By luck, or fate, or providence, I’m teaching Ecclesiology to masters students this term, and so I have the task of helping Lay Ecclesial Ministers understand the church where they minister. As part of my preparation for last week’s class, I re-read a chapter I had written last year on Lutheran Ecclesiology (it still isn’t published, though it should come out from Fortress Academic this year in a book called The Church as Fullness of All Things, edited by Jonathan Mumme, Richard Serina, and Mark Burkholz).
In it, I argue that the sixteenth-century argument about what the church is was unfortunately structured by a bad metaphor (the church is a society) that left both Catholics and Lutherans arguing about whether the church in heaven was really exactly the same church as the earthly structure or not. The Lutherans were concerned that the earthly church was often demonstrably not holy, and wanted to account for the admixture of sinners. Catholics were concerned that Lutherans were setting up two churches, one heavenly and one earthly. It quickly became a fight about whether the church was visible or invisible.
In that chapter, I pointed out that Catholic ecclesiology has theologically deemphasized this church as perfect society model (without leaving it entirely behind). It has moved towards describing the church more primarily as the mystical body, or the pilgrim people, or other images that describe the church in terms of both its earthly outwardness and the presence of its heavenly inwardness. And then I suggested that Lutherans might be better served by using a key metaphor from their own tradition, seeing the church as a corporate body that is caught up in the logic of Law and Gospel.
Thinking about that chapter, I realized that it also had something to say to Catholics. Most of the time, we’re still conceiving of the church as a society. Just this week, I listened to a podcast from a group of theologians whom I very much respect, who spent 20 minutes talking about the church in an explicit parallel to the idea of “Canada.” This sounds an awful lot like the polemical position of Cardinal Bellarmine, who insisted that the church was as visible as “the body of the Roman people, or the Republic of Venice, or the Kingdom of France.” (De Controversiis, 193–4).
It’s easy to see why such conceptions are so common. We generally experience the church as a society, as an institution. Especially those of us who work in it. But, it has some serious theological downsides. In Tridentine theology, this model explicitly meant that the borders of the true church, of God’s presence, was determined by being under the rule of the church’s proper leaders. Which means that the hierarchy, and the hierarchy alone, determines where the church is. And this sets up particular problems when that very hierarchy is complicit in real evil (as the sixteenth century knew, and we are remembering).
Returning to this chapter, it was clear to me just how sacramental those more developed Catholic descriptors of the church that we find in Mystici Corporis and Lumen Gentium are. I’d encourage you to take another look back at those documents.
But here’s where we come to the point of this post: If we think of the church in sacramental terms, then first of all, we expand our definition of the church beyond its leadership. The hierarchy are certainly important, essential. But in the sacraments, it is the whole church that celebrates, and it is the whole church in which Christ is present, albeit as head and body.
But more importantly, sacramental language simultaneously affirms that God’s presence, God’s promises, God himself are present in the church. And yet it distinguishes the sign by which those things are really present from that which is present without separating them.
To use the language of classical Sacramental theology: the res tantum [the thing itself, i.e. in the Eucharist, the Body of Christ] is really, truly present in the sacramentum tantum [the sign itself, in the Eucharist, the consecrated elements]. We can only received the res tantum as res et sacramentum [as the thing and sign, the sign is that through which the grace is really present].
Indeed, this kind of presence is the only way that any grace is sacramentally mediated. You can’t get around the sign to the reality that it mediates. But that doesn’t mean that eucharistic elements can’t mold, or even that they can’t be poisoned. In that unfortunate case, Christ’s body and blood would still be present, but receiving those tainted elements would not be sound theological or pastoral advice.
Of course, given that this post is located at Pray Tell, I can’t let a reference to poisoned bread and wine slip by without invoking St. Benedict, whom (St. Gregory says), people kept trying to poison, especially his bread and wine.
Sometimes, a blessing is all that’s needed to dispel the danger – the cup is broken, and the poison revealed (Vita Benedicti, ch. 3). We kept trying this path in the church, trusting in the sacrament of reconciliation and the grace of God to protect the innocent. We all know what happened. Especially when we didn’t reveal publicly what the poison was.
And so, sometimes, that which is poisonous needs to be taken away where it cannot hurt anyone. In the Life, Benedict calls on a raven to take the poisoned bread off to a place where it cannot hurt anyone (Vita Benedicti, ch. 8).
Calling for the reform of the church, proposing ways to help prevent further abuse, imposing penalties on those who, through their action or inaction poisoned the very signs in which we encounter Christ (I Cor 12:27) is not a sign that we disbelieve God’s promises. That would only be true if our understanding of the church equated the church on pilgrimage (or worse, its pastors) with the Kingdom itself.
Especially in contemporary Catholicism, where we have often confused loyalty to institutions and persons with fidelity to Christ, we need to unlearn the lessons of sixteenth-century ecclesiology in order to remember with Vatican II that the church is a sacrament. And that sacraments only happen in the ordinary stuff of life where both mold and poison are possible.
I don’t know what reforms need to happen. Or how the church makes adequate reparation and reform. Or even if adequate reparation is possible. But for now, at the very least, we should stop worrying that asking the church to act more like Christ is somehow doubting Christ’s presence or his promise. Fidelity to Christ, fidelity to the church, may require actions that seem disloyal to persons and institutions.
Sometimes we need to call on Benedict’s raven. “In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, take up that loaf, and leave it in some such place where no one may find it.” (Vita Benedicti, ch. 8).