by Gregory Baum
from The Credibility of the Church, pp. 121 – 176
Burns & Oates Limited, 1968
Re-published on our website with the necessary permission
In our first chapter we defined the ecclesial mystery as the presence of God to sinful men, enabling them to become community. The mystery of Christ manifests itself wherever people, through God’s presence to them, are reconciled to one another and thus become more truly themselves. This mystery is announced and celebrated in the Christian Church. While this redemptive mystery is operative everywhere, the message of this mystery and man’s declared faith in it, are found only in the Christian Church or, more correctly, constitutes the Church in her being. Through the celebration of Word and sacrament and the presence of the Spirit, the Christian Church comes into being as the fellowship, local and universal, of the faithful. Despite the sinfulness that pervades the life of the Church and manifestations of social pathologies, the Church remains Church: in the power of the Spirit she continues to believe, proclaim, and celebrate the Good News, that is to say, the message of God’s redemptive involvement in human life. The Church is constituted by a mystery that is, strictly speaking, universal.
In Chapter 1 we also acknowledged the presence of Christ in all the Christian Churches. All the Churches are abodes of the Spirit. We acknowledge, moreover, that in the present day each Church is in need of dialogue and cooperation with the other Churches, and we expressed the hope that the ecumenical movement may eventually initiate the Churches into the identical self-understanding. We indicated also that today the unity and well-being of the Church demands dialogue and cooperation with the entire world of men; only in this way can the Church open herself unreservedly to God’s redemptive presence in humanity. We have called this the Open Church.
THE CATHOLIC CLAIM
At the same time the Vatican Council continues to claim that among the Christian Churches, the Catholic Church holds a unique position. (1) There is a sense in which she is the one Church of the Lord. This special claim does not mean that Catholics are better Christians than others or that the Catholic Church is holier than other Churches. The claim has to do with the Catholic Church as an institution.
‘Some Catholics find this claim to uniqueness difficult to accept. They regard it as a remnant of institutional pride. They rejoice that at Vatican II the Catholic Church has understood herself as the Open Church, that is, that she has become sensitive to the redemptive work of God in other Churches and beyond them in the world of men; but they regard the continued insistence on Catholic uniqueness as an inconsistency and an unreasonable attachment to the past. Rosemary Ruether is an eloquent exponent of this view. Here is her way of formulating it: “Catholicism (in terms of its present, official statements) operates out of a set of premises that, although showing progress in ecumenical attitudes, nevertheless prevent it from being fully ecumenical. Catholicism views itself as the place where the Christian faith and the Church of Christ exist in their fullness. It is in the fullest sense of the word ‘the Church’, i.e. the place where Christ’s work of redemption is in its most complete form. . . . This model of understanding the Church makes it necessary in some way or other (however this may be underplayed for apologetical purposes) to define all other Christian traditions as relatively inferior in relation to Catholicism…. I do not buy this model. I do not regard Protestants as second-class Christians, and I do not judge their faith relative to the Catholic model. From the viewpoint of the previous model of Roman Catholicism, I am not a Roman Catholic.” (2)
But from the viewpoint of another model Rosemary Ruether does call herself Roman Catholic. She rejects the Protestant model of the Church. In other words she does not acknowledge that the 16th-century Reformers had the special insight into the biblical message which gives the Churches of the Reformation a privileged hold on the Gospel of Christ and makes them automatically bearers of light and prophetic voices of reform. She believes, rather, that the time has come when Catholics and Protestants must abandon their exclusivist positions. Today Christians are called to live the Christian life in a new age where they must discover the meaning of Church and determine new organizational forms of mutuality and social cohesion. “I believe’ she writes, ”that we are called to be Christians first of all, and not Protestants and Catholics, and that the terms ‘Protestant’ and ‘Roman Catholic’ should be regarded as statements of our tribal affinity and responsibility and a confession of our sins, and not statements of faith.” (3) In this sense, then, in terms of spiritual culture, liturgical experience and social heritage, Rosemary Ruether regards herself a Catholic
Rosemary Ruether and Charles Davis hold positions that from one point of view are quite similar. Both reject the Catholic claim to uniqueness. At the same time, they differ widely on what this rejection implies. Charles Davis left the Catholic Church. It is his intention, moreover, to produce a set of arguments of public validity which shows that leaving the Catholic Church is the right thing to do. Rosemary Ruether, on the contrary, remains in the Catholic Church. She wishes to present arguments of public validity why Catholics who can no longer accept the traditional claim to uniqueness should continue to live, work, and pray in the Catholic Church. “One returns to the task of working amid the timebound and finite framework of the historical church institution, but only because one no longer takes them for the ultimate truth.” (4) In this manner, each in his own Church, Christians are to work for renewal and the coming to be of the one Church in the present age.
The position of Rosemary Ruether is not unattractive. It appeals to something in the present-day experience of the Gospel. ‘Any claim to uniqueness seems to prevent us from being open to the future. By regarding any truth as definitive we seem to close ourselves to the truth that is to come. A claim to uniqueness seems to make men defensive; instead of listening to the truth that God continues to speak in the experience of mankind, they have to find arguments to defend their positions. In the past, people have rejected the claim to uniqueness because of a relativism in regard to truth; today the people who reject this claim may not be relativists at all. They may believe in absolute truth, but they think that this truth is available in the contemporary answer to God’s call in the present.
I think, nonetheless, that Rosemary Ruether’s position is wrong. I do not follow her argument, first of all, because it does not give an account of the self-understanding of the Catholic Church today. Despite the extraordinary doctrinal development that has taken place, the Catholic Church at Vatican II still regards herself as the Church in a unique sense. Secondly, it seems to me that the people who advocate the emergence of a future Church, in discontinuing with the present Churches, operate out of a set of presuppositions, often quite unavowed, by which they evaluate theological positions and ecclesiastical developments as progressive or regressive: such a set of presuppositions, when clearly spelled out, constitutes, in fact, eclesiological principles that lay claim to uniqueness. Hence the protest against uniqueness is more apparent than real.
In this chapter, therefore, I wish to deal with the Catholic Church’s claim to uniqueness. According to Vatican II, this claim is still an essential part of the Church’s self-understanding in faith. I wish to deal with the credibility of the Catholic Church’s self-understanding in the present ecumenical age.
In Chapter 3 we saw that in the last century the word “credibility” acquired a special meaning. The credibility of Christian truth lay in the demonstration, based on historical records and the miracles reported in them, that this truth is of divine origin. ‘While the truth itself could only be acknowledged by the gratuitous gift of faith—so the theory went—its credibility was rationally demonstrable. This radical distinction between faith and “credibility has been largely abandoned.
The credibility I deal with in this chapter is understood in quite different terms. One may wonder, in fact, whether it is useful to retain the word “credibility” at all. The word is valuable, in my opinion, because it reminds us that we cannot escape the apologetical issue. We still have to ask the question why we believe. We have mentioned before that no insistence on the gracious and gratuitous character of Christian faith can ever dispense us from asking about the human reasons for believing. Faith inserts itself into human life; despite its divine character it is a dimension of human existence; we cannot escape the question about the human “why” of believing. There are some Protestant theologians who do not acknowledge the apologetical question. This question, they feel, seeks to subject the Word of God to human criteria. Their objection is, perhaps, more semantic than real, for even these Protestant theologians claim that faith is different from fanaticism, superstition, and schizophrenia and would be willing to render an account of these differences in terms of rational human experience. But this is the apologetical issue! What are human reasons why men become and stay Christians? This is what I mean by credibility.
To clarify my understanding of credibility in this chapter, I wish to contrast contemporary apologetical inquiry—as I see it— with the apologetics created in the 19th century and traditional until recently.
First, apologetics is an inquiry within faith. The question is raised by the believer. It presupposes faith and the life of faith. It cannot be separated from this faith as an independent study. The study may inquire, for instance, whether there are urgent questions in human life to which faith gives an answer or whether there are human predicaments on which faith sheds some light. The study wants to give an account of the human reasons for believing and hopes to present these reasons in a language understandable to other people; yet this study in no way supposes that credibility can be rationally demonstrated by a set of arguments that have validity for non-believers. Apologetics deals with the questions which the believer asks about his own faith. Why do we believe? Does faith make sense?
From this follows a second characteristic. Apologetics addresses itself to Christians. It is not a search for rational arguments that will convince the non-believer of the rational foundation of the Christian faith. Apologetical reflection takes place within faith. Christians try to understand and formulate to themselves why they believe. The critical reason to which they submit their faith is their own. Why am I a believer? Is faith an escape, an infantile superstition? Or is it a dimension of life that opens men to reality and enables them to assume greater responsibility for themselves? In this context the objective, historical basis of the Christian creed must be examined. Ultimately, however, apologetics deals with the meaning of faith to the believer.
This leads to a third characteristic. Present-day apologetics, it seems to me, presupposes God’s redemptive presence in human life. Apologetics replies to the question, “Does it make sense to believe?” We realize at once that faith cannot possibly make sense to man’s sinful self. To man caught in the prison of his dividedness the Christian message has no meaning. To him it is a threat. To him it makes non-sense. But since God has involved himself in human life and since, therefore, the aspirations and questions of men are never simply their own effort to escape the human predicament but partly already realizations of a dialogue of salvation with God, the Gospel may indeed make sense to men. The question of credibility, therefore, presupposes the mystery of redemption revealed in Christ and present wherever people are.
The fourth characteristic is related to the third. The credibility of the Christian faith is meaningful to the non-Christian and hence has a certain public validity. Because the Christian believes in God’s redemptive presence to all men, he is convinced that the reflections that make his faith credible to him will make sense to the non-Christian as well, even if he does not become a believer. The Christian does not plan his reflections for the non-believer; in apologetics he deals with a question that arises in his own life of faith. But he is carried by the conviction that the arguments of credibility will be meaningful also to others and, hence, that his faith will appear to the public as a reasonable kind of personal option. (5)
We cannot deal with the whole apologetical question here. We cannot study the questions “Why do people believe in God?” and “Why do people believe in Christ?” and “Why do people believe in the Church?” We single out a small question that fits into this chapter. “Why are Catholics Catholic?” or “Does the Catholic claim to uniqueness make sense ? or ”What is the credibility of the Catholic Church today?”
