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The Church of the Triune God - ch. 3


3.1. The Trinitarian Dimension of the Church

  1. It is our common confession that the church is rooted in God's election of Israel as well as being founded in the Christ-event and the proclamation of the gospel by the apostles in the Holy Spirit. So long, however, as this confession does not recognize the profound relationship of the church to God as Holy Trinity, it remains inadequate and open to misunderstandings. This relationship of the church to the triune God is both causal and substantive, involving the differentiated yet reciprocal unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

  2. The church is the communion of believers called into existence by the triune God. As such it is a divinely created human reality. That the church is anchored in the divine life of the triune God does not thereby negate its human dimension nor open the way to ecclesial presumptuousness. But it does preclude an understanding of the church which tends to regard it merely or even primarily as a human societal phenomenon. God allows the church to share in the triune divine life: the church is God's own people, the body of the risen Christ himself, the temple of the Holy Spirit (3.2). The church's unity or communion (koinônia, communio) partakes of and reflects the unity of the triune God (3.3).

  3. This biblical view of the substantive relation of the church to the triune God, which is developed in what follows, was profoundly familiar to the ancient church. It is alive in the more recent Roman Catholic understanding of the church, as is shown for instance by Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,34 and the Orthodox-Roman Catholic dialogue.35 But this trinitarian view is also at home in the Reformation view of the church. The Catholic-Lutheran dialogue to date has repeated1y shown this36 as has the statement of the Lutheran World Federation Assembly in 1984, "The Unity We Seek". the church and its unity "participates in the unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit".37

    3.2. The Church as God's Pilgrim People, Body of Christ and Temple of the Holy Spirit

    3.2.1. The Church as God's Pilgrim People

  4. When the church of the New Testament applies to itself the honorific title of Israel, "people of God", it is not using merely comparative language, nor is it simply referring to the sum of individual believers. Neither does "people of God" mean only that it is God who summons and holds this "people" together. Besides all these things it means that: this people has its "holiness" and its fundamental character as a "chosen race" of God the Father by really belonging to God (1 Pt 2:9; cf. Ex 19:5 f.). As such, this "people", in its historical-terrestrial existence, is by no means immune to temptation, error, and sin. It is the "pilgrim" people of God standing under God's judgment for the duration of its earthly pilgrimage and depending upon God's daily renewal of grace and fidelity. Therefore it needs confession of sin and constant renewal. Nevertheless and precisely because of this, it is and remains the people who belong to God the Father.

  5. Since the coming of Jesus Christ the community of those who have been baptized in his name, who confess Christ and call upon him, has been the chosen people of God, a title hitherto applied only to the people of Israel. Two things are therein expressed simultaneously: the church's continuity with Israel and the dawn of a new stage of salvation history in which faith in the one God takes shape as faith in the triune God and the community of God's elect expands to include believers in Christ from all peoples. The invitation to Israel remains open to join the chorus of faith in God's eschatological saving action in the proclamation, passion and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah and the Son of God, and thus to belong to the communion of the church. In the picture of the Old Covenant pilgrim people of God, the church may recognize itself as the people of the New Covenant moving towards entry into the kingdom of God, the aim of its earthly pilgrimage. People of God" thus expresses the intimate relationship of the church with Israel and of Israel with the church in the history of salvation.

  6. People from all nations belong together as Christians in the one universal Church. As the people of God in the midst of all peoples, the church embraces all the diversity of the human world. lt lives in many places and hears God's call in many languages and in a multiplicity of ways. Nevertheless it is a single undivided people, called by the one Lord, in one Spirit, to one faith, to solidarity and mutual love, to common witness and service in the world, and to be for people of all races and social classes. Thus in its being and its mission the church is a sign for the future unity of humanity.

  7. Through baptism the people of God is called to be a priestly people: "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Pt 2:9). In both the Lutheran and the Catholic traditions, therefore, we rightly speak of the "priesthood of all the baptized" or the "priesthood of all believers".38 What constitutes this priesthood is that all the baptized have access io God through Christ, the "one mediator" (1 Tim 2:5) and "high priest" (Heb 4:14), that all confess their faith in the one Lord, call upon him in prayer, serve him with their whole life and witness lo all people everywhere (cf. 1 Pt 3:15).39

  8. Within the Church as people of the New Covenant all social, racial and sexual divisions have in principle been overcome (cf. Gal 3:26-28). There are no privileges nor any precedence of some over the others (cf. Mt 23:8; Mk 9:35). In the world with its struggles for power, racial conflicts and social tensions, Christians are therefore in duty bound together with all people of good will, to contribute to reconciliation and peace. Like their Lord they are to care for the poor and the oppressed, to seek fellowship with them and to intervene publicly on their behalf. As witnesses to their Lord who is "the resurrection and the life" (Jn 11:2 5) Christians should everywhere be a light of hope for all "who have no hope" (1 Thess 4:13).

    3.2.2. The Church as Body of Christ

  9. Also the New Testament references to the church as a "body" go far beyond the limits of a mere comparison. As a result of baptism all Christians become one body in the one faith through the one Spirit. The many members of that body do indeed have different tasks but they are nonetheless "individually... members one of another" (Rom 12:45). This social reality of the church as a spiritual organism (cf. 1 Cor 12:14-26) has its actual basis in the sacramental reality of real participation in Christ and the linking of the lives of all Christian believers in and with Christ, the crucified and risen Lord: "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life" (Rom 6:3 f.). Consequently all are together not only "one body" (1 Cor 12:12) but also "the body of Christ" (1 Cor 12:27). Christ himself "is the head... from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament... promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love""(Eph 4:15 f). Thus baptism is the entry into the Christian life in the sense of participation in Christ himself. It is the abiding foundation of all life and of all common life in the church.

