Ecclesiology Final

The Assignment was to answer these two questions (in five pages or less): What is the Church? What is the Church’s mission?

IN HIS HOMILY ON 11 May 2023, Fr James Moore, OP, said, “Jesus did not leave us a book, he left us a Church!” The questions of what is the church and what is her mission are causing quite a lot of struggle: while I have a very (I think) coherent response to offer, I’m not quite sure if it’s a Catholic response or an Orthodox one that we might call “un-westerned”. Is this answer an example of “breathing with both lungs” or is it merely an Eastern Orthodox Ecclesiology with the Pope on top? If it’s the latter, is that OK? To open my struggle here’s a quote from an Orthodox priest:

The Church is not an institution although it has acquired institutional aspects… The Church is not a charitable organization although it performs charitable works. The church is not a place to have one’s needs met although it meets the most profound needs of humanity. The Church is not a building where sacraments are offered on demand. The Church is not an afterthought in the plan of salvation. 

Fr Maxym Lysack, Pastor of Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church, Ottawa, Canada: Introduction to the Church in Orthodox Theology retrieved on 5/18/2023

It’s the both-and of Catholic theology expressed as Eastern Apophaticism. We can say what the Church is-not even while saying she is, kinda that anyway. “She’s not an institution, but she has acquired institutional aspects.” She is a mystery as we experience her. De Lubac’s Chapter III, The Two Aspects of the One Church, fleshes this out, highlighting the Church’s active and passive modes. The sanctifying and the sanctified, the Bride and Daughter of Christ. 

The Church is the “vine which God has planted” (Psalm 80:14-15) she is also the trellis on which the vine grows, the structure by which God guides the vine. De Lubac says, “No children without a mother; no people without leaders; no acquired sanctity without a sanctifying power… no communion of saints… without a communication of holy things… no realized community without a society in which and through which it is realized.” (Splendor of the Church my digital copy says that’s page 47…) He notes the (seeming) opposition between hierarchic and charismatic gifts, but they are both rooted in the church, arising from the same source. This language will later be found in Lumen Gentium ¶4: “The Church, which the Spirit guides in way of all truth and which He unified in communion and in works of ministry, He both equips and directs with hierarchical and charismatic gifts and adorns with His fruits.” She is all that as well as the structure that holds it all together. De Lubac quotes the Venerable Bede, “Every day the Church brings forth the Church”.

The Catechism provides another point from which to begin unpacking the identity of the Church and there, also, her Mission:

“‘The Lord Jesus inaugurated his Church by preaching the Good News, that is, the coming of the Reign of God, promised over the ages in the scriptures.’ To fulfill the Father’s will, Christ ushered in the Kingdom of heaven on earth. The Church ‘is the Reign of Christ already present in mystery.’” (CCC ¶763)

In ¶752 the Catechism points to the People of Israel as the source of the Church’s claim to be the People of God. The Church is not an entirely new thing but rather the continuation of God’s actions throughout history beginning at not only with Abraham, but back to the original domestic Church in the Garden of Eden. (“The gathering together of the People of God began at the moment when sin destroyed the communion of men with God, and that of men among themselves.” CCC ¶761)  The people of God cannot begin until there is a people of course. Adam and Eve are the right place to begin, yet our First Parents were reflecting something or Someone: the Holy Trinity. The Church is the sharing of the Divine Life which is from eternity so, following De Lubac, we must see the Church’s origins in the mystery of Eternity. At the same time, the Church is instituted by Jesus Christ (¶763 ff) so she is, in some way, also a thing in time. This time-and-eternity aspect, again not either/or, but rather both/and, paralleled by other both/and comparisons listed in the CCC, especially in ¶761, citing Sacrosanctum Concilium:

The Church is essentially both human and divine, visible but endowed with invisible realities, zealous in action and dedicated to contemplation, present in the world, but as a pilgrim, so constituted that in her the human is directed toward and subordinated to the divine, the visible to the invisible, action to contemplation, and this present world to that city yet to come, the object of our quest.