In keeping with the characteristics described above, I insist that this study of credibility is addressed to Catholics. It is not an attempt to find arguments persuading Protestants to join the Church of Rome. There are many good reasons for being Protestant. I do not see how a Catholic of the post-conciliar Church can still desire the conversion of Protestants to Roman Catholicism. What we desire for our Protestant fellow-Christians is what we desire for ourselves: that they live more deeply from the Gospel and participate in the renewal of their Church so that all the Churches come closer together in the common obedience to Christ. When I examine the credibility of the Catholic claim to uniqueness, I deal with a question posed by Catholics about their own faith.
Without attempting to justify my view in a wider study of apologetics, I define the credibility of the Catholic Church, especially of her claim to uniqueness, as the sense which the Church makes in terms of faith and experience. I will regard the Catholic Church as credible if its claim to be the one Church is meaningful in the terms of the New Testament, if it explains the past and if it illuminates the present.
THE TENSION BETWEEN LOCAL AND UNIVERSAL UNITY
The Gospel of Christ is God’s gift to men. It is not a system of thought. It is not an organization. It is a living voice revealing the meaning of existence. The Gospel gives rise to action. The Gospel moves men to faith, to hope, and to love. There are tensions implicit in the gift of Christ, with which Christians must wrestle, and wrestling with them become open to the Spirit and be led on the way of life. I wish to show that the Catholic Church is meaningful in terms of the New Testament by describing the way in which she wrestles with two of these tensions and makes them sources of her ecclesiastical life. The first of these tensions is between local and universal unity.
Jesus Christ is the reconciler of men. His grace creates fellowship. There is in the Gospel a tension between the local and the universal aspect of the new community created by the presence of Christ. On the one hand we learn from the Scriptures that Jesus delivers man from his sin and enables him to love his neighbour. Christian faith opens a man to his fellows and initiates him into a new community. The books of the New Testament attribute central importance to the fellowship created by faith in Christ. The local congregation is the new family. In the writings of Paul words such as “ecclesia” and “koinonia” are used, first of all, as referring to the local congregation. Through the celebration of worship, especially the eucharist, the members of the congregation are brought into the fellowship of which Christ is source and centre. In this perspective the eucharistic meal, the participation in the same joyful supper, becomes the great sign revealing the nature of the new Christian community. Through Jesus, people become friends.
Equally central is the supplementary teaching that Jesus Christ is the saviour of mankind. Christ has come to deliver the human family from the powers of darkness that create hostility among them. Jesus is the messiah introducing a new age. He is the one mediator between God and man and, hence, the universal reconciler of people to their God and to one another. The books of the New Testament stress that Christ creates a fellowship that is universal. The community of the old covenant included only a single people; the new community convoked by Christ is all inclusive, it embraces all nations. When the early Church proclaimed that in Christ the barrier between Jew and Gentile had been overcome, she announced the universality of Christ and the creation of a new community in which the differences between man and man are overcome and people are able to be themselves in the unity of faith and love. This community is, ultimately, identical with the human race. The act of God in Jesus Christ reveals the unity of the entire human family.
Christ’s work of reconciliation, then, has two distinct aspects, the local and the universal. While there is a tension between them, they are inseparable. There may be times when it is more important to stress Christ’s power to create fellowship among men and others when the main emphasis should be on Christ as saviour of a single people. The two aspects must never be separated. The tension between them, implicit in the Gospel, must be preserved. If either pole of the tension is abandoned, the unity which Christ brings is severely damaged. It is my contention that the Catholic Church, thanks to the Spirit, has always acknowledged this tension.
Today, thanks to the Spirit, the tension between the local and the universal is also acknowledged by the Churches associated with the ecumenical movement. For many of them this represents a recovery of a neglected aspect of the Gospel. Through the World Council of Churches many Protestant Churches express their faith in the universality of Christ’s gift. In some of the union conversations between Churches, for instance in the Consultation on Church Union in the United States, the tension between the local and the universal is again understood as one of the central aspects of the reconciliation brought by Christ.
At an unusual evening session at the Faith and Order Conference, Montreal 1963, the issue of unity, local and universal, was raised by two biblical scholars. (6) The well-known Protestant exegete Ernst Käsemann challenged the idea that Jesus had come to create a universal unity among men. Unity, in its universal sense, is an eschatological concept. Käsemann tried to show that the notion of Church in the New Testament is so varied and the understanding of what Christ has done so diverse, that the historian has no good reason to speak of a single and universal Church in the New Testament. What we find in the Scriptures is the creation of local communities. The faith of these communities in the one Church expresses their hope in the age to come. The Catholic exegete Raymond Brown defended a contrary viewpoint. While he was willing to acknowledge the great diversity in the New Testament in regard both to the understanding of the Gospel and the notion of the Church, he thought there was good evidence in the Scriptures for asserting that the early Christians, in whatever local congregation, acknowledged the community created by Christ as one and universal. In attempting to spell out the relation of the new covenant to God’s gifts under the old, the early Christians, in whatever community, affirmed the unity of the new people. The Churches of Christ were the Israel of God. In different images and analogies, the biblical writers interpreted the Church as the continuation of God’s people on the threshold of history. This was, for instance, the deepest meaning of speaking of the Twelve. The unity of the twelve tribes in the covenant was carried forward in the unity of the many congregations in the new covenant. The Pauline epistles which speak ofecclesia and koinonia as synonyms for the local congregation, also describe the worship of these congregations—baptism and eucharist—in terms that recall the saving events of Israel’s exodus and hence acknowledge the unity of the people. While the New Testament reveals various ecclesiologies and enables scholars to present these by laying stress on their differences, the New Testament also reveals the faith of these Christians, in whatever congregation, that they were the one people of God, in whom the ancient promises were fulfilled.
The discussion at the Montreal Faith and Order Conference brought out in dramatic fashion the tension, deeply inscribed in the Gospel of Christ, between the local and the universal understanding of Church. We cannot speak of the reconciliation brought by Christ without acknowledging the contrasting trends in the understanding of Church, as the few who enter into fellowship and become friends and as the many who participate in the same gifts and symbolize the unity which is the destiny of the whole human race.
The Catholic Church, I think, has never abandoned the tension between the local and the universal. In her own self-understanding the Catholic Church sees herself as the Church, one and catholic, of which the creed speaks. She regards herself as a body of local Churches—episcopally governed local Churches— and at the same time as a single and world-wide people achieving visible unity through the papacy. In her own inner life the Catholic Church has faced up to and wrestled with the tension implicit in the New Testament. She has often been inefficient, slow to adapt herself, overly inclined to compromise, too emphatic on authority . . . in brief, she has often suffered in her life as Church because she would not give up the tension implicit in the Gospel. Other Christian Churches, it seems to me, have abandoned the tension between the local and the universal. They have regarded the health of the congregation and local unity as paramount and hence have been willing to sacrifice the unity of the universal community. They have abandoned one pole of the tension. In their own self-understanding they did not see themselves any more as the Church, one and catholic, of which the creed speaks. Considering themselves as a part of the Church they were unwilling or unable to live out the painful tension between the local and the universal in their daily action in the world. As an outsider looking upon the Orthodox Churches it seems to me that even they have ceased to regard themselves as the Church willing to live out, with its complications and its grandeur, the tension implicit in Christ’s gift of unity. It is through the ecumenical movement that these Churches again take upon themselves the burden of this tension and that the Catholic Church experiences this tension in a new way.
Someone may suggest that the Catholic Church has abandoned the tension by suppressing local unity. The Catholic Church, the objection may run, has forgotten about the fellowship produced by Christ in each place: the local community has been sacrificed to universal unity. The Catholic Church, the objection may insist, has regarded the local Church simply as an administrative unit within the larger body of the Church. By abandoning the local in favour of the universal, the Catholic Church has become a monarchy.
There is some truth in this objection. The ecclesiastical tradition of the Roman Church has, for historical reasons, greatly stressed the universal Church and the supreme position and central role of the papacy. This stress has often restricted the life of the local Churches. We read of instances where it has crushed the creativity of local fellowships within the Church. The accusation that the Catholic Church has often forgotten the unity created by Christ among the few is therefore valid—but only up to a point. For despite the centralizing tendency of the papacy, the episcopal structure has always been retained in the Catholic Church. The presence of bishops announced the unity of the local Church and prevented the Catholic Church from abandoning the Gospel tension between the local and the universal. In other words, the social dynamics generated through the tension between episcopacy and papacy assure the presence of the Spirit that calls the Church out of the social pathologies constantly threatening it.
This tension is inscribed into the very structure of the Church. Episcopacy affirms the unity and relative autonomy of the local community and the papacy affirms the unity of the universal Church, in which the local communities participate. Even the First Vatican Council, in defining the supreme jurisdiction of the papacy, acknowledged and respected the episcopal structure of the Church: “This power of the pope is far from standing in the way of the power of ordinary and immediate episcopal jurisdiction by which the bishops who, appointed by the Holy Spirit in apostolic succession, feed and govern as true shepherds the particular flock assigned to them.” (7) Even at Vatican I papal primacy was not understood in strictly monarchical terms. The other pole of the tension was acknowledged. The official explanations presented to the bishops at Vatican I specified the limitations of papal power. (8) They clearly indicate that the pope cannot dispense with the episcopal structure of the Church and that he cannot use his supreme authority to interfere in the ordinary and immediate episcopal government. The pope is to use his supreme power in the local Churches to build up and strengthen the Church universal or to help other bishops in exercising the governing function which is properly theirs.
The tension between the local and the universal was brought out more clearly at Vatican II. The key notion in this context is “collegiality”. The Council taught that the bishops of the Catholic Church, together with the pope and under him, form a single body which, as such, is in apostolic succession. Collegiality means that a bishop is not simply the ruler and teacher of his own local Church but that, as a member of the college, he is also co-responsible for the policy-making and teaching of the Church universal. The bishops as a whole, therefore, share with the pope in the exercise of the highest ecclesiastical authority. Vatican II acknowledges a dialogue structure in the exercise of authority on the highest level and, in fact, on every level in the Church. According to the present understanding, laid down in the conciliar documents and echoing the teaching of Vatican I, the pope is free to teach and act in canonical independence from the bishops. His supreme jurisdiction, in the present understanding, is not derived from that of the bishops. At the same time, Vatican II has depicted the pope as head of the episcopal college and, hence, as acting in the name and on behalf of his brothers in the episcopate, even when he acts in canonical independence from them. In other words, Vatican II has provided doctrinal principles that enable the theologian to spell out the moral limit. of papal authority.
