REVEREND FATHER RICHARD McBrien opened Volume II of his books with the role of the Church in mediating salvation, which Catholics have emphasized more strongly than have other Christian traditions. In union with the See of Rome, Catholics have insisted on the importance of the ordained ministries of the bishop, presbyter and deacon and the special role of the Bishop of Rome, the pope. They have also underlined the essentially sacramental character of Christian existence and taken care to define precisely the nature, meaning and number of the sacraments and the conditions where they are celebrated.
Generous attention is given the mystery of the Church, not because it is more important than the mystery of God or Jesus Christ, but because it is with the mystery of the Church that the distinctively Catholic understanding and practice of Christian faith most clearly emerge. The Church is the sacrament of the triune God’s presence among us; it is the mediator of God’s salvific activity on our behalf; and it is a communion of grace to which all humanity is called in the final Kingdom of God.
Origin and Mission
No one questions the fact that the Church exists. The question is not with the existence of the Church but with its origins. The mystery of the Church flows directly from the mystery of Christ. The Church is the body of Christ and carries forward His mission.
Jesus did not intend to found a Church if by found we mean some direct, explicit, deliberate act by which he established a new religious organization. Jesus did found a Church, at least indirectly; i.e., he laid the foundations for it. He gathered disciples around Him for the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, anticipated an interim period between His death and the final coming of the Kingdom and, at the Last Supper, He looked toward the disciples’ staying together even after His death.
The mission of the Church, like the mission of Jesus, centered on the Kingdom of God. The Church lives between the promised Kingdom and the fully realized One. It is both sign and instrument of the Kingdom. It is sent by Christ to proclaim the Kingdom, to make disciples out of nations, to baptize them in the triune God, to forgive sins and to break the power of Satan.The orientation of the Kingdom is explicit in the Eucharist.
More specifically, the mission of the Church includes the proclamation of the Word, the celebration of the sacraments and service to those in need.
The Second Vatican Council was the largest and most representative council in the Church’s history, with its bishops drawn from every major continent and culture. With the council, the Church began its movement from a Church of cultural confinement to a genuine Church of the world. One of the council’s major accomplishments is the participation of the laity in the whole mission of the Church.
Before Vatican II, twentieth century ecclesiology (study of the Church) was of two kinds: textbook, which stressed the institutional, juridical and hierarchical aspects of the Church; and progressive, which understood the whole Church as the whole People of God, always in need of renewal and reform.
The single most influential personality associated with the Vatican II event was Pope John XXIII, who convened the council and set its tone by the style he himself adopted as pope, namely, that of a servant-shepherd. The council, he insisted, was not for condemnations but for updating the Church for the sake of its own spiritual vitality, Christian unity and world peace. His influence was – is – carried on and out by his predecessor-popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis.
Concerns in Ecclesiology
Authority. From the Latin word auctor (author), it has to do with the capacity to influence the thinking and/or behavior of others. It may be associated with an office or with certain intrinsic qualities, which evoke respect and lead to persuasion. God is the ultimate authority, or Author, of all that is.
In the Old Testament, authority was exercised by human agents, but it was never absolute. In the New Testament, Jesus provides the model for its exercise. He is One Who serves. He uses His power to forgive sins, heal and thereby proclaim the Kingdom. He shares His authority with His disciples.
Papacy. It is an exercise of the Petrine function, i.e., a particular form of ministry to the Church as a whole. The New Testament does not call Peter the first pope yet he exercised a unique role in the early Church. There is a pattern or trajectory of images (e.g., fisherman, shepherd) which suggest that the postbiblical development is indeed consistent with the thrust of the New Testament. The bishop of Rome becomes increasingly important in the early centuries of the Church in resolving serious doctrinal controversies. He sends delegates to councils and is appealed to as a court of last resort.
