"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

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Monday, 17 August 2015


If the Church is regarded as one, then the Pope, as its head, represents the whole; if it is regarded as a multiple reality, then the Pope is only a part. The Fathers sometimes looked at it in one way and sometimes another, and thus spoke in different ways about the Pope …. But in laying down one of these two truths, they did not exclude the other.   Multiplicity which is not reduced to unity is confusion. Unity which does not depend on multiplicity is tyranny.(Blaise Pascal, Pensées) 
Everyone knows that the papacy is the major ecumenical problem among those disunited churches that lay claim to a common apostolic and patristic Tradition.   It is also a problem among those Christian bodies that rejected Tradition in favour of sola scriptura; but I cannot include their arguments in this post because of time and space.  I must rest content with an examination of Catholic ecclesiology and understanding of the papacy as it is being transformed within an ecumenical context.

Why is ecumenical discussion causing change of our understanding of the papacy?   Are we becoming convinced that Catholic teaching is wrong and the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox are right?   Are we losing our nerve?  Or is ecumenical dialogue, on the contrary, a means of enriching our belief in the papacy rather than rejecting it?   I hold the second view, and will try to show you how this is happening.  I shall argue that it is coming from the enrichment of our understanding of the Church, which is the inevitable result of our dialogue with other strands of Apostolic Tradition represented by the other churches and by our examination with them of the historical evidence. Highest among the enriching experiences,, in my opinion, is the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue which has the potential for giving both sides a more holistic understanding of the Church which includes them both, but not without criticism of each.  Even if these conversations were to collapse, we have already been enriched beyond measure in our understanding of th papacy, and in many other subjects.

 One thing is certain, we are not defending a heavily entrenched and immobile position, thanks to Vatican II, and the situation is in a state of flux.   This is because we are using a different paradigm than that of the papacy of Vatican I when we look at the question, and are not absolutely sure where it will lead in practice.  We are looking at the problem of the papacy from the point of view of eucharistic ecclesiology, an understanding of the Church which we and our Orthodox partners in dialogue agree is in better accordance with the scriptural and patristic evidence.  The old pre-Vatican II discussion between Catholics and Orthodox never got anywhere because we were using different paradigms, so there was no meeting of minds.   Now we are using the same paradigm with a greater chance of agreement, something that seems to be spooking the Russian Orthodox who have their own agenda.   Here is what Cardinal Ratzinger/ Pope Benedict has to say about eucharistic eccesiology.

This identity of Church and Eucharist as taught by Cardinal Ratzinger:

This formula means that the Eucharist binds all men together, and not just with one another, but with Christ; in this way it makes them "Church". At the same time the formula describes the fundamental constitution of the Church: the Church exists in Eucharistic communities. The Church's Mass is her constitution, because the Church is, in essence, a Mass (sent out: "missa"), a service of God, and therefore a service of man and a service for the transformation of the world.

 The Mass is the Church's form. That means that through it she develops an entirely original relationship that exists nowhere else, a relationship of multiplicity and of unity. In each celebration of the Eucharist, the Lord is really present. He is risen and dies no more. He can no longer be divided into different parts. He always gives Himself completely and entirely. This is why the Council states: "This Church of Christ is truly present in all legitimate local communities of the faithful which, united with their pastors, are themselves called Churches in the New Testament. For in their locality these are the new People called by God, in the Holy Spirit and with great trust (cf. 1 Thes. 1,5).... In these communities, though frequently small and poor, or living in the diaspora, Christ is present, and in virtue of His power there is brought together one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church" (Lumen Gentium, n. 26).  (Conference of Cardinal Ratzinger at the opening of the Pastoral Congress of the Diocese of Aversa (Italy), 15 September 2001.

 The Spirit brings the Church into living contact with Christ’s life and death through its memory (anamnesis), and draws the Church up into the heavenly liturgy by sharing in Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension as an answer to the Church’s invocation (epiclesis), and into intimate communion (koinonia) with Christ in the internal life of the Trinity.

