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Monday, December 09, 2013

Unity And Life In Christ

One of the things that I appreciate about holy mother Church and our deepening understanding of the implications and the depth of the riches of Christ is that we don't have to choose between unity and truth, for Christ is the fullness of those things; that unity and truth is defined in Him, and by Him. Some people think that Vatican II fundamentally changed the way Catholics understood the manner in which the Catholic Church is the Church that Christ founded. They see the conciliatory words toward especially Protestant communities as a concession to a modern ecumenical reality. We have to reject this, even as we are aware that many groups within the Catholic Church had explicitly or implicitly adopted a(n) hermeneutic of discontinuity in their thinking about the Council. But let's define "ecumenism" first. Ecumenism is dialogue for the purpose of establishing agreement in the truth concerning God. Ecumenism is not a passive acceptance of mutually exclusive dogmas or principles; indeed, it cannot be, for dogma pertains to that which has been revealed by God; to allow it would call God a liar, or say that He is not one, but many.

If that is the case, then an unavoidable feature of ecumenism is disagreement, discussion, and even polemics concerning the sources and content of dogma. We'll come back to this.

Consider this section from Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, in its eighth article: "This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity."

This part acknowledges truth outside the visible structure of the Catholic Church, which it identifies as the society governed by the successor of Peter, and the bishops in communion with him. Many non-Catholic Christians are fond of thinking of the "church catholic" as including the Catholic Church possibly, but not synonymous with it, which is fine, as far as it goes, but for the fact that, in a dialogue concerning the nature of the Church, this would constitute begging the question. Moreover, were this claim of the Catholic Church completely unsupported by evidence, that would also be begging the question, that is, assuming the very point in question. So, if it were an open question, I could say, "I needn't accept what the Catholic Church says at face value, but I can see that they believe themselves to be the Church that Christ founded." I could also say, "Suppose the Church were not visible fundamentally. That is, it cannot be strictly identified with one visible community. What are the implications of this, and what would be the means of its self-delineation?" It doesn't take long to see that the Catholic Church has a means of delineating itself. What really caught my attention during my search/exploration/etc. was how an invisible Church had been assumed by me, taken for granted as true. It was the wholly intolerable implication of this assumption--the loss of identifiable dogma--that caused me to question it in the first place, from within my theological system. Had this not been the case, I could not, and would not have even looked seriously into the Catholic faith at all. So, I must reject the notion that I assumed the truth of the Catholic faith first. It could not have been so. Pardon the personal digression.

One potential problem with holding a looser view regarding the Catholic Church and its claim to be the Church Christ founded is that it fails to do justice to the final line of the very quoted paragraph. How could the many elements of sanctification and truth existing outside the Catholic Church impel toward catholic unity if that unity has already been achieved? Good question, no? And what are people being impelled toward, at least according to these bishops, if not the Catholic Church?

Much confusion with respect to this has been caused by an incautious reading of article 16 of the same Constitution. The passage in question is this: "Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience." This is what I like to call, "God's escape hatch." Allow me to explain. Rather than this be an acceptance of other religious systems as such, or an unwillingness to preach Christ and His Church exclusively, it is rather a recognition that God is alone and finally the judge of all things. It is He who decides culpability and imputability, praise and blame. A strict universalism would posit that all were saved by the mere fact of Christ having died for them. This is not in view here. But, fair to say, a standard Protestant evangelicalism or fundamentalism finds this abhorrent. But did you catch the "moved by grace" there? This would be troubling for several reasons, not least for those who believe grace to be irresistible, and to be only of one kind. But for the Catholic, grace is always resistible, unless it's an individual, personal grace that isn't, (if I stopped to explain this, we'll get off-track) and it is not tied by necessity to the will of God in some deterministic sense, such that grace and faith fall out consequently from an irrevocable act of predestination before the world began (Calvinism). There are, in the main, two kinds of grace; one kind is for the purpose of doing a particular thing, and the other is for salvation, properly so called. This latter one is called "sanctifying grace." A person in a state of grace, as we call it, has sanctifying grace as a habit of the soul, through which faith, hope, and charity (love/supernatural agape) are infused as theological virtues. The grace to do something particular is called "actual." You can see working or doing in the root there. Every person receives actual graces in some measure all the time. We may refuse any, or all of them. This would make it much harder to receive sanctifying grace if it isn't already possessed, and a general lack of receptivity to grace makes one vulnerable to those sins which destroy charity in the soul (mortal sins). If we die without charity in our souls, we will be damned. In general, the Church sees every person as inhabiting one of a series of concentric circles, closer to Christ in the Church, and progressively further away. And yet, it is possible to be a member of the Church, and be damned, because one does not have supernatural charity. Indeed, it is also theoretically possible to be outside the Catholic Church, and be very much alive! Those who are alive, in fact, stand a very good chance of being impelled right to the heart of the Catholic Church, if time and breath permits, and quickly, at that! No one is damned for what they do not, and could not know. They are rather found culpable for what they do know, should have known, and did not do.

Consider this text from LG, 14: "Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved." This chilling sentence, following upon one affirming the necessity of faith and baptism (and the Church) for salvation, could not be clearer. Even before I knew that the Catholic Church was the source of the truth about Christ, and quite literally the dwelling of Christ in a sacramental mode, I had this powerful desire to know Him truly, more deeply, and to see the truth about myself and my place in this world. It is indeed possible to read the Church Fathers and not conclude that the Catholic Church is the Church. But absent a prior commitment that it could not be so, which depending on its strength, can even dismiss an overwhelming preponderance of evidence as irrelevant, this position is hard to maintain. As I said, I had a problem, a problem such that I had no overweening loyalty to the Reformed. I argued the points from that system, insofar as doing so was in defense of Christ, as I understood Him. We should celebrate whatever unity we do possess as Christians, but if Christ in fact is the one Savior of the world, we should expect that the examination of history--really and truly the outworking of the of the dominion of the Son of God--implies the abandonment of principles that (intentionally or not) imply His abandonment of us. I could not posit a Great Apostasy in 200, 500, or 1200, because He promised us it would not be. My community was either organically a part of the Church He promised to protect, or frankly, it is an aberration, created and subsisting on the premise that Christ had in fact failed in that promise. If there could not be a Great Failure, there is no need for a Reformation, or a Restoration, or whatever you wish to call it. Now, men may sin against God in all manner of ways, but that which He has given as truth, as dogma, cannot be false. This is the real meaning of "Let God be true, and every man a liar." So, it's a question that demands an answer: Do you protest the moral failings of the leaders of the Church, or the doctrine of the Church? The latter, like it or not, presupposes that Christ has lied. The doctrine concerning the Eucharist is not one in 529, and another in 1570, no matter the wickedness of those charged with defending it.

That's why the organic continuity with what Christ established, and that specific community's authority and capacity to transmit dogma, becomes the most important consideration. That which we must hold for salvation, is dogma, the content of our highest end, rejoicing in truth with Him who is Truth. Some charism of infallibility must be present, else there would be no way that fallible humans would know what they need to know to reach that end of communion with God.

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