Primacy. The doctrine of papal primacy, formulated by Vatican I, becomes an increasingly difficult concept under the impact of the threats posed by the encroachment of lay political power and other factors. Vatican II restores a collegial and spiritual understanding of papal primacy. Supreme authority is vested in the pope and bishops, forming together a single college. The authority is always for the faithful preaching of the Gospel, the administration of the sacraments and living service.
The Church is a communion of churches. The papacy exists to serve the unity of that communion but it must always respect the legitimate diversity of those churches, collegiality in decision-making and the principle of subsidiarity, not appropriating to itself decisions which are better reached at lower levels.
Women. They are excluded from all formal ministries in the Catholic Church, although not from their functions. With the growth of the Church, an increase in its organizational complexity and its adoption of political and societal models, the so-called lower ministries were absorbed upward, becoming stepping-stones to higher ecclesiastical office. The women’s liberation movement in the 60s and feminist theology in the 80s and 90s encouraged a new attitude toward the place of women in the Church. The positive change was reflected in an encyclical by Pope John XXIII and reinforced by Vatican II but resistance to women in formal ministries continues.
Those who favor ordination of women to the priesthood point to the injustice of the present exclusion based on gender alone, tradition in the early Church, absence of evidence against it in the New Testament and the present critical needs of the Church.
Those who oppose point to the constant tradition of the Church and the necessity of the priest’s physical as well as spiritual resemblance to Christ.
Fr. McBrien beautifully, ironically introduces Part V. Few things are more characteristic of Catholicism than its sacramental life, which is centered in the seven sacraments, and on the Eucharist in particular.
Just as God reaches us through the finite and the visible, so we reach God similarly. The point at which this occurs is sacramental encounter. For Christians, the point of sacramental encounter with God is the humanity of Jesus Christ. For Catholics, especially, the Church also plays an important sacramental, or mediating, role in salvation history. Just as Christ is the sacrament of encounter with God, so the Church is the sacrament of encounter with Christ and, ultimately, with God.
Since the medieval period, the sacraments have been understood primarily as causes of grace. Their function as signs of faith was subordinated to concerns about causality. For St. Thomas Aquinas, however, sacraments cause grace insofar as they signify it. If they are not intelligible and effective signs, or symbols, then they are not effective causes.
Sacraments, therefore, are (1) signs of faith, (2) acts of worship, (3) signs of the unity of the Church, and (4) signs of Christ’s presence.
The Council of Trent taught that the sacraments also cause grace for those who place no obstacle to it. It is not the personal merit of the recipient that causes the grace received. God does not force the human will. St. Thomas insisted on the “right disposition” of the recipient – i.e., interior conversion, faith, devotion. The “fruitfulness” (as opposed to the mere “validity”) of the sacrament depends on this. Sacraments do not cause grace in the sense that grace is otherwise unavailable. The offer of grace is already present in the world in God’s original self-communication. The sacraments signify, celebrate and effect what, in a sense, God is already doing everywhere and for all.
The minister of the sacrament acts in the name of the Church and therefore must intend to do what the Church wishes to be done. But the validity of the sacrament does not depend on the holiness of the minister. Not every member of the Church is qualified to administer every sacrament. The recipient must be disposed properly (faith, conversion, devotion). If not, “the very act of celebrating” the sacrament may produce the proper disposition.
Infant baptism is the exception rather than the rule of sacramental reception. Two extremes are to be avoided in explaining it: The one which assumes that Original Sin cannot be “removed” without Baptism, and the other which assumes that sacraments are only for adults or mature young people. The community’s “intention” supplies for the infant’s, and it is the community which nurtures the baptized member’s faith.
The sacraments were “instituted” by Christ in the same way that the Church was “instituted” by Christ. They have their origin in Jesus’ proclamation of God and in His call to discipleship. Jesus willed the sacraments to the same degree and extent as He willed the Church. The Catholic Church recognizes seven signs as sacraments in the fullest sense: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance (Reconciliation), Anointing of the Sick, Matrimony and Holy Order. The number seven, however, is not absolute. Baptism and Confirmation might be taken as one sacrament, or the sacrament of Holy Order as three (deaconate, priesthood, episcopate).