What is, perhaps, more important is that Vatican II has rediscovered a better theological understanding of the local Church. It has acknowledged the creativity of the regional Churches. It has endorsed liturgical, legal, and theological pluralism within the Catholic Church. (9) It has provided a theology of decentralization. Thanks to the doctrinal and institutional evolution of Vatican II, the Gospel tension between the local and the universal has become more central in the life of the Church. The living-out of this tension assures the presence of the Spirit.
Tension is not a peaceful word. Tension means discussion, disagreement, conflict, opposing tendencies. The stability of a community in which tensions are alive lies in a dynamic balance to which all members contribute by their creativity as well as by their self-discipline. Thanks to the tension between the local and universal, inscribed in her collegial structure, the Catholic Church is able to come to consensus on the meaning of her own life of faith, which is acknowledged as authoritative by the faithful. Because of the complex interrelation between the regional Churches and the Church universal, between Churches in one area and Churches in another, between pope and bishops, between bishops, clergy and people, . . . the Catholic Church is able to enter into dialogue and even controversy on the meaning of her faith, discuss the problems on increasingly higher levels of authority, initiate the people into new issues and eventually come to a definitive judgment, through pope and council, in which the entire Church has in some way participated and which all members are willing to regard as an authoritative expression of the Church’s self-understanding.
The claim of the Catholic Church that, despite many pathological manifestations, it is capable of a doctrinal consensus is not an abstraction. We have experienced it at Vatican II. In Chapter 1 we have given one example of the doctrinal evolution that has taken place at Vatican II. It would be possible to study the social process which has led to this evolution and has eventually, after the complex back-and-forth of dialogue and even conflict, brought about the new doctrinal formulation. The present generation has experienced the Catholic Church as capable of expressing her self-understanding in a doctrinal consensus. (l0)
The other Christian Churches, by abandoning the tension between the local and the universal, have lost the power of producing a consensus on the meaning of the faith acknowledged by their members. In the present union conversations the Christian Churches are trying to regain the authority to produce an agreement on what the Gospel means to them, in which all participate and which all regard as normative. At this time doctrinal consensus is unique in the Catholic Church. On this basis the Catholic Church must make a special contribution to the ecumenical movement.
I wish to be permitted a slight digression on the role of authority in the Church. In the perspective of the above reflections, authority appears as a precious gift to the Church. It is authority that enables the Church, in whom the Spirit produces understanding, to come to a consensus accepted by all. It is authority that enables the Church, vivified by the Spirit, to undergo corporate renewal. There are many reasons why Catholics in recent years have become highly critical of ecclesiastical authority. It is often true that hierarchy and people live in different worlds, that they have different problems and experience the Gospel in different terms. It is hard to find a cultural distance in the Western world as wide as that between an ordinary Christian in his environment and the highly artificial, courtly world of the Vatican. The basic experience of reality is so different between modern men in secular life and the princes of the Church in their Renaissance environment that it is unlikely that they will ask the same sort of questions about human life and human society. This is a dangerous situation. The present cultural separation between Catholics and the princes of the Church—symbolized perfectly by the clothes these men choose to wear—could undermine one of the great gifts the Church has received, namely her ecclesiastical authority.
Bernard McCabe, in a note in New Blackfriars, has analysed the present problem of authority in the Church in an instructive manner. (1l) He distinguishes between pedagogical and representative authority. Pedagogical authority is exercised over others by a person who enjoys greater maturity, has access to more information, and has gone through a longer period of training. A teacher in a school exercises pedagogical authority. In terms of certain human perfections, such as wisdom, insight, experience, and skill, such a person is superior to his subjects. He has access to more truth, and hence it is right and reasonable to obey him. Representative authority, on the other hand, is exercised by a person who lays no claim to greater maturity or greater wisdom than other members of the community. His sources of information are largely available to the public. His skill may not be superior to that of others. He regards his subjects as his equals. Representative authority is exercised over others by a person who is able to formulate the common aspirations of the community. If the man appointed to authority is in touch with his community, through direct conversation and special institutions, then he is able to put into words and express, as practical policies, the common convictions and ideals of the people for whom he is responsible. He is able to formulate the demands of the common good, and hence it is right and reasonable to obey him. If authority is exercised in representative fashion, obedience enables people to identify more deeply with their community.
Bernard McCabe suggests that in the past the ecclesiastical government understood its power as pedagogical authority. The Christian people acknowledged that popes and bishops had made great strides in the Christian life, that they had a special knowledge of the Scriptures, that they had a better grasp of Christian teaching, and that they had access to information not publicly available. There was a time when the people looked upon all governments in this way. What is happening today, Bernard McCabe suggests, is the transition from pedagogical to representative authority in the Catholic Church. Today no one believes any more that popes and bishops are more advanced in holiness than other Christians, or that they know the Scriptures better, or that they have access to secret information. Today popes and bishops are beginning to realize that they cannot exercise their authority unless they are in touch with the entire Church, through direct conversation and special institutions. Only through consultation and feedback do they become capable of formulating the aspirations the Spirit produces among the people and of making laws for the promotion of the new life which the Spirit creates in the community. The Christian who obeys the ecclesiastical authority in this situation serves the common good of the entire community.
The transition from pedagogical to representative authority is uneven in the Church. This is the reason for the crisis of authority! There are superiors who still understand their authority as pedagogical while their people have assimilated a sense of representative authority. Conversely, there are people who desire to be ruled by pedagogical authority—they yearn for superiors who treat them as pupils—while they may, in fact, live under ecclesiastical superiors who exercise representative authority and refuse to treat their people as minors. While the transition is uneven, it is inevitable. The social process—such as dialogue and consultation—created by Vatican II changes the self-understanding of Christians in the Church.
Is this representative authority in keeping with Catholic teaching? This question must be asked. In recent years Pope Paul has repeatedly rejected a new understanding of authority that regards the superior simply as the recorder of public opinion. Pope Paul VI has reproved the attempt to limit the role of authority to registering and expressing the opinions found among the people. (12) The Pope rightly insists that such an understanding would be the undoing of the authority Christ gave to the Church.
Yet what we have called representative authority is in keeping with Catholic teaching. According to this understanding of authority the superior records andevaluates the opinions found among his people. Dialogue, through direct conversation and special institutions, enables him to be in touch with the ideals and aspirations of his community, but what counts most in his eyes is whether the convictions are close to the Gospel of Christ, whether they are creative responses to the questions asked in the Church, whether they are simply repetitions of traditional phrases or ideas that have emerged in dialogue and reflection. The ecclesiastical superior, in other words, listens to the Spirit speaking in the community. He tests the convictions of men with the Gospel. He is willing to let himself be addressed by God’s Word present in the experience of his people. Superiors exercising representative authority are open to all the opinions in the Church, but by an act that is properly creative, and not simply by recording majority views, they try to formulate the convictions the Spirit is producing in the community and to detect the direction in which the Church is being moved by this Spirit.
These reflections on the crisis of authority today show that what is happening in the Church, the changes, the new life, the experiments, even the turmoil and the uncertainties, are signs that the Catholic Church is becoming more truly a community in dialogue and that she submits more faithfully to the Gospel tension between the local and the universal. The true meaning of the present period of transition will emerge more clearly in the following section.
THE TENSION BETWEEN PAST AND PRESENT
We now wish to examine another tension implicit in the Gospel of Christ. Implicit in God’s gift of himself in Jesus Christ is a tension between past and present. On the one hand, we believe that everything God has done for the salvation of man has happened in Jesus Christ and hence lies in the past, and on the other, we believe that the divine work of redemption, revealed in Christ, is still going on and hence is present to us. Redemption happened in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; and redemption is still happening in the present, freeing men to enter into their future. Redemption took place once and for all in the past; and yet it is forever contemporary to us. This is the tension between past and present.
The two poles of this tension belong to the core of Christian proclamation. We affirm categorically that in Jesus Christ God has acted on behalf of the entire human family. In him the sins of the human race have been forgiven, in him all men are reconciled to the Father, in him the entire future of the human family is contained. Scripture and tradition affirm that in Christ God has revealed himself in a definitive way. In Christ God has communicated himself to men as saviour once and for all. Because the apostles give witness to this definitive event, we call their witness normative for the life of the entire Church. Because God has done everything for the salvation of men in Jesus Christ, nothing can be added to the apostolic witness by which he is present to us. The Church has proclaimed this once-for-all character of God’s gift in Christ from the very beginning. Already in the New Testament we read the appeal “to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints’’. (13)
At the same time, however, Christ is present to men in the Spirit. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ are realities to which the believer has access now. God continues to communicate himself in them to the Christian Church. They are contemporary to the believer. What Jesus did to men when he lived on earth, when he taught, when he suffered, died, and rose, he continues to do to people in the Church who participate in the sacramental liturgy in which the paschal mystery is present to them. The self-communication of God in Christ continues in the Church. In Christ God gives himself to us in the present so that we may be able to choose our future. Here, then, are the terms of the tensions: divine redemption took place “once for all” and yet it is “forever present”.
To be faithful to the Gospel the Church must hold on to the two poles of this tension. She must defend the once-for-all character of redemption and, at the same time, proclaim its present reality. The Church must express and communicate the redemptive mystery as ever present and yet as self-identical with the redemption that took place in Jesus Christ many centuries ago.
What happens in the Church when this tension is abandoned? If the present is abandoned in favor of the past, then the original apostolic community becomes, in a literal sense, the model of present-day church life. The biblical record becomes the one locus of divine revelation, to which the Church must refer herself in her preaching and to which the Christian must turn in his faith. To be in touch with the Christ-event would then always mean to return to the past, to the record of the past, to the language and thought-forms of the past. To abandon the tension between past and present by forgetting God’s present self-revelation, leads to some form of primitivism.
Some primitivism exists in every Church. Certain Protestant notions of the written Word appear to the Catholic as a kind of primitivism. The Good News is regarded as codified once for all in the New Testament: the preaching of the Church, on this hypothesis, is simply the repetition of the apostolic preaching. The message of the Church today is simply the reiteration of the original message preached two thousand years ago. The more faithful the Church becomes to biblical preaching and the more conformed in her structure to the apostolic community, the more open she is, on this hypothesis, to the Holy Spirit and the more powerful will be her saving influence.
