Friday, November 16, 2007

A Homily For Thanksgiving...

From November, 2005:

There’s an old story about an old, retired bishop of the Episcopal Church who went with his wife to visit his children and grandchildren for Thanksgiving.

It was the night before, and the grandkids were running wild through the house. Preparations were being made around the kitchen table, and the house was filled with the sort of clamor one would expect on the night before Thanksgiving.

The old bishop sat down in a nice comfortable recliner and cracked a day-old newspaper. His pipe was full, and he was just about to light it when his five-year-old grandson leapt in front of him.

The boy was dressed in a costume that had clearly been produced that very day in a kindergarten classroom.

Construction paper, brown fabric, Elmer’s glue, and some paper mache were the makings of black belt with a huge buckle, a blunderbuss, an enourmous hat with the same large buckle.

“Grandpa, Grandpa, look!”

The bishop let out a grunt, with his pipe between his teeth.

“Why are you dressed as the enemy?” he grunted.

The boy stammered, slowly turning to cry, surprised by the response.

This story, I think quite well, illustrates an uneasiness which Anglicans have with the traditions of Thanksgiving.

For on a cold November day in 1621 on the shores of Plymouth, the Puritans met with members of the Wampanoag tribe for a meal together. They have been glorified throughout the years as a sort of shining example of religious pluralism, and the pioneering American spirit.

The Puritans, as history has it, were anything but freedom-loving, religiously tolerant.

They left England because of Anglicanism – the Elizabethan settlement sort of Anglicanism.

Among the things they hated were:

Vestments of all kinds.
The Book of Common Prayer.
The use of rings in weddings.
And worst of all – they hated beautiful churches, and most especially – stained glass windows.

A number of my ancestors gathered on that cold Massachusetts day, and if they knew that one of their own would some day be dressed as I am now – in the “rags of popery” – they would not be pleased.

And, as history has it, they weren’t so friendly with the Indians as we like to think.

Historians have presented us with an alternative, a more Anglican approach.

On December 4th, 1619, 38 members of the Stanford Company came to Berkeley, Virginia where their first official act was the celebration of the Holy Eucharist according to the rites prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer.

Captain John Woodleaf wrote:
"Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrivall at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God."

Of course, less than a year later, they had all been wiped out by Typhoid fever, and so as the saying goes – “it is the winners who write the history books.”

The tradition of keeping Thanksgiving largely died out until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln wrote the following in a presidential decree:

“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”

And later…

“I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.”

Notice that thing of which Mr. Lincoln is magnificently aware:

That we are prone to forget the source from which blessings come, but that some are so extraordinary that even the hardest of hearts is softened to perceive the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.

As it turns out, thankfulness and thanksgiving are not monopolized by religious factions, or by nationalistic enterprise in the midst of civil war, but are rather quite human, and thus it is the disposition of the Christian to give thanks.

But what is the means of this thanksgiving?

How ought we to do it?

The first means is remembrance.

Upon their departure from Egypt, God commands the people to remember the day itself with a prescribed fast of eating unleavened bread for seven days, with the seventh day being a feast to the Lord. There is a prescribed meal of lamb, and a prescribed format for that meal.

The whole point is that the people remember that they were once slaves, and that they are now free, not for the end which is freedom itself, but for the freedom to worship God as He commands.

It is a significant part of Jewish thought about remembrance in that a past event is made present.

You may know this quite well.

Tomorrow, when you sit around the dinner table and remember the blessings of God, you will make is blessings present and even new again. They may even be more clear.

And so, Jesus reinstitutes the Paschal Feast in the Eucharist with the command – “Do this in remembrance of me.”

And in the Eucharist, He makes known His very self and Passion again, He makes a past event a present reality. The word in the Greek is anamnesis.

The way to think about anamnesis, or remembrance, is this:

I cannot re-do what Jesus has done in His Death and Resurrection, but it is just as real now as it was on Calvary, the fact that it has happened does not lessen its reality, but I say as He did “This is my Body” because He says it to us continually, presenting Himself to us in sacrifice.

Which leads us to the second means of Thanksgiving, which is sacrifice.

The Old Testament commends sacrifice as a means to remembrance and thanksgiving.

You may think it odd, but think about it this way.

If I am a Jewish priest, I stand at the altar with my knife to the throat of a bull, and I think about the sins I have committed in the past year, and in that act I consecrate them, I make them holy before God. I cannot change the fact that I have committed them, or that I they have been committed at all, but I can do the holy thing – I can sacrifice them.

In the same way the Jewish High Priest on the Day of Atonement places his hands on the head of a goat, placing the sins of the nation on the head of the goat. The goat is not killed, but forced to wander the wilderness, as the sins of the people are made holy by their disappearance.

It is also worth mentioning that it is a prayer of Thanksgiving that makes something holy. A priest does not simply bless that which he is blessing, he gives thanks for it, acknowledging that God has given it and that he is thankful for it. That makes the object holy.

And so, St. Paul counsels us in the Letter to the Romans, ending the 11th Chapter and beginning the 12th:

“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?"
[35] "Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?"
[36] For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen.

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

Thus, he makes things very clear.

God gives to us gifts which cannot be repaid. As St. James writes: “Every good and perfect gift is from above.”

This is all very shocking to us, as debt-ridden, buy now – pay later junkies, but it stands that the gifts of God cannot be repaid – they are free and without strings.

And from Him and to Him are all things.

That is why it is the counsel of the Apostle Paul that we, in thanks to God, offer the only thing we can offer – our own selves, our souls and bodies to Him, that we “do the holy thing” and consecrate our selves to His service.

And that is done most perfectly in the supreme act of Christian Thanksgiving, that Act which is Thanksgiving itself – the Holy Eucharist. By the way, if you didn’t know this before, the word Eucharist means Thanksgiving, but a very special kind of thanksgiving.

At the altar, God and man come together. He remembers us and we remember Him. He gives Himself to us, and we give ourselves to Him, and it is in the very person of the Incarnate Lord that this union is made most intimate. It is the Lord Jesus Christ who is at the center of this offering.

It is through Him that God remembers us and knows us as His own people. It is through Jesus that we remember the loving kindness of our God.

We are not, in this act of Eucharist, repaying God. He cannot be repaid. We are merely giving Him what is rightfully His – our very selves.

By this act of remembrance and sacrifice, we give thanks unto God for the innumerable benefits of His self-offering to us.

It is this meal which we keep, not once a year, but daily.

It is this meal which is so important if we are to gain intimacy with God and His Son Jesus Christ.

It is this meal which pierces even the most cold, hard heart, making it newly aware of the blessings of God.

Therefore, my dear friends, enjoy the Turkey, and the gravy, and the stuffing, and the cranberry sauce.

Watch football, and give thanks with that excitement which Tryptophan sleepily brings.

But, forget not Our Lord Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our Faith, by whom all remembrance and sacrifice take place, give thanks unto Him by your lives, and endue Him with your praise.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

On St. Maximilian Kolbe aned True Humility

“The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker. For the beginning of pride is sin, and the one who clings to it pours out abominations.” From Ecclesiasticus, I speak to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

I want to tell you this morning about a saint by the name of Maximilian Kolbe. Kolbe was born in Poland in the late 1800’s when it was still part of the Russian Empire.

At age 14, he and his brother decided to enter the religious life, and illegally crossed borders to enter a Franciscan monastery. By age 21, he had received his first doctorate. He had applied for a patent for a spacecraft design very much like the Space Shuttle, and became, in addition to astrophysics and engineering, proficient in philosophy, theology, and mathematics. By age 24, he had received his second doctorate, this time in theology.

In 1918, he was ordained a priest.

He went on numerous missions to Japan, founding a number of seminaries, and speaking and writing about the dangers of capitalism, communism, and imperialism. Maximilian Kolbe was not a man of humble talents, but he was a humble man.

Upon the Nazi invasion of Poland, Kolbe began to shelter Jews in his monastery. At one time, he had as many as 2,000 Jews under his care. He ran a radio station, under the call letters SP3RN, time and time again speaking out against Nazi aggression in Poland and the world. And, on February 17th, 1941, he was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned in the Pawiak prison, famous among Russians as the final transfer point prior to Siberia. Kolbe, however, would be sent to a different kind of Siberia, the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz. On his arm was tattooed the number 16670.

Kolbe still managed to execute the duties of the priesthood well, even in such conditions. Bread and wine smuggled into the barracks would become, day after day, the Body and Blood of Christ, in his hands. He preached and taught the people hymns - all from memory. But, in July of 1941, a man from his barracks went missing, prompting the camp commander to take a horrific action. The guards entered the barracks, and seized ten men to send into a famous chamber - Block 11. Block 11, everyone knew was used for torture, including dehydration and starvation. One of the men chosen cried out for help and mercy. He could not fathom loosing his family, not being able to provide for them after all of this was over.

Maximilian Kolbe stood up to take his place. After three weeks of total dehydration and starvation, only three men were still alive in Block 11. They had sung hymns together. They had prayed together. One of the three was Father Kolbe. Finding him still alive after all this time, they injected him with carbolic acid to make room for more prisoners.

In 1982, when the Holy See canonized Father Kolbe, the man he saved with his own life - Franciszek Gajowniczek was there. At another memorial in the same year at Auschwitz, he said - “I want to express my thanks, for the gift of life.” Maximilian Kolbe took seriously the Lord’s call. “He who hum bles himself will be exalted.” He must have, at some point, in Block 11, remembered this text from Philippians, “ Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of
men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name.”

He knew that to be humble is to empty yourself.

There is a lot of self-emptying these days, but it is not after the pattern of our Lord Jesus. It is certainly not self-emptying for the sake of love. It is self-emptying for the sake of shallowness, of greed, of lust, and of power. We give ourselves over to every passion we find. We are forever filled with busy-ness not for the sake of any true good, but merely for the sake of being occupied. And what is the result? One more dollar, one more movie, one more tank of gas. What we wind up being is empty - not filled. We wind up being puffed up in emptiness, thinking in our pride that we have no need for God.

And to us, Saint Paul writes: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus - Jesus who emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” Paul tells us that he took the form of a servant, or in Greek, doulos, which means very clearly “slave.” You might say that Jesus was not a slave. He went where he wanted to, he did what he thought best. To whom was he a slave? Do you not know that he emptied himself to the point of laying down his life, of putting his life into our hands? What did we do to him? We killed him. “He humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a Cross.” He emptied himself to the point where he had nothing left! Do you know that? That there, on the cross, he had nothing left? But, the cross is certainly not empty, no it is the source of life for the Christian.

If we want to overcome the pride that will kill the soul, then we must empty ourselves in the same way he did. Maximilian Kolbe understood this. His stomach hadn’t taken in food for three weeks - yet he was completely full. You and I cannot imagine the pain of a death like that. We can hardly imagine the hunger pangs of three days of starvation. Yet, he took it joyfully. You might say - well, the chances are that I will not die like that. That sort of danger is not coming to my neighborhood anytime soon. And you’re right. The Nazis do not patrol our streets at night. Militant Muslims have not sought to enslave us as they enslave many of our brothers and sister in other places. But the call to imitate Jesus in self-emptying love should be just as clear to us as to anyone else.

We live in a society that is completely shallow. It lacks any depth of thought, and depth of reason, and most certainly it lacks any depth of love. We hear the word “love” very often, but it nearly never means the love of sacrifice, a self-emptying. When we hear about love, we hear about prideful love, the love of things, the love of sex, the love of success, the love of comfort.
Often, all of this is simply a love of “my way.” When we prefer “my way” to God’s way - that is pride, the opposite of love, and the opposite of humility, humility that is necessary for self-emptying, self-donating love. This pride is nothing more than a forsaking, and abandonment of God, his will and his word. It is interesting, by the way, that many Christians are called arrogant and prideful simply for being faithful. I can tell you that in our current battle over the supremacy of the Scriptures, orthodox, faithful Christians have been labeled proud and arrogant over and over and over again. This is Satan’s twisting of the meaning of a word.

Pride is the abandonment of God. It is not a word for being sure or certain of something, most especially the teachings of Christ and His Church. This abandonment of God is not something that has taken place on a limited basis. It is not the disease of “some” or “few.” It has taken hold at every level. It takes hold every time you and I commit sin, every time we say “forget God, I’m going to do what I want.” It is not only on an individual basis, but a matter of the orientation of our whole society. We live in a society that has literally abandoned God. It has forsaken the Creator of all life. How is this made clear? Open the paper. Watch the news. Take a drive down Southlake Boulevard. Ask yourself: does what I see seek to bring glory to God, or to me? Does all of this bring a drink to Jesus, thirsty on the cross, or does it fulfill my desires, my thirsts, my hungers, my lusts. Is it all about me? The answer should be immediately clear. The answer is that consumerism, materialism, and wealth have nothing to do with Jesus. Jesus died poor, homeless, and unpopular. He had emptied himself.

If we want to be humble, we must empty ourselves, and that cannot happen while seeking to fill ourselves with the things of this world. We must learn the power of simple selflessness. We must learn the power of self-donating love. For some of us, this will mean doing the dishes when we’re tired. For some, this will mean lending a hand to our neighbor when we have something else to do. For some, it might mean giving money we would rather spend on ourselves to someone who really needs it. For some, this might mean caring for an elder, maybe a mother or father, who can no longer care for themselves. Some, like Father Kolbe, might be challenged to empty themselves even unto death. But, this is the way to uniting our purposes with that of God Our Father - it is the way to eternal life. It is self-emptying, self-donation, the gift of Jesus that saves us. Our own self-emptying, our own gift of self that is the proper response. There is no other way toward humility than this.

Do you want to be filled?
Truly filled?

I usually take my car to the carwash. But, every once in a while, I’ll do it myself. I have a bucket that sits outside, and I use that for the soapy water. But, what I usually find is that it is full of dirt and grime. Before I fill the bucket with soapy water, I have to rinse out the bucket. If I didn’t, I would be washing my car with dirty water. It is the same with us. We must empty ourselves in order to be filled. We must be emptied of all selfishness and pride, of all sin and abandonment of God. The result is worth it. The result is a heart that delights in loving God and delights in loving its neighbor. This is true humility.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Roman Catholic Church and Lawsuits

The Law Knows no Heresy:

A Review of Judicial Involvement in Church Disputes

The judicial eye of the civil authority of this land of religious liberty cannot penetrate the veil of the church, nor can the arm of the court either rend or touch that veil for the forbidden purpose of vindicating the alleged wrongs of its members. Shannon v. Frost , 42 Ky. 253 (1842).

The Church has always taught “pray, pay and obey.” What the Suffolk grand jury has said is that now the church should pray, pay and obey the laws of this land.”

In response to the recent onslaught of hundreds of civil sex abuse claims brought by parishioners against clergy in various archdioceses, church authorities submitted the following request to the relevant superior courts, which for years prior had constituted a reasonable ecclesiastical disclaimer within the jurisdiction and without: dismiss all claims, because the First Amendment bars courts from interfering with church operations and policies. In the ensuing legal battles which followed this request, defendants and plaintiffs alike have found ammunition in century-old case law over this request to dismiss serious tort claims of damages to minors because of ecclesiastical immunity and autonomy.

The plaintiffs have complained that church officials failed to exercise their doctrinally- guaranteed supervisory authority to properly monitor offending priests within the church. Canon law provides an established but highly discretionary procedure for internal self- discipline of miscreant officials, whereby all internal complaints are submitted to the personal determination of bishops and, where necessary, the decisions of church judicatories. Clerics and church officials have never been required to report suspected abuses to civil authorities. The application of such autonomous authority to the present situation has provoked plaintiffs to bring charges of deception, intimidation, fraud, tortuous negligence, and even criminal complicity against dozens of diocesan bishops who consistently entertained complaints alleging sex abuse of minors which were brought by both parishioners and clergy. These bishops then refused to turn the alleged offenders over to civil justice.

In most cases, when faced with the problem of dealing with the proven sex offenses of a parish priest, the supervisory bishop would deal with the matter by merely settling with the victim and his family, and then quietly handed the offending priest over to counselors and rehabilitation programs. The offending priest would frequently return to ministry in another parish, without disclosure of past offenses ever having been made by his responsible supervisors. In many cases, suspected priests continued to molest minors while under the supervision of their bishops. In response to the claims alleging that such conduct constituted gross negligence or even criminal complicity, church authorities simply continued to assert their constitutional privilege to exercise their exclusive jurisdiction over problems within the church, with total immunity from judicial review.

Plaintiff lawyers have asserted that church officials are attempting to “hide behind canon law” and find protection in “the church’s culture of silence.” Plaintiff lawyers also referred to several recent state court decisions, in which the court found that neither the doctrine of separation of church and state, nor The Free Exercise Clause’s requirement of state deference to matters of religious belief could protect the conduct of church supervisors or priests from civil judgment.

On the other hand, defendant church lawyers have referred to a much older body of case law, arguing that the court does not have jurisdiction over those cases which involve the relationship between a church supervisor and a priest, because such a relationship is undisputedly and inextricably linked to church doctrine, and thus is protected by the First Amendment.

The attorneys’ use of conflicting precedent reflects an historical struggle for religious freedom and church autonomy. It has been suggested that the recent accusations against the Roman Catholic Church for alleged sex abuse and internal negligence is one of the most striking examples of the historical tension between the judiciary and the church ever encountered in America. Each side of the dispute refers to precedent in its favor: on the one hand, judicial permission to review ecclesiastical conduct and procedure, and on the other, absolute church autonomy. This paper will describe the scope of judicial review of church disputes in U.S. Supreme Court decisions, and will conclude by assessing the recent adjudications involving claims against the Catholic Church.

State Court Precedent

When it turned to Massachusetts Judge Constance Sweeney to determine whether the church might be held civilly liable for shielding clerical tortfeasors from legal review, the court consolidated various broad precedents. The court finally ordered the church to turn over internal documents for review by plaintiff lawyers, and entertained the legal issue of whether the church had complied with its own policies in properly monitoring problem priests. The judge ultimately ruled that in the case at hane, the ecclesiastical misconduct of parish priests and bishops was not protected under the First Amendment. This was because the claims at issue did not involve internal church disputes, but rather turned on claims made by third parties against church officials for their alleged negligence in their duty to supervise priests whom they reasonably believed or knew to have sexually abused children. The judge concluded that judicial review of tort claims against priests and their supervisors was constitutionally permissible in this case because the cases did not lure the court into involvement in church doctrine, faith, internal organization or discipline; rather, the case merely presented issues which were civilly judiciable according to neutral principles of law.

