One of the underappreciated sides of John Paul II’s teaching is something that applies to all of us. In his encyclicals Fides et Ratio and Ex Corde Ecclesiae, his overall aim was to show just how vast is the influence of Jesus Christ.
This is not influence in a cultural sense. This is influence because: “All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race.” (John 1:3, 4) This is influence, not at the level of society, but at the level of being.
The significance of this is undervalued because our culture has its roots in the anticlericalism and the anti-Christianity of the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, therefore, we often think the way the Enlightenment would want us to. To the Enlightenment, Jesus Christ was just another founder of one religion among many.
The truth, first of all, is that everything comes to be through the Divine Word of God who is Jesus. The things of Creation themselves speak of their divine origins by their beauty and truth. Then, second – and this is the light of which John spoke – when we use our reason in a disciplined way, and allow it to be elevated by faith, we can truly learn about creatures and, even more excitingly, we begin to meet Christ more fully too.
Meeting Jesus Christ in faith draws us to Him. He is “the person” par excellence. He draws us into the best inter-personal relationship we will ever have. We get drawn into being persons in the fuller sense. In Hans Urs von Balthasar’s words: in meeting Christ, God freely “offers [us] . . . the greatest possible chance of becoming a person, of laying hold of his own substance, of grasping that most intimate idea of his own self – which otherwise would remain undiscoverable.” This is something that takes one’s whole life to appreciate.
Further, meeting Jesus Christ does not remain an individual, private experience: “[A]ccording to the laws of the communion of saints, [the individual] can offer himself to God on behalf of other people. . .by asking, suffering, and being for them.” Communion comes about through Christ taking on human nature and redeeming us. But we gain a role in this great process of redemption. He intervened in history and he empowers us to intervene too.
This communion is called the “Church.” And it is constituted by Christ. Liturgically, which does not mean theatrically, He continues to be born and lives and dies and rises again in the life of the Church, until He comes again in judgment.
Resurrection fresco, artist unknown, c. 1320 [Church of the Holy Saviour (Chora Church), Istanbul] Now the Chora Museum.
But back to the notion of truth: the great truths of the faith are expressions from the mouth of Christ, in his life and in his Body, the Church. Bishops do not speak for the absent Christ. They speak Christ’s words as his presence. They do this well or badly depending on their personal abilities, the gaps in their knowledge and their sinfulness. They do it best when they use the words of Scripture, or the Tradition of the Church – guaranteed divine revelations in our world.
There is an interesting line in the Breviary about the Church only using the resources of the Church. The resource of the Church is Jesus Christ, who pours out his gifts for the enrichment of the Church including the Scriptures (the work of the divine Word) and the Tradition (Christ speaking through Liturgies and his Mediators).
I raise this point because, in a way that probably has not happened with such frequency since the times of Martin Luther, we are hearing teachings from bishops that are contrary to established doctrines. Let us be clear: this does not put Christ at issue. He is still with the Church in full-force. So catastrophic thinking like thinking Christ has left the Church is, for a Christian, simply nonsense.
If a bishop makes a statement, such as, for example, expressing the thought that some homosexual unions might be blessed (German Cardinal Reinhold Marx, recently), then he is simply speaking contrary to the Judeo-Christian Tradition. The Tradition has not changed; he has simply and erroneously departed from it.
The Church contains many people who contradict Church teaching. I meet them every day. But as a grown-up Catholic, I know that my faith does not depend on people who deny Catholic teaching. Faith is not reactive; it is an ever growing, deepening spiritual union with Christ and his Church.
A bishop who has been seduced by the politics of meaning, wherein a political constituency imagines that it can flip established teaching on its head, does not change established teaching.
Yes, teaching “develops” (in Newman’s very precise and limited sense). It develops – and there is continuity and consistency of meaning in authentic teaching over time. But Cardinal Marx’s personal view is not a development of doctrine. It is simply a sign of an individual aberration.
To think any differently is to underestimate Christ’s presence in the Church and his ability to co-exist, even with bishops who do not think very clearly. The wheat and the tares coexist until the harvest comes. But we should be in no doubt about which is which.
Fr. Bevil Bramwell, OMI, PhD is the former Undergraduate Dean at Catholic Distance University. His books are: Laity: Beautiful, Good and True; The World of the Sacraments; Catholics Read the Scriptures: Commentary on Benedict XVI’s Verbum Domini, and most recently, John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae: The Gift of Catholic Universities to the World.