This primitivist position does not only exist among fundamentalists. It is a wider phenomenon. It is found as a trend among sophisticated theologians in a variety of ways. The decision to regard any particular period of the Church’s life as normative in the sense that it is worthy of repetitive imitation by the Church of a later age, abandons the tension implicit in the Gospel between past and present. A kind of primitivism is found, it seems to me, in many forms of Protestantism: the life of the early Christians, as understood through the great Reformers of the 16th century, is often regarded as a model for the life of the Church of later ages. Catholics are sometimes primitivists in regard to the 13th century: they think of renewal simply as a slight adaptation to modern life of a medievally patterned Church—as they might think of contemporary philosophy as an updating of Thomism. All Christians, of course, regard the apostolic witness recorded in the Scriptures as normative for the total life of the Church: but this does not imply that fidelity to this norm means repeating the doctrinal formulations of the New Testament or imitating the ecclesiastical structure of the early Church. The biblical and liturgical movements in the Catholic Church may have inspired some Catholic authors to suggest, in a mood of enthusiasm, that the more conformed the present Church is to the apostolic community, in teaching, worship, and ministry, the more faithful she is to the divine self-communication in Christ. But the call to “return to the Scriptures” or “return to the sources” need not advocate primitivism of any kind. For the Church, as we shall see, can be faithful to the apostolic witness only by being simultaneously faithful to God’s self-identical Word addressed to her in the present.
The tension between past and present can also be abandoned at the other pole. It is possible to insist on the present action of the Spirit in the community of believers in such a way that the self identity between present redemption and the event once for all revealed in Christ is being sacrificed. If the previous tendency is called primitivist, this tendency could be called modernist. Since God is at work among men today and since, therefore, the aspirations of men are, partially at least, fruits of the divine work in them, it may be tempting to insist on the presence of the divine action without seeking to establish whether what occurs in the Church today is identical with what happened in Jesus Christ at the beginning. Since the ultimate guarantee of God’s work in the present is the conformity with the original gift, the indifference to the New Testament record and the witness of the early Church leads to religious confusion and the corruption of the divine gifts.
There is some modernism in all the Christian Churches. We certainly have had modernist authors in the Catholic Church. The theological systems produced by some Protestant thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries clearly belong to this category. They wanted to present a view of the religion of Jesus or of the Gospel message that would be contemporary and correspond to the aspirations of the people, but because they moved away from the original gift, crystallized in the Scriptures, their views could not affirm themselves for long as authentic interpretations of divine revelation.
The tension between past and present is the crucial problem of all the Churches today. It seems to me that today all the Churches want to be faithful to the original apostolic witness, and at the same time express this Gospel in a contemporary manner. But are all the Churches capable of doing this? It seems to me that the Catholic Church, because of its concept of “tradition”, is capable of retaining the two poles of this tension between past and present. The Catholic Church has defended the concept of tradition against the attempt of the 16th-century Protestants to present the Bible alone as the measure of truth. The Catholic Church has affirmed that the handing-on of the Gospel is a process in which the Spirit is creatively involved.
Tradition is not the passing-on of a book of biblical or creedal formulas; it is not a mechanical repetitive process by which that which was said in the past is uttered again in the present. It is a creative process in which the Gospel, once for all delivered to the saints, is stated and re-stated as God’s Word for the age in which the Church lives. Because the Holy Spirit is involved in this process, the Catholic Church speaks of “divine tradition”.
It seems to me that—apart from the Catholic Church—the Christian Churches that insist on conformity with the Gospel (and hence refuse to become modernist) are tied to a particular period of the past, to the New Testament record, or to the consensus of the first five centuries, or to the witness of the undivided ancient Church, or to the confessional documents of the 16th century. Even the Churches which profess an understanding of “divine tradition” and thereby affirm that God is present in their manner of proclaiming the Good News, have tied themselves to the documents of the past and no longer seem to have confidence that the Spirit who at one time enabled them to formulate the great creeds in a creative way, in harmony with the Scriptures and yet in response to contemporary problems, is any longer at work in the present process of handing on the Gospel. Only the Catholic Church has a teaching on divine tradition that she is willing to apply to the present. The Catholic Church believes that the process of formulating doctrine, which the Spirit produced in the past, continues to go on in the present. The divine tradition alive in the Church today has enabled the Catholic Church to reinterpret her doctrinal position at Vatican II and renders her capable of continuing this in the future.
This traditioning of the Gospel in the Church is often called “development of doctrine.” It was, above all, the work of John Henry Newman, in his celebrated Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, that assigned this creative concept of tradition its central place in the understanding of the Church. Development, for Newman, belongs to the very nature of an idea. (14) The truth reveals its total meaning only slowly as it is applied in different situations, challenged by opponents and made to explain various aspects of life, as it is made to reply to new questions, related to other insights and confronted with the manifold experience of mankind. Truth is fully assimilated through a process that is vital and communal. It includes the logical, the psychological, and the social. It is through the history in which an entire people is involved that a truth reveals the full depth of its meaning. The Gospel, then, according to Newman, reveals its rich meaning and its many aspects only through the history of the Church as it is alive in the faithful reflection of the community and responds to the questions of the ages. In the view of Newman, only the Church in which there is a perpetual development of doctrine is the community in which the Spirit provides the fullness of truth to the faithful. True Church, for Newman, is only the Catholic Church.
How did Newman preserve the tension between past and present? How can one be sure that the development of doctrine that has taken place in the Church is not a corruption but an authentic development preserving, strengthening, and deepening the original message? Are there tests whereby we may study the developments that have occurred, and still occur, in the life of the Christian Church and evaluate whether these are deformations of the revealed message or authentic developments bringing to light its latent content? In his Essay Newman gives seven such tests.(15) Authentic development of doctrine is assured if there is in the Church the preservation of its own type, the continuity of its own principles, the power of assimilation, logical sequence, the anticipation of the future, the conserving action of its past, and finally its chronic vigour. In this way, according to Newman, the Church lives out the tension between past and present and hears the self-identical Word of God addressed to her in Christ, then and now.
Since the days of Cardinal Newman, the development of doctrine has become one of the principal subjects studied by Catholic theologians and historians. Many theories have been proposed to explain doctrinal development in the Church. (l6) All theologians agree that divine revelation is closed with Jesus Christ and the witness to him by the apostles; all theologians agree that teachings proposed by the Church in later years, yet not explicitly found in the apostolic witness, are not new revelations. In some way they must have been contained in the original revelation or have been generated by it. Theories of doctrinal development want to show the complex process—charismatic, logical, psychological, experiential—by which new teaching has been drawn from the deposit of faith, once for all delivered to the saints. The authors of the 19th century and even the majority of authors of the 20th century have proposed theories of homogeneous doctrinal development. By homogeneous they meant the unbroken continuity between a new formulation of doctrine and the formulation that preceded it. Doctrinal development is called homogeneous when the new formulation is derived—logically, psychologically, or in some other way—from the preceding formulation so that it should be possible to trace an unbroken step-by-step process by which present teaching has been drawn from the original deposit of faith. It is in virtue of this homogeneity that Catholic theologians defended the doctrinal development in the Catholic Church as a faithful expression of the divine message revealed in Christ. According to them, it was because of this Spirit-produced homogeneity or unbroken continuity that the Catholic Church today announces the self-identical Word of God.
In recent years Catholic theologians have expressed hesitations in regard to the various theories (including Newman’s) of homogeneous development of doctrine. (l7) The first reason for this hesitation is that it does not seem to explain the development of doctrine recorded in the New Testament. If we compare the teaching of various New Testament writers, for instance the christology of Mark, Luke, and John, we see a development; but there is no evidence for assuming that this development took place homogeneously. There is no evidence for thinking that previous formulations were known to the later writer and that his doctrinal positions were, in some manner, drawn from the previous formulations. It would appear, rather, that in the various parts of the early Church the apostolic teachers expressed the same Gospel in original ways—and hence differently—as responses, guided by the Spirit, to the questions and aspirations of their communities. Few biblical scholars today explain as homogeneous development the doctrinal evolution recorded in the books of the New Testament.
Catholic theologians have hesitations regarding the theories of homogeneous development also on other grounds. The various theories seem to presuppose a rather intellectualistic understanding of divine revelation. They tend to equate divine revelation with divine teaching: the revelation of God in Christ was present to the apostles mainly as a set of teachings. It is upon this original teaching, according to the theories of homogeneous development, that later generations reflected in new situations, with new questions and new insights, and formulated relevant doctrinal positions that were implications contained in the original message or necessary inferences drawn from it.
The Second Vatican Council, especially in the Constitution on Divine Revelation, presents a deeper understanding of divine revelation. (18) Revelation is God’s self-communication to men in the experience of Israel and, finally and definitively, in Jesus Christ and the experience of the apostolic community. This divine revelation is recorded, under the influence of the Spirit, in the Scriptures. But this revelation cannot simply be equated with the apostolic testimony and the biblical literature which gives witness to it. The Word of God transcends every expression of it in the Church. The Word of God, moreover, is a living Word. Divine revelation is closed with the apostolic witness to Christ, in the sense that God has totally revealed himself in Christ and that, after Christ, no further self-revelation of God is possible. Jesus not only reveals the Word of God, he is this Word. To expect another revelation after Jesus would be a denial of his divinity. At the same time, divine revelation must be said to continue in the Church, in the sense that God keeps on saying in the Church what he said once and for all in Jesus Christ. The revelatory self-communication of God continues in the Church. The Word continues to address men and the Spirit continues to enable men to receive this Word in faith. Through the celebration of the liturgy, including Word and sacrament, and through the more invisible self-communication of God in the Spirit, the living Word continues to evoke the faith of the Christian Church and constitute it as the community of the faithful. The self-identical Gospel is continually revealed in the Church.
From this it follows that listening to the Gospel is not simply the Spirit-guided reflection on the teaching once for all revealed; Christians listen to the self-revealing God addressing them through the Scriptures and the witness of the Church. The Church is faithful not simply to a set of truths revealed to her at the beginning; she is faithful to the living Word that comes to her in the present as the ever-identical Gospel. The theories of homogeneous doctrinal development seem to suppose that God has once revealed his message to men in Christ and that the ongoing divine assistance in the Church is simply the Spirit aiding her in understanding more deeply the meaning of this message. However, a better understanding of revelation brings out that the self-disclosure of God is more deeply involved in the history of the Church and her contemporary faith. God has spoken once for all in Christ, in his teaching, his life, death, and resurrection; at the same time, God continues to utter the self-same Word through the proclamation of the apostolic witness and other more hidden ways in the Church. In her faith the Church acknowledges God’s living Word in the original witness as well as the identical Word addressed to her, and constituting her, in the present. Will this deeper understanding of revelation in the Church affect what we mean by doctrinal development?
