance where the role of the pontiff in relation to the other bishops was not very clear. From this concern stemmed the idea of the «Nota Previa» with which, though taking into account the council’s discussion, confirmed the magisterial teachings on the matter.

Q: There were also discussions on the chapters relating to holiness and to the religious life.

Father Gumpel: Indeed, there was a great debate.

Chapter 5 addresses the call to holiness. What is holiness? Is holiness the same for all or are there differences, even essential ones, in the call to holiness? There is no doubt that there is a general call to holiness, but there was a risk of trivializing the commitment of the priestly and religious life.

It is obvious that all are called to holiness, which means union with Christ, but there are differences according to the state of life of the call.

Another issue that caused great debate was the problem of the «exemption» of religious, that is, whether the latter had to answer to their general superiors or to their bishops.

This problem had already been debated in the Council of Trent. A Canadian bishop left a written memorandum in which he affirmed that the most important ministry in the Church is that of the parish. According to his point of view, religious must be allowed to constitute themselves in a religious family and that, at the moment of their priestly ordination, they should be removed from their superiors and be placed exclusively under the jurisdiction of the bishops. However, if they got sick or grow old they could return to their congregations.

Obviously, the religious rebelled against this, upholding their exemption. It is true that there were problems in the missions, as the superiors could indicate the destination to their own members without having to consult the bishop. In any case, the solution could not be the abolition of the «exemption,» but that of fostering greater unity between the two authorities.

Q: How did the chapter appear in «Lumen Gentium» dedicated to Mary?

Father Gumpel: Pope John XXIII wanted a dogmatic constitution only on the Virgin Mary and one on the saints, while in the council there were persons who thought that too much weight was being given to Mariology.

There was a strong discussion. A vote was taken and those won who favored the insertion of a chapter on Mary in «Lumen Gentium.» There was a difference of 50 votes out of a total of 2,000.

The same thing happened with the saints. John XXIII had requested that a special constitution be prepared on devotion to the saints, because he was very concerned about the way it was diminishing.

Because of this, he asked Father Molinari to write a book for publication on the eve of the council. The book was entitled «The Saints and Their Devotion,» published in 1965 and translated in several languages.

Once it was decided that a section be dedicated to Mary in «Lumen Gentium,» it was also decided to include the saints.

Q: Today, many see Vatican II as a confrontation between conservatives and progressives. What is your opinion?

Father Gumpel: The press exerted strong pressure on the council. It is true that some favored traditional and others very advanced positions, but each case must be assessed individually.

Some council experts and some bishops gave the press unilateral reports. The media quoted them without taking into account or knowing that there were other positions, and this exerted much influence on public opinion.

The Second Vatican Council is the first in which the mass media was admitted, and this is something that has been underestimated.

The press office did not assess sufficiently the influence of the press in leading public opinion in a direction that did not correspond to the truth of the discussion.

The criteria of selection of the media were oriented to sensationalism; they did not understand how a council develops or how the Church discusses.

The press was not much interested in knowing the doctrine of the Council of Trent, of Vatican I, of the magisterium of Pius XII. Th
ey were only interested in things that could spread scandal and sensationalism and so they created an absolutely unreal situation.

Moreover, we were in the middle of the ’60s. They were stormy times and the media wished to give the idea that the Church was adapting itself increasingly to what was happening in society. So those who defended positions that were not very orthodox had the support of the press.

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