  The Holy Spirit unites to this concrete community all Christians and local churches everywhere and from all times, from Apostolic times to the very last Christians at the end of the world.   Thus the community gathered to celebrate Mass is the tip of the iceberg, the Church at its most visible and the body of the risen Lord.  The Eucharist is also the Parousia because Christ is the “Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last” (). 
An Orthodox ecumenist, representative of the Oecumenical Patriarch at the talks, Metropolitan John Zizioulas, teaches the same basic doctrine.

Metropolitan John Zizioulas writes:

This Pauline ecclesiology which identifies Church and Eucharist so closely is developed further by St Ignatius of Antioch. What characterises Ignatius in particular is that the Eucharist does not simply make the local catholic community into the Church, but that it makes it the catholic Church (katholike ecclesia), that is, the full and integral body of Christ. It would not be an exaggeration to say that for Ignatius the catholicity of the Church derives from the celebration of the Eucharist. And this allows Ignatius to apply the term ‘catholic Church’ to the local community. Each local eucharistic community presided over by the bishop surrounded by the college of presbyters and assisted by the deacons, in the presence of the multitude (plethos), the people, constitutes the ‘catholic Church’ precisely because in it the total Christ is found in the form of the Eucharist.
 After Ignatius the preoccupation of the Church with the danger of Gnosticism and other heresies forced her to emphasise orthodoxy as the fundamental and decisive ingredient of ecclesiology. Thus, the relation between Church and Eucharist seems to be weakened to some extent in the writers of the second century, though it is not absent from their thought. The situation is exemplified by St Irenaeus who regards orthodoxy as fundamental to ecclesiology while making the Eucharist the criterion of catholicity: ‘Our faith (belief: gnome) is in accordance with the Eucharist and the Eucharist confirms our faith’ (Adv Haereses 4.8,5). It is mainly for this reason that in all ancient writers before St Augustine each local Church is called catholic, the full and integral body of Christ.
 If there are ecclesiological presuppositions of the Eucharist – and there certainly are – these must not be understood to involve a priority of the Church over against the Eucharist. The position I will develop here is that the Church constitutes the Eucharist while being constituted by it. Church and Eucharist are interdependent, they coincide, and are even in some sense identical.   .In order to find the deeper roots of this coincidence between Church and Eucharist we must again go back to the question of the relation between Christology and Pneumatology. All the biblical accounts of Christology seem to speak of Christ as being constituted by the Holy Spirit and in this sense as a corporate personality, the Servant of God or the Son of Man. The Person of Christ is automatically linked with the Holy Spirit, which means with a community. This community is the eschatological company of the Saints who surround Christ in this kingdom. This Church is part of the definition of Christ. The body of Christ is not first the body of the individual Christ and then a community of ‘many’, but simultaneously both together. Thus you cannot have the body of the individual Christ (the One) without having simultaneously the community of the Church (The Many). .The Eucharist is the only occasion in history when these two coincide. In the Eucharist the expression ‘body of Christ’ means simultaneously the body of Jesus and the body of the Church. Any separation between these two leads to the destruction of the Eucharist. Therefore, the ecclesiological presuppositions of the Eucharist cannot be found outside the Eucharist itself. It is by studying the nature of the Eucharist that we can understand the nature of the Church which conditions the Eucharist.

 Alexey S. Khomiakov, a 19th century Russian Orthodox lay theologian wrote in his small classic on the Church,:
The Church is one, notwithstanding her division, as it appears to a man who is still alive on earth.   It is only in relation to man that it is possible to recognize a division of the Church into visible and invisible; her unity, in reality, is true and absolute.   Those who are alive on earth, those who have finished their earthly course, … those who, like the angels, were not created for a life on earth, those in future generations who have not yet begun their earthly course, are all united together in one Church, in one and the same grace of God, for the creation of God which has not yet been manifested is manifested to Him; and God hears the prayers and knows the faith of those whom he has not yet called out of non-existence into existence. (The Church is One by Alexey Stepanovich (c. 1850) Fellowship of St Alban & St Sergius, 1968.)
There are several enormous shifts of emphasis as well as quite novel conclusions that have to be made by those who use the Eucharist as the paradigm for understanding the Church which would never have occurred to anyone reading the papal definitions of Vatican I when they first came out.

While Vatican I understands the Church to be a universal society centred on the Pope and bound together by the pope's universal jurisdiction, eucharistic ecclesiology shifts the emphasis to the local church, to the eucharistic assembly that becomes the focal point of the universal Church as it celebrates the Eucharist, always an act of the whole Church working through  the ministry of the local church.  

The   Eucharistic Prayer IV asks the Father to gather all who share in the one bread and one cup by the power of his Spirit "into the one body of Christ, a living sacrifice of praise."   Cardinal Ratzinger said in 2002:
It is truly the one, identical Lord, whom we receive in the Eucharist, or better, the Lord who receives us and assumes us into himself. St Augustine expressed this in a short passage which he perceived as a sort of vision:  eat the bread of the strong; you will not transform me into yourself, but I will transform you into me. In other words, when we consume bodily nourishment, it is assimilated by the body, becoming itself a part of ourselves. But this bread is of another type. It is greater and higher than we are. It is not we who assimilate it, but it assimilates us to itself, so that we become in a certain way "conformed to Christ", as Paul says, members of his body, one in him. We all "eat" the same person, not only the same thing; we all are in this way taken out of our closed individual persons and placed inside another, greater one. We all are assimilated into Christ and so by means of communion with Christ, united among ourselves, rendered the same, one sole thing in him, members of one another.To communicate with Christ is essentially also to communicate with one another. We are no longer each alone, each separate from the other; we are now each part of the other; each of those who receive communion is "bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh" (Gn 2,23).A true spirituality of communion seen in its Christological profundity, therefore, necessarily has a social character, as Henri de Lubac brilliantly described more than a half century ago in his book, Catholicism.
For this reason, in my prayer at communion, I must look totally toward Christ, allowing myself to be transformed by him, even to be burned by his enveloping fire. But, precisely for this reason, I must always keep clearly in mind that in this way he unites me organically with every other person receiving him - with the one next to me, whom I may not like very much; but also with those who are far away, in Asia, Africa, America or in any other place.
Becoming one with them, I must learn to open myself toward them and to involve myself in their situations. This is the proof of the authenticity of my love for Christ. If I am united with Christ, I am together with my neighbour, and this unity is not limited to the moment of communion, but only begins here. It becomes life, becomes flesh and blood, in the everyday experience of sharing life with my neighbour. Thus, the individual realities of my communicating and being part of the life of the Church are inseparably linked to one another.The Church is not born as a simple federation of communities. Her birth begins with the one bread, with the one Lord and from him from the beginning and everywhere, the one body which derives from the one bread. She becomes one not through a centralized government but through a common centre open to all, because it constantly draws its origin from a single Lord, who forms her by means of the one bread into one body. Because of this, her unity has a greater depth than that which any other human union could ever achieve. Precisely when the Eucharist is understood in the intimacy of the union of each person with the Lord, it becomes also a social sacrament to the highest degree.

Once all this is accepted, there is a change of emphasis and of our understanding of the papacy that challenges Catholics and Orthodox alike, though in different ways.   We can wait to discover whether either church tradition will measure up to the challenge.   I can attempt to speak for the Catholics and, although the Orthodox must speak for themselves, I cannot resist the temptation to give them a little nudge, a suggestion about where they go wrong and where improvement could be made!  After all, the main purpose of this article is to attempt to remove the plank from our own eyes, so I might just be excused for trying to remove the mote from theirs.

Let us now look at the implications of choosing to use eucharistic ecclesiology.

1)  The first enormous change of emphasis is from a world-wide society, founded, as a visible institution by Christ himself and held together by the universal episcopal jurisdiction of the pope, to a local church which, as a eucharistic assembly, becomes the instrument by which the universal Church, both in heaven and on earth, offers sacrifice to God, and in which the Eucharist breaks down barriers and causes the local church to transcend its own limitations so that it may become one with the Church of heaven and and one with the Church on earth by its inclusion "in Christ" in the presence of the Father.  The universal Church is made visible wherever a local church celebrates the Eucharist.  Hence St Paul sees  each local church as the Church whole and entire because it becomes visible at this point, though it includes all who who become one with each other throughout the world because they are one with Christ in heaven through communion. 

To look at it from another perspective, an individual Christian who shares in the communion of a local church is enabled, according to the depth and intimacy of his communion, to share in the universal love of Christ, which is so wonderfully taught by our father among the saints, St Isaac the Syrian.  There are no barriers to this love, and the organism on earth formed by the communion of all its members with Christ in heaven, transcends time and place because it reflects the presence of the Holy Spirit, the hypostasis of the love of the Father in Christ and in the Church.

To see this vision depends on your point of departure: if the Father sends down his Holy Spirit onto the altar of the local church to make the bread and wine the body and blood and to make the local church Christ's body, then you can come away with the illusion that the local church, being Christ's body, is self-sufficient. The result is a congregationalist ecclesiology rather than a Catholic or Orthodox one.

 If, on the other hand, like the Roman Canon as well as the theology of Father A. Schmemann and Pope Benedict, you see the Eucharistic consecration as the moment when the bread and wine are taken up to heaven, and the assembly sheds its limitations in time and space, and approaches the presence of the Father, in the company of the angels and saints, passing through the veil which is the flesh of Christ (at communion) into the Presence. (Letter to the Hebrews)   In this case, the local church is body of Christ only in so far as it transcends itself, breaking through the boundaries of locality to belong to the world-wide organism of the Holy Spirit that is made up of those who eat the same bread and drink of the same cup, and breaking through the boundaries of time and place to become one with the Church of all times and places, in the past and the future, as Alexey Khomiakov instructs us in the passage we have quoted.

2)   Pope Benedict has a reputation for being a theological conservative, something that I believe is completely wrong.   He is completely traditional, which is another thing all together.  An untraditional Catholic is like a square circle.    Look at this paragraph already quoted by Pope Benedict:

The Church is not born as a simple federation of communities. Her birth begins with the one bread, with the one Lord and from him from the beginning and everywhere, the one body which derives from the one bread. She becomes one not through a centralized government but through a common centre open to all, because it constantly draws its origin from a single Lord, who forms her by means of the one bread into one body.
Here he rules out both a loose amalgam of autocephalous churches, as in Orthodoxy, and unity by centralised government as advocated by Catholics.  For him, both models are wordly and do not do justice to the eucharistic nature of the Church.  He points out elsewhere that the Eucharist was called the "Charity", it is the charity of God manifested in Christ's sacrifice - a sacrificial love, Christ's gift of self manifesting itself in the unity of the Church.  Neither the half-hearted quarrelsome Orthodox model nor the Catholic model that substitutes law for love does justice to the unity of the Church "by which the world will know that you have sent me."

Any statement can become inadequate if it is taken out of one context and placed in another, and this is certainly true of the dogma of Vatican I when taken out of the context of 19th Century poliyical tensions and placed in an ecumenical context:
Hence we teach and declare that, by the appointment of our Lord, the Roman Church possesses a superiority of ordinary power over all other Churches, and that this power of jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff, which is truly episcopal, is immediate; to which all, of whatever rite and dignity, both pastors and faithful, both individually and collectively, are bound, by their duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, to submit, not only in matters which belong to faith and morals, but also in those that appertain to the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world, so that the Church of Christ may be one flock under one Supreme Pastor through the preservation of unity both of communion and of profession of the same faith with the Roman Pontiff. This is the teaching of Catholic truth, from which no one can deviate without loss of faith and of salvation. 
It is inadequate because it takes jurisdiction and law out of its true context which Christ illustrated by washing his disciples' feet.  What binds the Church together is a eucharistic love that crosses every barrier, not a jurisdiction without limits but a love without limits., being rooted in the risen and ascended Christ in whom we find each other through our participation in the Eucharist.  The law takes its characteristics from the the eucharistic love, not the other way round.   Of course, for a church the size of the Catholic Church to function in a practical way has to have a system of law, though the difference between it and other secular systems was not made clear in the definition.  

The Church is a very complex reality, and the Holy Spirit works in many ways, through many people and institutions, according to Tradition, and all these ways and people need to be respected because the Holy Spirit works in synergy with the Church at all levels

  Thus, because there are so many variables, the papacy will look different in different moments of history; and we are working out how it will look in the near future, both among ourselves and in consultation with our ecumenical partners. None of this could have been expressed in a dogma in purely legal terms because the Church is not a purely legal reality.

2)   As the liturgy is the source of all the Church's powers and the goal of all its activity (Sacr. Conc. 1, 10), and belongs to the local church rather than the universal Church, and the Eucharist celebrated all over the world is the true centre of the Church. The Apostolic Tradition and spiritual forms began in local churches, in Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome and Alexandria etc, and then spread out from these places, taking different cultural and spiritual forms that reflect their histories.   This is how the Patriarchates were formed along with churches "sui juris". In the great surge of missionary endevour in the last few centuries, in Asia, Africa, South America, the same process is going on. Although there is much diversity, there is an interior harmony and coherence between the many traditions because the Mass is identical in substance if not in form.  Some traditions have become separated from one another; and we aim to discover this harmony and coherence in our ecumenical conversations.

3) Where there is the Eucharist, there is the Church.   Hence if the Eucharist can survive schism, so can the Church.  This has enormous implications which Rome has accepted in principal and it is in the process of discovering the implications.   We now speak of the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches as "sister churches", and we are coming to accept that they are the true custodians of their particular forms of Tradition.  This means that we must take very seriously their objections to our formulations of belief, because, if they are sister churches, they too have the Holy Spirit.   
That doesn't mean we simply adopt their positions, because we have our own Tradition, just as Spirit-filled as theirs because it arises from the same Apostolic preaching, is centred on the same Eucharist.    There must be much growing together, much forgiving, much enlarging of horizons, and much ecumenical discussion, and - above all - much love, even kenotic love, before we can become one heart and one mind.   The Byzantine rite exchanges the kiss of peace before the recitation of the Creed at Mass, showing the correct order of things: we must fully love one another before we will be able to heal the wounds.  Meanwhile, we have no choice but to contradict ourselves; because, every time we celebrate Mass, all celebrations in other places, even in other churches, are mystically included in ours, as ours are included in theirs, for that is the true Christian unity which is the work of the Holy Spirit.

   However, we must be true to our tradition as they have to be to theirs; and, when the dust  has settled, there still remains the petrine ministry which we Catholics say is a primary element in our traditional view of the Church.

4)   The more we know other churches, the more we see the Petrine Ministry as essential.   The more we admire other aspects of Orthodoxy, their liturgy, their spirituality etc  the more their inability to work normally as a world-wide Church is both evident and shocking, specially as they claim to be the Catholic Church.   They criticise the papacy, but they have no alternative that works.  In fact, they are the living proof of the necessity for a pope.  This is not a package deal, a "take it or leave it" acceptance that we are urging on them; the papacy will be purged and purified and brought into line with other aspects of the Church during the course of the union process, as it finds its proper place in the Eastern tradition, and it will be all the better for it.  We are already experiencing the benefit of our discussions; and we realise that primacy and collegiality belong to each other.  To have the one without the other is a distortion of the shape of the Church.

The Orthodox Churches will also be better for it: anything would be better than the chaos that reigns in the Orthodox churches at a universal level. In a year there is to be a Great Synod of Orthodox churches.   Will it take place?   Will all the churches attend?  Will Antioch sit down with Jerusalem?  If they all sit down together, will they all stay until the end?  Will Constantinople and Moscow be friends? I hope and pray that it will be a huge success and that they will be more unified.  Nevertheless, if the Church is an organism, bound together by being included in Christ through communion in the unity of the Holy Spirit, this seems a far cry from national churches that jostle for advantages like secular states.   When you read the Letter to Diognetus and then compare it with Orthodoxy with its deeply entrenched nationalism, Hellenism and pan-slavism, you may well wonder whether it is the same religion!!

in the thought of Hans urs von Balthasar

1)   In the thought of this very important theologian, extreme papalism and Protestantism commit the same error: they leave to an individual decision what belongs to Tradition to decide.   The only difference is that in papalism it is the decision of one person, while in Protestantism it is left to each individual.   If he had been around when the Anglican Church decided on woman priests and bishops, he would have said that this too is Protestantism at work, because each person voted as an individual, and the Church adopted what the some total of individuals decided.

This is in contrast to the Catholic, Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches that share in the Apostolic Tradition chiefly through the liturgy with its centre in the Eucharist.   For these churches, dogmas are not statements of truth independent of one another, to be accepted or rejected one by one.  They organically belong to one another, being like snapshots of different aspects of the Church's participation in the Christian Mystery and form a whole, together with the church's structure and the interior life of those who participate, and find their unity in the mind of Christ who is the centre of all.

When one doctrine is denied, then the whole begins to unravel until there is nothing left.  This is illustrated by the large number of liberal Catholics in the sixties who began by picking and choosing and ended up losing their faith.   The opposite is also true.  One doctrine is affirmed and, in the process of living it, more and more comes to be accepted.   Look at Taize where the original Protestant members became more and more Catholic as time went on without experiencing any break with the past but rather continuity.   Thus, at the funeral of Pope John Paul II, Brother Roger Schutz, the founder of the community and a pastor of the Swiss Reformed Church, received communion from the hands of Cardinal Ratzinger because he accepts the full Catholic faith.  Taize has experienced that Christianity is an organic whole.  In Anglicanism, you see both processes at work with individuals.   The most astonishing example of coming to a holistic grasp of Christianity is C. S. Lewis.   His Christianity was such that both Catholics and Orthodox regard him as a brother, even though he was an unrepentant Anglican.

For Balthasar, the Church is a very complex reality, and its workings can be understood in the light of those who surrounded Christ during his life.  Peter was specially commissioned by Jesus to feed his sheep, but, when he wanted to find out the meaning of Our Lord's words, he asked John to find out.  John represented discipleship and contemplative love.   He was the first to understand without seeing the resurrection and to recognise Jesus from the boat when Jesus walked on water.   Mary Magdalene was a converted sinner and one who loved Our Lord; and it was she who was sent by Jesus to announce to the Apostles his resurrection.  The Church of Christ's time was not divided into the teaching Church and the learning Church: all had to listen, all had to learn, and, according to Providence, all had the opportunity to teach, even if it was only in their family, even if it was only by example.   In this Church with its centre in every Mass and all members interdependent on each other, in this Church there is the pope.  Where does he fit in?

2)  Replacing the Petrine Principle by the Marian principle as the basic mark of true Catholicism.

The paradigm for understanding the Church is the Blessed Virgin Mary.  She discloses to us the real nature of the Church and the true nature of Christian holiness.   Moreover, as the Orthodox say, she is the hypostasis of the Church in its relationship to Jesus Christ her Son.  As Balthasar says, the whole Church is Marian.   "Is the Pope a Catholic?" I hear people ask.  "Yes." comes the reply, "But only if he is Marian."

Here is a passage on Balthasar's teaching:
According to von Balthasar, Mary's bridal "yes" of bodily faith, which continues on in the Church as fruitful virginity, not only has implications for the Church, indeed, it is the Marian fiat that defines the Church. The fiat and redemption are so interwoven, so inseparably one, that the creature cannot say "yes" to God without being redeemed, but neither can the creature be redeemed without having somehow spoken his or her "yes." Mary's single "yes," her personal fiat in its unlimited availability to God's plan, sufficed for the incarnate Lord to say "yes" to all his creatures, and has become "by grace, the bridal womb, matrix, and mater" in and through which each creature can say "yes" to God, and by which "he also forms the truly universal Church." [14] Mary's fiat, therefore, like the fiat voluntas tua of the Lord, is vicarious; it is catholic: embracing the all of God's love for all of God's people; and it is archetypal. [15] Grounded in Mary's archetypal fiat the bridal Church, like Mary, conceives, bears and gives birth to Christ.