There is another reason why I have great hesitations in regard to the theories of homogeneous doctrinal development. The doctrinal development that has taken place at Vatican II can hardly be described as homogeneous. The development of certain doctrinal positions at Vatican II represent something like a quantum leap. We have studied one remarkable doctrinal shift in Chapter 1. At Vatican II we have passed from a restrictive to an open understanding of the Church. What has happened here was not the further penetration of the previous understanding of Church. The new understanding was not implicitly contained in the preceding one. The new teaching was a leap. It was well founded, of course, in contemporary Catholic experience, in a new reading of the Scriptures, and in theological reflections that had, for many years, been the object of dialogue in the Church; yet it was a leap nonetheless. The idea of the Open Church provoked vehement opposition in the conciliar hall. In whatever context the open understanding of Church was expressed, in relation to other Christians, to Jews, to members of other religions, and to people in general, it created a most revealing controversy among the Council fathers. Many bishops felt that the new concept was in opposition to the previous one: the Open Church was a betrayal of the traditional, restrictive Church, confirmed by Pius XII. No set of logical arguments could convince the opponents of the new position that the Open Church was in perfect continuity with traditional teaching. It became clear that what was required in the transition from the old to the new position was a kind of conversion. The doctrinal development that took place at Vatican II was not a passage from the implicit to the explicit, but a new response to God’s Word in a new age. With a new question in mind, the bishops listened to the Word of God, revealed in past and present, and in formulating its meaning they were willing to transcend the doctrine of the pre-conciliar Church. The doctrinal position adopted by Vatican II was not in unbroken continuity with the previous position, it was a re-interpretation of teaching in obedience to God’s Word in the present.
To characterize this non-homogeneous development that took place at Vatican II I shall introduce a new term. I shall speak of a re-focusing of the Gospel. What do I mean by focus? Every age has its central questions; every age has its special way of seeing life; every age has its own way of being threatened and its own aspirations for a more human form of existence. In his Towards an American Theology, Herbert Richardson has called this the “intellectus” of an age or culture. (19) Since the divine self-revelation in Christ is the Good News for every age, the same and identical message will be focalized differently in different ages, depending on the principal problems of men and their deep aspirations. The “intellectus” of an age—to use Richardson’s vocabulary—influences the manner in which the Church proclaims the Gospel. God saves men from the dangers that lie hidden in their “intellectus” and reveals to them the redemptive possibilities present in them. In every age, therefore, the Gospel is proclaimed with a central message and thrust, which is the saving response of God to the self-questionings of men. This I call the focus of the Gospel.
The central message and thrust of the Gospel is the focal point, in relation to which the entire doctrine of salvation is proclaimed and understood. The entire teaching of the Church is grouped around this focus. All the doctrines which make up the Church’s teaching assume meaning and reveal their significance through their connection with the focal point of the Gospel. As the Church enters a new spiritual-cultural environment in which people see life differently, have new questions and new ideals, she seeks to proclaim the Gospel with a new central message and thrust as the divine response to the central problems of the age. The new spiritual-cultural climate demands the re-focusing of the Gospel. Yet as the old focus gives way to the new, the entire doctrinal synthesis of the past falls apart in order to be made anew in the light of the new focus. The old way of seeing doctrines together in unity is dissolved: what is required in the new situation is their re-interpretation in the light of the new focal point. We hope to examine this more carefully in the following pages.
The non-homogeneous or discontinous doctrinal development that took place at Vatican II—the doctrine of the Open Church—was a shift (or, at least, the beginning of a shift) in the focal point of the Gospel and demands, as I hope to show, a re-interpretation of the Church’s teaching.
How is the self-identity of the Gospel preserved in discontinuous doctrinal development? We shall discuss this further on. For the moment I wish to mention that the recognition of different possible focal points in the proclamation of the Gospel enables us to account for the doctrinal differences in the books of the New Testament. Each author listened to God’s Word in Christ from a particular view point, largely determined by the spiritual-cultural situation of the Christian community to which he belonged. Each author preached the Good News with the focus required for making it God’s Word of salvation to his people. The several focal points in the books of the New Testament explain why it is impossible to reconcile the various positions into a single consistent system of thought.
We must examine more carefully what we mean by re-focusing the Gospel. We contend that there are moments in the history of the Church when her fidelity to the unchanging Gospel produces a doctrinal development that is discontinuous. This happens when the Church enters a new spiritual-cultural situation. To proclaim the Gospel in a manner comprehensible to her age, the Church must translate her message into the language and the concepts of the culture in which she lives and reply to the questions which are being asked in her day. This the Church wants to do not simply for the sake of outsiders to whom she preaches the Good News; she wants to do this for the sake of the Christian community itself. Her own members will come to think and speak in the manner learnt in their society, and if the Gospel makes sense to them they will eventually think about it and speak about it in terms drawn from their spiritual-cultural experience of life. This need for “accommodated preaching” is acknowledged in the documents of Vatican II. It is called “the law of all evangelization”. Here is the entire paragraph.
“Thanks to the experience of past ages, the progress of the sciences, and the treasures hidden in the various forms of human culture, the nature of man himself is more clearly revealed and new roads to truth are opened. These benefits profit the Church, too, for, from the beginning of her history, she has learned to express the message of Christ with the help of the ideas and terminology of various peoples, and has tried to clarify it with the wisdom of philosophers, too. Her purpose has been to adapt the Gospel to the grasp of all as well as to the needs of the learned, insofar as such was appropriate. Indeed, this accommodated preaching of the revealed Word ought to remain the law of all evangelization. For thus each nation develops the ability to express Christ’s message in its own way. At the same time, a living exchange is fostered between the Church and the diverse cultures of people.” (20)
The “accommodated preaching of the revealed Word” urged by Vatican II raises the main problem of the Church today. Most Catholics in our day agree that we are entering upon a new spiritual-cultural environment. This was certainly the evaluation of the present situation in the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. There is need today to accommodate the preaching of the Gospel to the world in which we live. Yet in what does this accommodation consist ?
Some Catholics seem to suggest that this process of translation is simply the retelling of the Good News in a new language and with the use of new concepts. They seem to suggest that the work to be done is mainly intellectual or philosophical. While the Catholic Church in the past used concepts derived from the classical philosophies—since the 13th century especially the thought of Aristotle—, the task of the Church in our times, it is said, is to translate the Christian creed into a new langauge and new concepts derived from the cultural environment in which we live. Yet, if the task of reformulating the Gospel is regarded as a philosophical undertaking, as an intellectual exercise in translation, then this Gospel is in grave danger of being conformed to the wisdom of men and of thus losing its power. Since the Gospel has been given us as a divine critique of the cultures in which we live, any attempt to translate it on a purely conceptual level threatens to falsify the divine message. Pope Paul VI has repeatedly warned of the dangers implicit in the attempt to adapt the Gospel to the culture in which we live. (21)
The point I wish to make here is that the “accommodated, preaching of the revealed Word”—called “the law of all evangelization” by Vatican II—which is demanded of the Church as she enters a new spiritual-cultural environment is not simply a work of translation (and hence an intellectual exercise), but a work of re-focusing the Gospel (and hence a work of faith and in faith). The new cultural environment provides Christians not only with new language and new concepts in which to think; it also brings with it new problems, new preoccupations, new aspirations. For this reason I have always spoken of spiritual-cultural environments. The Church in such a situation must accommodate her preaching to reply to new questions and proclaim the Good News of salvation to people who experience the values of life in a new way. The task at hand is, therefore, the re-focusing of the Gospel. This process is not, first of all, an intellectual one. It is a process that challenges the faith and the faithfulness of the entire Christian community, a process of discernment, of new listening to God’s Word, of finding, in faith, the meaning of the Gospel for the dilemmas and problems of the present generation. Here there is no danger of a cultural assimilation of the Gospel. For what is sought is not greater fidelity to the language and concepts of the present culture, but greater fidelity to the Word of God speaking to the Church in the present. The re-focusing of the Gospel preserves the tension between the past and the present: when the Church proclaims divine revelation as the Good News for the present generation, she is faithful to the Word once for all spoken in Christ and faithful to the self-same Word uttered in the Church now and constituting her being in the present.
Because of the Catholic acknowledgment of “divine tradition” that is, because of the Catholic teaching that in the process of handing on the Gospel the Spirit is creatively involved, the Catholic Church is able to re-focalize the Gospel in a new spiritual-cultural situation.
In the following pages I wish to examine more carefully the doctrinal development called the re-focusing of the Gospel. I shall base myself mainly on the doctrinal development that took place at Vatican II, in particular on the doctrinal shift, studied in Chapter 1, to the Open Church.
The first step in the re-focusing of the Gospel is the Church’s discernment of the crucial problems proper to the culture in which she lives. What are the principal threats to human life, personal and social, in the culture in which the Gospel is to be Good News? The Church discerns the demonic in the present age. What are the enemies of human life in the contemporary world? Since Jesus is saviour and, as such, has come to save us from the enemies of life, the Church’s understanding of present evil will help her to find the central message and thrust which the Gospel has for the present age.
The first task of the Church in a new spiritual-cultural environment is the discernment of the demonic. This discernment, I wish to insist, is already the work of the Spirit. Concern with the deep questions of life is already redemptive, for it delivers us from concern with superficial questions and makes us abandon preoccupations with what is unreal. The Spirit enables us to ask the right questions. This is true, I wish to add, for Christians and non-Christians alike. Part of us may reach out to recognize the deepest threat to our human existence, but because of the dividedness into which we are born there is another part in us that is afraid of the truth; this part of us makes us hide from the deep questions by attaching ourselves to pseudo-questions or by focusing on evil that is only peripheral. The Church herself is tempted to focus her attention on superficial evil in order to avoid facing the real threats to human and Christian existence. When men do face the central problems of life something has happened to them, of which they are not the sole authors. The Spirit of God has enabled them to leave their fears behind and discern the demonic that threatens human life, personal and social, in their day.
Vatican II has attempted to analyse the present spiritual-cultural situation of man today. The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World describes the cultural change that has taken place and characterizes the anguish and the hopes of the present generation. This is done, above all, in the celebrated Introductory Statement. In this Statement the Vatican Council acknowledges that at present the human race “is passing through a new stage in its history”, (22) that the social and cultural transformation that is going on “has repercussions on man’s religious life”, (23) and that “today’s spiritual agitation and the changing conditions of life are part of a broader and deeper revolution”. (24) The Statement attempts to give a description of this transformation. It sums up its own description in the sentence, “The human race has passed from a rather static concept of reality to a more dynamic evolutionary one”. (25) In this new context the Church seeks to discern the deepest anguish of man, his profound problems and the evil that threatens to undo his life.
The principal questions today are: Who are we? Who are we as persons? Who are we as people? Who are we as mankind? Man is threatened in his human existence, personal and social, by forces of disintegration.
In a previous chapter I have analysed the presence of evil in human life in terms of dividedness. This comes close to the preoccupation of the conciliar document. Since we have become a large family living on the limited territory of the earth, since modern means of communication and transportation have turned the earth into a small planet, and since the growing interdependence of social life has made people more dependent on one another, we experience the dividedness of the human race as the central threat against social life. The forces that pit man against man, nation against nation, class against class—many of them, as we have seen, pathological—have gained such power in the present cultural situation that they cause human misery of unprecedented proportions and may even provoke a catastrophe that could destroy human life altogether. This dividedness of human life is related to the dividedness in the heart of man, man’s own self-alienation, the inherited sin into which we are born.
We now come to the second step in re-focusing the Gospel. After the Church has discerned the demonic and the principal questionings in her generation, she listens to God’s Word to find an answer to them. What is God’s message to the present generation? What is the meaning of salvation today? How is the divine message Good News for the world ‘in which the Church lives and to which she belongs?
To reply to these questions Christians turn to the Word of God as contained in the Scriptures and the tradition of the Church. With these new questions in mind they reread the Bible and study the biblical faith in the tradition of the Church, in the hope of finding some answers. In this process they may discover biblical themes at one time overshadowed by more central ones which, in the light of the new inquiry, show forth their meaning and power. Or they may find testimonies in the Church’s past which have passed unnoticed for long and which disclose their meaning in power as replies to the new questions. God’s Word is a living Word. It is never totally contained in the written record. The biblical record gives witness to the Word and renders it present—and in this sense is the Word of God—, but what we find written down are aspects and partial views of a totality that is never fully expressed in literature. The Scriptures themselves, therefore, and the traditional witness to them in the Church, are capable of supplying new answers to new questions which Christians pose in later generations and in cultures different from those in which the written documents were composed. The Word of God transcends the inspired witness and continues to address men through the proclamation of this witness, biblical and apostolic, in the Church.
Perhaps we should add that the Word of God in the Scriptures is alive also in the sense that it addresses us where we are, accuses us of sin, gives us hope in forgiveness and new life, and in this sense changes our mind. The Word acts in us by creating in us new attitudes. As we face new situations, the attitudes created by the Word in us enable us to see what is going on, to discern and distinguish and possibly even to find answers to our problems which, without God’s Word renewing us from within, would not be available to us.
Listening to the divine Word in Scripture and the Church’s past tradition has, nonetheless, its limitations. Salvational questions may arise in a new spiritual-cultural environment which cannot be answered by a fresh return to Scripture and past tradition. These may be questions which the ancients did not ask, or could not, in their cultural context, have asked; and if these questions were foreign to them it is impossible to find a definite answer to them in the literature that expresses their faith. There may be hints in this literature, marginal remarks and suggestions that could be helpful to the Christian in search of God’s message, but these remain too vague and too inconclusive for formulating the reply of faith with assurance.
The Word of God, however, speaks not only in Scripture and the Church’s past tradition; it also speaks in the present experience of people. The Word of God speaks in the Church. The experience of the Christian people has a divine message. This is what we often call the sensus fidelium, the special sensitivity to God’s Word which the Spirit creates in the Christian community. More than that—and this is the point I wish to stress here —the Word of God speaks in present human history. The Word of God, present, incarnate, and alive in Jesus Christ, addresses men wherever they are. God’s Word is involved in what happens in human conscience and consciousness. We have expressed this doctrinal position in Chapter 1: human life everywhere is the realization of a salvational dialogue with God. The experience of the community of men, therefore, is a locus of the divine Word. Since there are many voices heard in the experience of the human community, the difficulty is to discern the Word of God in history. This is the task of the Church.
The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World is the first ecclesiastical document that clearly acknowledges the presence of God’s Word in history and the Church’s duty to listen to it. The technical expression used here is “the signs of the times”. (26) God addresses the Christian Church through the signs of the times. We read: “The people of God believe that they are led by the Spirit of the Lord who fills the earth. Motivated by this faith, they labour to decipher the authentic signs of God’s presence and purpose in the happenings, needs and desires in which they have part with the other men of our age. For faith throws a new light on everything, manifests God’s design for man’s total vocation and this directs the mind to solutions which are fully human”. (27)
God addresses the Church in his Word through the Scriptures, through past tradition, and through present experience in the Church and the human community as a whole. In her attempt to be faithful to the living Word the Church must listen to the Gospel proclaimed in her as well as to the experience of men in the history of which she is part. Since God addresses the whole of mankind the Church must be in touch with the experience of the entire human family in order to become truly faithful to the Word of God. These considerations lead us to reiterate a conclusion of a previous chapter: the Church needs the world to become truly Church.
But how does the Christian discern the Word of God in history? Many voices make up the experience of society. How does the Christian know that the voice he hears is from God, and not the product of man’s self-seeking? How does he know that by listening to history he is not being led into self-destruction and human pride? The Church, in the words of the conciliar document, “always has the duty to scrutinize the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel”. (28) The faith preached by the Church enables the Christian to discern the divine message in history. The Word of God present in Scripture and the life of the Church enables the Christian to sift the experience of society, and to detect whether the values, aspirations, and deep convictions of the present generation are produced by the Spirit and hence embody the Word of God, or whether they are the products of man’s sinfulness—of his trend to assert himself against others or his capacity to use his intelligence to flee from the challenges of life.
The Christian moves from the Church into the world. Behind him he hears the Word of God celebrated in the believing community; and coming toward him, from the world which he enters, is the same Word of God present in the experience of history. (29) But the Word present in history comes to the Christian in a chorus made up of many voices. The Word of God, proclaimed in the Church, addressing him, as it were, from behind enables the Christian to discover in this chorus the Word of God present in history. This Word in history, being self-identical with the Word revealed in Christ, makes itself known to the Christian by the harmony and coherence with the biblical message. The Christian, formed by the preaching of the Church, will be able to detect in the experience of the world those values and convictions which have a correspondence and connaturality with the Gospel of Christ. In this process of listening to God speaking in the world, Christians may come to diverse views: some may hear God’s voice in certain experiences of mankind and others may evaluate the same experiences quite differently. But through sustained dialogue and common action among Christians, the process of listening will be purified and corrected, and eventually converge toward a consensus of the believing community. The final assurance that God is speaking to us through the experience of mankind is given only when the entire Church, through an act of her teaching authority, assisted by the Spirit, acknowledges the presence of God’s Word.
We must look more closely at this process of listening to God’s Word speaking in history. As the Christian moves into the world and takes seriously, not only the questions of men but also their significant and precious experiences, he will constantly refer back to the Scriptures and the Church’s teaching to test whether these experiences are in harmony or in discord with the divine revelation once for all delivered to the apostles. If the Christian has, in fact, been addressed by God’s Word present in the world, then he will read the Scriptures and interpret the tradition with a new sensitivity. He may find biblical themes and doctrinal hints which escaped him before. He may be able to relate aspects of doctrine which before he was unable to connect. Listening to the divine Word in history may initiate him into a renewed understanding of the Gospel message. But the judgment that the experience of mankind and the scriptural message are in harmony and that, therefore, this experience is God’s Word addressed to the Church is not scientifically or rationally demonstrable. The only assurance for this judgment is the experience of the Church. The final verdict belongs to the ecclesiastical magisterium.
We see here clearly the creative moment in the divine tradition of the Church. What goes on in the Church in the faithful traditioning of the Gospel in a changed environment is not a simple repetition of the primitive message, it is not even reducible to the primitive message by purely logical means; what is involved here is an indefinable moment, the work of the Spirit in the community, by which the Church judges that a certain experience in which she shares, coheres with the Gospel once for all received by the apostles, and hence gives witness to the self-same divine Word. As the Church listens to this divine Word present in history, she lays hold of the Gospel in a new way. The Word of God coming toward the Church from her encounter with history enables her to see her divine message from a new viewpoint as addressing itself to a new issue, and having a new central impact. And this is precisely what we have called the re-focusing of the Gospel.
I want to illustrate the second step in re-focusing the Gospel by analyzing the doctrinal shift from closed to open Church that took place at Vatican II. The Church discerned the demonic and the main threats to human existence in the divisiveness that pervades the lives of men and has reached an unprecedented climax in the present age. How is her message Good News in such an age? Taking this question to heart, the Church began to realize that the manner in which the Gospel was understood and presented in the past often added to the divisiveness in human life. Have Christians contributed more to the divisions among men than to their reconciliation? To a world already divided, we have added the difference between Christian and non-Christian,— understood in such a radical way that it became the source of countless divisions, strifes, injustices, and even wars. And have we not, as Christians, added to the world the division among the Churches? Is not the Catholic Church in some cultures of the West a source of divisiveness? Do we not gather Catholics from the rest of the population in separate societies and institutions? Is not the difference between Catholic and non-catholic a strong emotional reality for the ordinary Catholic which makes him live in the world as a divider rather than a reconciler of man?
