Humility keeps one “within his own limits.[1]” In its religious sense, humility marks one’s complete dependence on God. Though not the chief Christian virtue, humility is paramount in discerning one’s place before God and the rest of the world. It is therefore important not only for the Christian but also for the Church as a whole. The Church must have a posture of humility if it is to authentically know itself. In his book An Unfinished Council, Richard R. Gaillardetz argues that the Second Vatican Council prompted a renewed humility within the Church. Rather than a kind of ecclesial self-abasement, such humility is instead oriented towards a genuine self-knowledge. The humility of the Church is a call both to radical dependence on God and to critical self-assessment.

In what follows, and drawing on these observations of Gaillardetz, I explore the humility of the Church and, in particular, its implications for the Church’s discernment of truth.

The Spirit’s Invitation

In its pursuit of humility, the Church must first remember its foundation in the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit makes the Church—not us. The Church receives its very being from the Holy Spirit, and it is the Holy Spirit that ever summons the Church to its eschatological perfection. To be all that it is meant to be, then, the Church must forever remember Pentecost—not just us as the one-time “birthday of the church” but as the forever-paradigm of what the Church is called to be.

Pentecost puts the Holy Spirit at the center of the Church—and literally so, for the Spirit is both “from heaven” as the Church’s divine origin and “poured out” as the Church’s essential gift (Acts 2:2, 33). The humility of the Church is first and foremost a recognition that the Church is God’s. The Church is therefore not supposed to be focused on itself but on God and His offer of love.

The ultimate significance of Divine Revelation, then, is not the Church’s propositional content but the divine initiative itself. Instead of merely continuing the pre-conciliar propositional theology of revelation, Vatican II challenges us to consider revelation primarily as God’s invitation to relationship. Doctrines may convey important truths, but the heart of Christian kerygma is the call to know Christ as a disciple.

Doctrinal Humility

When revelation is reduced to mere propositional content, the chief concern becomes the passing on of truths— “the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines” (Evangelii Gaudium 35)at the hands of the hierarchy. At its worst, this notion leads to a kind of ecclesiastical Gnosticism whereby God’s Truth is reserved for the official magisterium. Orthodoxy for the sake of orthodoxy then becomes paramount.

What is needed—and what the council itself suggests—is what Gaillardetz calls “doctrinal humility.” This is not so much a concession of doctrinal error, but rather a humble focus on the Church’s true place before God. The Church does not possess the truth. Instead, the truth possesses it. The Church passes on divine revelation, yes—but it first receives it. In this way, the truth is not so much a pre-packaged item to be passed on but instead a goal towards which the Church advances. As the council says, the Church is still moving “toward the fullness of divine truth” (Dei Verbum 8). The Spirit of Truth guides the Church into all truth, but the Church must still discern what the truth is. And this is no magical act on the part of church authorities. It demands an active effort. The Church, admits the council, “does not always have a ready answer to every question” (Gaudium et spes 33).

We Catholics often flaunt Christ’s words that the Spirit “will guide you into all the truth”—a sort of proof-text for our Church’s infallibility (Jn 16:13). But the Spirit’s guidance is not automatic and calculable. This would be superstitious. Even the inspired Scriptures convey God’s truth through human cultures and concepts—not to mention human biases and presumptions—rather than being a mere transcription of a Divine message. Since this is the case, we should certainly recognize the effect of human elements on the teachings of the magisterium, which are not inspired in the same way as the Scriptures. Of course, the Spirit does guide the pope and bishops in a special way. Pentecost places Peter as the spokesman for the fledgling Church. Likewise, the pope as successor of Peter speaks the faith of the Church in every age. But as flashy as Pentecost may have been, the Spirit’s guidance does not result in prophetic utterances on part of the pope. The Spirit guides the magisterium—and the Church at large—through the usual human means of discerning the truth.

In this regard, the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 is paradigmatic. If any situation warranted a direct revelation from God, it would be this one—an answer to the early Church’s fundamental question about who belongs in the Church! (Indeed, Peter himself had received such a revelation.) Instead, the apostles and elders gathered in council and used their God-given reason to discuss the matter. Apostles gave witness; scripture was consulted. Particularly revealing, though, was the experience of believers: The “signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles” was proof of the truth that Gentiles belong to the Church (Acts 15:12). Only after discerning the Word of God through scripture, the apostolic tradition, and experience could Peter and the apostles—the magisterium—claim that the decision “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28).

A Listening Church

When it comes to discerning the truth, then, the Church must first listen. The humility of the Church requires an openness to the Spirit, allowing God to speak first—and learning to listen for his voice even in surprising places. A listening Church is a church that does not have a “ready answer” and in fact prefers it that way.

In the decades before Vatican II, the Church was quick to judge and condemn. The world was seen as a threat. Challenges to the Catholic Faith were to be definitively dealt with. In stark contrast, the Council began a more dialogical approach. Rather than simply promulgating doctrine, the Church sought to engage truth wherever it could be found. The Spirit of God was found in the clergy and laity, Catholic and non-Catholic churches. Truth could be found outside the Church even in ways that benefit it. The Church could now admit “how richly she has profited” by “the development of humanity” (GS 44).

A listening church is one that acknowledges the entire People of God as the locus of the Spirit’s action. The Spirit not only guides the bishops but the whole Church in its pursuit of the truth. The experience of all believers is important. The term sensus fidei may have become something of a buzzword, but its significance cannot be overstated. In practical terms, it means the whole Church is receptive to the Spirit and thereby responsible for passing on the Faith. It recognizes the whole Church as teacher. The lay faithful are not passive but active in the development of Tradition. It is the “task of the entire People of God” to “hear, distinguish and interpret the many voices of our age” so that “revealed truth can always be more deeply penetrated” (GS 44).

As Pope Francis has shown us, genuine listening is not some scheduled formalization but the hands-dirtying work of accompanying real-life people. For him, realities trump ideas. Without engaging people in their concrete conditions, the Church risks becoming an “echo chamber” of self-serving ideologies. Pope Francis’ vision is one that gives preference to the peripheries. Those on the margins need the Church, but the Church also needs them. The Holy Father knows that spiritual newness is found on the margins. A church that clings to its own security is doomed for death. It has lost its evangelical calling.

By looking to the peripheries, the Church rejects self-preservation and becomes other-oriented. The Church is renewed through humility, by remembering its place before God and the world.

A Pilgrim Church

A church that embraces the margins isn’t afraid of new challenges and questions. Instead of confining itself to its past certainties, a humble church is open to what could be, for such a church considers itself not as a self-contained and completed reality but an other-oriented and unfinished one. Whereas pre-conciliar triumphalism may have portrayed the Church as self-contained and already perfected, Vatican II recognized the Church itself as a pilgrim on journey to its ultimate perfection.

Such an eschatological orientation highlights the historical embeddedness of the Church. It is not a static entity but an organism that grows in response to the ups and downs of history. Part of the humility of the Church, therefore, is a recognition of its fundamentally pilgrim nature. The Pilgrim Church is one that rejects the romanticism of the past and instead marches toward the future—not worrying about itself but instead trusting in the Spirit. The Pilgrim Church accepts the Spirit’s ongoing work of transformation. And this acceptance includes an expectation of surprise! Confidence about what we think the Church should be is a sign of arrogance, not humility.

Is it possible that the obsession with today’s intra-church conflicts is due to a refusal to understand the Church as a pilgrim? Arguably, factions and fanatics are direct offspring of an arrogance that thinks we know best—that we make the Church. But the Church is of the Spirit’s making. Self-professed traditionalists are seemingly quick to profess the Church’s divine origin. Ironically, though, it is precisely the Church’s divine origin that should lead us to trust the Spirit here and now. The Spirit didn’t stop on the eve of a particular council or papal election. Because the Church is the Spirit’s, we can be confident in the Church’s journey to its future fulfillment.

The Pilgrim Church embraces humility, for it knows its enduring status comes from the promise of God. Rather than fearing imperfection, then, the Church can expect and endure it. For despite whatever error and sin may be mingled with it, the humble church knows that the Spirit nudges it ever more toward truth and goodness. Because the Church is not an all-at-once reality, it can and should welcome growth and development. It can and should admit error and sin without thereby forfeiting its privileged role in the world. As pilgrim, the Church can concede its erroneous positions of the past—that it has acted in ways “hardly in accord with the spirit of the Gospel or even opposed to it”[2]—as it did at Vatican II in regard to religious liberty or more recently with its rejection of the doctrine of discovery.[3]

To Synodality and Beyond!

Remembering the Spirit’s role is more than just a theological insight; it contributes to our “being Church”—our journeying together here and now. As on that original Pentecost, the same Spirit is still revitalizing the Church and inviting us to embark on pilgrimage together.

The Spirit is constantly challenging us to live out the humility of the Church. Such humility is much more than a nod to the Spirit’s guidance: It is an exercised ecclesiology whereby we adopt a docile attitude towards the Spirit. This ecclesial humility requires a constant path of discernment on the part of the entire Church. The Catholic Church is currently engaged in discerning a course of action that proceeds from such ecclesial humility—the way of synodality. Synodality is many things: a fleshing-out of Vatican II ecclesiology; a harkening back to the early Church; the modus vivendi et operandi of the Church.[4] Above all, it is an embodiment of the humility of the Church, for synodality recognizes the Spirit as the chief protagonist in the Church’s discernment of truth. Journeying together as a synodal church, says Francis, is a recognition that the “Spirit will always be with us.

As the global Church continues to discern ways of journeying together in the Spirit, perhaps more people will be inspired to journey with and in the Church. When others witness a church humbly discerning its place before God and the world, perhaps they will also recognize this as an authentic path toward the discovery of truth and meaning in an otherwise confusing world. A listening Church, a pilgrim Church, a synodal Church: Ultimately, the humility of the Church invites us to proceed confidently while trusting in the Spirit. The humility of the Church invites us to celebrate Pentecost as the promise that God will ever pour out His Spirit upon His disciples so as to lead them into all truth.


[1]Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Book IV, Ch. 55, no. 20

[2]Dignitatis humanae 11

[3] https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2023/03/30/230330b.html

[4] https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_cti_20180302_sinodalita_en.html

Image: In the public domain, from a medieval hours book. Downloaded from Picryl

Discuss this article!

Keep the conversation going in our SmartCatholics Group! You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.

Liked this post? Take a second to support Where Peter Is on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Patric is a 27 year-old graphic designer, writer, and wannabe theologian. He graduated from Western Kentucky University with a BA in Religious Studies and BA in Graphic Design. He is currently working on an MA in Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is an active member of his parish in Bowling Green, KY, where he acts as a catechist and member of his church’s young adult core team.

He is active on his faith blog www.smellysheep.wordpress.com.

Share via
Copy link