Now here is a commentary from Dr Anthony Lowes that will appeal to all readers of Catholica who were genuinely excited and energised by the different vision of Church that emerged out of the Second Vatican Council. Dr Lowes' field of academic interest has been the study of Trinity. In this series of essays he argues that we have to get back to a structuring of the believing and practicing community around the concept of "Trinitarian communion".
The church critiqued in the light of Trinity and Kingdom...
We are in a most important season of the liturgical year. We have celebrated Easter, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, the Feast of the Eucharist or the Feast of the Body and Blood of the Lord, and today the Feast of the Sacred Heart, the symbol of the depth of Christ's love for all. My focus in this piece is: In what ways does the celebration of these mysteries, in particular the fundamental mystery of the Trinity, serve to illumine and critique the reality of the church?
There may be other bases on which to mount a critique of the church to ensure that, semper reformanda as it is, the church is continually delivered the authentic reforms it needs. We might explore sociology, anthropology, the philosophy of personhood, exegesis of the teachings and actions of Jesus, historical reprisal of the shape and practices of the early church, and so on. Yet no foundation for a critique of the church is so profound as that which is based upon a Trinitarian communion.
Church, Kingdom, Trinity...
In the first place, to get a convincing fix on the church in the light of the Trinity it is necessary to reflect on the relationship between the church and the Kingdom (or as I prefer, the Realm). In both, their formal core is the Trinity emergent within the cosmos and within the human race.
Loisy's bon mot, 'Jesus preached the Kingdom and what came was the church,' at once ironic and factual, highlights the way in which the church itself has tended to supplant the former with the latter in an uneasy telescoping.
Realm: civilization of love...
What Jesus preached as the Realm was clearly a new human civilization, a civilization of love, to use Paul VI's phrase. Quite clearly Jesus was inaugurating—and increasingly became convinced that its inauguration was centred upon his own words, actions and person—a new human communion. Jesus was in no sense a narrowly focused sectary. Even in the face of the prospect of his failing ministry, Jesus did not take refuge in remnant theology, but preserved his initial missionary thrust, which was to the whole of the Israel of God.
Focus: human person, human communion...
What Jesus was concerned with was at once very simple and very complex, very narrow and very broad. Jesus preserved an undistracted focus upon the human person, which meant that he was concerned inescapably with human communion. Equally, the overriding imperative that swam with increasing clarity to the forefront of his consciousness was his own intimate union with, and the possibility of a universal communion with, the Father.
To move beyond Loisy's irony, the church is not one thing serving a really distinct other, the Realm. The church is a tremulous sacrament, under the awe-full charge of symbolising clearly the all-inclusive trinification, and therefore the all-inclusive humanising, of the Realm.
Church sacramentalising Realm...
As sacrament or symbol, the church contains (in a limited fashion) what it signifies. The church is the hilltop city and the light that is never to be hidden under the tub; the church is the Realm in sharp profile; the Realm is the power of secret leaven working in humankind rising into relation; it is rather like Hopkins' 'charged world'; church and Realm at the end-time are the 'flaming out' of this graced world, its 'gathering to a greatness'.
There is, in the end, only one reality. This vision of an eternally and temporally unified reality has found expression in mysticism and literature. It is, for example, captured cryptically, in Patrick White's Tree of Man. As he is dying, Stan Parker, its protagonist, comes to the realisation that 'One, and no other figure, is the answer to all sums.'
Envisioning human reality in this unified diversity is not an exercise in sterile theorising. Thinking about personal communion in this fashion is to lay a foundation which will itself determine the nature of the personal action of human beings at large and the members of the church in particular. Such envisioning is the key to divine-and-human communion, or at least the key to the participation of human persons in its all-embracing mystery.
Institution and communion...
This way of thinking will yield a sound ecclesiology; that is, a theory of what the church should be and do. It will accommodate the notion of the church as institution perfectly well with the church as communion of persons.
An all-embracing human communion would be an unconscious or at least only partially conscious human glory without being made fully self-aware by and in the context of an appropriate institution. That said, human communion (the Realm) is the central reality of church and serves to situate the church sacramentally and modestly.
It enables the church to suffer a healthy reduction: from idol to icon. In fact, it rescues the church from narcissistic futility and the inevitable decay that is a corollary of irrelevance. It gives proper point and perspective to church as institution.
Primary principle for institutional structuring...
Through this wider perspective, institutional structuring can, firstly, be seen properly as necessary articulation flowing first of all from the reality of trinitarian emergence. This is the freely undertaken self-disclosure of the Three within a) their own eternal mystery of communion and then b) in their complete self-gifting through grace which encompasses the whole human race.
The very nature of such self-disclosure demands a formal revelation, of the order of the incarnation which occurred in Christ. What this makes possible is the engaging of human persons, the point of grace. Such personal engagement fully occurs only when accompanied by understanding, so that reciprocation in acutely aware personal loving becomes possible.
Hence, a primary emphasis on graced human communion paradoxically reveals an impulse in every human person which is an essential quest for Christ, for conscious communion in Christ and with a consciously encountered threefold subjectivity in the Trinity. The very nature of the Trinity's self-gifting and self-disclosure is therefore the first principle pointing to the need for ecclesial articulation in institution.
Secondary principle: the preservation of distinctive personal charism...
The second reason which demands the necessity of a duly structured institution derives from the nature of persons in communion. This is not simply a matter of grounding a certain amount of social order in the need to preserve personal relations from the oppression of chaos and licence, on the one hand, and from corporate fascism, on the other.
More profoundly still, the very nature of person, human or divine, points to particularity and utterly free self-possession. (Tellingly, the name chosen by Greek theologians for the Three in God was not persons, but a word which meant rather, three distinct and indissoluble realities.) Both qualities—particularity and self-possession—are expressed in distinctive personal charism. Such distinctiveness makes personal relation and communion possible and makes its recognition, guarantee and nurturing, in some form of communal articulation, necessary.
Social and communal structure, even if it be hierarchical structure, is no more than this and exists for no purpose beyond this. Insofar as institution orders to enhance personal self-possession and articulates to affirm distinctive personal charism it is orthopractic; if it goes beyond that, it is dysfunctional.
Understanding the institutional church in this fashion is to cherish its inalienable value. It is the sacrament of salvation. This phrase which has gained ascendancy since Vatican II, can, within the framework of the many, of all-inclusive human communion, be understood with greater clarity. What the institutional church sacramentalises is the Realm; in a word, the economy or framework of salvation.
From idol to icon...
The church is elevated into a transcendent role by the outline that I have sketched. No amount of ecclesiastical chest thumping and wrangling with powers of state for political supremacy or naked exercise of spiritual, even physical aggression, or no claim in civil or canon law or any appeal based solely on the pattern of history could ever match such an exalted attainment.
Even theological aggrandisement of the church as institution only enhances, in an age of increasing plurality and global consciousness, the sense of historical and cultural limitation under which all institutions, as institutions, labour. Yet if the church, as institution, is rooted in and clearly related to and given the task of consciously miming a grand, all-inclusive human communion, it is seen to serve an indisputably central human and divine function.
Grounding the church in such a divine-human communion actually endows it with even greater value, though at the same time it more properly and nicely relativises its function. The church ceases to be humanly absolute, by being seen to sacramentalise what is authentically absolute; that is, the Realm.
Part 2 will follow next Friday
©2012Dr Anthony Lowes