The Local Church and The Universal Church

The editors of America have kindly invited me to respond to an article by Cardinal Walter Kasper (4/23/2001), in which he, the president of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity, reacted to remarks of mine that, in turn, were a reply to an earlier text by Kasper in which he sharply criticized a crucial statement from a document by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. For a long while I hesitated to accept this invitation because I do not want to foster the impression that there is a longstanding theological dispute between Cardinal Kasper and myself, when in fact none exists.

After much reflection, however, I was finally moved to take up America’s offer after all. My first reason is that the article by Cardinal Kasper is a response to texts that are largely unknown to both German and American readers. The article by Walter Kasper that set off the dispute is tucked away in a festschrift read only by specialists. My own piece, which covers a much broader thematic gamut and in which only two of its 23 pages deal with Kasper, has been published in German only in excerpts, and thus far in English (to my knowledge) not at all. Even though Cardinal Kasper sincerely strove in his friendly exchange to inform readers about what he was responding to, his necessarily sketchy allusions can hardly provide a clear picture of those previous texts, although they are the focus of his article.

Of course, I cannot give the reader a really satisfactory notion of them either; but it may nonetheless be useful to shed some light on the prehistory of this disagreement from a different perspective, to get a better understanding of the general shape and significance of the discussion. Above all, however, I would like to invite people to read the original texts.

The second reason why I finally decided to write is a pleasant one: Kasper’s response to my statements has led to clarifications whose scope readers will hardly be able to appreciate clearly unless they are familiar with what went before. Pointing up the progress made in this debate strikes me as significant.

It all began, as mentioned, not with anything I wrote, but with a Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of the Church as Communio, which was published, with the pope’s approval, by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on June 28, 1992. The term communio, which played a rather marginal role in the texts of the Second Vatican Council, was moved to the center of the question of the church by the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops of 1985 and in so doing the synod was surely following the council’s intentions. Since this word had been used, and misused, in many different ways, an explanation by the magisterium of the essential elements of communio-ecclesiology seemed appropriate; and such was the purpose of the letter from the congregation.

In that letter, then, we also find the principle that the universal church (ecclesia universalis) is in its essential mystery a reality that takes precedence, ontologically and temporally, over the individual local churches. This principle was given a sharp critique by Walter Kasper, who at the time was bishop of Rottenburg, Germany, that culminated in the statement: The formula becomes thoroughly problematic if the universal church is being covertly identified with the church of Rome, and de facto with the pope and the Curia. If that happens, the letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith cannot be read as an aid in clarifying communio-ecclesiology, but as a dismissal of it and as an attempt to restore Roman centralism.

The attack on the doctrinal letter from the congregation sounds at first, from a linguistic point of view, hypothetical: were one to identify the universal church with the pope and the Curia, then the restoration of Roman centralism would be at hand. But in the second half of the statement, the attack clearly takes on the tone of an affirmation, because the claim that there is a will to bring on a Roman restoration makes sense only if Rome itself is thinking and acting that way, not if such interpretations are merely proposed, so to speak, by a third party.

As a matter of fact, in the same article Kasper writes as follows, non-hypothetically: "This determination by the council has undergone, after the council...a further development by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that practically amounts, more or less, to a reversal of it." Thus Kasper’s text was quite rightly understood everywhere as a warning cry against a new, theologically veiled form of Roman centralism and as an emphatic criticism of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

A warning like this from the mouth of a bishop with solid theological credentials carries weight. If theology or any interpretation of the faith by the magisterium is misused to introduce a strategy for gaining power or to reverse the council, that is a serious matter. Kasper’s critique, as has no doubt become obvious, was not directed against me personally, but against a text from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is the office of the Holy See in charge of doctrine. Some sort of clarification was therefore unavoidable.

As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, I tried to find the least polemical way to clear up the problem. An opportunity to do so arose when I was invited in the spring of 2000 to speak at a symposium, on the 35th anniversary of the conclusion of Vatican II, about the ecclesiological vision of its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium). In so doing I tried above all to spotlight the link between the church and the question of God: the church is not there for itself, but to serve God’s presence in the world.

In this broad context I addressed the relationship between the universal church and the local churches and, in the process, briefly explained that the letter from the congregation never dreamt of identifying the reality of the universal church with the pope and Curia, and hence that the fears voiced by Kasper were groundless. In order to do this, I mainly tried to shed light on the rich implications of the term universal church, which may at first sound abstract.

The most positive feature of Cardinal Kasper’s response to my talk is that he tacitly dropped the reproach from his first article and now assigned to our argument the rank of a controversy over a scholastic dispute. The thesis of the ontological and temporal priority of the universal church to individual churches was now treated as a question, not of church doctrine, but of theological opinions and of the various related philosophies. The statement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was categorized as my personal theology and tied in with my Platonism, while Kasper traced his own view back to his more Aristotelian (Thomistic) approach. By reframing the dispute in this way, the question was basically blunted and shifted to another level. The charge was no longer that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was intent on centralism, restoration and turning the church around. Instead, Cardinal Kasper now noted two different theological points of view separating his theology and mine, which can and perhaps should coexist peacefully.

Above and beyond that, Kasper’s friendly exchange had two further positive results. He unambiguously emphasized and I am very grateful to him for this our common ecclesiological foundations, and he modified his own rejection of the ontological and temporal precedence of the universal church over the individual churches, when he characterized the pre-existence (properly understood) of the church as indispensable for understanding it.

To be sure, he claims that this pre-existence applies not only to the universal church, but also to the concrete church, which is composed in and of local churches. As opposed to the notion of the primacy of the universal church he defends the thesis of the simultaneity of the universal church and the particular churches. What he means by this becomes clearer when he writes: "The local church and the universal church are internal to one another; they penetrate each other and are perichoretic."

I can certainly accept this formula; it is valid for the church as it lives in history. But it misses the actual point at issue as seen in the reference to the pre-existence of the church. In order to clarify what is at stake here, let me quote a few sentences from my talk on this topic. In it I argued that the fathers of the church saw the church as a greater Israel, now become universal; and from that standpoint they also adopted the rabbinical view of the meaning of creation, which is based on the Bible itself:

Thus creation is conceived in such a way that there is a place in it for God’s will. But this will needs a people that lives for God’s will and makes it the light of the world.

From the standpoint of Christology, the picture is expanded and deepened. History is, once again in connection with the Old Testament, interpreted as a love story between God and humanity. God finds and prepares for himself the bride of the Son, the one bride, which is the one church. On the strength of the saying in Genesis that a man and his wife become two in one flesh (Gen. 2:24), the image of bride fused with the idea of the church as the body of Christ, which for its part is based on eucharistic piety. The one body of Christ is made ready; Christ and the church will be two in one flesh, one body; and thus God will be all in all.

The basic idea of sacred history is that of gathering together, of uniting human beings in the one body of Christ, the union of human beings and through human beings of all creation with God. There is only one bride, only one body of Christ, not many brides, not many bodies. The bride is, of course, as the fathers of the church said, drawing on Psalm 44, dressed in many-colored robes; the body has many organs. But the superordinate principle is ultimately unity. That is the point here. Variety becomes richness only through the process of unification.

I can only repeat what I said in that talk. I cannot understand how my position can be refuted by means of biblical theology. The inner priority of unity, of the one bride to her essential variety, seems to be plainly evident.

At the same time, in my talk I tried to understand where the resistance to this self-evident biblical view of history comes from; and I came up with two closely interrelated motives. The first is that mentioning the universal church and its ontological (or should we say teleological?) precedence over the individual churches leads people to think immediately about the pope and the Curia, and the need to avert centralism. Hence, the problem of centralism and of the role of the local bishops also lies at the root of Cardinal Kasper’s reaction to my thoughts.

Forgive me if I say quite candidly that this linkage, objectively speaking, makes no sense. The church of Rome is a local church and not the universal church a local church with a peculiar, universal responsibility, but still a local church. And the assertion of the inner precedence of God’s idea of the one church, the one bride, over all its empirical realizations in particular churches has nothing whatsoever to do with the problem of centralism.

