A renewed understanding of church

Canadian theologian Gregory Baum reflects on the relative autonomy and creativity of local churches and their relationship with Rome which emerged from the Second Vatican Council.

The Second Vatican Council acknowledged that the Catholic Church – that is to say, the Church universal united under the Roman Pontiff – is a Church made up of churches in communion with one another. The Catholic Church is not an ecclestiastical realm in which the local or regional Churches are ecclestiastical provinces governed by bishops who derive their authority from the Pope. According to Christus Dominus, the conciliar document on bishops, ‘bishops exercise their episcopal office, received through episcopal consecration, in communion with and under the supreme pontiff.’

Their churches, we are told in Lumen Gentium, the conciliar document on the Church, are embodiments of the Church of Christ. Particular churches are portions of this one Church; they actualize or render present this one Church in their regions.

Within the Church particular Churches hold a rightful place; these Churches retain their own traditions, without in any way opposing the primacy of the Chair of Peter, which presides over the whole assembly of charity and protects legitimate differences, while at the same time assuring that such differences do not hinder unity but rather contribute toward it (n13).

This Church of Christ is truly present in all legitimate local congregations of the faithful which, united with their pastors, are themselves called Churches in the New testament. For in their locality these are the new people called by God, in the Holy Spirit and in much fullness (n26).

Christus Dominus offers the same teaching. It makes the additional point that the bishop’s task is to adapt the Christian message, making it relevant to the issues and problems that preoccupy the local congregation. This is an allusion to a pastoral approach that is subsequently referred to as the ‘inculturation’ of the gospel message.

As Christus Dominus says:The bishops should present Christian doctrine in a manner adapted to the needs of the times, that is to say, in a manner that will respond to the difficulties and questions by which people are especially burdened and troubled (n 12).

The expression ‘adapt’ or ‘adapted preaching’ needs clarification. As it stands, it could be interpreted as a surrender to the dominant culture. the need to rethink and reformulate the gospel in response to the cultural conditions of a particular Church is expressed more clearly in the conciliar document Gaudium et Spes.

Girl receiving communionFrom the beginning of her history the Church has learned to express the message of Christ with the help of ideas and terminology of various philosophers, and has tried to clarify it with their wisdom. Her purpose has been to adapt the Gospel to the grasp of all as well as to the needs of the learned … Indeed this accommodated preaching of the revealed Word ought to remain the law of all evangelization. For thus the ability to express Christ’s message in its own way is developed in each nation. At the same time there is fostered a living exchange between the Church and the diverse cultures of people. To promote such an exchange, especially in our days, the Church requires the special help of those who live in the world, are versed in different institutions and specialties, and grasp their innermost significance in the eyes of both believers and unbelievers. With the help of the Holy Spirit, it is the task of the entire people of God, especially pastors and theologians, to hear, distinguish and interpret the many voices of our age, and to judge them in the light of the divine Word, so that revealed truth can become more deeply penetrated, better understood and set forth to greater advantage (n 44).

The document points out that new questions demand new theological investigations.

Within the requirements and methods proper to theology, theologians are invited to seek continually for more suitable ways of communicating doctrine to the men and women of their times, for the deposit or the truths of faith are one thing and the manner in which they are enunciated, in the same meaning and understanding, is another. In pastoral care, sufficient use must be made not only of theological principles, but also of the findings of the secular sciences, especially of psychology and sociology, so that the faithful may be brought to a more adequate and mature life of faith (n 62).

These are remarkable paragraphs. they ask Catholics to be in dialogue with their culture, learn from the sciences and the wisdom of their age, evaluate these many voices in the light of God’s Word, and detect in their culture insights that help them express the Catholic faith. Catholic truth is one, but its presentation is multiple. Each nation must proclaim the one truth in manner that allows its people to grasp and practise it.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger Kinshasa 1987

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then Prefect of The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), visited the University of Kinshasa in 1987 where he spoke about inculturation and its effect on the liturgy.

This accommodated preaching involves bishops, theologians, and the people. bishops are looking for a more effective pastoral ministry, theologians reread the scripture and study the wisdom of the age, and the people have religious experiences that guide their lives in the society to which they belong. In this manner, the gospel comes to illuminate the culture of a society, and its humanistic values become part of Catholicism in that place. One example is the response of the Vatican Council to the secular achievements of human rights. the Council discerned in the ambiguity of modern culture human rights and freedoms as values in keeping with the gospel, and, relying on new theological insights, it integrated these values into contemporary Catholicism.

In subsequent papal teaching, this pastoral process was called ‘inculturation.’ In the encyclical Redemptoris Missio, John Paul II defines inculturation as ‘the incarnation of the Gospel in native cultures and also the introduction of these cultures into the life of the Church’. This creative development is brought about by the interaction of the bishops, the theologians, and the people. this dialogue is recommended by the Council.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.