Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Pope Benedict XVI: "At the root of the crisis: the idea of Church"

Catholic Insight presents a compelling chapter in The Ratzinger Report. Although written in 1985, the insights that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger offered then hold the same validity today. He sees the crisis of Catholic identity in the Faith stems from a misunderstanding of the Church's nature. Too many Catholics do not take seriously the reality that Church is more than a human institution. Observe:
“My impression is that the authentically Catholic meaning of the reality ‘Church’ is tacitly disappearing, without being expressly rejected. Many no longer believe that what is at issue is a reality willed by the Lord himself. Even with some theologians, the Church appears to be a human construction, an instrument created by us and one which we ourselves can freely recognize according to the requirements of the moment. In other words, in many ways a conception of Church is spreading in Catholic thought, and even in Catholic theology, that cannot even be called Protestant in a ‘classic’ sense. Many current ecclesiological ideas (ecclesia, Latin for assembly or Church), rather refer to the model of certain North American ‘free churches,’ in which in the past believers took refuge from the oppressive model of the ‘State Church’ produced by the Reformation. Those refugees, no longer believing in an institutional Church willed by Christ, and wanting at the same time to escape the State Church, created their own church, an organization structured according to their needs.”
He reminds all Catholics about the true nature of Church:
“For a Catholic, the Church is indeed composed of men who organize her external visage. But behind this, the fundamental structures are willed by God himself, and therefore they are inviolable. Behind the human exterior stands the mystery of a more than human reality, in which reformers, sociologists, organizers have no authority whatsoever. If the Church, instead, is viewed as a human construction, the product of our own efforts, even the contents of the faith end up assuming an arbitrary character: the faith, in fact, no longer has an authentic, guaranteed instrument through which to express itself. Thus, without a view of the mystery of the Church that is also supernatural and not only sociological, christology itself loses its reference to the divine in favour of a purely human structure, and ultimately it amounts to a purely human project: the Gospel becomes the Jesus-project, the social-liberation project or other merely historical, immanent projects that can still seem religious in appearance, but which are atheistic in substance.”
The heart of contemporary Catholics' misunderstanding of Church may come from an erroneous interpretation of the Second Vatican Council (surprise, surprise!):
I: During Vatican II there was a great emphasis—in the interventions of some bishops, in the statements of their theological advisers, but also in the final documents—on the concept of the Church as “People of God,” a conception which subsequently seemed to dominate in the post-conciliar ecclesiologies.

Cardinal: “That’s true. There was and there still is this emphasis, which in the Council texts, however, is balanced with others that complete it. A balance that has been lost with many theologians. Yet, contrary to what the latter think, in this way there is the risk of moving backward rather than forward. Here indeed there is even the danger of abandoning the New Testament in order to return to the Old.

“‘People of God’ in Scripture, in fact, is a reference to Israel in its relationship of prayer and fidelity to the Lord. But to limit the definition of the Church to that expression means not to give expression to the New Testament understanding of the Church in its fullness. Here ‘People of God’ actually refers always to the Old Testament element of the Church, to her continuity with Israel.

“But the Church receives her New Testament character more distinctively in the concept of the ‘Body of Christ.’ One is Church and one is a member thereof, not through a sociological adherence, but precisely through incorporation in this Body of the Lord through baptism and the Eucharist. Behind the concept of the Church as the People of God, which has been so exclusively thrust into the foreground today, hide influences of ecclesiologies which de facto revert to the Old Testament; and perhaps also political, partisan and collectivist influences. In reality, there is not truly a New Testament, Catholic concept of Church without a direct and vital relation not only with sociology but first of all with christology. The Church does not exhaust herself in the ‘collective’ of the believers: being the ‘Body of Christ’ she is much more than the simple sum of her members.”
When some Catholics emphasize the image of Church as the People of God, and minimize the other valid images of Church that balance one another, they form an innaccurate perception of Church. They may begin to believe that we the People, in order to form a more perfect Union with Christ as his baptized priests, may reform this Church into a body more open to the people's participation. Somehow they forget whose Church it is. They fail to fully internalize the reality that Church is the Body of Christ manifest in the people of God. We image this body when we act in communion with him and those he has chosen to guide us: the Pope and Bishops in communion with him. If we forget that the Church is his body, then we may act as though we own the Church, that it's only a human community that may change according to our understanding of revelation. Why does such an understanding strike me as more consistent with those that practice private judgement, i.e. protestants? Why does this ecclesiology appear more congregational than incarnational to me?

The zeal of the Vatican II generation to implement the council cosumed them. Thinking that the Holy Spirit had guided them to accept much more of the modern worldview than was prudent, they adopted the sensibility of many protestants. These Christians, however, live their faith from a very different theological paradigm than Catholics do. They form congregations of individual Christians that enjoy a vertical relationship with God. They honor the decision of their conscience in private judgement. This relationship with God does not encompass the same understanding of Church as the Body of Christ that the Catholic Church has taught in the Council. Thus, certain overzeolous Vatican II Catholics have inadvertantly steered other Catholics into non-Catholic thinking and practice of their Faith.

Foolable Catholic "left" dissenters base their demands for changes in the hierarchy, such as the admittance of women and married men, on the premise that the Church is the People of God. They do not take seriously the transcendent dimension of the Church as the Body of Christ. They fail to see that Catholics can't arbitrarily change what God has established. They would grant authority to the laity that the Pope himself denies that he has! Meanwhile, many struggle in their faith as this Catholic "culture war" divides his body more and more.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger presents the truth of what the Church is. We are the people of God as the body of Christ. Our Lord and savior is our head. We are the sacrament of salvation in the world as members of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church. He is our bridegroom, and we are his bride. We have only the authority over ourselves that he has bestowed on us through his body, the Church. We can't change his body to our likeing if such a change runs counter to his will. We the Church belong to him, not the other way around.

May Pope Benedict XVI continue to witness to the Truth of who we are as Church. May Catholics throughout the world respond to his witness in integrity and obedience. Then we may bring the world the fullness of the healing of Christ that the world so desperately needs.