The standard distinction between “dogmatic” and “moral” theology has been drawn on the basis of a perceived difference between theory and practice. In dogmatic theology we must specify what we must believe; in moral theology we determine how we are to live and what we are required to do (or not do) because of those beliefs. Traditional catechisms would later introduce the sacraments as those God-given “aids” to correct belief and moral action.
Just as faith and action are united in the one notion of praxis (practice), so dogmatic and moral theology are united in one systematic theology. Truth is not only to be thought about but also to be lived and done, and the living and doing of truth is the condition of grasping it. Christian morality has to do with the way Christians live and act; moral theology or Christian ethics is the thematic, systematic and refective study of Christian morality. Philosophical ethics, in its reflection on morality, uses only human sources like reason and experience. Religious ethics uses the sources of a particular religion like its scripture, tradition and teaching authorities. Moral theology or Christian ethics is unique or distinctive because of its sources and because it adds a unique purposefulness and motivation to what Christians do.
The moral message of Jesus was centered on the Kingdom of God. His preaching was both a proclamation of good news and a call to conversion, repentance, faith and discipleship. He attacked the traditional notion that every part of the Law (the Ten Commandments, especially) was of equal importance and that the external observance is what finally counted. For Jesus, it is the inner disposition that determines an act’s moral value. He was especially intolerant of hypocrisy. All of His teachings were concentrated in the one commandment of love: of God and neighbor.
Fr. McBrien offers that spirituality is one of the most widely misunderstood and misinterpreted words in the Christian tradition. For many Christians, it has meant something marginal and even exotic, as if spirituality were the special preserve of clergy and religious and a tiny minority of intensely “pious” lay people. But Christianity is not just a system of beliefs (about God, grace, Christ, redemption, the Church and salvation), but also a life to be lived: a life of worship, shaped by the Eucharist and the other sacraments, and a life of moral commitment and behavior, shaped by distinctively Christian moral values and norms that are rooted in the teaching and example of Jesus. In a word, discipleship is a life that the Christian is called to.
Spirituality is not exclusively Christian since, in principle, God is available to everyone. But Christian spirituality is life in the Holy Spirit, who incorporates the Christian into the Body of Jesus Christ, through Whom the Christian has access to God the Creator in a life of faith, hope, love and service. Although there is only one Spirit, there are many different spiritualities, even within the Church itself. Here are some theological criteria evaluating the various spiritualities. We are: body-spirits; social beings; individual human persons; subjects, i.e., distinct centers of consciousness and freedom; graced; sinners; ecclesial persons; and called to Christian discipleship; God is triune; the triune God is present to all reality; and all are called to holiness.
At the center of the life of the Christian disciples and the Church and at the heart of Christian and Catholic spirituality is worship. It is an act of reverence and honor shown to God, expressed in formal prayer or in the ordinary deeds of everyday human life. Christian worship is rooted in Jesus Christ and reaches its highest expression in the Eucharist.
Liturgy, the official public worship of the Church, includes the Eucharist, the other sacraments and the Liturgy of the Hours (Holy Office).
Prayer is a conscious, loving communion with God. It is purposive (adoring, thankful, contrite, petitioning), contextual (communal, private) and methodical (mental, vocal, discursive, affective). Meditation is a form of mental prayer, involving an extended reflection on the presence and activity of God. Contemplation, on the other hand, is the simple awareness of, and focus on, the presence of God. It is not a method of prayer, but a gift from God. Devotions are forms of affective prayer. While appealing to religious feelings, Vatican II insists that devotions be closely linked with the liturgy.
The Liturgy of the Hours is an integral part of the public worship of the Church. Once regarded as the prayer of monks and clerics only, it is now recemmended for the whole Church, especially Morning and Evening Prayer.