Once this has been made clear, another question arises: why does this same association keep coming up everywhere, even with so great a theologian as Walter Kasper? What makes people suspect that the thesis of the internal priority of the one divine idea of the church over the individual churches might be a ploy of Roman centralism?

This brings us to the second reason why the plain biblical evidence is not, in fact, functional today. The term universal church is understood to refer only to the pope and the Curia. It seems, as Kasper says in his response, echoing Henri de Lubac, to be a pure abstraction. That is why in my talk I made a deliberate effort to present the practical reality of the Catholic Church and how it actually works, in close conjunction with the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.

To my astonishment, Cardinal Kasper said not a word about this extensive and central passage of my text. Here I can only make the briefest of allusions to my remarks. I showed that the council answers the question, where one can see the universal church as such, by speaking of the sacraments:

There is, first of all, baptism. It is a Trinitarian, that is, a thoroughly theological event, and means far more than being socialized into the local church.... Baptism does not arise from the individual community; rather, in baptism the door to the one church is opened to us; it is the presence of the one church, and it can come only from her from the Jerusalem that is above, our new mother. In baptism the universal church continually precedes and creates the local church.

On this basis the letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith can say that there are no strangers in the church. Everyone in it is at home everywhere.... Anyone baptized in the church in Berlin is always at home in the church in Rome or in New York or in Kinshasa or in Bangalore or wherever, as if he or she had been baptized there. He or she does not need to file a change-of-address form; it is one and the same church. Baptism comes out of it and delivers (gives birth to) us into it. To my pleasure, I was recently on hand when Cardinal Kasper made this very argument in a discussion about the church and cited an example from his own life. Early on, he and his parents had left the parish where he was baptized yet in baptism he had not been socialized into this particular community, but born into the one church. As far as I am concerned, this statement clears up the controversy for that is the issue here. I would like to make just one more point, taken from the longer discussion in my talk, about the concrete content of the phrase universal church, specifically, about the word of God. I said: Anyone who speaks of baptism is automatically dealing with the word of God, which for the entire church is only one, and which always precedes the church in all places, calls it together, and builds it up. This one word is above the church and yet in it, entrusted to it as to a living subject. In order to be really present in history, the word of God needs this subject; but this subject cannot subsist without the vivifying power of the word, which makes it a subject to begin with. When we speak of the word of God we also mean the Creed, which stands at the center of the baptismal event. It is a way the church receives and appropriates the word, which is in a sense both word and response. Here too the universal church, the one church, is quite concretely and palpably present. If one strips away all the false associations with church politics from the concept of the universal church and grasps it in its true theological (and hence quite concrete) content, then it becomes clear that the argument about church politics misses the heart of the matter. It becomes clear that the problem is not Platonism or Aristotelianism, but the key notion of salvation history in the Bible. And then one can no longer also say that the universalistic view of the church is ecumenically off-putting.

I would really like to go on and address many other points that Kasper makes for example, his objections to my analysis of the account of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles. But perhaps I had better leave that to a future personal conversation.

Let me, if I may, add only one rather humorous little note. In the section Historical Perspectives, which supplies in a few sentences some very good information about the essential issues, Cardinal Kasper, invoking J. Gnilka, observes that in Paul the local community is the focus. But in Rudolf Bultmann we can read the exact opposite. According to Bultmann:

"...the church’s organization grew primarily out of the awareness that the community as a whole takes precedence over the individual communities. A symptom of this is that the word ekklesia [church] is used to refer, in the first instance, by no means to the individual community but to the people of God.... The notion of the priority of the church as a whole over the individual community is further seen in the equation of the ekklesia with the soma Christou [body of Christ], which embraces all believers." (Theology of the New Testament, 3d ed., Tübingen 1958, p. 96)

 

This conflict between Gnilka and Bultmann shows, first of all, the relativity of exegetical judgments. But for that very reason it is especially instructive in our case, because Bultmann, who vigorously defended the thesis of the precedence of the universal church over the local church, could certainly never be accused of Platonism or of a bias in favor of bringing back Roman centralism. Perhaps it was simply because he stood outside these controversies that he was able to read and expound the texts with a more open mind.

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