The Word and the Church

Although it was one of the signature innovations of the Second Vatican Council, the Synod of Bishops rarely receives the rapt attention of the people of the Church. Yet synods have been the occasions for some of the most important decisions and documents of recent Catholic history.

The 1985 Extraordinary Synod, which marked Vatican II’s 20th anniversary, decisively shifted the interpretation of the Council from a template of discontinuity and virtual revolution to a template of continuity, retrieval and renewal: the notion that the Catholic Church began anew between 1962 and 1965 was buried at the 1985 synod, even if some people (akin to 90-year-old Japanese soldiers on remote Pacific islands) haven’t gotten the word.

The 1990 synod on priestly formation led to the 1992 apostolic exhortation “Pastores Dabo Vobis” (“I Will Give You Shepherds”), which confirmed the sacral character of the ordained priesthood and immensely influenced the “John Paul II generation” of younger priests.

The 1994 synod on religious life eventually yielded “Vita Consecrata” (“The Consecrated Life”), the magna carta of religious communities that are growing rather than dying. The pre-jubilee regional synods gave us, among other things, “Ecclesia in Europa” (“The Church in Europe”), John Paul II’s prescient analysis of Europe’s current crisis of civilizational morale.

What of this past year’s synod on “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church”?

Writing in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, Father Robert Imbelli of Boston College, a synod observer, made several trenchant observations about key themes in the synod that one hopes will take root in the “life and mission of the Church”:

– The “Word of God” is a multi-dimensional concept. It includes Holy Scripture but is not confined to it. The Bible is the written witness to the fact that “the Word of God is ultimately a Person. It is Jesus Christ Himself who is the full and final embodiment of God’s Word … (which) ‘became flesh and dwelt among us’ (Jn 1:14).”

– Thus, as important as the Bible is, Christianity is not so much the “religion of the book” as “the religion of the person: the person of Jesus Christ who calls all into personal communion with the Father through him.”

– Jesus is the key to unlocking the scriptural treasury. The Bible isn’t a random collection of books. Because the biblical witness always aims at Jesus and testifies to Him, Jesus Christ is the “principle of interpretation” that should guide our reading of both testaments.

– Historical-critical approaches to biblical study are important, because the Word came into history. Still, historical criticism has its limits; it can tell us important things about the past, but the Bible is not just a book about the past. It “challenges (us) in the present, and (it) opens (us) to a future fulfillment.” Therefore, the Eucharist, where the living Christ opens the book of the Word of God for His people, is a privileged place to “hear” the Scriptures. And because the Bible speaks of now and tomorrow, not just a distant yesterday, different methods of reading Scripture are important.

– Biblical study and dogmatic theology need each other. If biblical scholars ignore theologians and approach the sacred text as an entomologist approaches a dead bug, Scripture will cease to be the “soul of theology.” Conversely, theology without Scripture is theology that “no longer has a foundation,” as Benedict XVI put it at the synod.

– Biblical preaching should be “mystagogic”: bishops, priests and deacons should break open the biblical texts so that they lead to “a life-giving encounter with Jesus Christ, the very Word incarnate.”

– Receiving the Word of God in its many dimensions should make the Church less self-focused and more intent on its mission. Christ, not the Church, is the light of the world. By preaching and witnessing to the Word incarnate, the Church lives its vocation and best serves the world.

– In sum: discipleship is not just a question of our “appropriating” God’s Word, but of letting the Word of God take hold of us – and shaking us up, when and if necessary.

George Weigel


George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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  • goral

    The observation before the last gives me a bit of an edgy feeling.
    Yes, Christ is the Light of the world as the Church dramatically proclaims in the Holy Saturday Mass. The Church is the Body of Christ and therefore also inseparably the light of the world.
    It seems to me that that observation has Protestant overtones.

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    I disagree, goral. Particularly in the U.S., our understanding of this concept is colored by Protestant Evangelicalism. Therefore, the tendency is to dismiss the role of the single, visible Church as the Spouse of Christ, per Ephesians 5, in order to emphasize the role of Christ Himself, as if such emphasis were always done at the expense of the Church. There are no English-language Catholic radio stations in the area where I live, but listening to the Evangelical stations, you often hear people use the term, “the church,” to refer to whatever ecclesial entity of which the listener might be a member. It is never defined explicitly.

    However, the Bible defines Church very explicitly, using many different metaphors. The most significant, I think, is that of “Spouse of Christ.” The Church’s relationship with Jesus is best expressed in human terms (so says Ephesians 5) by comparison with the relationship of wife to husband. Similarly, Christ’s relationship to His Church is best expressed by comparison with the relationship of husband to wife.

    Now, even in our Western culture in which such things as arranged marriage are routinely dismissed as evil or worse, I can think of many, many examples of betrothed couples who do not know each other before they are married. I can not think of even a single example where married couples persist in this sort of ignorance after marriage. Even our divorce culture confirms this observation: the couple that gets to know each other only after marriage — and then finds that each is less than desired — very often terminates the marriage with divorce. So also with Jesus: He knows who His spouse is and He declares her as His singular Church. Moreover, He is always faithful to her.

    Thus, it is insane to pretend that Jesus is in something akin to a marital relationship with an entity known as “the church” while simultaneously maintaining that “church” is not also known and concretely declared by Him. There is no “invisible Church.” Nor is there a “catholic church” that refers only to the universality of Jesus’s relationship to humanity. Jesus proclaims His Church openly: it is rooted in the rock of Peter and centered on the person and office of the Bishop of Rome. Similarly, the only Universal Church is the Church founded upon the same rock of Peter. There are, of course, many particular churches: each apostle founded a tradition that was different in some ways from that founded by every other apostle. That is why we have Byzantine Catholics, Melkite Catholics, Latin Catholics, and so forth.

    Nevertheless, the sole determinant of the nature of a particular church’s communion with the singular, visible, Roman Catholic Church is bound up in the nature of the particular church’s communion with the Bishop of Rome. On one level, this communion either exists or it does not, and so also a particular church is either one with Christ or it is not. But on another level, the same teaching of the Bishop of Rome states categorically that a broken communion is not “no communion” but rather “imperfect communion.”

    There remains, however, exactly one Church, and only this Church — founded and enduring upon the rock of Peter — can be understood as the Spouse of Christ, recipient of and propagator for the Light of the World. Coming from a synod of bishops, it is silly to view Protestant overtones in a statement affirming that Christ (and not the Church) is the Light of the World.

    I see it very differently, in fact: it is a formal recognition by the bishops that those of us sitting in the pews are not the light of the world in and of ourselves (notwithstanding some of the theologically bankrupt music which we croon during Sunday Mass). This is therefore a radical re-emphasis of the fact that an I-Thou relationship exists between the Lord and His servants. This ultimately has two consequences: 1) As the Church, we cannot do anything which Our Lord Himself does not do. If we do, we are almost certainly sinning. 2) We must do that which Our Lord also does, for we, His servants (the singular Church), are not greater than our Master. This latter point is particularly unsettling for those who wish to see Vatican II as a break with Tradition because it means (among many other things) that the Church Militant must suffer with Christ.

    Suffering has never been seen as something good in and of itself by the Spirit of Vatican II crowd. And yet it can be, because all suffering joined to the Cross of Christ participates in the redemptive power of the Savior. This is one of the ways in which Mary can be properly seen as “co-redemptrix” with Christ, for she suffered as she watched Him die, and that suffering was joined quite literally with that of her Son at Golgotha.

    This is what flows from a vision of Christ as light of the world and the Church as the recipient and propagator of that light, when understood within the proper context of Sacred Tradition and the historical reality of salvation history. It doesn’t sound very Protestant to me.

  • goral

    Homeschooldad, thare’s a lot to say about this subject and… you said a lot.
    I don’t trust this observation by someone associated with Boston College, an institution that with a few exceptions, has nothing but pity for Catholic orthodoxy.
    I would guess that Mr. Weigel had no intention of having this point of observation also a point of contention, therefore let’s leave it for what it is.

  • Sorry, Goral, but I am going to keep it going … 😉

    Even within marriage, this seems to hold true as I have heard it said that – over time – a couple even begins to look like each other. I think that means some habits/mannerisms become part of the identity of the couple, and not just of one individual. “Imitation is the best form of flattery.”

    To that extent, another analogy is that of the sun and the moon. Each member of the marriage – indeed, the members all close relationships – reflect(s) some of each other back toward the other(s). So we as the Bride of Christ can be said to be reflecting Christ as the moon reflects light. Remember, every analogy “limps” precisely because it is trying to describe something-it-is-not. So I would expect this Christ-the-sun/Church-the-moon analogy to be open to criticism. But I believe there is a lesson in it: if the Church is said to be light, it is so because it reflects the Light.

    Fr. Frank

  • goral

    Anyone with the name Frank automatically has credibility with me. I guess the sun/moon analogy is fine. I just don’t like the Church being a cold moon.
    Yes, we are nothing without Christ but He made us sons and daughters not just reflecting objects.
    If the synod made that point clear, than it stands.
    I just question one observation of a Boston College cleric without the benefit of supporting information or the intimate knowledge of Church teaching that a priest such as you would have.

  • Cooky642

    For all of goral’s discomfiture with the “Protestant theme” in Mr. Weigel’s article, I thought you might like to know that there is a new aphorism circulating among Protestant blogs: “Be the moon: reflect the Son”! (Fr. Frank, you did a great job of explaining it!)

    Goral, dear, unclench your jaws. Protestants are not (generally) our enemies. They too love Jesus (sometimes, with a passion that ought to put many Catholics to shame). They are not WRONG, they just are not RIGHT. I know that sounds superficial and silly, but think about it. They claim Sola Scriptura without the understanding that the Bible itself does not claim Sola Scriptura. They crow about being Bible-believers, and yet reject John 6 (in just the same way that the vast majority of Jews have been taught to reject Isaiah 53). Neither group will understand until God enlightens them. THAT’s why we have to “be the moon”.

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    There are all sorts of Catholic teachings that flow naturally from a proper understanding of the Church’s relationship to Christ. My eleven-year-old son and I were discussing this in the car some few days ago. I don’t recall his specific question so much as the discussion that ensued because the discussion required me to think out loud with him in exploring the theme. That theme might be described as “Who builds the Church?” though I don’t recall that as the specific question.

    Regardless, the quick answer is “Jesus builds the Church.” Jesus is the architect and constructor. But this, of course, begs the question of “where does He build it?” The answer is readily available in scripture, in multiple places. In the Gospel, Jesus states categorically that “on this Rock” — meaning Peter — he will build His Church. Moreover, St. Paul (the beloved Apostle to the Protestants, er, Gentiles) states very explicitly in 1 Timothy 3:15 that the Church is the “pillar and foundation of Truth.” Since Jesus is the living Truth (the Gospel says so), then the foundation of Jesus is His Church, not perhaps because it had to be this way but because He so wills it. This is the foundation that will weather the storms that is already beating many Protestant bodies into a pulp.

    It struck me as odd that Jesus is not the foundation of the Church but rather that the Church is the foundation of Jesus. But this is an inescapable conclusion if you read the Bible honestly. And of course, since the Church is a foundation of something so sublime as the Living Truth, that same Church must be a concrete entity — or else the Truth would drift. What is not surprising is that the phenomenon of drifting Truth is exactly what you find in many Protestant bodies, not merely as the imperfect and broken beliefs of their followers but as the proclaimed Gospel of their leaders. We Catholics, of course, are no strangers to broken beliefs, but the Church herself does not waffle on these things. If we fail to understand and follow her teachings, then it is because of our own choice to remain in ignorance and squalor.

  • goral

    Reflecting the Light of Christ is good religion. I have no issues with it whatsoever. My issue is with the statement: “Christ NOT the church” is the light of the world. That is a typical Protestant slant separating the two. It’s no wonder the sun/moon analogy is being blogged.

    Is not the spark of the Holy Spirit put into us at Baptism so that it will grow into a flame that burns and shines? Is that not different than shining a flashlight at a mirror?
    We may be splitting hairs but there is a difference between infusion and reflection.
    Maybe a compromise analogy would be that we absorb Christ’s light and then are able to produce it in the dark,
    Next time we sing the hymn – We are the light of the world, let our light shine before all….. I will clench my jaw and not sing.