Even before public Masses were suspended, I had concluded that the time was ripe to reflect on the nature of the Church and what it means to be in communion. In a homily I had recently heard, the priest mentioned his sense that the catechesis of his youth had been individualistic. And he believed that the chief work of the Second Vatican Council was to renew our sense of the Church as communion.
This piqued my interest and in two ways. First, I sense all too painfully the insufficiencies of the catechesis given me and other Catholics for over five decades. And have looked back to resources that pre-exist Vatican II in order to restore and renew what should have been given me in virtue of my baptism, but was not.
One way that I have sought to look back has been in catechizing my own children. Each morning, after prayers said at the breakfast table, I read to them questions from the Baltimore Catechism. It has so far helped clarify for them that ours is a dogmatic faith and forming your soul for salvation is, in no small part, knowing and assenting to the statements the Church proclaims.
I have noticed, at places, in the order and presentation of that Catechism, however, what I agree is an emphasis on the individual at the expense of understanding our salvation in terms of membership in the Church. So while the Baltimore Catechism remains an invaluable resource, I understand how that priest arrived at the conclusion that the pre-conciliar Church practiced a certain individualism – and that the Council sought to ensure that the faithful received a richer theology of the ecclesia.
My second thought regarded the question of whether the Council did in fact overcome a vision of the individual soul working out its salvation before God in isolation from the larger Church. There was such a vision to overcome. When the Jansenist Blaise Pascal wrote his apologia for Christianity, in the 17th century, he clearly saw conversion and faith as purely interior, spiritually private. All that is visible of the Church, including the Mass, Pascal tells us, is merely intended to “humble” the soul lest it mistake itself for an angelic spirit too noble for the body. If Pascal is an eccentric figure, on the whole, he is – in this respect – somewhat typical.
How the Council is usually said to have responded to this individualism is familiar but a little dubious. One finds it retailed not only in scholarly histories, but in popular encyclopedias as well. The Church once called itself a Perfect Society (societas perfecta), the transcendent realization of the order after which civil societies strive but can never attain.
Leo XIII used this term to defend the Church against the secularizing ambitions of modern states. Such histories note that Pius XII subsequently broadened and deepened this idea of the Church with the term Mystical Body of Christ. But these same historians treat this as no more than a steppingstone to Lumen Gentium, where the initial discussion of the Church as Mystical Body gives way, in Chapter Two, to the Church’s new, modern, enlightened name (as it were), the People of God.
We are the People of God and also, as Lumen Gentium says, the Pilgrim Church on earth. Lumen Gentium interprets both these terms as expressions of the Church as Mystical Body; they are true developments in the sense of being elements always present but newly discerned within the original deposit of faith.
But, alas, many interpreters then turn to Lumen Gentium §8, where we hear that the Church as a whole is the People of God and that the Church “subsists” in the Catholic Church, but is not identical with it. In effect, it is then taken to be a broader, looser reality most perfectly present in the visible Church, but to be found hither and yon as well.
The meaning of this statement is, in fact, to call all Christians to full union with the Church to which they already really belong, though they know it not. But that is not how it has typically been understood. As many people sense from their own experience, it led to a horizontal reorientation of the Church’s understanding of communion. The Church becomes a place of loosely coming together. The emphasis falls on “we the people” rather than our having been claimed “by God.” This is Whig history posing as doctrinal development.
Let us back out of this tendentious tale and return to the source of the Council’s reflection on the nature of the ecclesia. Henry de Lubac’s Catholicism (1938) begins by acknowledging that modern Christians view their religion in individualistic terms and this in part explains why the Church has lost many souls to Marxism.
He tells us, however, that the Church is best understood by two names we often keep apart. Modern Catholics speak of Christ’s “real presence” in the Eucharist; and they refer to the “Mystical Body of Christ.” But, de Lubac shows, these two terms had formerly been interchangeable. The Eucharist is also the Mystical Body of Christ, and the people gathered together as the Church are also the Real Presence of Christ.
To be saved is to be incorporated into Christ’s body. And our means of incorporation is to eat his body. We are “fused together” in the Church as one body, and it is as members united in that body that we are saved.
Rather than moving from a vision of individual and private reckoning with God on our transcendent path to salvation to an all-too-immanent vision of the People who happen to be gathered together into community, we should understand the Church for what she always has been. If there was once a temptation to individualism, there is now the temptation to immanentism. De Lubac shows us that both mislead.
For, in truth, we are one body and as one body we are saved. We are saved in communion, because communion is our salvation. The Eucharist saves us because it first makes us one body in Christ, and that union is Christ’s real presence.
*Image: Disputation Over the Most Holy Sacrament by Raphael, c. 1510 [Raphael Rooms, Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican]