The clerical sexual abuse scandals in Boston and elsewhere have brought home how far the Catholic Church still has to go in receiving into its life the Second Vatican Council, nearly 40 years after that council’s close. The council devoted itself, quite deliberately, to the nature and mission of the church. Drawing upon the often-neglected riches of the Christian tradition and the signs of the times, the council set forth a vision of the church that is at once traditional and contemporary—a vision that we are still only beginning to implement. Such hot-button issues as mandatory priestly celibacy and gay priests, while important, are but reflections of a deeper ecclesial crisis of identity. Who is the church? Where is the church? What is the church’s purpose?
A crisis, however, represents not only danger, but opportunity. The Catholic Church has been offered the terrible but graced opportunity to renew itself by passing from suffering and death into new life in Christ. If it is to do so, three often-neglected aspects of Vatican II’s teaching seem essential: baptism as the foundation of all Christian life and ministry, the seeds of a theology of the local church, and the poor and pilgrim character of the church.
The scandals have aroused a previously unthinkable level of outrage among the faithful—conservative and liberal, male and female, young and old alike. One positive result is an already revitalized sense of lay responsibility as grounded in baptism. Vatican II held that baptism is the foundation of all Christian life. Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, each believer is joined to Christ and his body and is called to the same holiness of life. The baptized share in his threefold office of prophet, priest and king, and their common mission as Christians is evangelization. Accordingly, they are not helpers in the hierarchy’s mission, but instead receive their mission directly from Christ through baptism. Moreover, all the baptized have the right and responsibility to take initiatives in their service of the church’s mission, even—when they possess suitable “knowledge, competence, and authority”—of “express[ing] their opinions on matters which concern the good of the church” (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” No. 37). This combination of competence and constructive critique has sometimes been ignored, not least by some columnists at The Boston Globe and The New York Times.
In a sad irony, one hears from both Cardinal Bernard Law and his critics, “We are the church.” Both are correct: baptism is the charter of Christian existence. Episcopal and clerical arrogance should not, however, give rise to anti-clericalism or to a “people’s church” defined by opposition to the hierarchy. Care must be taken to avoid denunciations of the “hierarchical” or “institutional” church, as if such elements could be detached from the one church that exists in reality, a spirited and structured communion. Moreover, the essential recovery of the baptismal mandate needs to avoid a zero-sum or tug-of-war model of power-sharing, whereby the laity’s gain is the hierarchy’s loss (and vice versa). The radical equality in Christ that baptism creates does not mean that everyone has the same task in the church: “In the church, there is diversity of ministry but unity of mission” (“Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity,” No. 2). The hierarchy is part of God’s will for the church, even if the exercise of its ministry needs to be reformed.
In these contexts, one can see how fitfully Vatican II’s theology of baptism and of the laity has been received by the church in its life and structures. Shaped by centuries of hierarchical dominance (sometimes justifiable), the laity are at once unable and unaccustomed to live up to their baptismal mandate. They have little, if any, say, for instance, in clerical assignments, and are occasionally forced to accept whoever is sent to them. Parish councils likewise have not fulfilled their potential. Power and responsibility are one-way streets, and a top-down, pyramidal exercise of authority is normative. We are far from realizing that the ministerial priesthood exists solely to serve the baptismal priesthood, while the “holy nation” and “royal priesthood” of which Exodus and the First Letter of Peter speak are more ideal than real in contemporary Catholicism. In short, the laity remain objects, not subjects, of the church’s mission.
Readers of America should not be surprised by the controversial topic of the local church and its relationship to the worldwide church. Cover stories by Cardinal Walter Kasper and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger are fresh in the mind. Concerning the local church, Vatican II affirmed two central points. First, the local church or diocese is wholly the church of Christ, even if it is not the whole church. When the baptized gather around their bishop or one of his priests to proclaim the Gospel and celebrate the Eucharist, the church is fully present there. Although full communion with the worldwide church—represented in the church of Rome and its bishop—is essential, the local church is neither a fragment of the church nor a branch office whose dynamism comes solely from headquarters. Second, each bishop is the “vicar and legate of Christ” in his local church; he receives the fullness of episcopal power not through the pope (as Catholic theology commonly held from the medieval era until Vatican II) but through his sacramental ordination. Neither of these two points should ever be used to assert indifference or petulance vis-à-vis Rome, but they can help restore the local church and its bishop to their rightful integrity.
Two ambiguities correspond to these two affirmations. First, the council left unspecified precisely how the local church relates to the whole church. It simply stated that local churches “are modeled on the universal church; it is in and from these [local churches] that the one and unique Catholic church exists” (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” No. 23). In developing the council’s statement, Cardinal Ratzinger and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith have taught that the “universal” church precedes every individual local church both temporally and ontologically. Cardinal Kasper and many ecumenical dialogues have, in contrast, upheld the simultaneity of the local and the universal churches; the universal church is not the sum or the federation of the local churches, nor does it precede them.
