Surely one of the “lowlights” of today’s culture is the phenomenon of “reality TV.” These programs have no plot, no substance, and no enduring value. And ironically, one hallmark of “reality TV” is that it’s eerily unreal. Staged spontaneity is neither good drama nor real living.
Tragically, the radical subjectivism of our secular society reflected in reality TV has crept into the popular understanding of the Church. In fact, it’s everywhere, from so-called “do-it-yourself” liturgies to “experience-based” catechesis. It’s present in the alarming trend to treat definitive Church teachings as merely à la carte items on the Catholic menu. We see it, too, in the democratizing elements in the Church, reflected by dissident organizations such as Call to Action and Voice of the Faithful.
These and similar developments suggest that in sending His Son to redeem us, God had no clear plan or structure in mind for applying the merits of Christ’s sacrifice and gathering all men and women to Himself. And so, many people do not avail themselves of the miracle of Pentecost, by which the Holy Spirit unites us to God and to one another in His Church. Instead, many opt to become “Babel Christians” (cf. Gn 11:4), choosing to build an ecclesial edifice according to their own whims and preferences.
Against this backdrop, this year marks the 40th anniversary of the promulgation of Lumen Gentium (Light of the Nations), the central document of the Second Vatican Council, which examines the mystery of the Church. Vatican II employed many terms and images to describe the Church, but perhaps the most fundamental and profound concept the Church uses to describe herself is “communion.” By this is meant the Church’s role and mission to unite us with the Trinity and with one another.
What the Church means by an “ecclesiology of communion,” or even by the Church as the “Family of God,” is a huge topic. Here I want to emphasize that this image of the Church provides an essential corrective to the radical subjectivism and relativism that drain the life out of the Church’s evangelistic efforts.
The Church, after all, is at once an objective and subjective reality. By “objective reality,” I simply mean that we can talk about the Church in the third person, as an “it” or better yet, since the Church is the Bride of Christ and our mother, “she.” The Church already has meaning, shape, and structure that God has given to her. She is what she is. When the Church invites us to “communion” with her, we participate in her life. We enter the reality of the Church, not the other way around.
At the same time, the Church is not indifferent to our participation. Rather, she desires to bring all men and women into the fold. As part of the “communion” of saints, we no longer stand outside the Church as mere spectators, but instead we can in some sense refer to the Church as “we” not because we have authority or a “vote,” but because we have grace.
This dynamic is reflected well in Sacred Scripture. The Bible is the inspired Word of God that objectively records God’s plan for mankind. Yet it also is ordered to our entering into the pages, as we take our own place in salvation history.
This truth is also reflected in the fact that we use the word “faith” in two distinct yet related ways.
When we refer to “the” faith we’re talking about the height, depth, and width of the deposit of faith all that God has revealed to us through Christ for our salvation. The deposit of faith is revealed truth, so it is not negotiable. Rather, in docility and obedience to the Holy Spirit, we must conform ourselves to the objective data of divine revelation.
At the same time, we rightly refer to “my” faith, which refers to our personal acceptance of what God has revealed to us through His Church. Even more fundamentally, it refers to our own personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the one Savior of the world.
These two meanings of faith necessarily go together. Jesus has stern words in Scripture for those who would profess a personal belief in Him yet reject His teachings and commands. At the same time, accepting the Church without a living relationship with our Lord is of no avail. It’s like having a body without a heart.
In the Greek, the Church is considered a “mysterion.” In Latin, this is rendered both as “mysterium” (“mystery”) and as “sacramentum” (“sacrament”). The Church is in the nature of mystery, as it entails spiritual realities beyond our perception and comprehension. But the Church is also in the nature of sacrament, and as such is called to be a visible sign of Christ to the world. Because of this, our own communion with or connection to the Church is not just personal and spiritual, but also communal and visible.
The concept of “communion” implies a principle of unity. The contemporary question of “how much can I dissent and still be considered a Catholic?” implies a principle of disunity or plurality. It really is a wrong-headed and spiritually dangerous question. It’s like asking “how unfaithful can I be to my wife and still be considered a married man?”
“Visible communion” with the Church means, among other things, professing the Catholic faith and submitting to legitimate Church authority. After all, in matters of faith and morals the Church teaches with the authority of Christ, who told His apostles, “He who hears you hears me” (Lk 10:16). The rejection of such teaching is a sin against the virtue of faith.
Some Catholics today assert the right to decide for themselves which of our Lord’s teachings they are willing to accept. They stand in judgment of the Church as their own pope, picking and choosing among Church teachings.
However, if we only accept doctrines that “work for us,” then we’re not talking about faith, because faith entails the acceptance of all that our Lord has revealed through His Church, based on His own authority. Mere agreement is not the same as faith, because then we’re putting Christ’s teachings through an approval process, rejecting anything that seems unacceptable to us.
Once we admit the possibility of dissent from definitive Church teaching, there really is no principled basis to limit this cancer in the Church. How many of Christ’s teachings can I reject and still be His faithful disciple?
All of this matters because our salvation depends on our cooperation with the undeserved gift of sanctifying grace that unites us to God and to one another. “Visible communion” may reveal our vital signs, but grace is our source of life. The challenge of Vatican II to lay Catholics everywhere is to allow this new life to transform us and, through us, the world.
When Christ comes to us, most especially through the gift of His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, it’s not to diminish, impede, or conceal His light, but to multiply it. He uses each one of us as His lamps in the world. We are the “light of the world” only insofar as Christ shines through us, as He did through she who was “full of grace.” All generations call Mary blessed (Lk 1:48) because of the marvelous way she “magnified” the light of Christ through her cooperation with divine grace.
May our Lady, Mother of the Church, draw all her children into more perfect communion with her Son, who truly is Lumen Gentium, the Light of the World.
Leon J. Suprenant, Jr. is the president of Catholics United for the Faith (CUF) and Emmaus Road Publishing and the editor-in-chief of Lay Witness magazine, all based in Steubenville, Ohio. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
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