Yesterday I was teaching an introductory course on the theology of sacraments to the Catholic school faculty in my own parish— “faculty lounge theology,” I guess you could say—and as I was meandering on about sacraments and signs I suddenly stopped my train of thought. “Of course,” I wondered aloud, “none of this has any importance if you don’t believe in God.”
I stopped and spontaneously went into the predispositions of Catholic worship—that there is a God, that God created, that God jumped the chasm between created and uncreated, that God took flesh and entered our world, that God came to do us some good, and that we trust we are encountering God in sacramental events. Without that, Catholic worship—all worship—is delusional magic. The DNA stream of belief is something that every adult must figure out personally and regularly, because age, wisdom, and personal experience change us. As I said yesterday, “You have to sort out your thoughts about God after you walk through a pediatric oncology unit.”
I have no idea what made me say that yesterday. In thinking about it later, it might possibly be that my students—young teaching professionals—are one to two generations behind me, and my own persona as a teacher is morphing from informer to sage. It could be, too, that after years of teaching roughly the same theological agenda I am coming around to a different, more basic, fashion of putting forth the Catholic tradition.
I had not read Paragraph 75 closely until early this morning, but considering yesterday’s experience I realized that this text is a personal and institutional building block of Catholic life. Again, the text makes no sense if one does not believe in God, in a revealing God, in a God who is synonymous with Jesus, in a Jesus who saves us from a wretched state and brings us to a glorious one, in a Jesus who has left himself behind to continue the saving, in his commissioning of specific people to authentically carry on this work, in a group empowered to lead his followers according to the intention of Jesus, until the end of time.
This is the DNA stream of para. 75, which summarizes the fact of a saving message and the means of its passing on—in Latin, tradere, “to hand on”; hence Tradition. When the Catechism speaks of “Tradition” it does so in a very technical and specific sense. The Church, in its acts, is acting in the persona of Christ, handing on what he did and addressing new circumstances as it understands Jesus would have done, given that Jesus’ Holy Spirit remains with the Church for all time.
The content of para. 75 rests at the heart of Church teaching for those who are called to meaningful engagement in the Church. Footnote 32 comes from the Vatican II Document Dei Verbum, “Divine Revelation.” DV, in turn, rests upon a wide range of previous Church teachings—from Church Fathers including St. Augustine, The Council of Trent (1545-1563), Vatican I (1870), the Council of Orange (529), St. Irenaeus (c. 100), Pius XII (1950)—among those sources cited in the Vatican II texts themselves. In short, the authority to faithfully pass along Scripture and Tradition is among the most cherished beliefs and teachings on the Catholic Church.
The content of para. 75 is not new to the Catechism to this juncture. Previous paragraphs have affirmed God’s revelation in Scripture, fulfilled in the life and works of Jesus. The idea of a universal mission to all to preach the Gospel is not new to the Catechism text, either. However, we are progressing—albeit slowly—to the details of Catholic life—none of which will have significance or impact upon a reader if there is not kind of personal trust and relationship in the Church.
In fairness, I need to harken back to Vatican II’s teachings on the Church itself, which reflects an ambiguity about the Church’s identity. Prior to Vatican II formal Church statements stated that the Mystical Body of Christ is the Roman Catholic Church. Such teachings gave rise to the belief that “outside the Catholic Church there is no salvation” or that Protestants did not have a true unity with Christ. But perhaps most troubling to the Vatican II fathers was the evident reality that Catholicism in its earthly dealings was not perfect—that then and now the Church in its leaders and members erred, sinned, and generally reflected imperfection. Vatican II language adopted better linguistics, describing the Church as a “pilgrim people,” a metaphor easily reminiscent of the Chosen People in the desert under Moses—dedicated to God but hardly perfect.
There is another linguistic work of genius from Vatican II that is not widely appreciated. The fathers voted to state that the Mystical Body of Christ subsists in the Roman Catholic Church. Wikipedia has a remarkably good explanation of the debate here, but put briefly, Vatican II now teaches that the Church contains everything that is necessary for salvation, while aspects of Christ’s truth can be found elsewhere. At the time of the Council I believe that that the fathers were attempting to replace what often sounded like arrogance (or technically, “triumphalism,”) with a statement of wholeness that invited hungry guests from the outside to come to the Church’s table, or in many cases, to return to it.
In 2017 this more nuanced understanding of the Church is critically important for several reasons. The temptation of institutional Catholicism is constantly to lapse into triumphal certainty—we have all the answers. Were this in fact true, there would be no need for the Holy Spirit. But the fact is there remain many issues—in life, in Church life, in our own consciences—where the meeting of Scripture, Tradition, and the well-intentioned private or collective consciences of Catholics continue in a fruitful dialogue. Tradition itself is proof of this. Around 200 A.D. the leaders of the Church had to determine which books belonged in the canon or collection we call the New Testament. From what I have read, one of the determining factors in the selection were the littles of books and letters already in use in Christian liturgy. A collective inspiration had taken place.
My second reason for defining the Church--as it is--has to do with the recent phenomenon that many good folks have left the Church, and quite a few others are members of the marginal type. I have no solid data for why this is happening---though I have many opinions—but I must wonder if our lost friends may still carry the pre-Council concept of the Church as the perfect society of which they are not worthy, or more likely, have seen the failures of “the perfect Church” and lost respect.
Again, returning to the DNA of Revelation and Tradition, it is important when making conscience decisions about fidelity and membership in the Church, to understand the “subsists” clause and the pilgrim people paradigm. The Church is sustained by a perfect God but peopled with imperfect but striving souls. Pastors are often accused of always asking for money; maybe they would do better to ask for hungry hearts.