"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Humanity of the Church

The recent discussion at De Regnis Duobus led me to Michael Horton's article titled "Transforming Culture with a Messiah Complex".

Michael implies that Catholics and Emergentists are guilty of an "overealized eschatology". He seems to be saying that Catholics and Emergentists believe that Christ is present here now, and are therefore in some way at least implicitly denying that Christ is in heaven. By 'overealized eschatology' he means that we are, so to speak, bringing Christ back before He has actually come back. We do this, in his view, by substituting the Church for Christ. And Catholics also do it, in Michael's view, by believing in Christ's real presence in the Eucharist. Michael's position seems to offer us the following dilemmas. We must choose between affirming that the Church is truly the Body of Christ on the one hand, and on the other hand affirming that Christ ascended into heaven and will return in glory at the end of the age. Furthermore, we must choose between affirming the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and affirming that Christ ascended into heaven and will return in glory at the end of the age.

What lies behind these false dilemmas? It seems to be a form of monocausalism, in this case a sort that allows only one mode of being. For Michael (seemingly), Christ cannot be both absent (i.e. in heaven and yet to return in glory) and present here on earth (either in His Mystical Body the Church or in the Eucharist) at the same time. But the solution to this difficulty involves a philosophical distinction between being and mode of being. Christ can be absent in one respect, and yet present in another respect, without contradiction. He Himself tells us that He will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5), and that where two or three are gathered together in His name, there He is in the midst of us. (St. Matthew 18:20)

His presence through the Church as His Mystical Body is a different mode of presence than will be His presence when He comes again in glory. We can see that in Catholic documents such as Mystici Corporis Christi. Likewise, Christ's sacramental presence in the Eucharist is a different mode of presence than will be His presence when He comes again in glory. In the Eucharist He is veiled under the accidents of bread and wine, as St. Thomas explains in Questions 75 and 76 of Summa Theologica III. But when Christ appears in glory, then we shall "see Him as He is". (1 John 3:2) So Catholics can adore Christ in the Eucharist, and we can function as His hands and feet to the world, without undermining our irrevocable belief (actually, *dogma*) that Christ truly ascended into heaven and will truly return in glory at the end of the age, a belief we affirm every week when we recite the Creed together.

Why is it that both Catholics and Emergentists fall under Michael's criticism? Emergentists emphasize action and service. Confessional Protestants tend to emphasize the Word, preaching, teaching and study. Both of these are true expressions of our human nature. St. Thomas Aquinas taught that man's life is fittingly divided into the active life and the contemplative life. (ST II-II Q.179) These two are exemplified in the sisters Mary and Martha. The Church cannot be only one or the other, because human nature is not reducible to only one or the other. Emergentism seems to be, in part, a reaction to a deficiency with respect to service on the part of confessional Protestantism. And likewise, those attracted toward confessional Protestantism tend to be responding to a deficiency with respect to doctrine on the part of mainline liberalism, fundamentalism, or broader Evangelicalism.

The Catholic Church encompasses both action and preaching, work and prayer, Sisters of Charity and hermits, Franciscans and Dominicans, service and study. She has always held together both of these aspects of human nature, without excluding one or the other. Michael criticizes the Catholic Church along with Emergentists, because both exemplify the active aspect of human nature. But recognizing this aspect of human nature fills out our understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ.

A few years ago when I told an old priest whom I have known for a number of years that I was becoming Catholic, the first thing he said to me was this: "Remember, the Church is human". I didn't fully understand what he meant. At the time, I took it to mean, Be prepared to find sinners in the Church. But now I see more clearly what he was saying. The Church, as the Mystical Body of the incarnate Christ, is truly human; all of human nature is found within her, for Christ became fully human. (That's why through my fundamentalist lenses as a young man so much of the Church had seemed "worldly"; I didn't understand then the difference between being human and being worldly.)

The catholicity of the Church flows directly from Christ's full humanity. In baptism, we are joined to Christ, incorporated into His Body. In this way we truly participate in Christ's humanity, and He in ours. In the Eucharist we are made partakers of His divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). But if in the Eucharist we are made partakers of His divine nature, then surely we are also made partakers of His human nature, for the latter is connatural to us, and Christ is not divided. Therefore, in the Eucharist we are truly and more deeply incorporated into His Body, made into His hands and feet, just as St. Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4. Christ's presence in the sacraments is in this way deeply connected to His presence in us and through us as His Mystical Body. (And this is why Emergentism is deficient; it needs the Eucharist in order to be fully and completely, the Body of Christ.)

This is also related, in my opinion, to the reason why it is difficult for some Protestants to perceive Mary as our Mother. Protestants tend to take metaphorically St. Paul's teaching about the Church as the Body of Christ, not conceiving any other mode of being than that of His physical body. But the more we see the Church as a participation not only in Christ's divinity, but also in His humanity, the more we will be able to see Mary as our Mother, for His humanity is her-humanity-given-to-Him. She is our Mother, because she is His mother, and we are joined to Him as His brothers and sisters, in His human family by adoption through baptism. If she is Theotokos (God-bearer), then she is also Mother of His Mystical Body, the Church, and thus in baptism she becomes our Mother.

Since both action and contemplation are essential aspects of our common human nature, both are expressed in the humanity of the Church. You can see both of those aspects in the following video, released by Catholics Come Home.

To Emergentists and confessional Protestants, all those traditions that ultimately trace their origin back to the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, Catholics invite you to come back as well. Let us heal what was torn, and unite what was divided. We welcome you back with open arms, as brothers and sisters in Christ. (That was Jeffrey Steenson's experience, and it was my family's experience as well.) It is time for all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ to come together, work through our differences in an open and humble manner, and be reunited as one family. The unity of His followers is the passion of the heart of Jesus (St. John 17). It is not just St. Paul, but Christ also who says to us, "Make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose." (Philippians 2:2) For Christ explained that His mission was "to bring together the scattered children of God and make them one." (St. John 11:52). As Christ's followers, that must be our mission as well.


Oso Famoso said...

I was reading Horton's argument at Jason's blog yesterday but didn't have time to respond. The false dilemma is perfectly obvious. All one has to do is listen to the liturgy to figure out that we look forward to the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting with Christ who is seated at the right hand of the father.

I can never understand it when smart men seemingly don't bother to study that which they are arguing against.

Principium Unitatis said...


Thanks. I'd like to hear how Michael responds to the obvious rejoinder. I'm sure he must have anticipated it.

The worry is that this is force-fit theology -- we have a model, and we force things into it, even if they don't fit.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan