Academic journal article Theological Studies

Otto Semmelroth and the Advance of the Church as Sacrament at Vatican II

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Otto Semmelroth and the Advance of the Church as Sacrament at Vatican II

Article excerpt

Otto Semmelroth, S.J. (1912-1979), contributed significantly to the documents of Vatican II, through both his preconciliar writings as well as his participation on a variety of committees. Although today he stands among the nearly forgotten of the council's periti, at the time of the council his name and work were closely associated with the concept of the church as sacrament that was so important to Lumen gentium and other documents.

Semmelroth taught as a professor in the Jesuit theologate at Sankt Georgen in Frankfurt, Germany. This article uses his work as a focal point for considering the church as sacrament in the 1963 draft of what would become Lumen gentium as well as in the developments that took place between the first draft and the final document. My article also aims to place Semmelroth's work on the church as sacrament among alternative approaches to ecclesiology present during and after the council. (1)

This article builds on a previous one that focused on Semmelroth's preconciliar work on the church as sacrament. (2) A study of his classic Die Kirche als Ursakrament as well as the prior Urbild der Kirche: Organischer Aufbau des Mariengeheimnisses shows how he championed an ecclesiology that envisioned the church primarily as a lay organization served by a hierarchy. (3) In a Catholic theological climate that regarded any attention to subjective faith experience with deep suspicion, Semmelroth endorsed the concept of the church as sacrament in order to complement the official stress on the objective reality of the gift of God's grace with a balancing emphasis on what it means to live out the reception of that grace. He managed to find in the sacramental theology of his time a model of call and response that could be applied to the church as a whole. Semmelroth simultaneously associated the church of the laity with Mary and her fiat as well as with the image of the people of God. Through his emphasis on each Christian's encounter with and living out of the gift of God's grace, Semmelroth contributed to the development of what at Vatican II would be termed the "universal call to holiness."

Semmelroth judged the concept of the church as sacrament to be not merely one concept or image of the church among others, but rather an expression of a basic principle that undergirded all understandings of the church: that the invisible saving grace of God is encountered through visible means. (4) In this way, the church as sacrament is linked with a supernatural ontology, situating the human response to God's call as a constitutive dimension of reality. Such an ontology is itself linked with a type of sacramental consciousness that perceives the church as the focal point of the graced human encounter with God. All other concepts and images of the church are particular and partial renderings of this mystery.

This article includes examination of two positions critical of the use of the notion of the church as sacrament as they were expressed in the early years of the council and represent schools of thought that reach back into the 19th century. Semmelroth's own ecclesiological approach can then be considered within the context of these other approaches in order to grasp something of the status of the concept of the church as sacrament in the 1963 draft. Next, Semmelroth's own commentaries on Lumen gentium serve as sources for examining changes between the 1963 draft and the final 1964 document. I conclude by offering reflections on Semmelroth's role as a mediating figure among contending groups.

Controversy over Speaking of the Church as Sacrament

On October 1, 1963 Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini put on the floor of the council one of two major challenges to the concept of the church as sacrament. This was one day after Cardinal Joseph Frings, also on the floor of the council, had requested on behalf of 66 German and Scandinavian Fathers that more explicit emphasis be given to the church as Ursakrament. …

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