Christ at the center of the Council

George Weigel

Conversations with Father Robert Imbelli have been a great blessing in recent years. I have rarely met a more even-tempered and gracious man: a true churchman who, in retirement after years of teaching theology at Boston College, tries diligently to keep the often-fratricidal subtribes of American Catholicism in some sort of conversation (if only through his e-mail account!). We’ve visited in Rome during several Synods and I remember with pleasure the tour he gave me of the Capranica, his Roman alma mater, where his fellow alumni include Popes Benedict XV and Pius XII.

I’ve had occasion before to mention Father Imbelli’s fine book, Rekindling the Christic Imagination: Theological Meditations for the New Evangelization. In that small gem, Imbelli made two points I’ve tried to make, doubtless less elegantly, in Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church and The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission. Where evangelization flourishes in the Church today, it’s because Jesus Christ – crucified and risen, the unique savior of the world – is at the center of the Church’s proclamation, worship, and service. And where evangelization lags or is moribund, it’s because of a deficit in Christ-centeredness.

In “No Decapitated Body,” a bracing essay published In the current issue of Nova et Vetera, Father Imbelli develops his argument for a more radically Christ-centered Church, sheds light on a host of current Catholic controversies and concerns, and does so with an authorial calm that nonetheless conveys his passion for Christ and the Gospel.

Why has the great promise of Vatican II been frustrated so often? In a word, according to Father Imbelli, because of apostasy: a drastic dissolution of the Christ-centeredness that theology sought to recover in the first half of the 20th century and that the Council affirmed. The greatest of Vatican II’s documents, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, begins, Imbelli reminds us, with the ringing affirmation, “Christ is the light of the nations.” And the entire Council, he suggests, must be interpreted through the prism of that confession of faith – “In many ways, the Council’s achievement could be read as a prolonged meditation upon the meaning and implications of Saint’s Paul’s confession – ‘For no other foundation can anyone lay that that which has been laid: Jesus Christ’ (1 Cor. 3:11).”

This seems to me exactly right. It squares with John XXIII’s intention for Vatican II. And it’s empirically confirmed by looking around the world Church today. Where the Council is interpreted in that Christ-centered way, evangelization thrives and the Church lives. By contrast, where Christ is not believed to be the unique way to God, the unique truth about God and us, and the uniquely life-giving savior, there is ecclesial desiccation. A rinsed out Christ substitutes for the Son of God who “came to cast fire upon the earth” (Luke 12:49); the Church falls into the culturally seductive trap of being a non-governmental organization in the business of good works; evangelization withers; local Churches die. This is most painfully obvious in Germany and other German-speaking lands, but it’s true across the full spectrum of Catholic life.

Father Imbelli explores how this forgetting of Christ shows up in various ways: in liturgy that does not begin from the premise that “the prime agent of the celebration [is] the Head of the Body,” on whom every sacramental act is totally dependent; in a dissecting room approach to the Bible and to preaching that does not convey the living presence of the one who is “the Word” (John 1:1) in the divinely-inspired Word of God; in attempts to set “doctrine” against “pastoral practice.” Certain voices in the Church incorrectly blame all of this on Vatican II. Yet it was the Council that taught that Jesus Christ is the one who acts in Baptism, the Eucharist, and the other sacraments, and it was the Council that insisted on the reality of God’s self-revelation in Scripture. As for the juxtaposition of the “doctrinal” and the “pastoral,” or “truth and mercy,” well, as Father Imbelli reminds us, the Synod of 1985 taught that “it is not licit to separate the pastoral character [of Vatican II] from the doctrinal vigor of the documents.”

Father Imbelli’s Nova et Vetera essay is a call to hope: that the Council’s Christ-centeredness will be recovered and made the engine of evangelization. That hope is well-founded, because that’s what’s happening where the Church lives.

COMING UP: Why we are where we are

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By early March 1865, more than a million Americans had killed or wounded each other in civil war; the killing, wounding, and maiming continued for another month or so. Yet amidst that unprecedented carnage, Abraham Lincoln, at his second inauguration as president, called the American Republic to recompose itself in unity by means of magnanimity: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to…bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves…”

Those luminous words, now engraved in his memorial in Washington, confront Americans with a hard truth: it is very difficult, if not impossible, to imagine either major presidential candidate, on January 20, 2021 echoing the sentiments of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. One candidate could not do so credibly because, whatever his personal amiability or claim to moderation, his party is committed to the inherent divisiveness of woke identity politics, and some of its most visible members loathe the idea that the American democratic experiment is a worthy one. The other would almost certainly not do so because magnanimity seems alien to his character and exacerbating division has become his habitual method of governance.

Lincoln’s command of the majestic rhythms of the English language is not easily replicable. But that’s not the issue, is it? It’s hard, verging on impossible, to imagine the president-to-be-inaugurated next January summoning the country to national unity through magnanimity because our political culture has become so coarsened that it cannot cast up presidential candidates capable of credibly making that kind of appeal. And one reason it cannot do so is that too many Americans aren’t interested in, or could not grasp the meaning of, any such summons.

How did we get here?

We got here, in part, because Americans have paid insufficient attention to Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde. The name is not well-known, but that defines the problem. For Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde diagnosed a primary cause of our current distress over half a century ago.

Böckenförde was a German constitutional law scholar whose “dictum” is familiar to, if often ignored by, political scientists: “The liberal secularized state lives on conditions that it cannot guarantee itself.” Put another way, the liberal institutions of a modern democracy – free speech, a free press, freedom of association, universal adult suffrage, majority rule and protection of minority rights, religious freedom, and so forth – rely for their credibility, and their tensile strength under pressure, on cultural foundations those liberal institutions cannot, by themselves, create or defend. Thus American democracy is not, and can never be, a machine that runs by itself. The cultural and moral lubricants of the machinery – indeed, the very rationale for this kind of machinery rather than some other kind – must come from somewhere else.

For over two centuries in the United States, that “somewhere else” was a public moral culture formed by biblical religion and natural law philosophy. Biblical religion taught Americans the built-in dignity and value of every human person as a person, irrespective of condition. The philosophy of the natural law taught Americans that there are moral truths inscribed in the world and in us, that we can know those truths by reason, and that knowing them teaches us our duties. These cultural norms underwriting American democracy were sometimes forgotten or ignored. But they were there, and people of character could appeal to them to reform the Republic and help it realize its promise of freedom in solidarity for all Americans.

The accelerated process of political decay we’ve witnessed in the past six months didn’t just happen. America’s once-noble liberal political institutions are crumbling because, over the past six and a half decades, the cultural foundations on which those institutions long relied have been deeply eroded by a soul-withering secularization (which even affects religious believers) and a debased public ethic of “I did it my way.”

The annus horribilis through which we’re living is telling us that America is at an inflection point. If that inflection point is to lead to national renewal, Catholics in the United States must be leaders in reclothing the American public square with the truths about the human person, the moral life, and the common good that make democratic self-governance possible. Absent those truths, there can be no summons to unity through magnanimity. For absent those truths, those words are empty husks.