  10. Rooted in baptism, this reality of the church as "Christ's body" finds ever new expression in the Lord's Supper. When the Lord says: "This is my body that is for you" (1 Cor 11:24), the broken bread becomes for us all a "sharing in the body of Christ. Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (1 Cor 10: 16). The designation of the church as "body of Christ" indicates, therefore, the elementary and vital bond between Christ, the Lord's Supper and the church: "Baptized by the one Spirit into the one body (cf. I Cor 12:13) believers - nourished by the body of Christ - become ever more one body through the Holy Spirit".40 Christ who is himself really present in the celebration of the Lord's Supper, "nourishes and tenderly cares for" his church as his body (Eph 5:29f), after making "her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word" (Eph 5:26). Just as in anticipation the people in the wilderness "all ate the same spiritual food and all drank the same spiritual drink... Christ" (1 Cor 10:3 f), so the church lives through its Lord, present in the Holy Supper as the "bread of life" (Jn 6:35), "the living bread that came down from heaven" so that the promise holds: "Whoever eats of this bread will live forever" (Jn 6:51). "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life... [they] abide in me, and I in them" (Jn 6:54-56).

  11. It is from this sacramental reality of the church as "Christ's body" that the spiritual-diaconal reality of its common life flows. As Paul describes it, all Christians are equipped and called by God's Spirit to fulfill the membership given to them in the body of Christ in a distinctive way (cf. I Cor 12:4-6; Rom 12:6-8). Each one is needed and all need each other (cf. 1 Cor 12:14 ff.). "Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received" (1 Pet 4:10; cf. Eph 4:7). All are to serve "the building up" of the church and its unity (Eph 4:12) with their gifts and are to contribute to peace (cf. Eph 4:3), which means concretely "for the common good" of all (1 Cor 12:7). Thus the principle of all living together in the church is love (cf. I Cor 13:13-14:1). This finds expression in the structures of the Church's life.

    3.2.3. The Church as Temple of the Holy Spirit

  12. Reference to the constitutive relation between church and Holy Spirit runs through the whole New Testament witness concerning the church. Here too the question is not only that of a causal relation — in the sense that the Holy Spirit makes the church of the New Covenant come into existence, that the proclamation of the gospel takes place in the power of the Spirit, that it is the Spirit who awakens faith in those who hear the gospel, and that the Spirit bestows on the church his manifold gifts. The Holy Spirit does all that by remaining in the church and entering into a close and substantive relation with the church. It is part of the mystery of the church that the Spirit of God is its spirit. This finds expression in the image of the church as "temple of the Holy Spirit". Even if the direct application of this concept to the church is not found in the New Testament, it is nevertheless quite clear that the New Testament statements regarding the Holy Spirit and his relation to the church have this intention.

  13. The Holy Spirit is "poured out" on the disciples and on all who accept the message of Christ in faith (Acts 2:17 f.; 10:45); the Spirit is "distributed" 41 (Heb 2:4) and "given" (e.g. 2 Cor 1:22; Eph 1: 17) and they "receive" (e.g. Acts 1:8; 2:38; 1 Cor 2:12; Gal 3:14) and "have" (Rom 8:9) the Spirit. Believers are "filled" with the Holy Spirit (e.g. Acts 2:4; 9:17; Eph 5:18), so that they are now in "the spirit" and live, walk and serve (e.g. 1 Cor 14:16; Gal 5:16; 5:25; 1 Pt 4:6) "in" the Spirit — i.e., "in the new life of the Spirit" (Rom 7:6). So it can then be said that the Holy Spirit "wells" (1 Cor 3:16; Jas 4:5) in the believers and that they are "the temple of the living God" (2 Cor 6:16; cf. 1 Cor 3:16), "a temple of the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor 6:19).

  14. That which is true of believers as individuals is also true of the community of believers as a whole, the church: they are to be "built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God" (Eph 2:22), into a "spiritual house" (1 Pet 2:5), and they are to grow "into a holy temple in the Lord" (Eph 2:21). The greeting and the blessing of the Apostle is addressed to the community as a whole: "the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you" (2 Cor 13:13). This Holy Spirit, with whom the community has "communion" and who dwells in the church as in a holy temple, leads men and women to faith by the proclamation of the gospel (cf. 1 Thess 1:5), acts in baptism (cf. Acts 2:38; 1 Cor 6:11), and in the Lord's Supper (cf. 1 Cor 10: 1-4; 12:13) for their salvation, supports them in their prayer (cf. Rom 8:26), and through Christ gives them access to God the Father (cf. Rom 8:14-16; Eph 2:18). The Spirit strengthens the witnesses of the gospel (cf. 1 Thess 1:5-7), maintains the church in truth (cf. Jn 14:26), and bestows upon it the manifold riches of his gifts (cf. 1 Cor 12:4-6). The one Spirit is the principle of the church's unity (cf. 1 Cor 12:13; Eph 4:3 f.). As God's power, through which Jesus was raised from the dead (cf. Rom 1:4), the Spirit is, amidst the earthly life of the church, the "first installment" of the future fullness of salvation (2 Cor 1:22), in which the faithful already participate and which is the goal of their earthly pilgrimage.

  15. Catholics and Lutherans both teach that the church as a community of believers is called and gathered together by the Holy Spirit through the proclamation of the gospel in word and sacrament, and is empowered by the Holy Spirit who works in and through it. The statements contained in Luther's Small and Large Catechisms42 here coincide with those of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church43 of Vatican II.

    3.3. The Church as Koinônia/Communio Founded in the Trinity

    3.3.1. The Unity of the Church Sustained and Formed by the Triune God

  16. Participation in the communion of the three divine persons is constitutive for the being and life of the church as expressed in the three New Testament descriptions of it as "people of God", "body of Christ" and "temple of the Holy Spirit". Thus the church also shares in the communion of the Father with the Son and of both with the Holy Spirit. The unity of the church as communion of the faithful has its roots in the trinitarian communion itself as this is expressed in the greeting of the first letter of John: "... so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ" (1 Jn 1:3; cf. Jn 17:21).

  17. This can already be seen in the fact that the three designations of the church are not simply interchangeable, while being intimately linked together and referring to each other. This corresponds to the inseparable but at the same time differentiated unity of the three divine persons and their activity.
    — The church as "people of God" of the New Covenant is the communion of those who have been baptized in Christ's name and have received the Holy Spirit.
    — As "body of Christ", the faithful and the church have a share in Christ who was raised from the dead "by the glory of the Father" (Rom 6:3 f.); and through the Holy Spirit the faithful are incorporated into the body of Christ, and they receive their gifts for the building up of the body.
    — In the church as "temple of the Holy Spirit" it is the Spirit who as "the Spirit of Christ" (Rom 8:9; cf. 2 Cor 3:17) binds the faithful to Christ, the mediator of all salvific gifts, and who through him gives them access to the Father, whom they may invoke as "Abba, Father" in the same Spirit.

  18. However one looks at the church, whether as "people of God" or "body of Christ" or "temple of the Holy Spirit", it is rooted in the inseparable communion or koinônia of the three divine persons and is thereby itself constituted as koinônia. It is not primarily the communion of believers with each other which makes the church koinônia; it is primarily and fundamentally the communion of believers with God, the triune God whose innermost being is koinônia. And yet the communion of believers with the triune God is inseparable from their communion with each other.

    3.3.2. Koinônia/Communio through Preach Baptism and the Lord's Supper

  19. That the church as koinônia is based in the trinitarian koinônia is shown and realized in the proclamation of the gospel, baptism and the Lord's Supper.

  20. The preaching of the gospel, from which the church as fellowship of believers lives, can be rightly understood only in its trinitarian frame of reference. But it also links the individual believer and all believers with God in the divine trinitarian koinônia. The church's preaching proclaims the "good news of Christ" (Rom 15:19; cf. 1:16). In their preaching the apostles and with them all witnesses to the gospel are "ambassadors for Christ"(2 Cor 5:20). They "teach" what Jesus Christ — who will remain with them "always, to the end of the age" — has "commanded" them (Mt 28:20). The preaching of the gospel of Christ takes place in the "power" of the "Holy Spirit" (Acts 1:8). The Spirit calls and empowers the witnesses for their ministry (cf. Jn 20:22 f.; 2 Cor 4:13). The Spirit awakens and sustains the faith which accepts the gospel that is preached as the promise of salvation (cf. 1 Thess 1:5 f.; 1 Tim 1:14) and which responds to it in confession (cf. 1 Cor 12:3). In this proclamation by the apostles and all the witnesses — a proclamation which is sustained by the Holy Spirit — Jesus' preaching of the "good news of the kingdom of God", by which he called people to him and gathered them around him, is continued after Easter and Pentecost. Jesus' preaching in word and deed acquired its authority solely from the fact that deeds were identical with those of the Father who had sent him (cf. Jn 14:10 and 24; Jn 8:28; 10:15). Of Jesus as "beloved" Son of the Father can it be said, "listen to him"! (Mt 17:5; par).

  21. Baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Mt 28:19) leads us into communion with the triune God and into sharing in his blessings and thus also knits believers together into a communion. Baptism is calling and election by God and makes us God's possession: thus also creating the community of those who are called and chosen, "God's own people" (1 Pet 2:9). In baptism we are baptized into Christ's body, partaking of his death and resurrection, and putting on Christ: consequently the baptized also constitute "one body...one with another"(Rom 12:4 f.) and are one communion in which creaturely and social divisions no longer count for anything (cf. Gal 3:26-28). The baptized receive the Holy Spirit: they are thus also bound together into one communion "in the one Spirit" (1 Cor 12:12 f.; Eph 4:3 f.).

  22. The celebration of the Lord's Supper draws believers into the presence and communion of the triune God through thanksgiving (eucharistia) to the Father, remembrance (anamnesis) of Christ and invocation (epiklesis) of the Holy Spirit. In a special way the celebration is the koinônia of believers with the crucified and risen Lord present in the Supper, and for that very reason it also creates and strengthens the koinônia of the faithful among and with each other. Paul says: "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (1 Cor 10:16 f.). His rebuke of the Corinthians follows this dialectic precisely; when their practice of the Lord's Supper violates their koinônia, they profane their eucharistic communion with the Lord (cf. 1 Cor 11:20-29).

  23. It is the common conviction of our churches that in and through the eucharistic koinônia with Christ ecclesial koinônia is established and strengthened. On the Catholic side one can point for instance to Vatican II, especially to its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church44 or to Thomas Aquinas for whom the reality (res) of the Lord's Supper is "the mystical body of Christ" in which we are strengthened "through unity with Christ and with his members".45 On the Lutheran side this conviction is expressed for instance in Luther's sermon on "The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ and the Brotherhoods 1519"46 which is important for his ecclesiology, or in Martin Chemnitz's commentary on 1 Cor 10 in which, adopting the trinitarian standpoint, he says, "In the Lord's Supper ... we all receive one and the same body of Christ... and because in this way the members of the church are fused into one body of Christ, they are also bound up with each other and become one body whose head Christ is. Thus when we receive the body and blood of Christ in the Lord's Supper, we are closely bound up with Christ... and through Christ we are united with the Father... Thus we become partakers (koinonoi) of the Father, the Son and. the Holy Spirit. This all comes about from the saving communion (koinônia) of the body and blood of the Lord...".47

  24. In these explanations based on the New Testament witness, both our traditions understand themselves to be in agreement with the ancient church for which the Pauline statements on koinonia in Christ were decisive. St. John of Damascus summarizes this patristic theological tradition as follows: "If [the eucharist] is also called communion, and truly is so, because of our having communion through it with Christ and partaking both of His flesh and His divinity, and because through it we have communion with and are united to one another. For, since we partake of one bread, we all become one body of Christ and one blood and members of one another and are accounted of the same body with Christ".48

    3.3.3. Koinônia/Communio as Anticipatory Reality

  25. The three biblical designations of the church as "people of God", "body of Christ" and "temple of the Holy Spirit" all interpret its trinitarian basis in anticipatory fashion:
    — The universal people of God will first gather in its entirety on the last day; only in anticipation of that ultimate gathering can the church be the people of God today who live already on the basis of what God will make of them.
    — The church is the body of the crucified and risen Christ for whose return in glory we still wait.
    — The church is the temple of the Holy Spirit whose reality among us is "down payment" (arrabón) of eschatological reality.

    Thus the church is already everything the biblical designations of it say it is — but in such a way that it awaits in anticipation, what is most profoundly its being and the source of its life.

  26. This also holds good for the church as koinônia. It is already a partaking in the koinônia of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; but as the pilgrim church it is such provisionally and in fragmentary fashion; and this means in anticipation and expectation of its final destination, which is still pending: consummation in the kingdom of God, in which the triune God will be "all in all" (1 Cor 15:24-28).

    3.4. Ecclesial Communion — Communion of Churches

    3.4.1. Common Witness

  27. On both the Catholic and the Lutheran side the concept of koinônia/communio has once more become important ecclesiologically, indeed it has become central. In Lutheranism this becomes clear in the increasing use, and above all theological deepening, of the term "church fellowship/ communion" which it has been possible to observe more or less since the 1950s. The term is understood as an acceptance of the concept of koinônia/communio in the early New Testament church as described above, and it can also claim the support of the Reformation view of the Church and incorporate specific aspects of it. Especially since Vatican II the idea of koinônia/communio and the term itself have become determinative for the Catholic view of the church. In this we see "the central and fundamental idea" of the ecclesiology developed by the Council.49

  28. On the basis of a concept of koinônia derived from the New Testament and the early church, Lutherans and Catholics agree that the church is a koinônia/communio rooted in the mystery of the holy Trinity. Proof of that assertion is found both in the Lutheran Confessions and documents of Vatican II.

  29. According to the teaching of the Council "human dignity lies in man's call to communion with God".50 The Council refers to 1 John 1:2 f., according to which believers are to attain koinônia with the Father and the Son, for God has revealed himself so that "through Christ... man has access to the Father in the Holy Spirit and comes to share in the divine nature".51 God thus seeks "to establish peace or communion between sinful human beings and Himself, as well as to fashion them into a fraternal community".52 In this way the mystery of the church is indicated, for according to the Council the communion with God in the body of Christ effected through the Holy Spirit is the foundation for the koinonia of the church. The Spirit dwells in the faithful, guiding and governing the church. It establishes the "communion of the faithful and joins them together... in Christ".53

  30. The Lutheran Confessions indicate the chief meaning of church fellowship by designating the nature of the church as the communion of the faithful54 which originates in communion with Christ through the Holy Spirit, and which lives from faithful hearing of the word and receiving of the sacraments. When CA 7 describes the "one holy Christian church" as the "assembly of all believers",55 it means that "communion of saints"56 of which the Apostles Creed speaks.57 The fact that "communio" is understood and translated as "assembly" or "congregation" and not, for linguistic reasons, rendered "community" in German, should not cause the term to lose any of its New Testament or early church content or meaning. There is no sociological reductionism involved. Instead the fellowship (communio) is an assembly or congregation "under one head, Christ, called together by the Holy Spirit", in which "I also am a part and member, a participant and copartner in all the blessings [Güter] it possesses. I was brought to it by the Holy Spirit and incorporated into it through the fact that I have heard and still hear God's Word, which is the first step in entering it".58 "To have communion or fellowship" therefore does not simply mean "having some relationship with another person" but rather that "many persons share or eat or partake of one common thing".59 Just as the communion of Christians with each other is grounded in their common sharing in Christ, so it is for them a communion of mutual sharing and mutual help and service: "This fellowship is twofold: on the one hand we partake of Christ and all saints; on the other hand we permit all Christians to be partakers of us, in whatever way they and we are able".60

  31. According to the Second Vatican Council, it is through the word of preaching and the celebration of the sacraments, of which the eucharist is the "center and summit", that Christ the author of our salvation becomes present in the church.61 "From the table of both the word of God and of the body of Christ the "bread of life" is offered to the faithful.62 In the breaking of the eucharistic bread they actually gain a share in the Lord's body and are raised to communion with him and among one another, for communion in the body of Christ makes those who receive the one bread into the body of the Lord.63 The eucharist is therefore the summit of ecclesial communio64 and "the very heartbeat of the congregation of the faithful".65

  32. Catholics and Lutherans together understand that the communion with God mediated through word and sacrament leads to communion of the faithful among themselves. This takes concrete shape in the communion of the churches: the one holy catholic and apostolic church, the una sancta of the, creed is realized in the communio ecclesiarum as local, regional and universal communion, and so as church fellowship.