However, the judge isolated and dismissed those claims within the same case which alleged 1) negligence of bishops in their ordination of a priest and 2) failure to remove a priest from the priesthood. The Judge reasoned that such matters were “purely ecclesiastical,” in that they arose from religious doctrine, and were thus to be protected from judicial scrutiny .
Broadly stated, the following rules comprise the body of law which the United States Supreme Court has established for governing judicial involvement in church disputes. A civil court is both prohibited from making “religious decisions” and from deciding which of several competing “religious decisions” is correct.

Courts may not interfere in matters of church doctrine, discipline, or polity. (Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679, 1871). The First Amendment prohibits civil courts from awarding church property on the basis of judicial interpretation of church doctrine (Presbyterian Church in the United States v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440 1969), but civil courts may resolve church property disputes wherever the determination does not involve inquiry into church doctrine. Maryland & Virginia Eldership of Churches of God v. Church of God at Sharpsburg, 396 U.S. 367 1970). Civil courts may never probe into church polity with regard to the removal of clerics. Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese for the United States of America and Canada v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 1976). Finally, however, notwithstanding the limitations imposed on the courts by the above decisions, a court may, at its option, utilize neutral principles of law to adjudicate church property disputes. (Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595 1979).

Permissible Judicial Involvement

With regard to recent adjudication, the current application of the law to claims arising from church order has required the court to carefully review federal and state precedents. Although these precedents tend to reflect the historically problematic confusion of roles between church and state (as will be discussed later in this paper), the operative line of demarcation between permissible and impermissible involvement is definately ascertainable, and has been demonstrated in such recent holdings as that of Judge Sweeney’s: where a dispute turns on purely ecclesiastical matters, or where a cause of action arises from a dispute over internal doctrine, faith, organization or discipline, judicial involvement not permissible. On the other hand, where a party brings suit to enforce a cognizable civil right, to which neutral principles of law can attach, then judicial review may be permissible.

In those cases where the court’s dividing line may not be so clearly drawn between “purely” religious or “purely” secular matters, the court’s initial review is limited to a selective separation of religious issues from secular issues. Following this initial differentiation, the court will adjudicate only those secular issues which can be determined according to civil law. The civil courts are to leave any matter of faith strictly alone, and where a matter of faith has already been decided by the appropriate ecclesiastical body, the court must defer to the ecclesiastical decision- even where the religious decision may affect the civil issues involved.
Thus the legal line which divides between permissible and impermissible judicial intervention falls between faith and civil action. Where a cause of action implicates a purely civil claim, the court may intervene, regardless of the fact that an involved party happens to be a church or a cleric. On the other hand, where a cause of action implicates a purely religious matter, the court may not intervene, but must leave the matter to the resolution of the religious body in which the matter arises. Accordingly, though the Catholic church has been found liable for the sex offenses of its clerics, no legal fault has been attributed to the church’s policies and procedures for refraining to review or remove its sexual offenders, because the church’s policy and procedure is essentially founded upon its religious belief.

Courts have thus referred to two governing principles in their adjudication of church disputes. The first principle is the principle of association. This principle justifies church autonomy in resolving its own disputes, on the theory that all who unite themselves in a single ecclesiastical body implicitly consent to submit to its government and internal adjudication of disputes. (Gonzalez v Archbishop, 280 U.S. 1, 9 1929).

The second principle, of particular interest in discussing the recent scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, is the trend of judicial deference to a church governed by a hierarchical system. Courts make a distinction between hierarchical churches and congregational churches because the law regards hierarchical churches as legal entities governed by the law of corporations, while local congregations are afforded only the diminished legal protection afforded to voluntary associations. By extension, courts also defer to this congregational/hierarchical distinction in locating the government of a church. For instance: In a congregational church, authority for internal adjudication is located in the majority of the congregation. On the other hand, where a church is found to be part of an ecclesiastical hierarchy-in that it constitutes a subordinate part of a general religious organization with established tribunals for ecclesiastical government, courts allow those tribunals to decide all questions of faith, discipline, rule, custom and ecclesiastical government on their own. Thus historically, where the (civil) rights implicated in a dispute depended on questions of ecclesiastical rule, the civil court considered the decision of the highest tribunal of the church to be conclusive, and governed its civil decision accordingly.

Tort Cases

These principles have been applied in tort cases involving facts similar to the causes of action names in the current accusations against the Catholic Church. Late in the 20th century, American courts were still limited by the relatively simple parameters of the Watson Doctrine of 1871: courts might not interfere in matters of church doctrine, discipline, or polity. This legal doctrine left civil courts with only a limited role to play in reviewing ecclesiastical decisions. However, in a landmark case of 1929, the court permitted the “marginal civil review” of those claims which challenged the decisions of ecclesiastical tribunals that were allegedly influenced by tortuous fraud, collusion or arbitrariness. (Gonzalez v. Archbishop, 280 U.S. 1 1929). The plaintiff in this case brought suit claiming entitlement to a chaplaincy position, which had allegedly been denied to him arbitrarily and without good cause. The lower court originally held that the plaintiff’s claim was invalid because the church’s decision as to whether the candidate possessed the necessary qualifications for a chaplaincy lay exclusively within the jurisdiction of the appropriate ecclesiastical court.

However, the higher court ultimately did not defer to the decision of the ecclesiastical court. The court found that the decisions of the church were arbitrary because the church had not followed its own laws and procedures in arriving at its decision. The higher court also justified its intervention because it found that the plaintiff’s cause of action involved a secular issue of employment law, to which neutral principles of civil law could easily attach for civil adjudication.

The higher court ultimately exercised a liberal amount of intervention when it ordered the archbishop to accept the plaintiff candidate into the priesthood. Although the law has held that in the absence of wrongdoing, the decisions of the proper church tribunals on such purely ecclesiastical matters as the qualifications of the clergy, regardless of secular rights, must be accepted by the secular courts as conclusive, the court reasoned that arbitrariness in an ecclesiastical decision was nevertheless sufficient to undo a presumption of deference to the ecclesiastical court.

The court exercised more limited review in Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese for the United States v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976), in which the court held that inquiry into the procedures or substance of canon law is never the constitutional province of the court, especially with regard to the removal of clerics. The court was faced with the claim of a priest against the supreme synod of a Greek Orthodox Church for their decision to defrock him and remove him from his office on grounds of schismatic and insubordinate teaching. The court reiterated the general rule that religious controversies are not the proper subject of civil court inquiry. The plaintiff claimed that the church had removed him from his office by means which were procedurally and substantively defective under the church’s own regulations. After conducting a “detailed review” of the church’s decision, the lower court held that the plaintiff’s removal was arbitrary and thus had to be set aside.

The United States Supreme Court, on the other hand, ultimately reversed the lower court’s decision because its probe into ecclesiastical deliberation seemed too much like an unconstitutional attempt to decide religious law. The Court reasoned that “all of the decisions of the (supreme synod) in regard to faith, officiation, church order and internal organization are valid and final,” and that the First Amendment absolutely permits hierarchical religious organizations to establish their own rules for discipline and government, and to create authoritative tribunals for adjudicating dispute over these matters. The Court went on to insist that when this choice is exercised and ecclesiastical tribunals are created to decide disputes over the government and direction of subordinate bodies, the Constitution requires that civil courts accept ecclesial decisions as binding.

Finally, the Court applied traditional principles of association in reasoning that the priest was bound by the decision of his superiors and by his own religious oath of obedience to them, and thus had no legal recourse against their decision because of the legal principle that “persons who have contractually bound themselves to adhere to the decisions of the ruling hierarchy in a private association may not obtain relief from those decisions in a civil court.”

The Serbian court chastised the state court for its “fatal fallacy” in rejecting the decision of the church’s tribunal, and impermissibly imposing its own inquiry and interpretation onto church polity. The Court’s final decision stated that the polity of the church was to be reviewed and interpreted by the church alone; thus the lower court’s decision was overturned precisely because it had conducted an impermissible “detailed review” of church law. Furthermore, the Court referred to the fact that church judicatories are often guided by inconsistent canonical sources other than law per se, and thus the civil courts, being versed in civil law, are not qualified to “re write church law.” Here, the general effect of the Court’s language seems to create a prohibition against revues of church law in general, regardless of the “level” or “detail” of the civil scrutiny involved.

In sum: the Supreme Court has followed the restrictions of Serbian in ensuing cases. In particular, the Court has held that where claims relate to the status and employment of a priest, such claims “go to the heart” of internal church discipline, faith, and organization, thus constituting issues which the Court may not adjudicate. The Court has allowed that there may be some secular aspects of clerical employment which might be acceptable matter for judicial review. However, the Court has most frequently held that because of the particularly sensitive role which the clergy play in the church, evaluations of clergy performance are not rightly subject to judicial review because such evaluations relate only to religion; and purely religious controversies are never the proper subject of civil court inquiry. Furthermore, awhere an ecclesiastical court has already adjudicated a religious matter, a civil court must accept the ecclesiastical decisions of church tribunals, and the civil implications therein, as it finds them.
Tort cases, such as those surfacing in the current situation, also adhered closely to the doctrine of non interference in the prior decisions of church authorities, because of the presumption of consent by all church members who had submitted to the ecclesiastical government of the church, and because of the propriety of applying principles of canon law in controversies which grew out of canonical relationships. Furthermore, courts have almost always held that deference to ecclesiastical authority was always appropriate where the role and status of a priest was involved.

Critical Exceptions

In regards to recent adjudication of sexual tort claims against clergy, the following cases are instructive.

As early as 1890, the court established a trend of significant intervention in torts cases in deciding Morasse v. Brochu. The court adjudicated the claims of a parishioner against his priest for slander when the defendant priest allegedly accused the plaintiff of violating the rules of the church, and then urged other parishioners to avoid associating with him. Having found the actionable elements of slander in the facts which the plaintiff alleged, the court simply applied elements of tort law to the issues of the case, and found that the defendant priest was guilty. Similarly, in Destafano v. Grabrian, (1986) where a priest engaged in an adulterous relationship with a married woman to whom he provided pastoral counsel, the court held that the mere fact that the defendant was a priest could not shield him from tort liability for alienation of affections. Nor was the court inhibited by the fact that the cause of action arose during the performance of a clerical duty.

Finally, we arrive at the most recent adjudications of church disputes, in which the court has justified its involvement by heavy reliance on the doctrine of the protection of belief- rather than action paradigm, and on the presence of third party intervention in the cases. Because of factual similarities, theses cases are most relevant to the trends as they are applied in recent sex abuse claims. In 1999, the court decided against the clergy in Mendez v. Geoghan, in which parishioner parents brought a claim of sexual abuse against the church on behalf of their children. The parents sued the defendant priest’s clerical supervisors on the grounds that they had negligently allowed the priest to abuse children while under their control. The court held that while the state courts could not intervene in religious disputes, and while no cause of action could be asserted for negligent clerical training, the court retained power to make appropriate civil determinations on the purely secular tort of sex abuse, even though the defendants were clerics.

The court relied on the principle that the freedom to believe remains absolute, and extends protection to essentially religious conduct such as religious training, or the ordination or removal of a cleric. On the other hand, the court reasoned that the interest of protecting society requires that the freedom to act in a religious context be limited by civil law. Accordingly, the court found that the supervisory defendants were not immune from civil liability for directing or permitting defendant priest to do something or to engage in some activity which they knew or should have known would expose third parties to grave or unseen dangers. The court added that the historical principle of church autonomy does not mean that all the consequences of the relationship between and among members of the clergy are beyond judicial scrutiny. The court noted additional justification for scrutiny where the clerical relationship tolerated harm of third parties.

In the following year, the court decided an almost identical case in Leary v. Geoghan, this time addressing the plaintiff’s personal claims of negligence, clerical malpractice, and breach of fiduciary duty against his clerical supervisors. When the defendants claimed immunity, the court denied, again holding that clerics are not immune from liability when they have directed or permitted a subordinate to do something which they knew or should have known would have caused harm to a third party. The court noted that under state law and the Constitution, the court was prohibited from making religious decisions and from deciding which of several competing religious decisions was correct.

Furthermore, the court recognized that the assessment of a priest’s ministerial qualifications constituted a purely ecclesiastical matter entitled to constitutional protection against judicial interference. However, the court referred to its prior decision that not all of the consequences of relationships among members of the clergy are beyond judicial scrutiny, particularly those which affect third parties. The Leary court went on to add that the mere presence of doctrinal implications in a given situation is not always sufficient to immunize priestly conduct from the censor of civil law. Furthermore, the court noted that while civil courts are required to accept the church’s interpretation of religious doctrine, courts are not prohibited from making appropriate determinations where the application of the doctrinal interpretation has resulted in civil harm, as where the doctrinally-based authoritative judgment of a bishop permits the continued abuse of children. Once again, the court referred to effect on third parties and applicability of neutral principles of law as justifications for judicial involvement.

Diminished Deference

Around the turn of the century, courts began to give less deference to church authority. In Barkely v. Hayes, (1913) the court did not demur to intervene even though the parties brought an action based on a set of property claims arising directly from specific doctrinal differences. The Barkley court referred to a state decision in Boyles v. Roberts, (1908) which held that where civil property rights were involved, the court was not required to register the decrees of the church as its own. Rather, the court might investigate for itself any relevant ecclesiastical matter, even those matters relating to faith and doctrine. Thus if in determining the civil or property rights of the parties it became necessary for the court to investigate a church’s articles of faith or the written documents of its judicatories, such investigation was lawful, even to the extent of determining whether church judicatories had attributed the correct meaning to their own articles.

The Barkley holding discredited the earlier Watson doctrine, and reflected a trend which permitted the court to inquire into the content of the religious faith or practice of the parties where civil causes of action were asserted. The Barkley court explicitly reserved authority to review ecclesiastical matters by applying principles which allowed that after undertaking review of church polity, the court might state that the decisions of the supreme judicatory of the church were not conclusive upon the courts when they were in defiance and express violation of the constitution of the body itself. Furthermore, if the civil court found that church judicatories had proceeded palpably without jurisdiction, neither church members nor the civil courts should be required to respect their decisions.

Following this interlude of increasing judicial involvement in church disputes, Presbyterian Church v. Hull created a new landmark in 1969. The court returned to its Watson holding when faced with the issue of whether constitutional restraints permitted a civil court to award church property to a congregational faction on the basis of the civil court’s interpretation of church doctrine. The plaintiffs claimed violations of their rights arising from the church’s departures from its original tenets of faith and practice. The jury in the case was instructed to apply a “Departure from Doctrine” standard in assessing whether the actions of the church amounted to an abandonment of its original doctrines. The Supreme Court overturned this decision, reasoning that a civil court could not review a church’s departure from its own doctrine, because such review necessarily required civil courts to engage in a forbidden weighing of the significance and meaning of religious doctrine. The Supreme Court determined that civil courts have no constitutional role in determining ecclesiastical questions implicated in church disputes, and that the lower courts had violated the First Amendment by applying the departure from doctrine standard of review.

These principles were later qualified by a fundamental principle announced later in Jones v. Wolf, which held that a state court is constitutionally entitled to employ neutral principles of law to adjudicate a church dispute. Under this approach, a civil court is permitted to intervene in a church dispute at the following levels: a court might adopt one of various legal approaches for settling a church dispute, so long as its approach involved no consideration of doctrinal matters. Furthermore, a civil court might evaluate and review the governing documents of a church in reaching its decision, but that the court must take special care to scrutinize the document in purely secular terms, without reliance on religious precepts. Finally, if the interpretations of a matter would require the court to resolve a religious controversy, then the court still had to defer to the decision of the ecclesiastical body.

The Kedroff court also crystallized several other modern principles of jurisprudence in church disputes: 1) that of extreme circumscription in ecclesiastical matters; 2) that while neutral principles of law might be applied for use in church disputes, the First Amendment requires courts to avoid reviewing underlying controversies over religious doctrine, thus making it necessary for the court to structure issues so as to prevent the civil courts from dabbling in ecclesiastical questions.

Finally, courts have held to the doctrine that civil courts are prohibited from inquiring whether church authorities have properly exercised their power under religious law, since such probes into the allocation and procedure of ecclesiastical power necessitate the interpretation of ambiguous religious law and usage. Nonetheless, the courts have concluded that a state might adopt any one of various approaches for settling church disputes so long as the approach avoided consideration of doctrinal matters.

Whether and When to Intervene

The consistent question throughout the history of church disputes has considered whether and at what point the court may intervene in the dealings of a religious association of members who have bound themselves together under the non-coercive law of their religious denomination. In the recent church disputes involving the Catholic Church, the court’s decision as to procedure and judgment on the merits has in effect pronounced answers to that question, as follows.

In the first place, the court may intervene in those church disputes which do not turn explicitly upon religious doctrine, faith, internal organization, or discipline. For instance: the court may intervene in a church dispute which alleges wrongful conduct by a cleric acting in his clerical capacity. Although the nature of his clerical office necessarily implicates doctrine, faith, and internal organization, doctrine and faith cannot protect him from the judicial scrutiny of his wrongful conduct where secular law provides a remedy. This is especially the case where a third party to the harm brings an action to address clerical wrongdoing; in such cases, the court seems to find that ecclesiastical immunity diminishes because the “internal” nature of the dispute has been broached by third party intervention.

On the other hand, the court does not presume to review the ordination, supervisory tolerance, or removal of a priest by his ecclesiastical authorities, because such inquiry goes to the heart of religious doctrine. Thus any clerical immunity from tort actions pertains to clerical status, but not to clerical conduct.

Finally, the civil courts may intervene when church members have alleged that the church has not adhered to its own procedures for correcting alleged wrongdoing, as evidenced by review of internal church doctrines for procedural integrity and compliance with internal policies. As in corporate law and contract law, where the court finds clear terms of agreement as to established procedure, the court will act to enforce those terms, but will generally refrain from supplying new terms. Thus the court will enforce the internal adjudication of a church where the church’s authority structure has already spoken. However, where the internal adjudication of a church has defied good faith by employing arbitrariness or collusion, or has tolerated criminal conduct, the court will intervene.

In conclusion, it seems that recent decisions have adhered closely to jurisdictional precedent as to the “whether and when” of judicial intervention in church disputes. The court’s permissive intervention in those church disputes which do not turn upon religious doctrine, faith, internal organization, or discipline seems to reflect a compromise between a posture of intervention on the one hand, and one of deference to the internal ordering of ecclesiastical relationships on the other. Furthermore, the court’s recognition of a distinct civil cause of action in ecclesiastical matters reflects the court’s practice of drawing a distinction between purely religious issues and personal rights, and the ensuing application of “neutral principles of law” to those secular issues. Finally, consistent decisions allow modern courts to protect freedom of religious belief by avoiding review of the removal of clerics, while limiting freedom of religiously motivated action by imposing liability for secular torts.

The courts have exercised consistency in the level of intervention permitted in tort claims, and the recent court decisions have reflected this consistency. The court’s disregard for religious immunity in a tortuous cause of action derives from the extensive review permitted in cases more than a century old.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Union of Covenant Keepers: The Church as Eucharistic Community

“Drink ye all of this…this is my blood of the new covenant.”
Matthew 26

When Cardinal Avery Dulles calls for models by which “the Church’s fundamentally mysterious character may be understood,” he refers to de Lubac’s idea of “the Church as sacrament” as an appropriate way of describing the Church’s functions, roles, and mission. A sacrament is an outward sign of invisible grace, instituted by Christ for sanctification; thus understood as “sacrament,” the Church makes Christ present to her members and to the world. De Lubac’s proposal of the Church as effective representation of Christ in the world draws upon principles from Cyprian, Augustine, and Aquinas to demonstrate the following: the necessary interdependence between the individual and the communal or institutional in the life of the Church; the inseparability of the divine and the human in the life of the Church; and the Church’s role of representing Christ in the world, and making Christ truly present as “a kind of sacrament of intimate union with God and of the unity of all mankind; that is, she is a sign and instrument of such union and unity.”

Such evocative language, it seems, leaves issues to be explored: why do the seemingly “individual transactions” of the sacraments that join individual persons to Christ also make him a member of that corporate body of Christ that functions en toto as an effective sign of grace to the world? How does this incorporation occur, which is so vital for that unity that makes the Church’s evangelical mission possible?

Dulles provides us with a possible clue to the resolution of these questions in his discussion of “the Church as Sacrament.” Christ, the consummate sacrament of God, is prefigured in the people of Israel: “already in the Old Testament, Israel as a people constitutes a sign that historically expresses a real (though imperfect) yes-saying to God and no to idolatry.” Israel’s “yes-saying” to God in her response to God’s covenant anticipated Christ’s ultimate yes-saying to the Father. As Aquinas has elaborated, Israel-as- sacrament confirmed the sum total of her people’s respective assents to God in the common sign of circumcision, which Aquinas calls “the sacrament of the Old Law.” In virtue of each individual’s assent to God by the marking of his flesh, the corporate body of Israel kept covenant with God. The circumcised was thus linked juridically to his fellows and to Christ by their common assent to the historical covenant for all, and by the physically visible, confirming ontological change that confirmed their covenant. God and Israel were thus joined by their covenant and by the individually appropriated, juridically effective signs that confirmed it. In this way, a multitude of yes-saying individuals became corporate Israel, capable of presenting God to the world and representing God among the nations.

As Aquinas clarifies further, there is a profound change for the individual and corporate arrangement with God’s incarnation in Christ. Christ contains in Himself the grace that He signifies; and it is in the yes-saying of His own flesh and blood to the Father that the individual Christian must participate for his justification. I will suggest that on the model of Israel, we can understand the Church as the community that keeps covenant with God in virtue of each individual’s assent to God by participating in Christ’s flesh. The truly corporate “body” of the Church is formed as the communicants are linked ontologically to their fellows and to God both by their common assent and by the confirming ontological change of the sacramental character upon the Christian soul. In this way, and in this way only, there is fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy of the sacramentally formed “new heart” on which the Law is inscribed “within them;” and just as the individual, physical “inscription” of circumcision resulted in the holy people of Israel, so the individual, physical “inscription” of the Eucharist in individual souls ontologically results in the community of the Church.

As I hope to show by drawing on Aquinas, Congar, and Cavanaugh in conversation with Rahner, such an understanding of the Church as the union of those who keep covenant with God in the Eucharist allows for a vision of the Church that can vividly address De Lubac’s noteworthy criteria. 1) The necessary interdependence between the individual and the communal/institutional life of the Church is manifest in the communicant’s free request and reception of the sacrament that the Church confects and extends, even while she, as a body, is being constituted by her members when they receive and bear in their bodies the same body of Christ. 2) The inseparability of the divine and the human in the life of the Church is enhanced by a strong emphasis on the ontological effects of the Eucharist as the Real Presence of Christ; and 3) the Church’s role of representing Christ in the world and making Christ truly present as “a kind of sacrament of intimate union with God and of the unity of all mankind” is enhanced by the understanding of his called community that is joined through both the freely effected covenant, and by the ontological changes brought about by the gifts from His body.

I propose that an adequate vision of the Church (one that appreciates her mission in the world and her very nature as the creature of the New Covenant anticipated in the Old, and is, as Ratzinger puts it, “in a way that is theologically valid and fully in accord with the New Testament concept of faith” ) is only possible if the Eucharistic nature of the true body of Christ is appreciated. These considerations of the Church as the consummation of the juridical covenants of Israel in the Church’s ontological communion with Christ’s body are affirmed by the conjunction of these ideas in one concise passage of Lumen Gentium I.6:

The Church, further, "that Jerusalem which is above" …is described as the spotless spouse of the spotless Lamb, whom Christ "loved and for whom He delivered Himself up that He might sanctify her," whom He unites to Himself by an unbreakable covenant, and whom He unceasingly "nourishes and cherishes," and whom, once purified, He willed to be cleansed and joined to Himself, subject to Him in love and fidelity, and whom, finally, He filled with heavenly gifts for all eternity, in order that we may know the love of God and of Christ for us, a love which surpasses all knowledge.

In sum, this paper proposes that an adequate ecclesiology of the Church’s nature, union, and mission is based on the Eucharist, by which the Church is ontologically brought into being and formed, as the body of Christ, from the body of Christ. As Pius XII held in Mystici Corporis Christ, the nuptial Church, as a visible and united body, “comes forth from the side of the second Adam in His sleep on the Cross;” here, it should be remembered that Aquinas applied this image to the sacraments themselves. The New Covenant has its effect and its ensuing community in and through Christ’s very blood.

Israel as the Union of the Circumcised Covenant Keepers

This proposal, involves the idea that the union of the Church is anticipated in the union of Israel, or, to be more apropos to the modern context, that the union of individual Christians in the community of the Church was anticipated by the union of individual Israelites in the nation of Israel. Congar insists that St. Paul’s idea of “the mystical Body of Christ” as a mode of relationship between the individual and the group has a distinctively Jewish background, which rests on the Old Testament’s vivid account of the solidarity of the members of Israel with God and with one another, as a kind of mystical body; “Israel is a people, a single blood, ‘those of my blood,’ says St. Paul.” Accordingly, Congar notes St. John speaking of the Church as “a (single) form of life,” and St. Paul referring to the Church as “the new creation, the restoration of all things… wholly in a single individual and yet also a people, a multitude.”

This unity of Israel begins with an alliance: The gathered people of God in the Old Testament “began with God’s promises to Abraham, and the alliance entered into with him and his descendents,” which alliance was confirmed in the rite of Abraham’s circumcision as described in Genesis 17:

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, "I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers." Then God said to Abraham, "As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant."

The beneficiaries of this covenant are Abraham’s promised descendents, who are prophesied in Daniel 7 to enjoy an eternal Kingdom, as a multitude who are at once “as a an individual being;” as Congar puts it, “the destiny and call of each person is bound up with the destiny of the group, and this destiny may be summed up and realized in the Fathers of Israel, in consideration of whom and in the person of whom God looks with favor on His people.” Accordingly, Aquinas held that as a community, Israel is united to God and to one another by the circumcision of her individual members. As Lumen Gentium 2 accords,

The eternal Father, by a free and hidden plan of His own wisdom and goodness, created the whole world. His plan was to raise men to a participation of the divine life. Fallen in Adam, God the Father did not leave men to themselves, but ceaselessly offered helps to salvation, in view of Christ, the Redeemer ‘who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature’…Already from the beginning of the world the foreshadowing of the Church took place. It was prepared in a remarkable way throughout the history of the people of Israel and by means of the Old Covenant.

It is from this indisputable and historical account of God’s calling a collective people to be His sacrament in the world that Lumen Gentium concludes that God, however, does not make men holy and save them merely as individuals, without bond or link between one another. Rather has it pleased Him to bring men together as one people, a people which acknowledges Him in truth and serves Him in holiness. He therefore chose the race of Israel as a people unto Himself. With it He set up a covenant. Step by step He taught and prepared this people, making known in its history both Himself and the decree of His will and making it holy unto Himself.

Thus the actual wording of the Bris ceremony for the circumcision of an infant involves language of a (juridically) covenanted and physically confirmed union:

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to enter him into the Covenant of Abraham our father. Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who sanctified the beloved one from the womb, set His statute in his flesh, and sealed his descendants with the sign of the holy Covenant. Therefore, as a reward of this (circumcision), the living God, our Portion, our Rock, has ordained that the beloved of our flesh be saved from the abyss, for the sake of the Covenant which He has set in our flesh. Blessed are You Lord, who makes the Covenant…. Sovereign of the universe, may it be Your will that this (circumcision) be regarded and accepted by You as if l had offered him before the Throne of Your Glory. And You, in Your abounding mercy, send through Your holy angels a holy and pure soul to (name) the son of (name)
who has now been circumcised for the sake of Your great Name.

As such, the Christian tradition has long held that Israel’s confirmations of the Old Covenant constituted valid though imperfect ‘sacraments.’ Aquinas holds that the sacraments of the Old Law, unlike those of the new, could not of themselves contain and confer sanctifying grace; they could merely signify the faith by which Israel was justified and set in the state of sanctifying grace, and with which Israel relied on the covenant confirmations that God had prescribed in the rite of circumcision, which, as such, sufficed to remit original sin and conferred grace as an anticipatory sign of faith in Christ’s coming Passion. As Congar summarizes, “it is not to be expected that there was once a time in which no such things as sacraments existed; circumcision, for instance, conferred grace and justification; but it is essentially different from the new covenant, which is “the visible manifestation of the final grace of God:”

…the former (Israelites) were indeed related to Christ by faith, but they came into contact with Him in a manner belonging to the order of intention (a legal system). Since the Incarnation, it is by means of a direct or indirect (in the sacraments) physical contact with his human nature that Christ acts and communicates grace.

In virtue of the covenant that had been formed in the individual bodies of the Israelites, Gods’ very presence dwelt in the assembled nation of Israel. Congar notes that in the priestly tradition, the tent of meeting in which the Ark of the Covenant was kept, (corresponding to the future Temple) was called “The Dwelling Place,” suggesting the place where God “dwelt” above the Ark of the Covenant; and the Ark was the locus of God’s dwelling because it housed the basic terms of Israel’s “covenant” with God in the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Here, Congar elaborates on a “profound difference between the manner of God’s presence and the way His gifts are given under the former Dispensation and…(their) issuing from the Incarnation of the Son of God.” Congar refers to St. Stephen’s quotation of Isaiah in Acts 6 to highlight the Church’s comprehension of the reality of God’s presence in the messianic times, underscoring the absolutely decisive point that the Most High no longer dwells in temples made by men’s hands. The implication is that the Temple that cannot be built with men’s hands- that consummate Temple which is the flesh of the Son- has been established, such that the former Temple and manner of God’s presence has become obsolete in comparison: “destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

The prophets themselves had sternly critiqued the formalism of the Temple worship that did not effectively aim at personal reconciliation with God Himself; Jeremiah in particular had prophesied that Jerusalem, though deprived of the Ark of the Covenant, would nonetheless still know the presence of YHWH, because God Himself would dwell there. Throughout the accounts of the Old Testament, the over-riding theme is that the consummation of the covenant is in God’s dwelling with His people, in a way that is not reducible to prescribed time or place:

The prophets’ mission was to throw light upon and also to further the realization of God’s plan, which by successive stages, was moving towards its final consummation in Jesus Christ. They were to prevent this movement from a fixation at one or other of its stages or in one or other of its characteristics. By the time of the apostolic writings, the absence of any mention of the destruction of the Temple indicates that “the Church had modified her vocabulary in order to express the perfect awareness that she had acquired the new state of things resulting from the death and resurrection of her Lord.

Congar finds in the words of Jesus a constantly repeated assertion that the Jerusalem Temple, in which Christ dwelt, would be transcended by the Messianic fact of the Son of God made flesh in His “personal and substantial coming into the world,” and the consequent fact of the new Temple, which is His body:

Henceforth the true Temple, the true dwelling-place of God among men is none other than the person of Jesus Himself…the foundation of the new economy, the sacraments and the Church, is the death and resurrection of our Lord.

In other words, God’s presence, as the reward of the Old Covenant, was to progress from God’s mere cohabitation with humanity in the Old, to the fullness of His incarnation in human flesh in the person of Jesus in the New.

It is significant here to recall several other prophesied characteristics of this new economy. First, the prophet Jeremiah forecasts the formation of a new heart as part of the participation in the new covenant. One recalls that while Abraham “believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” under the old covenant, the new covenant promises a heart that has righteousness inscribed upon it; an ontological change is assured. Such a distinction between the juridical relationship of the circumcision and the ontological relationship that is literally “characterized” in the heart by the grace-containing sacraments corresponds exactly with the prediction of the new, circumcised heart, the law-inscribed heart that is ontologically changed and characterized by the infusion of Christ’s grace in the sacraments. This infusion and characterization of individual souls forms the ontologically real and united “body” of the Church as the gathering of souls that are identically “marked” by divine grace:

The Church is only complete when the Holy Spirit, by His presence as efficient cause, infuses in her through Christ, the grace that is fully Christ’s and is able to make us fully other Christs, the sacramental grace… it is then only that the community dwelling-place of God in historic time begins to be perfectly established, it is at this moment that the indwelling presence of the Trinity becomes absolute and complete.

Congar continues “in the New Testament, (even) the Holy Spirit is an active Presence dwelling in and really sanctifying persons. The order of the New Covenant is an order of inwardness, in which God’s action is directed towards and reaches man himself.” To illustrate further, Congar cites Hoskyn’s commentary on John 1:

The law was a gift separable from the agent by which it was given. Grace and truth, however, came not only by but in Jesus Christ, who is the truth embodied. In the new and eternal covenant, God is not separated from His gifts, the spiritual reality of grace accompanies the sacraments… the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us; the Temple of the New Jerusalem is the Lord God almighty, its Temple is the Lamb.

Accordingly, Christ’s Paschal offering of His flesh founds the Church, the new Jerusalem.

The Eucharist as the Union of Covenant Keepers

Israel was the community of the circumcised, who kept covenant with God by obedience and were united to Him by faith and the gestures that confirmed their faith. Israel could be said to be united as one as a people because she was called to perform in common identical acts of consecration oriented to the one God. The Church is the community that keeps covenant with God through the sacraments, by which God fulfills the prophecy that (through the ontologically effective means of grace) God will inscribe His law in their hearts and re-constitute their hearts through real union with Himself; “the Church is one because Christ is one, of whom it is the body.” The continuity between Israel’s unified covenant-keeping and the union of the Church, as unified by the ontological effects of her covenant-keeping is obvious in such Scriptural statements as Galatians 3:26-29: “if you belong to Christ, you are indeed Abraham’s children.” Congar follows suit: “besides being sacramental… the Church is also social… (because) the Church is the new Israel… a people of God with its own corporate life.” Congar finds warrant for the Church’s corporate life in the account of the life of the earliest Church in the book of Acts, a distinct “fellowship” of those who “occupied themselves continually with the breaking of bread,” which activity resulted in there being “one heart and one soul in all the company of believers.”

As the Genesis account of the beginning of salvation history describes, God’s covenant with one man (Abraham) tends to a community, whose members are made by the participatory signs which mark them for God. Accordingly, the Scriptural language of ecclesial unity revolves around the theme of Christ’s one body. It is this kind of ontological, essential union that St. Paul and his following anticipate in the pastoral writings that address the unity of the Church. Having established the central principle that in Christ “we who are many form one Body” in Romans 12, I Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4, the epistle writers clarify that this union is the expression of a basic, ontological relationship between the members that results from their mutual union with Christ, the Head of the body: “each member belongs to all the others.”… “the body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; the many parts form one body; so it is with Christ,” etc.

Here, if we accept Congar’s statement that “the Church is the realization of the New Covenant,” which as such, “was already in part realized and made known in the Old Testament by the formation of a people of God,” we must ask what God’s New Covenant, consummated in Christ, involves of the participatory signs that mark the participants for God and forms the collective chosen people of God. It is the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist that unites us both to each other and to God in the Body of Christ: “it is the Eucharist by which we are made a single body in Christ.”

This fact of the life of the Church accentuates the continuity between the Old Covenant and the New. Both covenants involve divinely bestowed benefits. The common destiny received from God in the old alliance was the land, by which the community of Israel was established within discreet spatial boundaries. In contrast, the benefit of the new alliance is “none other than the patrimony of God Himself,” namely, access to His very throne, life, and person. As Cavanaugh reminds us, this can be nothing less than the enjoyment of Christ’s very person and the consequent formation of the community of the consummated covenant: “the Eucharist makes present our destiny in communion by incorporating us together into the body of Christ.” Congar continues that “this wonderful transformation of our inheritance is perforce accompanied by an equally profound change in the person receiving, and in this way the promises made to Abraham are fulfilled.”

This new alliance, by which humanity is “brought near through the blood of Christ,” is signified by the sacraments and especially by the Eucharist: “the sacraments are signs of the Alliance.” By means of the sacraments, humanity performs “all that is needed for us to make effectual, in our own regard, the mystery accomplished for our sakes, to associate ourselves with Christ in his passing to the Father, in order to become in Him, sharers together in the good things of God.” Dom Anscar Vonier suggests that these sacraments should be read as “sacraments of the covenant” in juxtaposition with the covenant-confirming gestures of the Old Testament. In the New Testament, the Gospel authors could be read as assuming the same idea in the narrative of the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple; when Simeon and Anna see the human body of the incarnate God within the Jerusalem Temple, they immediately recall God’s covenant with Israel; when Zacharias hears news of the incarnate God, he recalls God’s covenant; when Mary receives the Annunciation of the Incarnation of God in her womb, she recalls God’s covenantal promises to Abraham. The incarnation of God seems to its immediate witnesses to resonate with such passages as the prophecy of Ezekiel 37:

I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.

Congar concludes that the sacraments that flow from and contain the effects of Christ’s Incarnate Passion constitute both the new covenant of the Incarnation, and, consequently, its ensuing community: “the juxtaposition of the idea of covenant and the sacraments are the means by which Christians are placed in contact with Christ Himself… they receive the life-giving sap that proceeds from the tree of the cross; in short, the life by which they are to live is the very life of Christ.” Thus we see that the Church is the consummate covenant community, which enjoys the consummation of God’s covenant in the very body of Christ, and, from her ontological participation in His body, somehow becomes a Body united herself.

St. Paul even clarifies how this unity by incorporation is effected, namely, by baptism and by the unifying ministry of the one Holy Spirit: “for we were all baptized by one Spirit into one Body… and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” In another striking passage St. Paul tells us why we form one Body: “because there is on bread, we who are many are one body, for we all are partakers of one bread.” In a similar way, the Gospel passages in Luke 13 and Matthew 8 depict the union of gathered peoples around a central meal: “people from east and west, from north and south, will come and sit down at the feat in the kingdom of God.” In this way, the Church has throughout the ages identified the sacramental theme of the Eucharist, as “the sacrament of the Church’s unity,” as summarized in Lumen Gentium:

All these things, however, were done by way of preparation and as a figure of that new and perfect covenant, which was to be ratified in Christ, and of that fuller revelation which was to be given through the Word of God Himself made flesh. "Behold the days shall come saith the Lord, and I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel, and with the house of Judah . . . I will give my law in their bowels, and I will write it in their heart….Christ instituted this new covenant, the new testament, that is to say, in His Blood, calling together a people made up of Jew and gentile, making them one, not according to the flesh but in the Spirit. This was to be the new People of God. The Son, therefore, came, sent by the Father. It was in Him, before the foundation of the world, that the Father chose us and predestined us to become adopted sons, for in Him it pleased the Father to re-establish all things…The Church, or, in other words, the kingdom of Christ now present in mystery, grows visibly through the power of God in the world. This inauguration and this growth are both symbolized by the blood and water which flowed from the open side of a crucified Jesus, and are foretold in the words of the Lord referring to His death on the Cross: "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself". As often as the sacrifice of the cross in which Christ our Passover was sacrificed, is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried on, and, in the sacrament of the Eucharistic bread, the unity of all believers who form one body in Christ is both expressed and brought about.

Thus, just as the physical act of circumcision signified an effective covenant, the Eucharist signifies an effective covenant that not only binds the communicant to God, but to one another as well. Relying primarily on the Scriptural account, Dom Anscar Vonnier writes that “nothing is easier to demonstrate” than the connection between the Eucharistic sacrifice and the new covenant in Christ. Vonnier cites the historical references in Scripture to blood being required for the making of a covenant between God and humanity, and refers further to the effects of the blood (and with it, the bread of the Eucharist) of Christ as “an active power, bringing about in the Church and in souls the full effects of the New Testament.”

The Church from the Sacraments

At this point, having established that the paramount sacrament of the Eucharist consummates the Old Covenant’s provisions by securing the presence of God, we are left to wonder what all of this means for the way we understand the Church. Karl Rahner frames the issue nicely: given that the connection between the Church and the sacraments is not very clear at any level of theology, a common notion tends to emerge of the Church merely dispensing sacraments as the means of grace for the salvation of the individual. Consequently, the relationship between the Church and the sacraments is often perceived in the most superficial and external way, such that it could be believed that God might have entrusted their administration to any given institution, including the Christian home or the Christian state. After all, one could turn to the dispenser of grace to obtain the means of personal salvation, but then might just as easily turns away as soon as the means have been supplied, without ever having identified himself as one member within the whole body. Congar in particular acknowledges the need to “examine this reality of Christ in us, of the mystical Body… of baptism into a single body, and all this multitude of organs goes to make up one body” and to ask, literally, “how does this all come about?” In other words, given the promise of the new covenant in Christ’s blood, what is it about the sacraments, and especially of the Eucharist, that forms the community of the Church in the same way that circumcision formed the community of Israel?

Rahner explains the relationship between the individual and with the sacrament-dispensing community as covenant keepers with regard to the Eucharist:

Acceptance itself, however, can only take place in the individual, for victorious grace is only present where the subjective holiness of an individual is achieved through it…the Church only attains the highest actualization of her own nature when grace is victorious in the individual and also is tangibly expressed and really occurs for the individual’s sanctification. That is exactly what happens in the sacraments.

Thus the life of the individual is always oriented to the Church, as the single, superceding Individual: “the Christian life is a life in Christ which is nourished, maintained and expressed in a spiritual life of a social and strictly ecclesiastical nature; union with Christ, which is the interior life of the individual soul, is lived and acquired socially, in the Church.” Rahner’s solution to the posited question is to emphasize the Church as the enduring presence of Christ in the world, and thus as truly the fundamental sacrament, the source of all other sacraments; in this way, the sacraments are “acts fundamentally expressive of the nature of the Church,” and the Church experiences and fulfills her nature in the sacraments that flow from her. The Church, then, is the Church of the sacraments in as much as the Church signifies and effects the grace that brought her into being in the first place: “in the Church God’s grace is given expression and embodiment and symbolized, and by being so embodied, is present.” As such, she dispenses the sacraments; the sacraments thereby have an “ecclesiological origin,” and sacramental character follows from the nature of the Church. Thus, the individual is united to the whole in as much as the grace which he receives personally in the sacraments is the same grace which calls the Church as a whole into being.

At this point, in holding that the sacraments merely extend the primary grace which calls the Church into being in the first place, Rahner’s theory struggles to address the causality of the sacraments. On the notion of their ecclesiological origin, the sacrament’s causality would operate (in Rahner’s words) by way of a “making good of a legal claim on someone who has contracted to perform something,” or in a “juridical” sense by which the sacrament is “considered to confer on the recipient a legal title.” Thus Rahner offers the language of “natural symbols” or “intrinsically real symbols” to avoid a purely juridical tone, and to express the idea that the sacraments as signs are still causes of grace, by which the sign is intrinsically linked to its phenomenon:

The Church in her visible historical form is herself an intrinsic symbol of the eschatalogically triumphant grace of God; in that spatio-temporal visible form, this grace is made present. And because the sacraments are the actual fulfillment, the actualization of the Church’s very nature…precisely in as much as the Church’s whole reality is to be the real presence of God’s grace, as the new covenant, these sacramental signs are efficacious. Their efficacy is that of the intrinsic symbol. Christ acts through the Church in regard to an individual human being by giving his spatio-temporal embodiment by having the grace gift of his grace manifested in the sacrament. This visible form is itself an effect of the coming of grace; it is there because God is gracious to men; and in this self-embodiment of grace, grace itself occurs. The sacramental sign is cause of grace in as much as grace is conferred by being signified. And this presence (by signifying) of grace in the sacraments is simply the actuality of the Church as the visible manifestation of grace…. The relationship is one of reciprocal conditioning… The sign effects grace, by grace producing the sacrament.

Thus throughout the sacramental dynamic, the sacrament becomes the Church’s act, when the Church acts as the primary sacrament of Christ’s grace in the world. Rahner thus holds that the sacraments follow from the nature of the Church, to the extent that one could “infer” sacraments from the nature of the Church by a strict deductive proof; the sacraments are “acts fundamentally expressive of the Church’s life…acts flowing from her nature (that are) fundamentally and unconditionally the accomplishment of that nature.”

In contrast, Congar holds that the Church, in as much as she emerges from the very body of Christ, emerges from the sacraments, and is the Eucharistic body: “the unity of the mystical body is the effect proper to the Sacrament of the Eucharist.” Rather than producing the sacraments as her natural and ontological self-expression, the Church derives from them:
The words of institution speak of the new and eternal covenant that was concluded in the blood of Christ; Christ is present in the sacrament under these words. He is therefore present as a bond of unity, as the foundation of the covenant between God and man, as the Church’s unity therefore. Because He really gives Himself in ever new sacramental manifestations as sacrifice for the Church, and as sacrifice of the Church, because He exists in the Church in visible and tangible sacramental form, there is the Church. She is most manifest and in the most intensive form, she attains the highest actuality of her nature, when she celebrates the Eucharist. For here everything that goes to form the Church is found fully and manifestly present.

Congar’s perspective highlights the possibility that when discussing the nature of the Church’s being and unity, a stronger, more ontological understanding of her foundation is needed. I propose that such an understanding is available in the idea of the Church emerging from the sacraments, or, in the idea of the sacraments as the acts which constitute the Church. In Congar’s words, “what makes the Church is our faith and the sacraments in which it takes visible form. The Church is, of its essence, sacramental.” As mentioned prior, this essay is in search of an adequate ecclesiology that reflects the nature of the Church as the consummation of the Old Covenant, and that reflects the nature of the Church as the visible creature of the re-creation of all things in the Incarnation of God.

To resolve the argument, I turn to the contemporary work of theologian William T. Cavanaugh. Referring to standard references to “the mystical body of Christ” in the early twentieth century in Maritain and Popes Pius XI and Pius XII, Cavanaugh’s complaint is that “the designation of the Church as (the) ‘mystical’ rather than (the) ‘true’ body of Christ has often served the imagination of a disincarnate Church which merely hovers above the temporal, uniting Christians in soul but not in body.” Here, Cavanaugh wishes to identify the Church as God’s redemptive, visible new creation in the fallen world. Rahner would agree with him:

We can and must say that participation in the physical Body of Christ by the reception of this sacrament imparts the grace of Christ to us in so far as this partaking of one bread is an efficacious sign of the renewed, deeper, and personally ratified participation and incorporation in (the) Body of Christ… the Church. In other words, res et sacramentum, first effect and intermediary cause of the other effects in this sacrament is the more profound incorporation into the unity of the Body of Christ.

The notion of the radical, ontological effect of the Eucharistic body of Christ upon His ecclesial body for her vivification and formation as an institutional community are vividly highlighted in contemporary usage by Cavanaugh’s emphasis on the Eucharist as the sacramental event that constitutes the human person and the human community, in contrast with the oppressive political regimes that destroy both. Here, Cavanaugh’s proposals echo Congar’s idea that the Church is not a body only in the sense of a corpus politicum, but also, in a mysterious fashion, in that of a corpus organicum or biologicum: “it is not only a unity of order or of cooperation, like a natural society, but a unity of life, rather like that of a living body.” Accordingly, Cavanaugh presumes to “explore nothing less than the actual and potential impact of the Eucharist,” because “for Catholic Christianity there is nothing more real than the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.” Thus, in as much as the real presence of Christ is in the body of communicating believers, the Church truly becomes the very body of Christ.

In short, for our purposes, we emphasize Cavanaugh’s insistence that the Eucharist ontologically makes and reconstitutes people into Christians when they really share in His life, flesh, and blood, and hence the Eucharist “makes” the Church, in the obverse way in which torture deconstructs persons and “makes” them into broken victims. The Eucharist is thus the means by which the Church is constructed, in the vivifying and constituting of its individual members, and gathered as the community of those who have consumed the same loaf and been inscribed with the same Eucharistic character:

Isolation is overcome in the Eucharist by the building of a communal body which resists…attempts to eradicate it… the Eucharist thus realizes the true body of Christ, a body which is neither purely mystical (qua invisible community juridically bonded by faith) nor simply reducible to the modern state.

Throughout this argument, Cavanaugh is responding to de Lubac’s worry that an over-emphasis on the Church as “mystical body” could imply that it did not belong to the Church to be a real, organic, and social body in any sense. Worst of all, such notions risked attenuating the Church’s link to Christ Himself. Cavanaugh thus explains that the Eucharist is much more than a ritual repetition of the past. It is rather a literal re-membering of Christ’s body, a knitting together of the body of Christ by the participation of many in His sacrifice… the Eucharist conforms the followers of Christ to be the true body of Christ, (a body able to provide a counter-discipline to state abuses.)

Cavanaugh’s vividly ‘ontological’ view of the Eucharist also includes the reminder that “one of the peculiarities of the Eucharistic feast is that we become the body of Christ by consuming it.” The eaters are assimilated to that which is eaten; the Church, by virtue of her members’ reception of Christ in the Eucharist, is literally changed into Christ. It is perhaps only in this way that the fullest and richest possible import of St. Paul’s one hundred sixty-four Scriptural references to the immanence of the living Christ in the Church- Christ in us and we in Christ- comes to bear. In this way, the recognition of the Church as a “body” identified with the true body of Christ becomes much more than metaphor, and hence rings all the more clearly with the words of St. Paul: “you are the body of Christ.”

Congar would likely affirm this theandric, ontological emphasis in considerations of the nature of the Church with his own reference to the Patristic notion of the Church as the new creation, in whom Christ wills to continue His life in men. As he states,

…in a truly theandric way…the body of the second Adam is formed, by the gradual communication of His spirit to all that is material, to the whole range of human actions that proceed throughout the world from the increasing progeny of the first Adam.

At this point, overlap with Rahner’s notion of the Church as Sacrament is again possible where Rahner admits that “in the Eucharist the Church is called to be what it eschatalogically is.” But it is Congar who reminds us again of the full weight of the Scriptural language: “the formula in Christ Jesus signifies receiving life and movement from Christ.” Although such language seems to resonate with Rahner’s idea that the Church exists as pure derivation from God’s grace, and hence the grace of the sacraments follow from her nature as such, it must be remembered that in as much as the Church comes into being and is animated by the Holy Spirit only in Christ, she comes into being in his body; “the formula ‘in Christ Jesus’ … amounts to saying ‘in his body.’” Conversely, the corresponding formula ‘Christ in us’ can refer Eucharistically to His really being, in His body, in us, as our life. As Congar concludes, we fully realize this fullness of Christ “in us” in connection with the sacraments. Those who have so fully realized Him in the sacraments and especially in the Eucharist are thus made real sharers in one another by sharing the same Lord within; and thus the Church is formed.


This paper has explored an understanding of the Church from the model of ancient Israel, the people of the Old Covenant. On this model of a community of covenanting individuals enjoying the presence of God, we see that the Church is the union of individuals who participate in the consummated covenant through the very flesh and blood of Christ, and who commune with one another because they participate together in His flesh and blood. Literally, their souls bear the same Eucharistic mark or character, just as the bodies of Israelites bore the same mark of circumcision; and it is in this ontological way that the Church is really “one body.”

In this way, we have perhaps addressed why, given the data of Christ’s incarnation and Passion, we have a community that emerges from these events; obedience to the form of the covenant results in a community inevitably, since (in a crude way of putting it) we are what we eat. As with Israel, God gives Himself to us in fulfillment of His covenant when we accept His offer bodily, but now His body is the Temple where we meet Him, and obedience to this covenant (“take, eat”) naturally results in the Church.

Understanding the emergence of the Church in this way, we can understand more about the Church herself. Rahner holds that “the Church is the fundamental sacrament and that the opus operatum is the radical self-expression and actualization of this Church.” However, such a statement must be qualified by the recollection that the Church is never self-existent and always refers back to the moment of her birth; Calvary is a more fundamental sacrament than she, and (as Rahner would agree) the doctrine of the opus operatum is fundamentally the radical “self expression and actualization” of her Lord and His grace. The Church is nothing more nor less than the “historically visible form of eschatalogically victorious grace” of Calvary. In an even more fundamental way, just as the Church was once and for all born from the side of the Bridegroom who died for her, she is always being constituted by His Eucharistic body. I proposes that this is the best vein in which to embrace Rahner’s statement that “the sacraments, precisely as events in the spiritual life and sanctification of the individual, have an ecclesiological aspect.”

Several implications for contemporary ecclesiology might emerge from these ideas. First, in the area of Catholic apologetics regarding the sacraments, it might be noted that if there is no real presence nor ex opere operato in the sacraments, then there can be no ontologically joined Church in reality. There may be a communion of love and fellowship, or a juridical union of mere community; but such a fellowship certainly falls short of the strong sense of Paul’s references to a community of diverse parts so united as to constitute one body capable of monogamous “nuptial” union to Christ, and of Christ’s language of a fellowship of believers being as closely knit to one another in the same way that the Father and Son, who are united by being one in substance. As St. Paul states in I Corinthians 11, it is the failure to discern the body of Christ that results in uncharitable disunity; those who truly discern the body are then incorporated into it together, with charity following. It is not the other way around.

Secondly, the language of “covenant” by which many reformed traditions conceive of their ecclesiology, is shown neither to do justice to the Old Covenant, nor to allow for a sense of continuity with it, since such an interpretation certainly falls short of the practice of Israel, whose covenantal response to God and union with one another was “inscribed” on their very bodies. According to Christ’s own words of institution, we must understand our fellowship in Him as a revision of the Old Covenant that remains in continuity with the New. For Israel, the divine covenant is inscribed in the flesh and anticipates God’s inscription upon the human heart. As we know from the model of Israel, the first people of God, whose covenant is inscribed in their very bodies, the real life of the Church is not internalized; rather, the life of the Church is Christ Himself, who may be internalized for the inscription of the heart when the gift of His very self is received by the communicant into the body.

In the words of Louis Bouyer, an over-emphasis on the Church as the mystical body of Christ to the exclusion of its ontological basis results in the (disastrous) result of the adjective swamping the noun. Where the Church begins to locate its source not in the sacrament of the Lord’s body but in mere theological concepts, the idea of the Church’s ontological link to Christ fades away into relatively colorless, sociological, organalogical, or juristic notions that stress legal fictions and the merely juridical bonds that link the Church to its Head. Rather, an adequate ecclesiology should emphasize the Eucharist as the communal re-membering of the body of Chris, as each Christian takes the same life of Christ into himself; the body of Christ is individualized and commodified in the Host, and its effects become a reality in the hidden in the interior life of the individual heart. The union of many identically characterized hearts becomes the Church. The Eucharist constructs, makes, and makes visible the Church; the Eucharist makes unity. As Cavanaugh puts it, “to participate in the Eucharist is to be caught up into what is really real, the body of Christ. Human persons, body and soul, are incorporated into the performance of Christ’s corpus verum.”

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the Church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Hebrews 12:22-24

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes…for the old order of things has passed away." Revelation 21: 2-4

It is truly the one, identical Lord, whom we receive in the Eucharist, or better, the Lord who receives us and assumes us into himself. St Augustine expressed this in a short passage which he perceived as a sort of vision: eat the bread of the strong; you will not transform me into yourself, but I will transform you into me. In other words, when we consume bodily nourishment, it is assimilated by the body, becoming itself a part of ourselves. But this bread is of another type. It is greater and higher than we are. It is not we who assimilate it, but it assimilates us to itself, so that we become in a certain way “conformed to Christ”, as Paul says, members of his body, one in him.

We all “eat” the same person, not only the same thing; we all are in this way taken out of our closed individual persons and placed inside another, greater one. We all are assimilated into Christ and so by means of communion with Christ, united among ourselves, rendered the same, one sole thing in him, members of one another.

Pope Benedict XVI


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