Second, such recent magisterial teaching on the priority of the universal church to the local church has weakened, if not severed, the link between the bishop and his local church. Collegiality (the communion of bishops with one another) has become detached from synodality (the communion of the local church with itself or with other local churches). John Paul II’s apostolic letter on the theological and juridical nature of episcopal conferences, Apostolos Suos (1998), argued that the bishop’s membership in the episcopal college precedes his headship of a local church. The letter also states, in a footnote: “As is clearly evident, there are many bishops who are not heads of particular churches, although they perform tasks proper to bishops.” It leaves such tasks unspecified. The bishop, in this view, belongs primarily to a central governing body (the episcopal college) and only secondarily—if at all—to a presently existing local church. The bishop, in effect, is defined apart from any necessary reference to a community. What concrete local church is headed, for example, by an apostolic nuncio? How, for that matter, can a living head exist without a living body? The words of the third-century African bishop Cyprian—“the bishop is in the church, and the church is in the bishop”—are both an ideal and a reproach to the church of today.
What has this ecclesiological disputation to do with Boston and other local churches? One can only be struck by the almost complete lack of accountability by bishops to their churches. This does not mean that they now are uncaring or uncommitted to rectifying wrongs. It simply means that their responses are often unilateral and paternalistic, in which the bishop alone (with perhaps the contribution of his superiors and/or his hand-picked advisors) determines how to respond to the crisis. His church is simply to carry out his plans. Imagine an adulterous husband who tells his wife that he is “part of the solution” and then presents to her his plan for reconciliation without her input! Any married man would know enough simply to apologize, be silent, absorb his wife’s rightful anger and let her tell him what she needed him to do. In other words, the bishop now seems to be of his church, but not always in it, because he lacks a mutual relationship with his people. But Augustine’s words remain true: “I am a bishop for you, a Christian with you.”
Synodality, which avoids both autocracy and political democracy, is a goal and a task set before the church at present. Bishops need to listen better to their presbyterates and their people, if their local churches are “to walk together on the way” to the Lord. The conciliar vision, even its incomplete realization in the revised Code of Canon Law, ought to be implemented more thoroughly and systematically. Baptism and holy orders should be joined more completely to each other.
A Poor and Pilgrim Church
Last, but most important, is the council’s vision of a poor and pilgrim church. Vatican II gave rise to a number of ecclesial images and models; the church as people of God, body of Christ, temple of the Holy Spirit, communion and sacrament are the most prominent. Still neglected, however, perhaps because it is the most demanding, is that of the pilgrim church, the church of the poor. Christ, not the church, is the Lumen gentium, the light of the nations. Whatever authority the church has comes from Christ, who, in taking the form of a slave, overturned merely human conceptions of power. The church is likewise called to become poor: “It recognizes in those who are poor and who suffer, the likeness of its poor and suffering founder. It does all in its power to relieve their need and in them it endeavors to serve Christ.” It is “to proclaim, and this by its own example, humility and self-denial” (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” No. 8).
In an opening address to the recent extraordinary consistory of cardinals, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray—the head of the Jubilee Year celebrations and former president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace—noted that the church must pass from being a church for the poor to a church of the poor. Only an “entirely poor” church, he suggested, could be a missionary church. One need look only at Pope John Paul II. Never has he been more “powerful” than at his moments of greatest poverty and weakness: forgiving his would-be assassin, begging forgiveness at the Western Wall for sins against the Jewish people, unashamedly drooling on himself as he delivered the closing prayer at the Stations of the Cross this past Good Friday. How depressing, then, that many bishops, who readily proclaim their loyalty to the successor of Peter, have failed to follow his example. What healing would occur were the church’s shepherds to abase themselves publicly and seek the mercy of God and their flocks? Who would spurn their humble and contrite hearts?
Were “the path of penance and renewal” (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” No. 8) to be followed, the present brokenness and scandal would certainly, if not easily, become the occasion of reconciliation and new life. The abject failures of church leaders in Boston and elsewhere have made it painfully clear that the divine treasure comes to us only in earthen vessels. Perhaps the church will learn yet again that its king lives as the crucified and risen one, that his way is poverty, not power, and that his truth alone will set it free. The council said it best in the closing lines of its first chapter on the mystery of the church:
But by the power of the risen Lord [the church] is given the strength to overcome, in patience and in love, its sorrows and its difficulties, both those that are from within and those that are from without, so that it may reveal in the world, faithfully, although with shadows, the mystery of its Lord until, in the end, it shall be manifested in full light.
“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,“ No. 8
Karl Rahner, S.J., once pointed out that the darkness of the night makes the stars shine all the more brightly. In this time of self-inflicted darkness for the American church, the light of Vatican II—Christ—is needed more than ever.