  33. There is only one church of God. In the New Testament the same word ecclesia signifies both the whole church (e.g. Mt 16:18; Gal 1:13) and the church of a region (e.g. Gal 1:2), the church of a city (e.g. Acts 8:1; 1 Cor 11:18) or of a house (e.g. Rom 16:5). Accordingly, Lutherans and Catholics see the church of God in local, regional and universal terms, but these different ways in which the church becomes a reality must be understood on the basis of the one holy catholic and apostolic church, the una sancta of the Creed.

  34. Because the church, as communion of the faithful, is based in communion with Christ, the one Lord, there is only one single church. According to the Lutheran Confessions the promise that it will "remain forever" applies only to that una sancta ecclesia.66 That church is "holy Christian people",67 persons "scattered throughout the world who agree on the Gospel and have the same Christ, the same Holy Spirit, and the same sacraments".68 The Church "is mainly an association of faith and of the Holy Spirit in men's hearts".69

  35. According to the Second Vatican Council, "God has gathered together as one all those who in faith look upon Jesus as the author of salvation and the source of unity and peace, and has established them as the Church, that for each and all she may be the visible sacrament of this saving unity. While she transcends all limits of time and of race, the Church is destined to extend to all regions of the earth, and so to enter into the history of mankind".70 "The Church, then, God's only flock, like a standard lifted high for the nations to see, ministers the gospel of peace to all mankind, as she makes her pilgrim way in hope toward her goal, the fatherland above".71

  36. Looked at diachronically — through all time — the una sancta as an eschatological reality pervades the whole of history, from the first days (ecclesia ab Abel) to the last, the time of Christ's return in glory. It has taken shape especially since the elect people of God has become the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit and hence represents for the faithful the place of new life and of that communion with God which finds expression in communion with each other.

    3.4.2. The Lutheran Understanding of Local Church

  37. Differences between the Catholic and Lutheran positions appear when the question is posed about the realization of the church from a synchronic — here and now point of view. For Lutherans the local congregation is church in the full sense; for Catholics it is the local church led by its bishop.

  38. Lutherans understand the una sancta ecclesia to find outward and visible expression wherever people assemble around the gospel proclaimed in sermon and sacrament. Assembled for worship the local congregation therefore is to be seen, according to the Lutheran view, as the visible church, communio sanctorum, in the full sense. Nothing is missing which makes a human assembly church: the preached word and the sacramental gifts through which the faithful participate in Christ through the Holy Spirit, but also the ministers who preach the word and administer the sacraments in obedience to Christ and on his behalf, thus leading the congregation.

  39. The understanding of the church as communion of persons based on communion with the one Lord includes the communion of separate congregations bound together in true communion with Christ. Therefore congregations may not distance themselves nor isolate themselves from one another. The communion they have in Christ must be visible.

  40. Lutheran congregations are part of larger fellowships which are themselves constitutionally structured. According to geographical, historical, national or political realities they form dioceses or juridically autonomous provincial or national churches. These larger communities are held together by communion in Christ, and that shows itself in their common understanding of the apostolic faith (confessional communion), in word and sacrament (pulpit and altar fellowship), and in a mutually recognized ministry.

  41. In the second half of the 19th century consciousness of the global dimension of ecclesial communion grew stronger among the Lutheran churches. First came regional72 and finally world-wide Lutheran associations.73 For decades the Lutheran World Federation understood itself as "free association of churches" — having common confessions but without having declared pulpit and altar fellowship. The concept of "church fellowship" played an increasingly important role as the Federation responded to repeated questions about its ecclesial character. "Church fellowship" combined the New Testament/patristic concept of koinônia/communio with the Lutheran understanding of church.74 More recently it was the concept of communion itself which became the leitmotif of efforts toward the clarification and new definition of the nature of the Lutheran World Federation, efforts which came to their conclusion in the decision of the Federation's 1990 Assembly. Now the constitution states: "The Lutheran World Federation is a communion of churches which confess the triune God, agree in the proclamation of the Word of God and are united in pulpit and altar fellowship".75

  42. It therefore becomes clear what, according to Lutheran understanding of the church as koinônia, is constitutive, irrespective of whether the expression is congregational, territorial/national or global: the common understanding and confession of the apostolic faith (confessional communion) and communion in preaching and the sacraments (pulpit and altar fellowship), including by implication the ministry of proclamation and the administration of the sacraments (recognition of ministries).

  43. This understanding of church as koinônia was and is determinative for ecumenical efforts of the Lutheran churches. The sought for visible unity of the church is, in this sense, understood as ecclesial communion.76 The statement of the 1984 Lutheran World Federation Assembly, "The Unity We Seek", is developed by explicit use of the concept of communion.77

    3.4.3. The Roman Catholic Understanding of Local Church

  44. When Catholics view the church synchronically and spatially, they understand that it expresses itself throughout the earth as local church, regional church and universal church, but that none of these expressions can be exclusively identified with the una sancta. Rather the una sancta is for each expression the criterion for unity in the truth.78

  45. In Catholic ecclesiology the local church is essentially neither a part of the universal church nor an administrative or canonical district of it. According to the teaching several times stated at Vatican II, the church of God is truly present and effective in the local church, i.e., diocese.79 The decree on the Bishops' Pastoral Office states, "A diocese is that portion of God's people which is entrusted to a bishop to be shepherded by him with the cooperation of the presbytery. Adhering thus to its pastor and gathered together by him in the Holy Spirit through the gospel and the Eucharist, this portion constitutes a particular church in which the one, holy catholic, and apostolic Church of Christ is truly present and operative".80 The theology of the local church here presented coheres with the conciliar theology of the people of God.81 The expression "portion" (portio) was deliberately preferred to part" (pars) because a "portion" contains all the essential features of the whole — which is not the case with "part". In other words the local church has all the qualities of the church of God and one must not therefore look upon it as a branch office of the universal church. The mention of the bishop points to the structural fellowship of the local churches with each other, for as a result of his ordination the bishop functions as a connecting link of the church, both as the representative of the whole church in his church, and as the representative of his church in relation to all the others.82 The reference to the presbytery points to the collegial nature of the ministry in the local church.

  46. On the level of the diocese one finds a full presence of the church of God. Moving out from this level, the fundamental conciliarity of the church is expressed in the participation of the bishop in a council. Since however parishes also have the structural characteristics of the church of God ("portion" of the people of God, Holy Spirit, gospel, eucharist and ministry), the Second Vatican Council recognizes: "parishes set up locally under a pastor who takes the place of the bishop... in a certain way represent the visible Church as it is established throughout the world".83 In actual fact it is the parish, even more than the diocese, which is familiar to Christians as the place where the church is to be experienced.

  47. Each of the constitutive elements of the local church ("portion" of the people of God, Holy Spirit, gospel and eucharist, presidency of the bishop) and their presence together show that the local church is indeed the church of God in the full sense, but that it cannot be regarded as the whole church of God. "The local church is not a free-standing, self-sufficient reality. As part of a network of communion, the local church maintains its reality as church by relating to other local churches".84 Part of its nature is to be in real fellowship with other local churches and with the church as a whole.

  48. This fellowship of the local church with the church universal is not an abstract, purely theoretical reality. In the local church one encounters the essential mystery of the church: in the local church one is instructed in the faith and led to a confession of the Apostolic Faith, and only there can one be baptized, confirmed, ordained, married and receive the Lord's body at his table. Only through the local church is one a member of the Catholic Church. Nor can one conceive of the universal church apart from the local churches, as if the whole church could exist apart from the local churches. In actuality, "in and from such individual churches there comes into being the one and only Catholic Church".85 In both terms — "in these" and "out of them" — the reciprocal nature of the relationship is expressed, not the priority of one over the other. If "out of them" is deleted, the universal church would disintegrate into separate particular churches; if one removes "in these", the local church is degraded into nothing but an administrative unit of the universal church.

  49. The relation of "reciprocal inherence"86 or "mutual indwelling"87 which exists between the local and the universal church neither dissolves the independence of the local church nor its essential inclusion in the universal Church but consolidates both, in the same way as the ultimate responsibility of each bishop to God for his local church and for his faithful does not call in question his inclusion in the college of bishops with the pope. According to the teaching of the Council the bishop is the "visible source and foundation" for the unity of the local church and the "Roman Pontiff... is the visible source and foundation of the unity of the bishops and of the multitude of the faithful", while the local churches are fashioned after the model of the universal Church.88 Thus the church is a unity in and out of diversity, it is a body of churches,89 or a communion of churches.

  50. The fellowship of local churches, that is to say the Church universal, is therefore not a platonic entity. It is what supports each individual church. Only for the church universal does the promise hold good of remaining in the truth. That cannot be said of any local church. In periods of great crisis where the specific expression of faith was at stake, only the fellowship of all the churches, and especially the ecumenical councils, succeeded in working out answers in spite of all the well-known communication difficulties. The contributions and initiatives which single local churches made toward resolving disputed questions had their full impact only in the framework of reception by the communion of churches. Generally it is true that "mutual solicitude, support, recognition, and communication are essential qualities among local churches. Even from earliest times, the local churches felt themselves linked to one another. This koinônia was expressed in a variety of ways: exchange of confessions of faith; letters of communion as a kind of ‘ecclesiastical passport'; hospitality; reciprocal visits; mutual material help; councils; and synods".90

  51. A consequence of the universal character of the great commission in the New Testament (cf. Mt 28:19; Acts 1:8: 2:1-12) is the pluriformity of the local churches within the church catholic. It is also a matter of experience that effective evangelization has been possible only through the formation of regional churches strong enough to influence a whole culture. An image in the Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity of Vatican II makes it plain how the universality of mission calls for the involvement of human cultures in the faith and thus requires as well the specific characteristics of the particular churches as conditioned by their cultural context: it is the church which after Pentecost "speaks all tongues, which lovingly understands and accepts all tongues, and thus overcomes the divisiveness of Babel".91 This church is entrusted with a universal yet unique message. Consequently it must avoid the danger of particularism, that is, it must be ready to understand and respect as valid the language of the other. At the same time, the church's missionary task is to follow Christ who committed himself "in virtue of His Incarnation, to the definite social and cultural conditions of those human beings among whom He dwelt".92 In this sense the "congregation of the faithful, endowed with the riches of its own nation's culture, should be deeply rooted in the people".93

