There is no denying it: the Church has been in the news a lot this summer, and not always in the most favorable light. There was heated discussion this summer among bishops in the United States over the suitability of President Biden presenting himself for Communion; nearly one thousand unmarked graves of children were discovered on the properties of Catholic orphanages in western Canada; a number of Catholic Churches were desecrated this summer across North America; and, as I write this, Pope Francis is recovering from surgery, a reminder that the Bishop of Rome is subject to the laws of mortality and that the transition of authority in the Church is a delicate but necessary consideration. On this last note it should be recalled that Pope Francis recently convoked a universal synod in 2023--on the very subject of snynodality or grassroots involvement in the mission and vision of the Church.
The polarity that currently afflicts Catholics across the country is complex and made more so by the recent “culture wars” in American society. But ever since the closing of the Council Vatican II in 1965 there has been a rift between those who believe that the Church is moving too slowly in reinventing itself to meet the challenges of the modern age and those who believe that some reform strategies and ideologies have outrun the sacred deposit of Revelation received and promulgated by the Apostles and their successors, the bishops. It can be argued, of course, that this ying and yang is a helpful corrective for a body that sees divine truth only dimly, as through a glass, to cite St. Paul. Unfortunately, the absolutism of those on both sides advocating ecclesiastical reform has had the unfortunate effect of dividing the Church at all its levels.
This summer I have turned the attention of one of the Café website streams to Ecclesiology, the branch of theology that studies the origins, structures, and works of the Church. I have referenced the text Ecclesiology and the Beginning of the Third Millennium  in recent posts as a good example of how theologians in this field do this work, in this case a collection of essays by about a dozen Australian theologian-ecclesiologists. If you have a moment, peruse the free on-line sample provided by the book’s site on Amazon to give yourself a flavor of ecclesiological study [many good books on Amazon provide this kind of free sampling.] I will be using the outline of this work through the summer as I file posts on the Church on the liturgical stream, as the Church is defined as the ultimate sacrament of the presence of Christ in the world.
This Australian book on the Church begins with an introductory essay by Tracey Rowland of Australia’s Notre Dame University. [See her publications here.] Rowland introduces the reader or novice student to trends in ecclesiological theology over the past 150 years or so. She observes that there are three ways of proceeding with contemporary study of the Church. First, one can examine the official teaching Church documents of the last century, notably the Council documents Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes of Vatican II and several major encyclicals of popes, starting with Pius XII’s Mystici Corporis Christi or “Mystery of the Body of Christ”  and continuing through the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Second, one can “trawl through the publications of the big [scholarly] names” as Rowland puts it, from Cardinal Newman of the nineteenth century to the western theologians of the twentieth century, primarily from Germany and France. The third approach is through controversial Church issues which have arisen in recent times. [p. 2]
Ecclesiology involves the Church looking into a mirror and describing what it sees. In St. Mark’s Gospel of the Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time [last weekend’s text] the evangelist sees a primitive body of poor disciples dispatched by Christ to go forth into the world with nothing but a staff, trust, and a call to repentance with the arrival of the kingdom of God. Clearly the Church’s self-portrait in the mirror is more complex today, for better and worse. For myself, I have found it useful for my own faith’s ecclesiology to study the conversion process of great minds who sought admission to Catholicism at the height of their careers—Augustine, Cardinal Newman, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Thea Bowman—who identified something about the Church body as they experienced it that compelled them to embrace it. For Augustine, for example, it was the powerful example of the bishop of Milan, the future Church doctor St. Ambrose, whose faith and erudition was matched by physical courage in protecting his Milanese Church from threats of harm at the hands of a heretical emperor.
In my youth the practical ecclesiology of my parish and education was the role of the Church as juridical gatekeeper to the world of the infinite. The thrust was otherworldly, and Church life was understood, as the Memorare prayer reminded us, as a veil of tears. But even then, there were scholars who understood that the Doctrine of the Incarnation—God becoming man—had significant implications for the Church and its members. In some way the Church was Christ, not simply his bodyguard. Both Newman and Pius XII opened the door to this new emphasis in the study of the Church--the relationship of the spiritual/mystical with the concrete world of the real. However, Vatican II, in its teaching on the identity of the Church, retrieved the ancient Biblical understanding of Baptism and the Church. In Baptism, we are changed and become living sacraments of Christ. The Church is the living and acting persona of Christ on earth, thanks to the gift of the Holy Spirit outpoured after Easter. The Gospel promise of Jesus that “I am with you all days, even to the end of the world” is more than just encouragement. It is a statement of fact that he who sees the Church sees Christ who animates it. This dictum applies corporately and individually.
Given that the theological and catechetical community has had many decades now to reflect upon God’s plan of sanctity for the Church, Rowland correctly points out that the leadership of the Church has been rocked by scandal which has wounded its witness power significantly. She believes that scholars and leaders will need to address this conflict between the Church’s glorious identity and its less than stellar witness. [Australia was rocked in recent years by the imprisonment of its leading churchman, Cardinal Pell.]
During Vatican II, the Council fathers’ ecclesiological document on the Church, Lumen Gentium or “Light to All the Nations” described the Church in the Biblical image of the Chosen People of God in the wilderness, wandering together so to speak until arrival in the eternal promised land. The metaphor “People of God” is one of the most enduring titles of the Church since the Council. It is also something of a reversal of the older model used in my youth—the “pyramid” with pope on top, then bishops and priests, then religious, and finally the laity. In today’s baptismal rite the new Catholic—regardless of age—is announced as sharing in the royal priesthood of Christ. However, precisely how this royal priesthood of baptism relates to the institutional priesthood of Holy Orders is another question, another of ecclesiology’s tasks of the third millennium which is related to but not limited to issues of women’s ordination, married clergy, etc.
Similarly, the issue of authority in the Church is another of theology’s tasks. Lumen Gentium went to great pains to restore the independent identity of bishops as successors of apostles whose authority as teachers is derived from their sacramental identities as successors of the apostles. The older texts often described bishops as simply sharing the judicial powers of the pope. LG describes the world’s bishops as a college in communion with each other and with the Bishop of Rome; it is the office of the episcopacy that binds them together. On the other hand, LG describes the pope as having “full, supreme and universal power over the Church” and the bishops having such power only when acting with the consent of the pope.
One may legitimately ask: if all the baptized share in the Church’s evangelical mission of Christ, how are the laity to contribute their insights and vision? In truth, Pope Francis is the first pope in modern times to address this question, and if his health holds steady, we may see a true ecclesiastical experiment in Church communication. Francis’ immediate predecessors drew from LG’s priority of unity [or communio in Latin texts], the principle of full union of God and unity among his people. The concept makes eminent sense and is drawn from the Gospel of St. John’s Last Supper Discourse where Jesus prays that “They all may be one, as you Father and I are one.”
The ecclesiastical problem, at least as I have observed it over my lifetime, is the absence of a vehicle to raise respectable and good intentioned questioning throughout the Church. Critique is heard as “dissent.” If a priest were to share with his bishop back in 1968 that the papal declaration on artificial birth control was causing significant stress among those sharing their plight in the confessional, a bishop could interpret the priest’s pastoral concern as disobedience to either papal authority or natural law. It is no secret that for years the Vatican forbade the raising of certain topics at the universal bishops’ synods on the grounds, among others, that the airing of disagreement was a breech of communio and “confusing to the simple faithful.” In the present-day pastoral distress over the term “disordered’ to describe homosexuals is another specific example where many good Catholics would like an opportunity to explore—for personal and pastoral reasons—alternatives for this language in the Catechism.
Jorge Bergoglio brought a somewhat different disposition to the papacy when elected in 2013. As Rowland writes, “One gets a sense...from the history of the Bergoglio papacy to date, that Pope Francis does not regard conflict as necessarily a bad thing.” [p. 23] In truth I believe that Rowland herself is a bit flustered by what she sees as an untidy papacy, in terms of the latitude that the pope allows for interpretation of pastoral practice. Pope Francis’ description of the Church as a field hospital inspired the author to quote Robert Spaeman that “the Church cannot be a mere booth in the fairground of postmodernity or just another institution trying to provide social welfare.” [p. 24]
No pope sacrifices communio, but Francis understands that union/unity is a project as much as a principle; a marriage, for example, is a legal and sacramental reality but it is also a dynamic relationship which is richer at the end than in the beginning. Taking the long view, the pope has engaged the Church on a two-year process of learning cross-current communication, the synodal model. I do not expect to live long enough to see its impact upon the life of the Church in the United States or elsewhere. But in the years I do have, I would like to be a part of a synodal experiment, for the responsibility of the Church would make me a better member.