To use the Eastern theological language, the Church is theosis or divinization in action in the world. She is the initiation, the goal, and the process by which the goal is approached. And, since God is infinitely beyond humanity, theosis is a journey, not an endpoint or destination. Even beyond this world, there is no place at which to stop and say, “There is no more journey left to take.” God’s love will always call us (that is the Church) “further up and further in” to use C.S. Lewis’ wonderful phrase. Yet the entire journey is the same. As Catherine of Siena said, “All the way to heaven is heaven, for Jesus says, ‘I am the way’”. To enter willingly on the way (even, perhaps, unknowingly) is to enter, in some way, into the desired end. 

The Church is the sharing in the life of God by the people of God, served by their Bishop and other clergy, gathered around the Eucharist. In and through the Eucharist, the entire people, in their mutual love and worship are referred to God the Father in the self-offering of the Son, Jesus.  The Church, then, is the Reign of God breaking into this world. Her mission is to manifest the Reign of God in the world and to draw all people deeper into that reign – into union in God by Grace. (See CCC ¶768, “the mission of proclaiming and establishing among all peoples the Kingdom of Christ and of God” quoting Lumen Gentium 5; and ¶772, “in the Church that Christ fulfills and reveals his own mystery as the purpose of God’s plan: “to unite all things in him.”). 

If Christ is, as the late Pope Benedict XVI said (in Verbum Domini ¶93), Autobasileia, “the Kingdom in himself” then the final both/and is that it is he who is, himself, the Church and her mission. Christ has left us himself.  The Church is his body and he is her head, and also her heart: he is her beloved one whom her soul loves (Song of Songs, 3:4) and also her very soul himself.

Not According To

I’ve been thinking about rule books today, viz sex and the church.

There’s only two books: The Church’s Rules and Not the Church’s Rules, although the latter comes in several various, often unique editions. Many people outside the Church use their favorite version of the Not the Church’s Rules. And I’m ok with that: I don’t expect people who are playing Baseball to follow the rules of College Football. I don’t expect NASCAR to follow the rules of Lawn Darts, and I don’t expect people to play Pinochle following the rules of Spit and Malice. People outside the Church are not expected to follow The Church’s Rules. But inside the Church now…

My journey began with a jettisoning of The Church’s Rules and the discovery of Not the Church’s Rules in a college youth group at a retreat center in upstate New York, in the winter of 1982-1983. Prior to that time, I’d worked really hard at using the same rule book everyone used for ever. From that point on, I tried to play by Not the Church’s Rules while staying inside the Church in various ways until, late in 1988 or so. Things were very odd., let me tell you. You can’t play golf without the right set of rules. Even croquet is not close enough to golf to let you play the same game.

So I decided the problem was I was using Not the Church’s Rules inside the Church: I left the Church. Cuz Not the Church’s Rules let me be me. And I was having fun. I was kinda ok, for nearly ten years. But oddly, whilst having fun, something was missing.

So, for a brief time, I tried again to play Not the Church’s Rules inside the church… but then I decided I actually wasn’t in the church since everyone was playing by Not the Church’s Rules in sex, in theology, in Bible, in economic culture… didn’t matter.

So I went and joined the Church.

But I still tried to play Not the Church’s Rules.

And… Still didn’t work.

So I left the Church again.

This cycle continued, unabated, until rather recently in Salvation History. I decided that maybe – just maybe – I needed to try the one thing I’d not tried at all: Being in the Church and playing by The Church’s Rules.

At no point in here did I think I needed to make the Church jettison her Rule Book: but I tried pretty much every version of not-following that book I could come up with. I finally decided that getting rid of one part of the Rule Book made all the other parts of the same book (Fiscal, Moral, Theological, Sacramental) as weak as possible, until it was easy to tear them out too.

When you’re left with the Church’s Empty Binder of Nothingness, oddly, you don’t have Church any more either.

This is why hearing folks trying to force the Church play by Not the Church’s Rule Book makes me really, really nervous, annoyed, sometimes angry. Then I remember the Church has stood up to people who were trying to kill her over that Rule Book for two millennia. So I’m ok with waiting this round out.

She always wins.

Run that up the Crucifix and see who genuflects

July Fourth always leaves me wrestling with my identity as a person born in this country. I have very little problem identifying with our past (even the bad parts) but the present has been a problem since, about 1980. That was the time I started to see through our Mythology. I remember one of the youth of our (Methodist) church running upstairs from the polling station, located in our Church’s basement, to announce that Ronald Reagan had won in our tiny little town of Rock Hill, NY. Our leader raised her hands heavenward and thanked Jesus.

I spent the next 8 years thinking Jesus had a funny sense of humor. I’ve continued to think that through the last 5 administrations – and even more so now.

When St Paul says, “there is neither Jew nor Greek” and elsewhere, “neither Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free” he is undoing all our identities. As Christians we are nothing by the world’s lights, “but Christ is all”.

Yet the secular authorities have a place, a purpose. And so it is that we pray for the king – even if the king, or queen, or czar, or dictator, or president hates the Church, persecutes the Church, tries to destroy the Church. The Churches of Russia commemorated their communist oppressors and prayed for them daily, that they would do their God-appointed jobs, perform their God-appointed functions, and leave the Church in peace. The Churches prayed for Obama and pray for Trump in exactly the same way.

The place where we are is all part of the mystery of Providence, like the family into which we are born. The whole of the universe has been designed to bring us to salvation. So, I am an American. To deny or wish otherwise is to belittle God’s design. We live in a hemisphere visited by God’s own Mother, and raising up saints to this very day in all the cultures that live in this half of the globe.

Yet, though individual laws passed or supported by various governments may tend more or less towards Christian morals there is no such thing as a Christian state or a Christian government. There may be a Christian sitting in the office, but no one following Christian morals can today (if ever) navigate the turbulent waters of statecraft without frequent recourse to the confessional.

And so it is that I sit here on the on the 482nd anniversary of the martyrdom of St Thomas More, and I wonder: how can I be the king’s faithful servant, but God’s first.

How is it possible to live in this world, to gain sanctity, to work out my salvation in fear and trembling, while still being an American in any way other than only by the accident of what’s on my birth certificate.

I don’t think it is possible at all.

To live Christian Moral choices into the office of any elected official, into any state appointment, into any official function may well be impossible for me (for me not for you) because I am timid, fearful, irresolute. Having made that confession, I do honestly wonder about the sagacity of those who make that choice, who march knowingly into the post office, the political party boss’s calendar, or the county clerk’s office and ask for a job. I don’t doubt their faith – that’s known to their confessor alone – but I admit I don’t believe for a minute a faithful Catholic could knowingly vote for either abortion laws or anti-poor laws or anti-marriage laws and still honestly say in her heart she is a Catholic. So either these persons are foolish, silly, deluded, or outright evil.

God helps fools, the silly, and does not fault the deluded (unless it is by their own choice). But the Evil, now, the wolves in sheep’s clothing… these we must avoid at all cost.

Nancy Pelosi & JFK. Catholics(?)

And so, maybe, it’s possible that this very thing: this learning that we cannot be loyal Americans and faithful Christians is our reason for being here. Faithful Catholics and Orthodox were not loyal Soviets, but they were good citizens. They lived in the community God gave them, they became Saints in the the world in which God saw them born. We don’t have to be nostalgic for a mythic past or even pretend to be flag-wavers. We can be thankful for what God has given us, aware of what man has corrupted in God’s gifts, and wary of the Evil One’s prime temptation: to imagine that we did this, some how. To claim that the Church must thank anything secular for the blessings God has given us. Any good there is here must be known as God’s gifts, not the product of anything in the created order.

Any liberty we enjoy, is not by or because of America or the secular government, not by virtue of any national grace or unique identity; all good comes to us because God used America to give it to us. God is the author, America is only this chapter in the book. When it pleases him, this chapter will close (or is already closing) and something new will come along. It will be our duty then, to go, move, shift… and do a new thing joyfully.