The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World deals with these questions as no authoritative text of the Christian tradition ever has. In a special chapter it explains that the Gospel is not a divisive reality but a reconciling factor in the world. (30) The gifts of the Gospel do not build walls between peoples, nor do they separate Catholics in their own societies; on the contrary, the Gospel strengthens the bonds that link man to man. Jesus Christ has come as reconciler, not just as reconciler of the few who acknowledge his message but also as reconciler of the many, wherever they may be, who populate the earth. Christ is the declared and perpetual enemy of evil, that is, the enemy of all that separates men from one another and prevents the community of men from being friends. The message of Christ enables Christians to act as reconcilers in society. They are sent into the world as brothers to all men, and their mission is to deepen the consciousness of society that men are brothers, members of the same human family. (3l)
Where does this understanding of the Gospel come from ? This wide understanding of brotherhood is certainly not on the surface of the Scriptures. We have to admit that in the historical situation in which the Gospel was preached it became, in fact, a principle of social division. Brotherhood was confined to Christians. There were historical reasons for this. The focus of the apostolic preaching, presenting divine salvation as the reply to the principal questionings of their times, did not bring out the meaning of the Gospel for the entire human family. (We recall here the refusal of Jesus to get involved in the social and political movements seeking to liberate his people from the occupation of a foreign power.) Neither is the wider understanding of brotherhood, authoritatively taught at Vatican II, contained in the central themes of traditional Catholic teaching. In the past Catholic theology distinguished between “supernatural brotherhood” created by the acknowledgement of Christ in faith and a certain “natural brotherhood” including all men, based on the common human nature, created by God as such, in which all shared. The men of the past had questions of their own; they experienced the threats to human life in their own way and hence, under the influence of the Spirit, they focalized the Gospel as the Good News for their own age.
What is the basis for the new teaching of the brotherhood of men? I believe that the new teaching, proposed by Vatican II, is the result of the Church’s fidelity in listening to God’s Word present in history. Among the significant human experiences of the present age are brotherhood and universal solidarity. These values are held by people who are admired and venerated by the present generation. The men who overcome the barriers of race, of class, of nationality and religion and who affirm their solidarity with the whole human race, the men who remain loyal to their traditions and yet embrace people of different traditions as their brothers, the men who have dedicated themselves to the service of peace and the well-being of the human family, especially in underdeveloped areas—these are the men that represent the great ideals of the present culture. These are the values celebrated in art and literature; they are celebrated either by extolling the friendship that binds man to man or by denouncing the blind and often irresistible forces that isolate a man from his fellows. All over the world Pope John was acknowledged as a sign of reconciliation: he, the man of conviction, faithful to his creed and his tradition, was willing to identify himself with the entire human race and regard all men as his brothers.
Is this experience of brotherhood and solidarity the work of the Spirit? Is it a sign of the times? Does it reveal the presence of God’s Word in history and hence contain a divine message for the Church? Or is this experience of brotherhood the result of human pride? Is man here affirming his solidarity in order to look away from the sin that plagues him? Is this experience the creation of man’s mind helping him to take refuge in an illusory realm where he need not face the realities of life? Is it from the Spirit or is it from man’s connatural self-seeking?
Throughout this century Christians have begun to see in this experience of mankind a sign of God’s redemptive presence in history. In their thought, their actions and attitudes, Christians have been willing to learn from this experience. But it was only at the Vatican Council that the whole Catholic Church, represented by her collegial hierarchy, acknowledged that the universal brotherhood of man, the great experience of the age, reveals itself, under the test of the Gospel, as a redemptive reality in which God addresses his Word to the Church.
This process which began early in this century and culminated at Vatican II was accompanied by many historical and theological studies. (32) Christian scholars became more sensitive to the universalist themes in the Scriptures, to the teaching of God’s universal fatherhood and the attempts in the New Testament to spell out in universal terms the meaning of Christ’s redemption. A study of the Christian tradition brought out that while the ancients held a restrictive view of the Church, their tradition contained doctrinal hints and suggestions—such as the single divine finality of human life—which, when given closer attention, eventually led to the conclusion that the Spirit-created communion between Christians in grace reaches beyond the Church to all men open to the Spirit. Ultimately, these studies could not demonstrate that this new understanding of brotherhood was in harmony with divine revelation. What counted was the experience of the Church, the dialogue and common action among Christians, a new sense of responsibility in regard to human society, and eventually the experience of the Vatican Council itself. There the assembled bishops and the pope declared their faith that universal brotherhood is a redemptive reality. God is redemptively at work wherever people are. This acknowledgement produced a re-focusing of the Gospel—or, at least, its beginning.
In addition to the experience of human solidarity I shall briefly mention the peculiar experience of Christian solidarity that the ecumenical movement has produced. This experience has also been of doctrinal importance. Here, too, the Church listened to the experience of men. Is this Christian fellowship across ecclesiastical boundaries a work of the Spirit? Or is it the work of darkness, weakening in all Christians the sense of truth and the dedication to mission? Many arguments may be drawn from Scripture and tradition to show that the brotherly association of Christians across doctrinal differences is not the work of the Spirit. We know that such arguments were invoked when the ecumenical movement began. (33) But there are also some hints in the New Testament that seem to encourage the fellowship of separated Christians. The ultimate verdict, however, that the experience of new solidarity was in harmony with the Gospel, was not the conclusion of a theological demonstration; it was, rather, the acknowledgement by the Council that the Spirit was at work in this solidarity and that God was addressing his Church through the ecumenical movement.
I have given two instances of what listening to God’s Word in history has meant at Vatican II. Others could be given. The two examples reveal the doctrinal shift from a closed to an open understanding of Church. They illustrate the re-focusing of the Gospel that took place at Vatican II. By listening to God’s Word proclaimed in the Church and present in the history of men, the Vatican Council announced divine revelation as the Good News to a world threatened by dividedness in personal and social life. Jesus is reconciler. God in Christ creates community among those who acknowledge him in faith and are baptized in his name; but beyond this the God who revealed himself in Christ creates community wherever people are open to one another. Wherever people are, something happens. This is the Good News. There are, indeed, the forces of destruction operating in human society; but man is not delivered over to them. Why? Because God has revealed in Jesus Christ that he is present to human life and that men, through his presence, become friends.
We now come to the third step in the process of re-focusing the Gospel. The process began, we remember, with the discernment of the demonic and the deepest questioning in the new spiritual-cultural environment. Then followed the attempt of the Church —by faithfully listening to God’s Word in her past and her present—to present the Gospel once for all revealed as the Good News in this new environment. This attempt involved new Christian experience. It included dialogue, research, reflection. The whole Church was involved in it. Divine revelation was ultimately formulated as the salvational reply to the present predicament by an act of the ecclesiastical magisterium as the new focus of the self-identical Gospel.
The third step in this process is the re-interpretation of the entire Christian teaching in the light of the new focus. We recall that a focus of the Gospel is not simply an important doctrinal position; it is, rather, the central view, in the light of which the entire mystery of salvation is understood and which holds together, interrelates, and qualifies the entire teaching of the Church. What is required, therefore, in the process of re-focusing the Gospel is the re-reading of the Scriptures and the whole tradition of the Church in order to gain a new view of the Christian faith in its totality.
The best way of explaining this third step is to return to the doctrinal shift that took place at Vatican II. The new understanding of Church, of fellowship, of the mystery of redemption present in human life, demands a re-reading of Scripture and tradition and a re-interpretation of all the positions which, in the past, were understood as favouring a restrictive notion of Church. What does Christian teaching mean when it confines salvation to believers? When it proclaims Jesus as the unique mediator between God and men? When it calls the entry into the Church a passage from death to life? If we adopt the open understanding of Church we must re-interpret these doctrinal positions in the light of the new focus. We will have to show that saving faith is a divine gift, not confined to the Church but available to people in their openness to the Spirit. We will have to show that the unique mediation of Jesus Christ does not limit grace to the Church. We will have to show that the entry into the Church is a passage from death to life for men who had closed their ears to the Spirit and who were opened to new life through the preaching of the Gospel. Yet this passage from death to life happens not only when sinners enter the Church; it happens, in some way, whenever men who are closed in their self-centredness are summoned by God and begin to listen to him. This process of re-interpreting traditional teaching began at Vatican II.
There are other examples of a more practical nature that illustrate the need for re-interpretation. In the light of the new focus what is the meaning of baptism? Or, more difficult, what is the meaning of infant baptism? Is it still necessary ? What about the mission of the Church? What is the mission Christ assigned to the Church if God is redemptively involved in human life everywhere? What is the mission of the Church if the saving action of God is already at work among people offering them new life —as persons and as community? Related to this is the question of how to distinguish between Church and world. The affirmation of the open Church does not obliterate the distinction between Church and world! But the new focus does demand that the difference between Church and world be re-interpreted in the light of the new insight.
Catholic theologians have dealt with many of these questions. They do not always agree in their interpretations. Many questions remain open. It is my conviction that the re-focusing that has taken place at Vatican II leads to a re-interpretation even of the notion of God, in particular of the divine transcendence. We note here—and we shall have occasion to come back to it further on—that some of the doctrinal uncertainty in the Catholic Church at this time is precisely due to the fact that a re-focusing of the Gospel has taken place, but that the subsequent re-interpretation of Christian teaching has not been fully achieved. The process of re-interpretation is a gradual one.
Is there a further step in the re-focusing of the Gospel? Is there a fourth step in which traditional teaching is translated into the language and the concepts proper to the new spiritual cultural environment? We recall that the “accommodated preaching of the divine Word”—which Vatican II called “the law of all evangelization”—asks for the proclamation of the Gospel in terms taken from contemporary culture. My point in this connection is that what has taken place in steps one, two, and three is not only a new way of focusing the Gospel and understanding it as the divine answer to man’s deepest questionings; it is, at the same time, the translation of the Gospel into language and concepts of the present. Step one, we recall, consists in discerning the crucial questions of people. Already in this step the Church deals with issues that trouble her contemporaries and hence, inevitably, thinks in contemporary terms. In step two the Church listens to the experience of the world and tries to discern in it the presence of God’s Word. The Church tries to find the divine reply to the present predicament as the focus that will make her message the Good News for the present. Inevitably, this will be expressed in a language and in concepts taken from contemporary cultural experience. The third step, the re-interpretation of Christian teaching in the light of the new focus, enables the Church to speak of the whole of Christian teaching in new terms proper to the culture in which she lives and in which she preaches. We conclude, therefore, that with these three steps the Gospel has been translated into a new cultural language.
We note that this process of re-interpretation is the very contrary of a cultural assimilation of the Gospel. This translation or —to use the word of Vatican II—this “accommodation” is not the work of man’s intelligence at home in the meaning of language and the mutation of concepts. The translation is brought about by the Church’s effort to be faithful to the divine Word. It is a response in faith. It begins by discovering the dimensions of evil in the present age. Even when, in the second step, the present culture is seen in its positive elements the discernment takes place in the light of the apostolic witness. The apostolic witness remains normative in the entire process. The divine Word in history is acknowledged precisely because it is identical with the Word of God present in the apostolic witness. The identity is discerned, we said, not simply through intellectual analysis; the discernment takes place in a creative process, the Spirit-created experience of the Church in which the Word addressed to her in the present is recognized as the Word spoken once for all in Jesus Christ. This is what is meant by “infallibility”.
If I understand Leslie Dewart’s theory of doctrinal development (34) correctly I find that I come to the same conclusions, even if our methods of investigation have been quite different. Dewart insists that if the Church wants to be faithful to the Gospel, once-for-all received, in a new cultural age, she must “re-conceptualize” it—or, in our terminology, re-focus and re-interpret it; if she simply repeats what she said in the past she will, in fact, no longer announce the same Gospel. This re-conceptualization is not achieved as the intellectual task of translating the creeds and doctrinal formulas into a new cultural and philosophical language. What must happen is something more original and creative. Dewart rightly insists that re-conceptualization is the faithful response of the Church to the divine Word addressed to her in the present. Divine revelation, though definitive and exhaustive in Jesus Christ—and from this point of view closed— continues in the Church: God continues to speak his self-identical Word in the Church. This on-going self-communication of God in his Word evokes the faith of the Church and thus constitutes her in her being as the community of the faithful. For Dewart, therefore, the re-conceptualization of divine revelation is a process by which the Church, faithful to the apostolic witness and at home in a new cultural environment, responds in faith to the divine Word spoken in her and to her. The re-conceptualization of revelation is the new self-consciousness of the Church.
This concludes our examination of the tension between past and present, implicit in the Gospel. It has been my point that the Catholic Church, because of her acknowledgment of divine tradition, has retained the tension between past and present. She is not irretrievably tied to the past, neither to the 1st century nor to the consensus of the first five centuries, nor to the doctrinal crystallization of the 16th century. She is faithful to the past, but not tied to it. She acknowledges the Word of God spoken to her in the present and hence is able to re-interpret the self-identical Gospel as the Good News for the contemporary world: this Spirit-created capacity of the Church to detect God’s present self-communication to her by its identity with the Word once delivered, a capacity which involves her Christian experience and eventually a doctrinal consensus through pope and bishops, may be called her “infallibility”. Thanks to this “infallibility” the Catholic Church remains open to the future.
We have here a second meaning of Open Church. Because 2000 years ago, the Christian Church often appears as oriented toward the past. She seems to reflect on the past; she seems to think that what is really important happened a long time ago and hence not to expect good things to happen tomorrow. Must the Church always be oriented toward the past? Is not the Gospel full of promises of about tomorrow and the day after tomorrow? The theological reflections in these pages have tried to show that the past events, once for all recorded in the Scriptures, enable the Church to discern the Word of God addressed to her in the present and hence to open herself to the future into which she moves. Living out the tension between past and present, the Church opens herself to the future and finds a way of speaking about God and his Son Jesus Christ that makes sense to the secular culture of tomorrow.
We close this chapter with a concluding paragraph. We have said that the Catholic Church, especially in her claim to uniqueness, is credible if she is meaningful in terms of the New Testament, if she explains the past, and if she illuminates present experience. We have seen that the Catholic claim to uniqueness is meaningful in terms of the tensions, given in the New Testament, between the local and the universal and between the past and the present. We have seen that the fidelity to these tensions is assured by the social dynamics of the collegial structure (pope and bishops) and the acknowledgement of a creative element in handing on the Gospel (divine tradition). This explains why the Catholic Church has defended these two elements of her life so vehemently in the past. We have seen, moreover, that the claim to uniqueness illumines present experience: for the Catholic Church alone is, at this time, capable of a doctrinal consensus received as normative by her members and, because of this and because of her acknowledgment of God’s Word in the present (infallibility), capable of re-interpreting the Gospel as the Good News for men in our day. Doctrinal consensus and re-interpretation of the Gospel happened at the Vatican Council. Her claim to uniqueness enables the Catholic Church to make a special contribution to the ecumenical movement.
1. See , pp. 50-51.
2. America, January 6, 1968, pp. 14-15.
4. The Church Against Itself, New York, 1967, pp. 157-158.
5. On this theological basis we arc able to reaffirm—albeit in a different light—everything the ecclesiastical magisterium of the 19th century proposed regarding the “objectivity” of the Christian foundation.
6. Cf The Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order, Montreal, 1963, London, 1964, pp. 16-17.
7. Denz.-S. 3061.
8. Cf. J. P. Torrell, La théologie de l’épiscopat au premier Concile du Vatican, Paris, 1961, pp. 149-158; G. Dejaifve, Pape et évéques au premier Concile du, Vatican, Brussels, 1961, pp. 81-91.
9. “While preserving unity in essentials let everyone in the Church, according to the office entrusted to him, preserve a proper freedom in the various forms of the spiritual life and discipline, in the variety of liturgical rites and even in the theological elaborations of revealed truth.” Decree on Eucumenism, art. 4. The canonical, liturgical and theological pluralism in the Church is vigorously affirmed in regard to the traditions of East and West. Cf ibid., arts. 16-17. Pluralism in the Catholic Church is the subject of several essays in Theology of Renewal, 2 vols. For references, see The Ecumenist, 5, September/October 1967, pp. 81-85.
10. When I speak of doctrinal consensus I do not have in mind a total agreement on all points of doctrine and values of life. More than once I have acknowledged the need for a theological pluralism in the Catholic Church. The doctrinal consensus of which I speak has to do, as we shall see below, with the focus of the Gospel and the Church’s understanding of her mission.
II. New Blackfriars, 48, January 1967, pp. 170-171.
12. ‘We know that nowadays certain trends of thought which still describe themselves as Catholic attempt to attribute a priority in the normative formulation of the truths of faith, to the community of the
faithful.” Pope Paul, VI’s speech on February 22, 1967, quoted in the National Catholic Reporter, March 1, 1967. Cf his speech on January 11, 1967, quoted in the National Catholic Reporter, January 19, 1967.
13. Jude 3.
14. New York, 1960, pp. 57-63.
15. Ibid., Part II: “Doctrinal Development Viewed Relatively to Doctrinal Corruptions”, pp. 175-418.
16. A good survey of the theological literature on doctrinal development is H. Hammans, “Recent Catholic Views on the Development of Dogma”, Concilium, vol. 21, pp. 109-131. This survey is based on the large work by the same author, Die neueren katholischen Erklärungen der Dogmenentwicklung, Essen, 1965, and K. Rahner/K. Lehmann, Mysterium Salutis, vol. 1, Einsiedeln, 1965, pp. 727-787.
17. Here, too, Blondel has been the first to insist that dogmas are not produced by reflection on given texts; they are expressions of a continuing reality tested by the experience of life. Cf. Blondel’s essay “History and Dogma”, Letter on Apologetics and History of Dogma. For an evaluation of Blondel and a discussion of his influence—’leider bis heute systematisch viel zu wenig beachtet”—see Rahner/Lehmann, Mystcrium Salutis, p. 752.
18. Cf. Baum, “Vatican Il’s Constitution on Divine Revelation”, Theological Studies, 28, 1967, pp. 51-75, esp. 61-64; P. van Leeuwen, “The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation” and L. Bakker, ‘What is Man’s Place in Divine Revelation?”, Concilium, vol. 21, pp. 5-38.
19. New York, 1967, p. 6.
20. Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, art. 44.
21. “Ideas are appearing in the fields of exegesis and theology which have their origin in certain bold but misleading philosophical theories and which cast doubt upon or narrow down the full meaning of the truths which the Church has taught with her rightful authority. There is a pretence that religion must be adapted to the contemporary mind.” Pope Paul VI, “Exhortation on the 19th Centenary of the Martyrdom of SS. Peter and Paul,” The Pope Speaks, 12, 1967, p. 141.
22. Art. 4.
24. Art. 5
26. “Signs of the times” was an expression frequently used by Pope John XXIII, especially in his encyclical Pacem in terris. Cf M. Vanhengel/J. Peters, “Signs of the Times”, Concilium, vol. 25, pp. 143-152.
27. Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, art. ll.
28. Ibid., art. 4.
29. This thought is examined by M.-D. Chenu in his essay “The History of Salvation and the Historicity of Man in the Renewal of Theology’; Theology of Renewal, vol. 1: Renewal of Religious Thought. His conclusions are summarized in The Ecumenist, 5, September/October 1967, pp. 91-92. Chenu writes (as quoted in The Ecumenist), “The Church is in the world of time . . . She is here as the expression and interpretation of the very truth of the revealed data. The Word of God speaks today in the hierarchical and magisterial community in which it is the living architect. Thus we are not concerned with an ‘adaptation’ of the Word of God conceived in abstract purity. We are not dressing up and stripping abstract formulas. It is a rereading of Scripture that progressively reveals its appropriate significance in each generation of the Church, thanks to the light which the present moment throws upon the past when past and present confront each other, open to the future. It is a permanent reinterpretation, within the regulating community and as conditioned by the magisterium, of truths within the unchangeable identity of their intentionality…. It is wrong for the theologian to isolate, or ‘put into parentheses’ as it were, contemporary thought in order first to determine exactly what has been revealed and only then, as a second step, to translate it into contemporary language.” According to Chenu doctrinal renewal must always be an original, creative, Spirit-produced reformulation of the Gospel in a new age, using the language proper to the experience of contemporary life. Chenu thinks that the first requirement in this process is the sensitivity of Christians to the presence and action of God in history.
30. Arts. 23-32.
31. “This Vatican Council proclaims the highest destiny of man and champions the divine seed which has been sown in him. It offers to mankind the most honest assistance of the Church in fostering that brotherhood of all men which corresponds to this destiny of theirs. Inspired by no earthly ambition the Church seeks but a single goal: to carry forward the work of Christ under the lead of the befriending Spirit” (art. 3). The common brotherhood of man in the selfsame destiny and the Church’s task of intensifying this brotherhood in the Spirit is acknowledged throughout this Constitution.
32. The recent development in the theological understanding of the word “brother” has not yet been studied. For useful references see Willems, “Who Belongs to the Church?”, Concilium, vol. 1, pp. 131-151.
33. For a totally negative evaluation of the ecumenical movement on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities, see Pope Pius Xl’s encyclical Mortalium animos, 1928.
34. The Future of Belief, New York, 1966, pp. 96-121.