Paul J. FitzgeraldOctober 06, 2008
Book cover
The Churchby By Richard P. McBrienHarperOne. 528p $29.95

Is the Catholic Church a lifeboat or a lighthouse? In the storms that wrack the world, is the church the means of salvation for its members alone, or a beacon that would lead all to safe haven? The distinguished scholar and professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, whose previous works include Catholicism, Ministry and Lives of the Popes, Richard P. McBrien offers us a history of ecclesiologies—that is, a review and an analysis of the church’s evolving self-understanding over time.

Too vast a project for a single volume, this book follows Karl Rahner’s division of the history of the church into three great eras and focuses mainly on the third, our own present situation, after briefly presenting the first and second. Rahner identified two axial moments when the church recognized it was changing radically: the first was the Council of Jerusalem (c. 50 A.D.), when the Jewish Christian movement entered into the Greco-Roman world; the second was the Second Vatican Council (1963-65), when the movement became a world church.

Among the chief purposes of any work of history (besides telling a good story well) is to locate its readers in the present and to orient them toward the future; here, McBrien helps the reader to understand the church in the post-Vatican II era. Since there is no little debate within the church as to exactly what the council intended, much of the present volume is a close reading of texts, within the context of their composition and the immediate history before the council, but with regular recourse to the person of Jesus, seen in the Gospels and epistles of the early church.

McBrien sketches the current debates about the nature and mission of the church as a polarity between two guiding and underlying images: the church as people of God and the church as communion. Advocates of the former image would put the emphasis on the mission of the church ad extra—the church as an agent of God for the salvation of humankind. Advocates of the latter image put the emphasis on the life of the church ad intra—the church gathered in orthodox worship and adoration of the triune God. McBrien adopts a both/and position, showing how the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” and the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” are organically linked and mutually necessary. More, to be a church for the whole world obliges Catholics to repair the fissures that divide the visible body of Christ by seeking ever fuller degrees of communion with the Orthodox and Protestants. Here McBrien accepts Pope John Paul II’s invitation, issued in Ut unum sint (1995), to imagine a renewed primacy and collegiality that could promote Christian unity in authentic, apostolic faith.

Like the author’s other great works, The Church is encyclopedic. It covers a vast range of topics, including authority and ministry, magisterial teaching and reception, sacraments and liturgy. In each case, McBrien provides not only a sense of the development of tradition but also a certain breadth of opinion by important (mostly Catholic) theologians, as well as a careful explication of official church teaching on the issue at hand. Such breadth typically precludes depth, yet while the sketches are often quite brief, there are ample bibliographical notes to point readers toward further investigation and study. McBrien is particularly helpful in providing the interested reader with references at different levels of complexity: for example, to explore the cultural context and the style of conciliar language, one could read the book by John O’Malley, S.J., Four Cultures of the West; or one could get the gist of the argument in O’Malley’s article “The Style of Vatican II” (America, 2/24/03).

While he does a fine job of sketching out many ecclesiologies from across the theological spectrum, from conservative to progressive, McBrien tips his hand in favor of one: that of Yves Congar, O.P., to whom he dedicates the book and whom he calls “the most important ecclesiologist of the twentieth century and probably of the entire history of the Church.” Congar anticipated Vatican II by illuminating six major components that make up the reality of the church. (1) As the people of God, the church is constantly renewed by the active participation of all her members, lay, religious and clerical alike. (2) Hierarchical authority is servant leadership. (3) The church is an instrument for the eschatological victory of God. (4) The church is continually called to institutional and communal reform in head and members. (5) As a communion of local churches, the universal church’s structures of community and authority serve her mission. And (6) the church is ecumenical in nature and scope.

Key to appreciating Congar’s ecclesiological thought is to understand it as a consequence of his pneumatology: it is the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father through the Son, who animates, informs, reforms and guides the church, so that the same Holy Spirit, working within and beyond the visible limits of the church, can lead people in faith to the Son, who in turn shows them the Father.

Ideally suited for undergraduate courses and for the educated nonspecialist, this is a hopeful book. As the author candidly sketches out the pastoral challenges to, and the internal tensions within, the church today, he is not pessimistic. Neither is he optimistic as he recalls the great gifts of the Holy Spirit that inspired those papal and conciliar texts that point the way forward for the church in the new millennium. Rather, he is hopeful as he urges the church to conform itself to the pattern of Christ, the paschal mystery, whereby the church, trusting fully and finally in God alone, can die to forms of being and doing that are no longer apt. Such “reform in head and members,” guided by the Spirit, will allow the church to serve as a renewed instrument for God’s ongoing project, the salvation of humankind and the perfection of all creation.

From the archives, Richard P. McBrien on "What Theology Is and Is Not."

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