Fr. Donald MacDonald says Vatican II overcame a pyramidal model of the Church.


Fr. Donald MacDonald says Vatican II overcame a pyramidal model of the Church.

October 29, 2012

The teaching of the Second Vatican Council represents a shift from seeing the Church primarily as an ordered institution to understanding the Church as a mystery, said Franciscan Father Donald MacDonald.

MacDonald said Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) presented all the baptized as being incorporated into the mystery of God's plan of salvation through the Church.

To present this teaching, the bishops at Vatican II first had to drastically revise a proposed document which taught that the Church was primarily a hierarchical institution that placed a heavy emphasis on authority and obedience, he said.

MacDonald, a theologian at Newman Theological College, spoke Oct. 17 at the Catholic Pastoral and Administration Offices in a series of talks sponsored by the Edmonton archdiocesan office of catechesis on the 50th anniversary of Vatican II.

About 35 people attended the talk that is also available via webcast on the archdiocese's website,

MacDonald recalled that in 1968, three years after the end of the council, he was invited to give a talk at St. Joseph's College of the University of Alberta on Priesthood Today.

To prepare for the talk, he asked several people what word first came to mind when they thought of the priesthood. "Almost every answer I got was 'power.'"

It made a clear point to him about the effectiveness of the council's teaching: "There wasn't much that had seeped down."

MacDonald said in the Church's early history, people "were not anxious" about the identity of the Church. It wasn't until the 14th century that friction between Church and state led to sustained reflection on the nature of the Church.

The Church began to be seen as that zone or space where the Word of God was handed over to the people through a hierarchy, he said.


Following the Reformation and the 18th century Enlightenment, "The modern world was looked at with a lot of hostility," he said.

"When you live in a climate like that, the emphasis is going to be on hierarchy and on a fortress that protects you from the world."

A triumphalist image of the Church as a pyramid and a fortress remained primary until Vatican II, he said. Even in the early 1960s, no one would have thought that in the year 2000, the pope would apologize to the world for the sins of the Church and ask for forgiveness.

The bishops at Vatican II did not receive a copy of the proposed document on the Church until Nov. 23, 1962 and they had to begin discussing it little more than a week later, he said.


While some bishops at the council praised the document, there was strong criticism for its lack of biblical foundation, its clericalism, pyramidal, juridical and triumphalist image of the Church, and its pompous style, he said.

"Most of the criticism was pretty aggressive," MacDonald said. "It was obvious that the first draft was doomed."

MacDonald traced the development of what became Lumen Gentium through its five drafts as the bishops came to see the nature of the Church as a mystery, to make the image of the People of God more central than the hierarchical model, to emphasize that all Christians - not just priests and sisters - are called to holiness, and to place the Blessed Virgin Mary inside the Church.


The word "communio" is the word that best sums up the theology of the nature of the Church, he said.

Citing the theologian Cardinal Walter Kasper, MacDonald said communio can be understood in four ways.

First, it can be seen in the members of the Church participating as a body in communion with the Trinity. Second, he said, it can be seen in the liturgy, especially in the reception of Holy Communion.

Third, communio can be seen the complementarity between clergy and laity. Fourth, it is revealed in the Church as a sacrament of unity for the world.

Sandra Prather, former director of the Star of the North Retreat Centre, will be the next speaker in the Vatican II catechetical series. She will speak Nov. 7 at 7 p.m. in the archdiocese's Pastoral and Administration Offices on the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity.