07 June 2012

Open Wound Now Sacred?

NOT THAT I EVER stop thinking about this particular subject, but perhaps a recent revelation precipitated my hitting "publish" on this post. Perhaps.

A couple of months ago I laid out a way of making sense of the church as it is in actuality (as opposed to its ideal), labeling it “Open Wound Ecclesiology.” Bryan Cross responded to it in his way, which is to say, both unsurprisingly and formidably. I regret not to have responded in kind, though I was going back-and-forth on this matter over at Called to Communion at the time (and much of what appears below appeared in some form over there).

What follows is an attempt to further clarify this “Open Wound Ecclesiology,” while answering some of the challenges Mr. Cross put forth in my combox.

Let me first say that I acknowledge the depressing nature of this ecclesiology (a friend responded to me about it in precisely those words). If you’re looking for something a tad more certain, then this is not for you. Perhaps you prefer redefining unity in response to our fragmented reality along with the high-church confessionalists in Geneva (unity=spiritual unity), or maybe you prefer the safety of the Vatican’s walls (unity=visible unity with the Roman Catholic Church alone). I know the openness I’m suggesting is unnerving.

Regarding the ancient creed's confession that “we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” and its relationship to what I perceive to be a tautology—that the church is disunited—Mr. Cross wrote that “to interpret this line of the Creed as an affirmation of a future hope, and not as referring to a present reality, is to deny this line of the Creed, because it has never meant that, nor does it mean that.” It’s a matter of historical honesty to acknowledge this in the case of the early church, even, of course, in the midst of her struggles with schism. No doubt it’s no different than today, to Mr. Cross’ mind.

My only recourse is to suggest a development in doctrine on this score for Catholics to consider (with Vatican II nudging us along): that the church herself is in process, and thus her Lord along with her engages, and responds to, this process. Only God is sure; all else is subject to change. The body politic is a fragmented mess, and is failing her charge to be one, just as the Father and the Son are one. But this is what God himself chose to get into. We are thus left with the question and its implied challenge: What will the church evolve to be?

I hope not what it looks like—from the vantage point of the weeds. So far as this world and our finite perspectives are concerned, Christianity, with all its divisions, worldly alliances, demagoguery, and heterodoxy, does indeed look false.

I of course don’t think it is, but therein lies my hope, which brings us back around to the creed. There is, after all, a unity among all professing Christians, entailed in the creed’s language, that is yet retained (in the language of Lumen gentium: “though they [non-Catholics] do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter,” are “in some real way…joined with [Catholics] in the Holy Spirit, for to them too He gives His gifts and graces whereby He is operative among them with His sanctifying power”). No need to emphasize any of the words there; and they cannot be undone no matter how hard some of the Good Pope’s bishops and successors try.

Apparently, according to Lumen gentium, we who are not of the Roman Catholic Church are “joined” in some “real way” to that communion. And the locus of that union? The Holy Spirit himself. Nevertheless, it is not God’s ideal for his body, the church, for it’s currently suffering from an open wound.

This decidedly does not suffer from Mr. Cross’ charge that we’re outdoing Christ. There are indeed communions that more robustly embody the faith, and thus represent the visible church with a unified ecclesial structure: these are they who are in succession (through the laying on of hands as well as doctrinally); who rightly administer the sacraments; and who faithfully preach God’s Holy Word; in short, “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” It is these who are burdened with the charge to actively reconcile (re-attach) the fragmented body of Christ, precisely because it is they who retain the most robust embodiment of the faith once delivered. They are not (emphatically!) the faith’s sole proprietors; they are its mothers, called to gracefully repent and heal and nurture the body to full communion.

This means that, yes, I’m suggesting that what God wants from us (ecclesiastically) isn't what he has received from us. But this does not provide an example of “ecclesial deism,” as if I’m saying that while God wants visible unity from us, he then simply stands back to see what he’ll get from us. If striving toward unity is "outdoing Christ" (in that "it seeks to go beyond the unity that Christ Himself saw fit to establish in His Church by imposing on what He founded as a merely invisible entity a visible unity He Himself did not see fit to establish"), then so too is living the Christian life, that is, keeping the faith—or else apostasy is only ever merely hypothetical.

Has anything ever been decreed absolutely by God (when it comes to his contingent creation), without any expectation of meeting certain conditions on our part, without any response on his part to intervening historical contingencies? Taking our cue from the Sacred Scriptures, we see that even those decrees (oracles, prophecies, apostolic utterances, etc.) that appear at first glance to be absolute, are nevertheless laden with conditions (when dealing with humankind in particular).

I submit that the same holds true with respect to the people of God and their calling to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

What I'm describing is quite down toward the opposite end of the spectrum from deism, and, if anything, can be taxed with placing too much emphasis on the immanence of God in relationship to his creation. I'm talking about a God who called out of the massa perditionis a Christ (the eternal Son of God who took upon himself our nature), in whom people are united (through baptism and faith), which people are then called to be what they are. Being thus made posse non pecare they are given the tasks laid out in various places throughout the Scriptures of embodying what it means to be corpus Christi, and, by virtue of the indwelling Spirit of God, are thus able to do so. In doing so, they falter, they err, and all the while their loving and patient God struggles with them, responding to them, and continually goads them on toward the unity (of will and purpose and substantiality) that is shared among the Godhead, the great Three in One.

I've already mentioned how Vatican II and its doctrinal development revolving around ecclesiology pushes us on toward this unity. This is also where I’d like to bring in Henri de Lubac to further help suggest the way forward: the Eucharist, he wrote, makes the church. The idea is not new (Augustine saw it when he wrote that “we become what we have received”). The so-called “communion ecclesiology” ensconced in Vatican II has paved our way (in the West; Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology already gets it, in my opinion, even if it too needs to be goaded here). The sacramental purpose of the Eucharistic body has seemingly been forgotten: it is to create the ecclesia (not merely pontificate about how Christ is present). Put another way, the real presence of Christ in the bread and the wine is inextricably tied to its purpose—the creation of his one body.

Why not, then, break bread together? This open wound will not be healed without shared participation in the meal Jesus gave us. Indeed, what anticipates that future marriage feast more clearly than open communion?

Catch up with your most recent ecumenical council, Catholics, for the love of God (or is "for Pete's sake" more apropos?).


Joseph Johnson said...

This is essentially Leithart's argument; of course it is the assumption of the wound (protestant) rather than the body (RC)

Phil Wood said...

I enjoyed your both your posts and Bryan's robust response. Quoting Moltmann, as you do in your previous post, I am left pondering what the congregational Professor would make of a proposal for unity caught between "... a collegial episcopate (in contradistinction to the universal jurisdictional claims of the Roman pontiff". This congregational Mennonite feels somewhat stuck between a pontifical rock and an episcopal hard place. The prospect of unity, handed over to an unaccountable male clerical elite makes me go quite weak at the knees.

Disagreement aside, I see that 'open wound' as well. It is a wound which scars our Mennonite/Roman Catholic household as well as the wider Church. Like you, I stumble over the refusal of intercommunion on the part of the Roman Catholic Church. I suspect that the deepest roots of continuing schism (the openness of the wound) are not to be found in theological debate but in the sheer humdrum ordinariness of disunity. Generation after generation of good Methodists, Mennonites or Pentecostals have come and gone, believing their church life was the capital of normal.

I believe there are two opportunities to take a step towards visible unity. The first would be a common recognition amongst Roman Catholics and Protestants that the Post-Christendom shift is an interruption of 'normal' (http://radref.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/giving-ground-loss-and-renewal-after.html). Before the concrete sets hard again we have the opportunity to do some fundamental things differently and look again as the givens of identity. Secondly, there is a difference between unity and uniformity (as there is between peace and pacfication). If the Roman Catholic Church were to grasp the spirit of that, the ecumenical climate would be transformed.

Chris Donato said...


Thanks for stopping by and taking time to read. I certainly feel the weight of the professor's and your misgivings—being "stuck between a pontifical rock and an episcopal hard place."

Skirting around that for now, I appreciate your comment about how "sheer humdrum ordinariness of disunity" incessantly feeds this open wound. Your suggestions regarding the way forward are indeed helpful. As you may have guessed, I daily fight against "reactionary pessimism." Thanks again.

David Meyer said...

I was tracking with much of what you are saying here, especially the longing you have for unity. I feel that too, and that was the rock in my shoe for years as a Reformed believer which led me to Rome. (I was a faithful Tabletalk subscriber btw)

Your comparisons here of a 'open wound' work for me to a point (perhaps between churches east/west, left lung right lung), but it just cant explain what we see around us, because what you describe is *one* body with a wound. What we see are either many bodies (which does not work if Christ is one), or one body with severed, dead parts. But one body that is bleeding would have to describe one Church with one faith. (obviously I have a horse in this race) I think it was St. Cathereine of Sienna who had a vision of the Catholic Church as a woman with a torn and ravished dress, with blood and bruises. Open wounds, yes, but still one body, one faith.

At the end, you lost me a bit. And I can honestly say that even as a Reformed guy you would have lost me. Open communion cant be the answer where there is not unity. It would be a lie to share the Eucharist together and then walk away from each other out of necesity because of different faith. Real unity of faith should be first, and then the sacrament. Like marriage comes first and then the wedding night. Open communion seems to me best compared to 'ecclesial cohabitation'
(did I coin a phrase?!)

A question so I can see where you are coming from:
What about the Arians? Should the Church have shared the table with them?

If yes, then what is your criteria for deciding this?


David Meyer

Chris Donato said...

David, thanks much for reading and taking the time to comment.

First, I admit that the end of this post comes off as a bit hasty. Having written about de Lubac elsewhere, I did not take the time to make all the connections that are needed for my final proposal.

Leaving that aside for the moment, I appreciate your thoughts that the metaphor "open wound" isn't entirely unusable (granting your caveats, of course), as well as the quote from (possibly) Catherine of Sienna. The obvious choice, from your perspective, is of course the east/west divide. I would add (also having a horse in this race) the Anglican church to this mix (your "sister church," so Pope Paul VI), not least because of its intact succession (a well-rehearsed story we'll leave alone for now).

It's true that I extend the metaphor to include—in a certain sense—all Christian communities, while yet maintaining that there are communions that "more robustly embody the faith." Those other communions, anemic though they be, are nevertheless (at the risk of stretching the metaphor too far) very much a part (or were a part, depending how far they've separated from the four marks) of that open wound. They may be a part and parcel of the gash itself; or they may be a limb no longer attached (that can yet be re-atttached—always a desirable thing).

I imagine that if I were speaking of, say, holiness (one of those other four marks) as something that the church is but is also becoming—that holiness (as I wrote above with respect to oneness) is a way of being that God charges his people to embody—that you'd be okay with that. He is no puppet master; he desires holiness of us, and goads us on toward it. (This was my whole point about the Christian life in the above post.) Why, then, can this principle (which obviously accords with reality) not also be applied to the church's oneness?(Which, to my eyes, also accords with reality.) It ain't all or nothin', baby. It never has been—was never promised to be—in this time between the times.

Finally, with respect to open communion (this has been popping up lately on the blogosphere, albeit rationalized differently, hasn't it?), let's start with exactly where I'm at—an Anglo-Catholic parish. There's no reason whatsoever for a lack of intercommunion (the kind enjoyed currently by east/west). The Catholic faith inheres therein in its entirety. That's what I'm talking about—an embodiment of what Vatican II put forth in aspirational terms. The question about opening communion up for all Christian communions to share in is where I'd continue to push this, but that's not really my specific focus here.

Nutshell: if the Eucharist makes the church, then have a little faith and believe that the Eucharist will do what God has promised it will do.

David Meyer said...

Thanks Chris.

You said:
"There's no reason whatsoever for a lack of intercommunion"

Do you mean that in your view the Catholic reasons are not valid, or just that they are so minor as to not matter enough, or what?

"(the kind enjoyed currently by east/west)."

I'm not sure it's all that enjoyable. ;-)
Catholics recognize the 7 sacraments in Orthodox churches (not generally reciprocated), but I still cant recieve at my Greek friends church unless it were an emergency, and even then, his church would not allow me. And I dont blame them a bit. Unity before communion.

"Nutshell: if the Eucharist makes the church, then have a little faith and believe that the Eucharist will do what God has promised it will do."

Oh, I have faith that the Eucharist brings unity... to the Church. But we cant use that unifying ability to unite broken limbs to the Church. As I said before, this is like saying premarital sex will strengthen the future marriage... makes sense in a way... but it aint the way to go.
The Church confects the Eucharist. That power comes through bishops. So we cant use the Eucharist as a tool to bring unity, when that power itself is the result of unity. Thats bootstrapping.

If it's not to personal, can I ask what you think about the Ordinariate? It seems like this is really an incredible turn of events in Anglican/Catholic relations. If I take your meaning above correctly that "There's no reason whatsoever for a lack of intercommunion"... then it would seem the ordinariate would be a perfect fit. Again if that is too personal, forgive me.


David Meyer

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