The Church and the Council
The drama and the issues behind the speeches "on the nature of the Church"
I write this just after the completion of the fourth general congregation in this second session of Vatican Council II. In four days, the conciliar Fathers and the attached experts have listened to 59 speeches by cardinals and bishops. It is already possible to give some idea of what is happening here.
On the surface, what is going on is simply the placing on the record of the Fathers' views with regard to the schema on the Church. Some of the Fathers have spoken as individuals in their own name. Many more have spoken in the name of groups of bishopsGerman, Swiss, French, Indonesian, African and so on. Each was proposing views looking to the correction of the schema as it presently reads. Some wanted additions made, others wanted certain things taken out. But underneath this rather dry speechmaking, a great intellectual drama has been taking place.
With great spontaneity, the Fathers have undertaken to respond to the clearly given directions of Pope Paul VI in his inspiring opening address. Rapidly and purposefully he set the focus of this session of the Council. Its primary focus would be to convey to the world what he calls the Church's own awareness or consciousness of herself. This is not simply a question of casting up a set of organized propositions which would state the nature of the Church. Something rather more subtle is afoot. It is the effort of the Church to explain and declare to the world what she is, what she in her inmost consciousnessunderstands herself to be.
In his opening address, the Pope made it clear that this essential work of the Church has not been completed and probably, in a sense, will never be complete. He referred to the encyclical of Pope Pius XII on the Mystical Body, but he added that this encyclical answered only in part the Church's longing to express her own nature. The very limitation of this encyclical utterance served, he said, as a spur to the Church to give a more exhaustive declaration' of her identity.
There was only one way in which the Council could approach its task. The way was pointed out in the schema itself, namely, that the Council should return to Scripture and to the whole variety of images and symbols in which the nature of the Church is expressed in the Scriptures. As Pius XII said in the same en-cyclical, we have there an inexhaustible treasury from which the Church will and can never cease to draw.
The images are many. The Church is a building raised up by Christ, the house of God, the temple of the Holy Spirit, the dwelling place of God. The Church is the People of God, His rock, His vine, His field, His city. The Church is the Bride of Christ and His Mystical Body. Many of the speeches of the Fathers have dealt with these scriptural images or symbols. The form of these speeches made one think they were merely suggestions for the correction of the schema before the Fathers. Beneath the surface, however, one can hear the Church struggling with the difficult task of expressing herself, of saying who she is. This is what I mean by the underlying drama that can be heard beneath the surface utterances of the Council.
Already one thing can be said, I think. In contemporary theology, the leading image for the Church has been the Hellenic symbol of St. Paul, the Church as the Body of Christ. There is initial recognition of the value of this image inasmuch as it conveys the notion of the intimacy of Christ with His Church, the organic unity of Head and members. It has become clear, however, that not all are satisfied that this symbol brings out the true image of the Church that would appeal to the world of today. Two other images have been emphasized strongly: first, the Church as the People of God the Father; then, the Church as the family of God, in which all men are called to be children of God, brethren of the first-born Son, and children too of Mary, the Mother of the Church.
It was perhaps particularly significant that two missionary bishops laid the greatest stress on the notion of the Church as the family of God. One was from South Vietnam, and the other from South Africa. In eastern Asia and Africa, the structural unit of society is still the family, and the family, as was pointed out, is still held in the greatest veneration and honor. When, therefore, the Church speaks of herself as the family of God the Father, this utterance wakes resonances in the souls committed to the care of these missionary bishops.
In contrast, the notion of the Church as the Body of Christ is less attractive, however true it may be. It is, of course, too early to know what the results of the current argument will be. But it would not be at all surprising if the final schema on the Church were to emphasize, as the leading images, the notions of the Church as the People of God the Father and as His family. These two images are, of course, closely related.
If this proves to be the event, it might well be of high theological significance, and also a factor of considerable influence in subsequent discussions at the Council. As is well known, two general views of the Church, or rather two general approaches to the mystery of the Church, are presently current in theological circles.
One sees the Church to be somehow derivative from the office of Peter as continued in the papal office. The Pope stands, as it were, at the summit of a pyramid, and from him the bishops and clergy derive their sacred powers to be used in the service of the people, who form the base of the pyramid.
The other view is inverse. It begins with the notion of the people as the Great Assembly, the People of God called by Him into His family. To minister to and guide this People, Christ set up His hierarchy of apostles and their successors, at whose head stands the Pope, the servant of the servants of God. In this view, the offices of the Church are seen more clearly to have been instituted as ministries to the needs of the peopletheir need for God's word, for His rule, for His presence in their midst through word and sacraments.
Both these general views of the Church are true and legitimate, and they are by no means mutually exclusive. But the question is where the emphasis should lie. The implications of each view could be quite different, both from a pastoral and an ecumenical viewpoint. Both viewpoints are explicitly being discussed in the Council.
These present discussions in the Council have also an immediate popular significance, a significance for the whole Christian world. They constitute an invitation, in effect, to all Christians to join in the effort presently going on at the Council. I mean the effort to meet the need, pointed to by Paul VI, "to enunciate a more precise definition of the true, profound and complete nature of the Church which Christ founded and the apostles began to build."
The conciliar Fathers as a body are searching within themselves, as it were, to find and express the Church's consciousness of herself. This same effort ought to be joined in by Christian communities everywherein our case, by Catholics of the United States. I suppose the simple question would be this: What scriptural image or scriptural images wake resonances or echoes in the hearts of American Catholics as they reflect upon what the Church means to them, what her nature is as realized in them?
One might think it would be highly congenial to American Catholics to look on themselves as the People of God. A fact of our history could be of some importance here. We were largely an immigrant Church. The Catholic faithful flocked to our shores from almost all the nations of the earth. The people were here first, in a fashion, and upon the people the Church has been built in a very real sense.
The American Church has produced some great pastors, but they were great precisely because the people were great in numbers and because their needs were great. Moreover, the American Church has always been noted for the closeness that historically and most blessedly has obtained between pastors and people. It may be that in recent generations the self-awareness expressed in the image of the Church as the People of God has been somewhat dimmed or obscured. It would promise well for the renewal of the Church in our midstthe renewal that is also among the aims of the Councilif this consciousness of being the People of God through Christ and in the Holy Spirit were to be aroused and newly quickened among usamong the faithful, our priests and our bishops.
In any event, the important thing is that the present conciliar effort should be prolonged into a popular effort. By this I mean the effort to be imbued with a sense of the mystery of the Church. This sense of mystery gives life to the otherwise dry theological discussions within the walls of the Council. It prompts the conciliar effort, as it should also prompt a popular effort, to realize the truth stated by Paul VI that the Church is "a thing of hiddenness which is filled to the very depths with the presence of God and is consequently a thing of such a nature that it always permits new and ever deeper explorations." The first question in the Councilwhat is the Church?is a question put to us all, to the Church as a people.
Another issue has already been raised, and it will be more urgent as the discussions move on. I mean the question of the relation between the Petrine officethe office committed to Peter by Christ and continued in the papal officeand the united episcopal college. This issue is of vast theological difficulty, and it is not likely that the Council will give it any definitive solution. But it will surely be discussed intensely, and we may report on it at a later date.
Behind this profound theological issue there is an-other that is waiting, as it were, in the wings. I mean the relation between the Pope, the Roman Curia and the bishops throughout the world, individually and as a body. This issue was raised by Pope Paul VI, before the second session of the Council met, in his address to the members of the Curia. It is a real issue, and one of considerable delicacy. The difficulties it raises are perhaps more of the practical than of the theoretical order. But they are none the less real, and their solution will require great wisdom and a great sense of the unity of the Church. There will also be required a great willingness on everyone's part to share wholeheartedly in the work of the Church's renewal as a step toward the farther goal of Christian unity.
One final issue, of great interest not least to the American Church, has been raised both in private and in public. I mean the relation between the Church and the political community with its government and order of law. Presently, the issue of Church and State, as it is somewhat unhappily described, does not stand on the agenda of the Council, but it will certainly gain a place. The demand for a discussion of the issue is almost universal, and it would seem to be required with the utmost urgency by the pastoral and ecumenical orientation of the Council itself.
At the moment, it appears most likely that the question will be taken up when the Council moves toward its fourth objective, which Pope Paul described as "the conversation of the Church with men of our age." This indeed seems the best place to raise the so-called issue of Church and State. Surely the Church today is called upon to converse with the world of politics, of government and of law. What has the contemporary Church to say to this secular world whose decisive importance for the welfare of men was never more decisive than today? What has the Church to say about herself in relation to government and the world of politics? These questions are imperative.
For some twenty centuries, as Pope Paul VI pointed out, the Church has been speaking to the world about herself, but the notion of the Church, he added, "still needs a more exact formulation." If this be true of the Church herself, it is still more true of the relation between the Church and the political community, especially since the political community has itself under-gone such profound and far-reaching developments throughout history, and not least in recent generations. When this issue does arise, as it certainly will, there will be great room and need for the utterance of the Church's experience in America and of the wisdom that has been the root of this experience.