Beginning with Jesus, as is only right, and then looking at the New Testament and at a few representative texts from early Christianity, we’ve discerned, just a little, the essence of the Church. We now shift focus to explore the Church today.
But first, a brief review. The Church, remember, is ecclesia, the called body of believers. Its essence belongs to the communion of the Trinity, opened to believers in Jesus Christ, to those who by faith believe him to be the incarnate Son of God. When believers live in Jesus, he lives in them, which is how believers in Christ find themselves in communion with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. That’s how the Church is holy.
But this communion with God is also at the same time communion with other believers — with the adelphoi — all those with faith sharing in Christ together. It’s a communion grown by means of the Apostles’ preaching; what John saw and heard he proclaimed to others, for instance, creating fellowship, as he said, both “with us” and “with the Father” (1 Jn 1:3). That is, the communion of the Church is both divine and human, not just holy but also catholic and apostolic. It’s built upon the preaching of the Apostles and fellowship with them, and it includes all believers. But it’s also a communion characterized always by the oneness Jesus prayed for in John 17, which, as we saw when exploring that passage in depth, meant something more than mere esprit de corps, more, too, than metaphor. Jesus spoke in terms much more demanding than just conceptual or sentimental unity; his followers were to be one. Now of course, we have yet to flesh out how the Church remains one, but we will elsewhere in exploring the sacraments and also the papacy.
But for now, that’s the Church — unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam. Whatever we think of it historically, sociologically, politically, bureaucratically, that is the Church in essence — this divine and human communion. And it’s important to remember this for several reasons. First, it helps us remember that the Church is something more mysteriously enduring and more beautiful than what we may see of the Church at any one time. When the Church isn’t beautiful, this is really important to remember. But it’s also important because it challenges our sometimes overly individualistic accounts of Christian belief. It helps us remember that the Lord’s Prayer is prayed always to “our Father” and not “my Father.” It helps us retain a more biblical understanding of Christian belief and belonging, remembering that the Church is, to use Paul’s imagery, the body of Christ; or to use John’s imagery — echoing the Song of Songs — that it’s the bride of Christ. Now there are, as we’ll see, many more images given to this mysterious communion, yet the underlying truth is the same: the Church is ecclesia, the body and the bride of Christ, a single communion rooted in God. As the great theologian Henri de Lubac put it, “The Church of God is unique: there is only a single Body of Christ, a single Spouse of Christ, a single fold, a single flock under a single Shepherd” (The Motherhood of the Church, 171). This is the truth I’ve slowly tried to describe, a truth about the essence of the Church that endures even today, and that we’ll need to remember as we continue our exploration of Catholicism. Now, however, our task is simply to find it in the present, in the Church of today.
So, fast forward. To understand the Catholic Church today, one must understand the Second Vatican Council — what it was and in a certain sense still is. It was announced by Pope St. John XXIII on Jan. 25, 1959 after Mass at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. The Council opened three years later in 1962 and ended in 1965. However, in 1959, when only 10 weeks into his pontificate John XXIII called the council, it shocked the Church and the world, too. Now John XXIII was himself a surprise. Quite old when elected, many thought he’d simply keep the papal seat warm until a younger pope came along. Little did anyone expect he was going to shake things up like he did. A joyful man — humble, hilarious and holy — he said himself how the idea of calling an ecumenical council was sudden and unexpected. And not only did news of the council shock many, it changed the world. It was a meeting of massive importance for all Christians, not just Roman Catholics, and whether you know it or not, you’ve been influenced by Vatican II.
An ecumenical council is simply a great meeting of bishops and others in the Church, and it belongs to a long tradition of councils. The Church has held councils since the beginning, since the so-called Council of Jerusalem in Acts 13. Then, the question was about what to do with all the Gentiles coming into the Church. Should they follow the dietary laws of Judaism? Should they be circumcised? These were serious controversies, leading to quite heated debates. And really, ever since, the Church has been arguing, coming together informally and formally in what the tradition came to call councils — some large, some small — to argue important points of theology or discipline and sometimes a whole lot more. And we’ve gained much from this tradition. The Creed we say every Sunday, for instance, is a product of two councils — the Council of Nicaea in 325 and the Council of Constantinople in 381. The Catholic Church calls some councils ecumenical councils, which means those that relate to the entire Church. Different traditions count ecumenical councils differently — some count only seven, some only three. The Roman Catholic Church counts 21 ecumenical councils.
Now, generally speaking, until Vatican II, ecumenical councils were called in response to some controversy, either of theology or discipline. The Council of Nicaea, for example, was called in response to the controversy caused by a rather eloquent priest from Alexandria in Egypt named Arius who was going around preaching that Jesus was a “creature,” that he was “made” and “created,” not God quite like the Father is God. And so, the Church gathered at Nicaea to refute Arius. And, if you know anything of the history of the Arian controversy, to listen to the Nicene Creed is to hear the Church basically scold Arius. For example, that the Creed says “begotten, not made” is really quite a specific dig at Arius. We no longer hear it that way, but bishops in the fourth century certainly did. The Council of Ephesus in the fourth century responded to Nestorius, the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century to the Protestant Reformation and so on. Or, for matters of discipline, as again at Nicaea when the council fathers declared that castrated clergy couldn’t be promoted — a quite odd but also quite serious issue at the time!
Yet when John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council, there really was no urgent problem afoot. There were certainly in the first half of the 20th century both creative tensions and uncreative tensions in the Church. The modern world was rapidly changing, and there was significant argument within the Church about how best to confront such changes. Catholic theologians and leaders in France, for instance, wanted to engage the world quite differently than those in Italy. And there was even some talk of another council under Pius XII — whose papacy, by the way, very much reflects the wider tensions in play at the time — but it was not an idea that had gained much traction. Catholics by and large were getting on just fine, most thought. Whatever tensions existed were being managed well enough by the ordinary means of debate, censure and old-fashioned Church politics. And so, when John XXIII called the Council in 1959, most wondered what for. It’s a spiritual question, in fact, that’s still being asked today. But more on that next week.
Father Joshua J. Whitfield is pastor of St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and author of “The Crisis of Bad Preaching” (Ave Maria Press, $17.95) and other books. Read more from the series here.