Mary and the Saints
If theological and doctrinal presentation of Catholicism were to leave out the Blessed Virgin Mary and the other saints, it could not claim to be at once comprehensive, complete and “catholic.”
In Volume II, Part VII, Chapter XXX of the book, Mary and the saints could just as properly be deemed within the mystery of God, since it is the holiness of God that is the gift they receive, by which they are transformed, and which they reflect as the moon reflects the rays of the sun. Within the discussion of nature and grace, the drama of sin and grace is played out in their lives and, in Mary’s case, the triumph of grace is definitive and complete. Mary, the book explains, is herself a saint, if not the greatest of saints, and the preeminent member of the Communion of Saints. Mary holds so unique a place among the saints, the least precise, but simplest, hence the chapter’s title.
There is relatively little about Mary in the New Testament. Second-century literature on her is thin. There were complications in the discussions of her perpetual virginity. Yet the Council of Ephesus defined her as truly the Mother of God, not only the mother of Christ. Marian devotion increased following that. From the eighth century on, faith in Mary’s intercessory prayer received a strong push from growing belief in her assumption, especially in the East. Her role in the channeling of saving grace was stressed; Christ was the one Mediator but Mary provided the component of mercy.
Following a controversy on the Immaculate Conception, Marian prayers,hymns, devotions, feasts and reports of apparitions proliferated between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. Concern for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was rejuvenated in 1830 with a reported apparition to Catherine Laboure. In 1854 Pope Pius IX solemnly defined the Immaculate Conception as a dogma of faith. Other reported visions and apparitions along with other factors in 1950 led to a second Marian definition: the Assumption.
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception means that God was fully present to Mary in grace from the beginning, in view of her divine motherhood. She, too, is truly redeemed, but in an exceptional and unique manner. The dogma of the Assumption complements the Immaculate Conception. Two extremes are to be avoided in Marian devotion: a minimalism which withholds any and all veneration from Mary, and a maximalism which assumes there are practically no limits to such veneration.
Kingdom of God
Eschatology is about the Kingdom, or Reign, of God, i.e., the redemptive presence of God actualized through the power of God’s reconciling Spirit. It is concerned with the past, the present and the future. Jesus not only preached the Kingdom, He put it into practice through healings, exorcisms, eating with outcasts, etc.
Fr. McBrien concludes that Catholicism is not a reality that stands by itself. The word Catholic is a qualification of Christian, and Christian is a qualification of religious, and religious is a qualification of human. The Catholic Church alone affirms that the Petrine ministry, or papacy, is an integral institutional element in the Body of Christ. It is the one issue which finally divides the Catholic from all other Christians. In general, Catholicism is characterized by a radical openness to all truth and every value. It does not emerge from a particular time after the foundational period of the New Testament, nor is it tied to a particular nation or culture. It endorses no one school of theology or spirituality and no single interpretation of doctrine. Nowhere is the catholicity of the Church more evident than at Vatican II: A Church at once pluralistic and open to pluralism, modern and open to modernity, ecumenical and open to the whole wide world, alive and open to new life, and catholic and open in principle to all truth and every value.
It was not the purpose of the books, he said, to establish the superiority of Catholicism but to identify its distinctiveness by calling attention to the configuration of values which one finds nowhere else in the Body of Christ or in Christianity at large: sacramentality, mediation, communion, rationality, continuity, the triumph of grace over sin, the regard for authority, order, conscience and freedom.
Ate Au will never plumb the excessive adrenaline that pumped in my veins when I embarked on perusing her books and, later, venturing to share them with Claretian Publications’ public, the world at large. I am buoyed by the prospect of her seeing the product of her generosity in print. Ad majorem Dei gloriam.
Aside from readings suggested in the books, the reader can avail himself of an appendix, discussion questions, glossary and an index of subjects and personal names to fully and truly appreciate the scope of the author’s extensive theological treatise.