194. Christ Unfurled or the Roman Catholic Christ-Church Interconnection. Evangelical Remarks on David Meconi’s latest book

“Christ and his Church thus together make up the ‘whole Christ’ (Christus totus). The Church is one with Christ.” Here is how the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church (§ 795) hammers out one of the two axes of the Roman Catholic theological system, i.e. the Christ-Church interconnection (the other being the nature-grace interdependence). If one wants to come to terms with the deep structure of the theological vision of Rome, they must begin by addressing this critical Christological-ecclesiological point whereby Rome considers itself the prolongation of the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

In his masterful book Roman Catholic Theology and Practice. An Evangelical Assessment (2014), Gregg Allison has done a great service in highlighting the foundational importance of the nexus between Christ and the Church for the whole Roman Catholic framework. Every doctrine and every practice occurs between the two axes: on the one hand an optimism about nature (regardless of the covenant-breaking brought about by sin) and on the other inflating the claims of the church that acts as another Christ. Now, from within the Roman Catholic tradition, David Meconi, S.J. reinforces the crucial importance of the fact that “the Church and Christ really are one” (2) given the fact that the Church is “an extension of Jesus Christ himself” (2).

Meconi is academically well-qualified to write from a conservative Roman Catholic perspective. In the past I have read his The One Christ: Saint Augustine’s Theology of Deification (2013) and consulted The Cambridge Companion to Augustine (2014) of which he is one of the chief editors. He is a Roman Catholic Augustinian scholar with a particular interest in a “whole Christ” theology. With the recent book Christ Unfurled: The First 500 Years of Jesus’s Life (Charlotte, NC: Tan Books, 2021) Meconi labours on the Christ-Church interconnection even more closely, thus offering an account of what it means for Roman Catholic theology to affirm that “the Church is a replication of the incarnate God’s own human and divine life” (6).

The Early Centuries
He does it by emphasizing the historical perspective, i.e. reading the five centuries of the Christian church as if they were “the first five hundred years of Jesus’ life on earth” (14). Since “the Church is the extension of Christ’s very incarnate self” (15), the Church is therefore Christ unfurled as the title of the book indicates. In the first chapter, the thesis is repeatedly stated: “The Church is the unbroken continuation of Christ’s own incarnate self, the extension of his divine and human presence on earth” (17) so that “post-Ascension people could see, hear, and still touch the Lord” (17). Moreover, “The Church as founded by Jesus Christ is the continuation of his own divinely human, or humanly divine, life” (19). The unfurling of Christ in the church stretches to His work of salvation, establishing an interconnection between the cross of Calvary and the chief sacrament of the Church; in fact, “in and through his Church, the life-giving Body and Blood of Jesus continue to be with us in the Most Holy Eucharist” (19-20). Reiterating the point, Meconi goes as far as saying that “the hypostatic union of the incarnate Son’s humanity and divinity continues in the unity of the Eucharistic sacrifice” (114).

In subsequent chapters, Meconi attempts to prove that this Roman Catholic view has been upheld in the church since the beginning. As for Apostolic Fathers (e.g. Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch) and in writings such as the Didache and The Shepherd of Hermas, he argues that the early Christians understood themselves “as envoys and extensions of Christ’s very presence in the world” (30). However, the proofs given for such a strong statement are less than convincing. In fact, the “canonicity of Scripture” (i.e. the recognition of the inspired books of the Bible) and the “rule of faith” (i.e. the comprehensive summary of the gospel) which the Apostolic Fathers were interested in are hardly early attestations of the Christ-Church interconnection. They are simply some of the concerns that the early church had in trying to faithfully live after the death of the apostles. Their tendency toward “monoepiscopacy” (i.e. one bishop over each local church) is more of an unfortunate influence of Roman imperial authority structures than a sign of their endorsing the “whole Christ” theology. As for later Fathers, Meconi is right in saying that, for example, Tertullian spoke of the church as the “mother Church” and Origen of the “bride of Christ” (69), but these two titles given to the church do not intrinsically imply the theology of the extension of the incarnation, unless one wants to see it retrospectively, having already decided that this is what he wants to see.

The Legacy of the Creeds
Examining the legacy of the early councils and creeds (Nicea and Constantinople) which focussed on the trinitarian nature of God and the divine and human natures of the person Jesus Christ, Meconi makes the point that “Jesus Christ founded a Church so he would have a visible locus, a freely-chosen Body, unto whom he could extend his life” (135). Again, this is an inference that stretches what the creeds say by filling in the terms with meanings they don’t have. The language of “extension” and “continuation” is not found in the creeds. The union or fellowship between Christ and the church (or the believers) is certainly maintained, but whether this relationship points to the “extension” of the incarnation is beyond what the texts of the councils say. In order to cross the boundaries between the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the life of the church, one needs further theological elaboration than what can be found there.

Finally, a long section of a chapter is dedicated to Augustine’s views of the “whole Christ,” Meconi’s own area of expertise. According to him, “for Augustine, the ‘whole Christ’ is not just Jesus now seated at the right hand of the Father but the entire Christ is Jesus as well as those whom Jesus loves” (182). Together they form “one mystical person” (197). This is accurate as far as Augustine is concerned, although in Augustine there is also a strong emphasis on the distinction between Christ and the church and the submission of the latter to the former. On this point, Augustine is at best confused. I have written elsewhere of the damages of Augustine’s formula (totus Christus) and the corrections brought about by the Protestant Reformation in stressing the uniqueness of Christ (solus Christus).

The Whole Christ or Christ Alone?
On the axes of the Christ-church interconnection,Rome builds its self-understanding as a church endowed with the authority of Christ the King, the priesthood of Christ the Mediator, and the truth of Christ the Prophet. The threefold ministry of Christ as King, Priest, and Prophet is thus transposed to the Roman Church – in its hierarchical rule, its magisterial interpretation of the Word and its administration of the sacraments. But this is not what the gospel teaches. This is an inflated view of the church based on a defective view of Christ. According to Rome, there is never solus Christus (Christ alone), only Christus in ecclesia (Christ in the church) and ecclesia in Christo (the church in Christ).

The emphasis on the Christ–church interconnection seems to forget that the Church is made up of creatures (human beings). Because the church is made up of creatures, it is part of creation, and is not the creator, while Christ is the divine Creator, the One from whom all things are and who is perfect now and always. When we talk about Christology, we are talking about the unique relationship between human nature and divine nature in the person of Jesus Christ from the perspective of the Creator; when we talk about ecclesiology, we are talking about the people of God, the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit – all of these titles referring to a created reality. The distinction between Creator and creature is decisive for not falling into the trap of elevating the church into a quasi-divine body.

After the Ascension to the right hand of the Father, Christ did not continue his incarnation in the church. Having formed the church through his finished work on the cross, He sent it to the ends of the earth and empowered it with the Holy Spirit to preach and to bear witness to his gospel of salvation. Christ is the head of the church, and the church serves His purposes and His alone, until He comes again.

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193. The Church is Burning, What Can Be Done? On Andrea Riccardi’s Insights on the Crisis of Present-Day Roman Catholicism

(AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

The fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris (April 15, 2019) is a symbol of the church that burns in secularized Europe and, more generally, in the globalized world. Andrea Riccardi’s book, La Chiesa brucia: Crisi e futuro del cristianesimo (The Church Burns: Crisis and Future of Christianity) (Bari-Rome: Laterza, 2021) starts with the evocative image of the burning Notre-Dame.

Riccardi is well-positioned to bring forth his analysis, being professor of Contemporary History at the University of Rome III and a biographer of John Paul II. He is also known internationally for having founded, in 1968, the Community of Sant’Egidio, one of the most active ecclesial lay movements within the Roman Catholic Church. In addition to his social commitment and his many development projects in the southern hemisphere, Riccardi played a role in mediating various conflicts and contributed to attaining peace in several countries, such as Mozambique, Guatemala and the Ivory Coast. In 2003, TIME magazine included him onits list of thirty-six “modern heroes” of Europe, individuals who stand out because of their professional courage and humanitarian commitment. He is an insiders and scholarly voice on the inner dynamics of Roman Catholicism. 

The Notre-Dame cathedral is in the center of Paris, in the heart of Europe, embedded in its history and an emblem of its culture. It burned and, by burning, it represents the state of profound crisis in which (Roman and institutionalized) Christianity finds itself. This is not fake news, but a factual observation. Practitioners are declining across the continent, vocations are collapsing everywhere, traditions are eroding and entering the tunnel of oblivion, adherence to belief and morals are plummeting, and local parishes are in an identity crisis. The processes of secularization seem unstoppable and are dismantling the bricks of institutional religiosity one piece at a time. The church is certainly experiencing a period of decline. Does it even risk disappearing?