  52. Thus the particular churches are catholic in the full sense only if they have gone through a process of critical inculturation which requires them, within the culture and society in which they live, to examine what has to be affirmed, purified, and integrated. 94 In "each major socio-cultural area" the emergence of particular churches presupposes that "every appearance of syncretism" be excluded and that "particular traditions, together with the individual patrimony of each family of nations, can be illumined by the light of the gospel, and then be taken up into Catholic unity. Finally, the individual young Churches, adorned with their own traditions, will have their own place in the ecclesiastical communion...".95 Thus the catholicity of the whole church will be enriched by the catholicity of the particular churches. Accordingly, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church sketches this ideal: "in virtue of this catholicity each individual part of the Church contributes through its special gifts to the good of the other parts and of the whole Church. Thus through the common sharing of gifts and through the common effort to attain fullness in unity, the whole and each of the pails receive increase".96

  53. As a result of taking seriously the special character of particular churches Vatican II also hopes for a stimulus for the restoration of unity among the separated Christians. The Constitution on the Church states that "this variety of local churches with one common aspiration is particularly splendid evidence of the catholicity of the undivided Church",97 and the Decree on Ecumenism says: "Let all members of the Church, according to the office entrusted to each, preserve a proper freedom in the various forms of spiritual life and discipline, in the variety of liturgical rites, and even in the theological elaborations of revealed truth. In all things let charity be exercised. If the faithful are true to this course of action, they will be giving ever richer expression to the authentic catholicity of the Church, and, at the same time, to her apostolicity".98

  54. Because cultural units are usually more comprehensive than a diocese, it is necessary that this definition of particular churches be actualized by associations of local churches, for example in the classical form of patriarchates, or in the modern form of churches sui iuris and by conferences of bishops of the same or several nations, or on the level of a whole continent, e.g. CELAM.99 One must further note patriarchal, provincial, and plenary synods as well as the declarations of the bishops' conferences. It is also the task of the papal Primate to protect proper diversity. "Moreover, within the Church particular Churches hold a rightful place. These Churches retain their own traditions without in any way lessening the primacy of the Chair of Peter. This Chair presides over the whole assembly of charity and protects legitimate differences, while at the same time it sees that such differences do not hinder unity but rather contribute toward it".100

  55. The gospel of salvation is directed to the whole of humanity: God created the church with a view to universal reconciliation and unity, and Jesus promised to remain with his church to the end of the age (cf. Mt 16:18; 18:20; 28:20; Eph 4:1-13). In this sense the una sancta and the church universal will always have precedence over the local churches. At the same time it is true that the church of God has always assumed a local shape; for Christians receive baptism, celebrate the eucharist and give a socially identifiable witness always in a particular place. In this sense there will always be a priority of the local churches over the church as a whole, but not over the eschatological una sancta. Consequently we may speak of a reciprocity in the relations between the local and the universal church. But it is different with the una sancta which permeates the whole of history as an eschatological reality and with which no realization of the church of God as a local, regional or universal church can be exclusively identified.

  56. The eucharist best expresses the reciprocal relation between the local churches, the universal church and the eschatological church. "Since Pentecost the church celebrates the eucharist as the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. The eucharistic celebration, therefore, embraces the church both in its local and universal dimension. It thus affirms a mutual presence of all the churches in Christ and in the Spirit for the salvation of the world".101

  57. In the documents of Vatican II the designation "mother church" is not applied to any local church nor even to the Church of Rome, but is strictly reserved for the una sancta. This demonstrates that the fellowship of all the churches makes them sisters in its bosom. As the Decree on Ecumenism puts it, there is that "communion of faith and charity... which ought to thrive between local Churches, as between sisters".102

    3.4.4. Tasks of Further Dialogue

  58. The Catholic view of the church as koinônia/communio may be made fruitful for ecumenical endeavor,103 and it too — like the Lutheran view of a "church fellowship" — has its specific emphases and configurations. However, the fundamental idea in both cases is the same and is ecclesiologically determinative in the same way. It is pail of the nature of every local church to be open towards the other local churches. Catholicity requires that.

  59. According to the belief of the Catholic Church, of course, the primatial function of the bishop of Rome is an essential element of the church, with the consequence that each local church must be related to the primacy of the Church of Rome and its bishop in order to be in the full communion of churches. But on the other hand it must not be forgotten that the Roman primacy is also related to the koinônia of the local churches. The Catholic-Lutheran dialogue must deal with the question of the ministry of oversight in the whole church in the context of ecclesial koinônia in general, but also in the particular context of the Roman Catholic understanding of the relationship between the episcopal college and the papal office. To be sure a problem thereby arises in regard to the Catholic ecclesiology of communion to which the ecumenical dialogue has, in various ways, called attention. In spite of Catholic adherence to the principle of a ministry of unity in the universal church, the challenge to self-criticism cannot be ignored. The doctrine of primacy must be further developed, and primatial practice must be shaped accordingly. One hopes, therefore, that in its further work the Catholic-Lutheran dialogue on ecclesiology will take up the theme of a ministry of leadership for the universal church within the framework of communion ecclesiology.


    1. LG, especially 1.

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    2. "The Mystery of the Church and of the Eucharist in the Light of the Mystery of the Holy Trinity", Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, 1982, especially II, 1 and I, 5/d.

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    3. Cf. Ways to Community Roman Catholic/Lutheran Joint Commission, Geneva 1981, 9-13, in Growth in Agreement, 215-240; The Ministry in the Church, 12; Facing Unity, Models, Forms and Phases of Catholic-Lutheran Church Fellowship, Roman Catholic/Lutheran Joint Commission, Geneva 1985, 3, 88-90.

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    4. LWF Report No. 1920, 1985, 175.

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    5. Cf. WA 16, 407; 38, 247; LG 9-17; in The ecumenical dialogue cf. BEM, Ministry 1-6 in Growth in Agreement, 465-503; The Ministry in the Church, 12-13; Kirchengemeinschaft, 61.

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    6. See below 5.1.

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    7. The Eucharist, Lutheran/Roman Catholic Joint Commission, Geneva 1980, 25, in Growth in Agreement, 190-214.

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    8. "merismós pneúmatos agioú".

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    9. Cf. BC 345, 415-420.

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    10. Cf. LG 4.

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    11. E.g. LG 7; cf. LG 3.

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    12. THOMAS AQUINAS, Summa Theologiae III, 73 a. 1; 79 a. 5.

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    13. WA 2, 742-758; LW 35, 45-73.

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    14. MARTIN CHEMNITZ, "Fundamenta sanae doctrinae de vera et substantiali praesentia... corporis et sanguinis Domini in Coena" IX.

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    15. SAINT JOHN OF DAMASCUS, The Orthodox Faith IV, 13, The Fathers of the Church, Vol. 37, Washington, 1958, 361.

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    16. Documents of the Extraordinary Synod, The Final Report, Rome, 1985, in The Tablet, 14 December 1985, II, C, 1.

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    17. GS 19.

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    18. DV 2.

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    19. AG 3.

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    20. UR 2.

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    21. Communio/congregatio sanctorum/fidelium.

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    22. CA 7, BC 32.

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    23. Communio sanctorum.

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    24. Apol 7, 8; BC 169; cf. translation and interpretation of communio sanctorum in Luther's Large Catechism as "a communion of saints", as "a little holy flock or community"; BC 416 f.

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    25. LC 11, 3; BC 417; cf. Apol 7,8: "‘Church' means, namely, the assembly of saints who share the association of the same Gospel or teaching and of the same Holy Spirit, who renews, consecrates, and governs their hearts", BC 169.

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    26. Luther to the term koinônia in 1 Cor 10, 16 ff; WA 26, 493; LW 37,356.

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    27. WA 2, 754; LW 35, 67.

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    28. AG 9.

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    29. DV 21.

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    30. Cf. LG 7 with reference to 1 Cor 10: 16 f; cf. LG 3.

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    31. Cf. LG 11.

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    32. PO 5: "congregatio fidelium".

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    33. CA 7; BC 32; cf. Apol 7, 9; BC 169 f.

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    34. LC 11, 3; BC 417.

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    35. Apol 7, 10; BC 170.

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    36. Apol 7, 5; BC 169.

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    37. LG 9.

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    38. UR 2.

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    39. North America and Europe.

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    40. Lutheran World Convention 1923; Lutheran World Federation 1947.

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    41. CA 7.

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    42. LWF Constitution III: Nature and Functions.

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    43. Cf. Agreement between Reformation Churches in Europe (Leuenberg Agreement), 1973, Frankfurt 1993, 29 and 33; Facing Unity, 23-26.

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    44. LWF Report No. 19/20, Budapest 1984, 175.

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    45. The terminology for describing the local church and the Church as a whole (all the local churches that are in communion with each other) does not derive from a systematic and critical decision. Even Vatican II did not come to such a decision. Consequently in the Council's documents, ecclesia localis and ecclesia particularis can designate the diocesan church, but with equal frequency the two terms also describe associations of diocesan churches. Ecclesia universa (used on twenty-three occasions) and ecclesia universalis (used on twenty-five occasions) designates the church as a whole or the universal church. This is never described as the Church of Rome.
          The Codex Iuris Canonici of 1983, which does not have the expressions ecclesia localis and ecclesia universalis, makes use of the two terms ecclesia articularis (diocese) and ecclesia universa (the church as a whole). Catholic theologians have not wholly identified themselves with this choice of terms. They prefer to reserve the term "articular church" (ecclesia particularis) for associations of churches which are characterized by their special cultural features, and to describe the church in one place as the "local church" in order to preserve the catholicity of the church.
          In German this leads to preferring the term Ortskirche ("local church") to "particular church" and likewise to the term "partial church" (which suggests the false idea that the local church is a part of the universal church).

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    46. Cf. SC 41; LG 23 and 26; CD 11.

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    47. CD 11.

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    48. Cf. LG, chapters 2 and 3.

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    49. 23 Cf. LG and Facing Unity, 112.

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    50. SC 42.

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    51. The Church: Local and Universal, 36, Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches, Geneva-Rome, 1990.

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    52. LG 23.

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    53. International Commission of Theologians: Themata Selecta de Ecclesiologia (Documenta 13). Vaticano 1985, 32: "mutua interi interioritas".

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    54. John Paul II, Speech to the Roman Curia, 20 December 1990, AAS 83 (1991), 745-747.

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    55. LG 23.

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    56. Corpus ecclesiarum, (LG 23). The reason of the corporeality of the church is the sacramental sharing in the body of Christ; see above 76 and 78.

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    57. The Church: Local and Universal, 37.

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    58. AG 4.

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    59. AG 10.

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    60. AG 15.

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    61. Cf. LG 13.

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    62. AG 22.

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    63. LG 13.

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    64. LG 23.

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    65. UR 4.

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    66. Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano (Council of Latin American Bishops).

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    67. LG 13.

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    68. The Church: Local and Universal, 24.

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    69. UR 14; cf. Facing Unity, 44 f.

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    70. Cf. Facing Unity, 5-7.

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