Lesson 12: Christian Community and Organized Religion
1) The Church as the Body of Christ is the Kingdom of God in via (on the way, the pilgrim Church) or as Vatican II says, "the kingdom of God in hope" but it is not yet completed. During his life on earth before and after the Resurrection Jesus prepared his community and its future leaders and gave them the mission to continue his work. Hence after his Ascension to the Father he sent the Holy Spirit to be the soul of the Church and to make him present to its members in faith, hope, and love. Thus the Church is Christ made visible in the world in his sacraments and preaching and it must complete his sufferings until he returns at the final judgment.
2) Christ's purpose in this is to enable his disciples to grow in faith and through cooperation with his saving work for the world. Today the individualism and subjectivism of our culture, fostered by the features of modern philosophy that we have studied, rejects "organized religion" and looks for a "spirituality" that is individualistic and subjectivist. If, however, the Church is a community of faith, hope, and love with a mission from Christ it must be able to act in a unified manner. This would be impossible if it were not organized according to sound political principles that apply to all human communities and which we considered in Lesson 7. There are important differences, however, between the organization of the Church and secular human communities because of their different goals. The Church has its goal the preparation of the eternal Kingdom of God; while human organizations have merely temporal goals. Thus the branch of theology called Ecclesiology can learn a great deal from ethics and politics about why Christ gave it the organization that he did. Thus neither an ecclesiology that fails to respect the principle of subsidiarity by centralizing all decision in the papacy nor on the contrary one that is anarchistic and denies the necessary authority of the pope and bishops can be correct.
3) The sacramental structure of the Church also requires philosophical analysis to bring out its full meanings, since the sacraments are symbols whose meaning requires interpretation. It is here especially that a "theology of the body" as developed by John Paul II using a phenomenological yet Thomistic method, has so strikingly developed. As Christ stretched out his hand to touch and heal, so in the sacraments we come into contact with the very flesh and blood of Christ, the Word Incarnate. The tendency of the Reformation to accent the preached Word to the neglect of the sacraments reduces the reality of the Incarnation. The fundamentalist-over-literal interpretation of the Biblical Word has intensified this tendency. These trends have affected Catholic theology as well and can only be overcome by a less Platonic and Cartesian philosophical understanding.
4) Since the Church is a pilgrim Church moving toward the goal of Christ's return in glory, Eschatology is an important part of theology. It can be distorted by certain philosophical errors. On the one hand the modern myth of inevitable "progress" can lead to the view that the plan of history is deterministic and that we have no responsibility for its outcome. But Jesus taught us to pray "Thy kingdom come...on earth as it is in heaven." While it is certain the Christ will return in triumph, the condition of the world when he returns depends on how faithful the Church is in its mission. He may find the whole world faithful or only a few who have persevered in faith. It depends on how open we are open to God's grace in the active use of our free will. On the other hand, that same myth of progress may lead us into supposing that we can save ourselves, when in fact our cooperation with grace itself depends on God's grace. Only by being open to that grace can we be empowered to make use of it.
5) Thus students of theology need to understand that to live by faith and by grace also requires them to make the best possible use of the natural gifts God has given them, including the accumulated sciences and wisdom of humanity, non-Christian as well as Christian, to enable them to understand their faith and interpret it to the culture of today. As John Paul II says in Faith and Reason (n.63). "For the reasons I have mentioned, it has seemed to me urgent to re-emphasize with this Encyclical Letter the Church's intense interest in philosophy--indeed the intimate bond which ties theological work to the philosophical search for truth."
Read Vatican II, "Church in the Modern World" (Gaudium et Spes) and reread "Faith and Reason."
1) Why do so many people today reject "organized religion?"
2) Did Jesus just initiate a "movement" or did he found an organized Church?
3) What principles of human political order must be respected in the life of the Church itself?
4) What is the relation of the ministry of the Sacraments and the ministry of the Word and how do human sciences assist in each?
5) What is the relation of secular history and Biblical eschatology?