Rorate Caeli

The Church as communio: Revisiting Joseph Ratzinger's ecclesiology

By Veronica A. Arntz

In Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Mystici Corporis from 1943, we are given a beautiful description of the Church as Christ’s Mystical Body here on earth, born out of love from his sufferings on the Cross. Toward the end of the encyclical, the Pope offers a heartfelt exhortation to love the Church:

Let this be the supreme law of our love: to love the Spouse of Christ as Christ wished her to be and as He purchased her with His blood. Hence not only should we cherish the sacraments with which Holy Mother Church sustains our life, the solemn ceremonies she offers for our solace and our joy, the sacred chant and liturgy by which she lifts our souls up to heaven, but the sacramentals too and all those exercises of piety which she uses to console the hearts of the faithful and gently to imbue them with the Spirit of Christ (art. 102).

For Pius XII, the Church is deeply sacramental and liturgical, for, by her very being, she is turned toward the Lord, anticipating with hope Christ’s second coming. In loving the Church, we love her liturgies and her sacramental life, for these things are part of her very being and essence. How much these words are needed for the Church in our own time! In a time when the sacraments are frequented less and less, piety is disregarded as being “individualistic,” and, most especially, the liturgy is viewed as a theatrical act by the priest rather than the eternal sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, we are in desperate need of a reminder of the true nature of the Church. In our time, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has helped us to understand the true nature of the Church as Eucharistic and liturgical, oriented toward communion with God. To understand Ratzinger’s ecclesiological vision, let us first understand what the Church is not. 

In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, a lively debate occurred between Cardinals Walter Kasper and Joseph Ratzinger over the relationship of the universal and particular Church. From Kasper’s perspective, as the bishop of a diocese, he had noted a growing gap between the regulations of the Vatican and the actual pastoral practice of the individual churches. In a 1999 article entitled “On the Church,” he writes, “A large portion of our people, including priests, could not understand the reason behind the regulations coming from the center; they tended, therefore, to ignore them.” (NB: It is interesting to see that Kasper has been keenly interested in Communion for the divorced and remarried for a considerable amount of time: “The adamant refusal of Communion to all divorced and remarried persons and the highly restrictive rules for Eucharistic hospitality are good examples”). The bishop, although he is part of the universal episcopal college and therefore responsible for defending the Catholic truth, he is also the head of his diocese, which means he must “take care of his own people, respond to their expectations, and answer their questions.” For this reason, Kasper upholds that the bishop should have a certain freedom over his diocese to “make responsible decisions in the matter of implementing universal laws.” For Kasper, the particular Church is the “church at a given place,” not a department of the universal church. In a certain way, Kasper believes that the particular Church is prior to the universal Church, because it is the bishop’s decision how to implement certain universal rules. If Kasper had his way (which, as we have seen within the last two years, he very well might), then it would be up to the bishop to decide whether the divorced and remarried can receive Communion.

Kasper then cites the nature of the early Church to show the truth of his proposal that the local Church exists prior to the universal Church. He explains, “The early church developed from local communities. Each was presided over by a bishop; the one church of God was present in each. Because the one church was present in each and all, they were in communion.” Furthermore, “They existed within the network of a communion of metropolitan and patriarchal churches, all of them bonded together as the universal church.” According to Joseph Ratzinger, however, this approach to understanding the relationship of the universal and particular Church diminishes the importance of the universal Church. In his book, Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today (Ignatius Press, 1996), he explains, “The ancient Church never consisted in a static juxtaposition of local Churches” (p. 83). Indeed, the ancient church did not exist as Kasper understands it, for, as Ratzinger explains, “the apostle is not the bishop of a community but rather a missionary for the whole Church” (Ibid.). As such, Kasper’s proposal seems to imply that the local churches existed separately, so that they combined to form the universal church. As we shall further show in looking at Ratzinger’s ecclesiology, this is not the proper way to understand the universal Church.

Furthermore, Ratzinger says that the Church cannot “become an end in herself” (p. 145). He points to a modern phenomenon that, the more ecclesial activities one participates in, the more “Christian” he or she is considered. As Ratzinger further explains, “We have a kind of ecclesiastical occupational therapy; a committee, or at any rate some sort of activity in the Church, is sought for everyone” (Ibid.). While it is good and necessary for Catholics to desire to belong to the Church, this is a false kind of belonging. Being Christian is not about the activities one does in the Church, although those things are certainly important for forming a Christian community. Yet, according to Ratzinger, “there can be people who are engaged uninterruptedly in the activities of the Church associations and yet are not Christians” (Ibid.). Such a Church becomes more about human activity rather than the divine activity of God working through the Church. If we place the local church above the universal Church, we can see this becoming a problem, for then the activities of the people become the main purpose of the Church’s existence.

Lastly, Ratzinger writes, “In the Church, the atmosphere becomes cramped and stifling when her office-bearers forget that the sacrament is, not an allocution of power, but dispossession of myself for the sake of the one in whose ‘persona’ I am to speak and act” (p. 146). In advocating for the primacy of the bishop in ruling about certain universal principles of the Church, Kasper is thinking primarily of the power of the office. If the bishop has the power to rule his diocese as he wishes, then he should be able to exercise that power. Without denying the importance of the bishop and his particular diocese, Ratzinger shows that the bishop is not merely an advocate for his own interests. Rather, the bishop stands at the head of the diocese, his flock, in order to promote the good of something higher than himself, that is, the Bride of Christ and God’s laws. If the bishop becomes concerned about his own power, his local church becomes separate from the universal flock of Christ.