In painting this fresco in dark colors, Riccardi documents the indicators of the crisis of Roman Catholicism and he does so keeping in mind the various national quadrants (France, Italy, Spain, Germany) with their particularities. He also dwells on the forms of “national-Catholicism” (Hungary and Poland) which are attempts to intertwine religion and national identity to make Roman Catholicism and cultural Christianity a sort of religious-civil bulwark in the face of contemporary disorientation.

The crisis, according to Riccardi, starts from afar. In fact, the question of whether European Christianity was about to die had already been posed by Jean Delumeau in 1977 (Is Christianity about to die?) and, even earlier, by the French cardinal Suhard in 1947 when he spoke of “decline”. From this point of view, Vatican II (1962-1965), with its “pastoral” focus, was a response to the crisis. Indeed, Vatican II was an attempt to embrace the modern world by re-understanding it on the side of the enlarged catholicity of Rome, rather than stubbornly bringing it back to the Roman canons from which it seemed to have taken leave. With Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) Paul VI launched a call to “evangelization” as a method to regain ground after having lost it with Humanae Vitae on sexual morality (1968). The effort did not produce the results hoped for. The long wave of the 1968 revolution actually dug deeper the gap between Europe and the church (and inside the church itself). While Roman Catholicism has proven equipped to tackle the social question (e.g. mitigating Capitalism) and political ideologies (e.g. against Communism), it has not been able to stand up to contemporary individualism, sexual libertarianism, and unbridled and globalized consumerism. 

The long and energetic pontificate of John Paul II seemed to make up ground, but, in reality, it covered the crisis rather than solved it. With Benedict XVI, the crisis reached a culminating point with the shocking resignation of the Pope. Following the pastoral “spirit” of Vatican II, Pope Francis is trying to further widen the mesh of catholicity to build bridges with the “first unbelieving generation” (p. 116) on the basis of mercy for all, universal brotherhood, and care for the environment, all themes very distant from traditional “Roman” and institutional Catholicism. How effective this strategy will be remains to be seen, though it does not appear to have reversed the course.

As a Catholic scholar, Riccardi talks about the crisis and points out some ideas for a different future. He takes up the argument by French sociologist Hervieu-Léger that Roman Catholicism has characterized itself as a “cold religion” (top-down and moralistic) and should melt, learning to become “warmer”. This means, for example, living in the contemporary world with “multiple ecclesial presences, capable of charismatic, diversified, close encounters, and in dialogue with the people” (p. 207). It is not surprising that the founder of Sant’Egidio supports the role of ecclesial movements as horizontal Roman Catholic players, capable of interfacing with different niches of secularized society, intercepting particular needs, “freeing” the relationship with religion with respect to the only channel represented by the institutional church and, therefore, offering a range of different and more contextualized “Catholic” responses. Given that Roman Catholicism has the Eucharist at its center and that it takes a priest to administer the sacrament, to remedy the lack of priests Riccardi goes so far as to support the possibility of recognizing married priests (pp. 199-203).

The analysis of the crisis suggested by the book is honest and without reticence. And yet, the imagined way out remains within the intangible framework of the pillars of Roman Catholicity. It seems that, for Riccardi, in the face of the ongoing fire, the answer must beat the level of a “pastoral” attitude, without providing for a doctrinal rethinking of the self-understanding of the Church of Rome. 

The Church is burning, to borrow Riccardi’s language, but in the end is untouchable in its core elements. The hierarchical structure, the sacramental framework, the theology founded not on Scripture alone but on Tradition (that both includes Scripture and is bigger than Scripture), the non-biblical dogmas, the absorbed spurious devotions, etc., all this cannot be changed. In the end, faced with a very serious diagnosis, the imagined cure seems to be a placebo. If the church burns, the best minds of Roman Catholicism (and Riccardi is one of them) are not compelled by the need to go deeper into understanding the reasons for the crisis. They are not open to a biblical reformation. 

For all churches and for all Christians, the turning point is not a greater pastoral attention nor a new missionary strategy (however important these factors might be), but a return to the Word of God accompanied by repentance from sin and a response of faith ready to call into question all the compromised structures built over time. These are the steps towards the “future” of Christianity as is evoked in the subtitle. The fire of secularization risks incinerating the church, but to borrow the title of a book by Michael Reeves, the unquenchable flame of the reformation according to the Gospel can eliminate the accumulated toxins and open the way to a path of conversion. The ultimate issue is not to switch from a “cold” to a “warm” religion; it is to faithfully respond to the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ in truth and love.

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