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’ [John 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.

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.