What, then, ought to be the character of the relationship of the particular and universal Church? As Ratzinger explains in Principles of Catholic Theology (Ignatius Press, 1987):

Belief in the Trinity is communio; to believe in the Trinity means to become communio. Historically, this means that the “I” of the credo-formulas is a collective “I”, the “I” of the believing Church, to which the individual “I” belongs as long as it believes…this “I” utters itself only in the communion of the Church (p. 23).

The doctrine of the communion of the Trinity, therefore, serves as the basis for understanding the Church herself. When each of us individually professes our belief in God, we are professing our belief in the Church. It is the whole Church—the whole communio of the Church—who believes in the holy Trinity. As Maximilian Heinrich Heim explains in Joseph Ratzinger: Life in the Church and Living Theology (Ignatius Press, 2007), “Because the ‘I’ of the believer exists only as a result of the ‘we’, the profession of the triune God in the ecclesial communio constitutes the faith of the Church” (p. 148). And furthermore, “The individual always believes by believing along with the whole Church” (p. 149). Thus, unity of faith is essential for forming the unity of the Church.

In the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion, promulgated by Joseph Ratzinger during the time that he was Prefect, we find that there are two foundations for the communion of the Church: the Eucharist and the Episcopate. First, we read concerning the Eucharist, “It is precisely the Eucharist that renders all self-sufficiency on the part of the particular Churches impossible” (11). How is this the case? As the document explains, “From the Eucharistic center arises the necessary openness of every celebrating community, of every particular Church; by allowing itself to be drawn into the open arms of the Lord, it achieves insertion into his one and undivided Body” (Ibid.). The Eucharist forms the communion of the Church, and this gift of Christ’s Body and Blood prevents the particular churches from becoming juxtaposed to the universal Church. For the Church is the Body of Christ, as St. Paul explains, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17 RSV). And again, as St. Paul asks, “Is Christ divided?” (1 Corinthians 1:13). If God is one, how could Christ’s very own Body be divided? Therefore, the Eucharist is the universal principle that shapes the universal Church.

Second, the body of the universal Church requires a head, found in the Episcopate. This is found both in the Roman Pontiff and in the bishops over the particular churches: “The Bishop is a visible source and foundation of the unity of the particular Church entrusted to his pastoral ministry” (13). While Kasper is right in arguing that the bishop necessarily makes decisions for his diocese, these decisions cannot be made in a vacuum. “For each particular Church to be fully Church, that is, the particular presence of the universal Church with all its essential elements, and hence constituted after the model of the universal Church, there must be present in it, as a proper element, the supreme authority of the Church” (Ibid). The particular Church, therefore, must be modeled after the universal Church. The particular does not exist separately from the universal Church, but rather, in communion with her and the Pontiff, the supreme authority over the universal Church. This is seen in the following: “The ministry of the Successor of Peter as something interior to each particular Church is a necessary expression of that fundamental mutual interiority between universal Church and particular Church” (13). Thus, the Pope is not an “extrinsic” principle or distant from the particular churches, making isolated rules and laws from the Vatican; rather, he acts with the Bishop for the good of each particular Church. This is how there can be a fundamental communion between the universal and particular Church.

As such, the document rightly proclaims concerning the universal Church, “It is not the result of the communion of Churches, but, in its essential mystery, it is a reality ontologically and temporally prior to every individual particular Church” (9). Kasper objected to this particular statement, thus prompting his own interpretation of the communion of the Church. But, as we have shown in Ratzinger’s theology, the universal Church guides the actions of the particular churches, meaning that the individual churches must be submissive to the guidance of the universal Church. In other words, Kasper’s proposal falls through: it would be impossible for the bishops of a local church to “choose responsibly” how they would like certain universal pronouncements to be carried out in their diocese without the guiding hand of Holy Mother Church.

In our own time, we can see the problems with the local Church wanting to make particular decisions regarding universal principles with the recent discussion over celebrating the liturgy ad orientem. While the Vatican itself has not explicitly asked for the liturgy to return to an ad orientem orientation, Cardinal Robert Sarah has asked local churches to return to a universal principle, a principle for the liturgy that was in place until the aftermath of Vatican II. Yet we have some bishops refusing to celebrate the liturgy ad orientem¸ while others are in complete agreement with the proposal. Ultimately, however, the universal Church is to be a liturgical community. As Ratzinger explains in Principles of Catholic Theology, “The Church is not merely an external society of beliefs; by her nature, she is a liturgical community; she is most truly Church when she celebrates the Eucharist and makes present the redemptive love of Jesus Christ” (p. 50). Thus, the communio of the Church finds its “source and summit” (Lumen gentium 11) in celebrating the Eucharist. If the Church is truly communio, then it will follow that she is also a liturgical community—a community that is defined by its liturgical actions and its celebration of the Eucharist. Not only is Christ at the center of the Church, but he is more importantly at the center of her worship and defines her very action. This means that, in our very worship, we ought to be centered on Christ by celebrating the liturgy ad orientem. All Catholics—the whole Church—would be oriented toward Christ. It seems that this is one of the best ways to show that the Body of Christ truly is universal and not divided.

To properly understand the Church as communio, in the Holy Trinity, the Eucharist, and the Episcopate, we need the mindset of Pius XII from the quote in the beginning of this essay. The way we celebrate the liturgy, our devotion to sacramentals, and our respect for the Church’s liturgical gifts all point to communion with the Body of Christ. If particular churches choose to act in their own way, especially in these liturgical and sacramental gifts, they risk losing unity with the universal Church. For the universal Church is not merely giving out rules and regulations for the sake of doing so, but rather, for the sake of reverencing Christ’s own body. Therefore, it is fitting that we follow the pronouncements of the universal Church, for the Church “does not exist in order to keep us busy and to support herself but in order to break free into eternal life in all of us” (Called to Communion, p. 147).

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