To understand that, we must go to St Luke's Gospel and the scene of the Annunciation.  Gabriel appears to this girl, Mary, and announces to her that she is going to be the Mother of the Messiah, something she cannot do on her own because she "knows not man." A little later, she learns that it is even more impossible because her Son is going to be "Son of the Most High."  The angel tells her that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and the shadow of the Most High will cover her with his shadow.   She replies, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord!  May it be done to me according to your word."  This is a long way of saying, "Amen."

It takes two to tango in step; and to bring about the Incarnation, it takes two to work in synergy, the Holy Spirit who enables, and Mary to humbly obey. Without the Holy Spirit, no Incarnation because no divine power; without Mary, again, no Incarnation because no human cooperation.   Mary lived a life of obedience to God, keeping these things in her heart, and she was present at the Crucifixion.

The first thing is that Mary listens to what the Spirit says to her.   The most basic reality is that the Catholic Church is a listening Church, because the Holy Spirit can speak in any way he likes.  Mary's function, according to Balthasar, is basically a lay vocation in that it is to humbly receive Jesus and to listen and observe and to respond accordingly.  Archbishop Anthony Bloom once called himself "a layman in bishop's orders."  At the depth of every vocation, from pope, to bishop, to priest, to sister, to Catholic vagabond, to the very least child, there is the lay vocation to receive Jesus in humble obedience.

It is possible for a Protestant who knows nothing of the Virgin to drink of the essence of Catholicism by receiving Christ into his heart as she did.  If he does so, she is his Mother and he is her Son within the context of that organism of grace which is the Catholic Church, even if he remains, through no fault of his own, outside the Church that makes the organism visible.

We have seen that there are churches that are of orthodox faith, that fully function, that have the fullness of the Church that is the Mass, yet, through no fault of their own, are out of communion with Rome.  Indeed, many point the finger and say it is largely Rome's fault.  However, "where there is the Mass, there is the Church," and, for that reason, we cannot make Rome the be all and end all of Catholicism.   Instead, Hans urs von Balthazar puts the "Marian principle" at the centre.

   What about Rome?   Do we ditch Rome and start again?   If we did, reunion could happen tomorrow!!   But Orthodoxy would still be unable to work as a world-wide entity and might export its paralysis to other churches, and Christianity would be a hell-of-a-lot poorer.   Besides, we must be true to our own Tradition as Latins!!


Like Pope Benedict - after all, they belong to the same school of theology- Hans urs von Balthasar refuses to dumb down the papacy.   
As shepherd who has to pasture the whole flock, he has a right to claim authority (in doctrine and leadership) and to demand unity. This prerogative is his alone. But it does not isolate him from the others who have founding missions and who, in their own way, have no less a continuing life and representation in the Church.(p.158)

Having said that, Balthasar stresses that this can only work if the Pope accepts and listens to other elements of the Church which may  seem less important than his office but which are, in fact, just as important.  The papacy was never meant to work in isolation from the other movements of grace in the Church.   

Once again, the all-embracing Marian presence in the Christian life urges all to listen to what God wants to say in whatever way he wants to say it. Looking at the New Testament which produces theologies as diverse as the synoptics and St John, which shows such diverse characters as James, the first bishop of Jerusalem, and St Paul, which give us St Peter in such a dominant position and the Twelve representing collegiality, with the women like Mary and Martha, we cannot be sure from where will come God's word; but all of us, like the Blessed Virgin, are committed to accept God's Word from wherever it comes.  It is simple to choose worldly answers like dividing the Church into "conservatives" and "progressives", borrowed from secular politics, but God can speak through any of them, on either side of any barrier that the newspapers may invent.   All are Catholics.  The key to all this is humility that makes charity possible.  Hans urs von Balthasar, by concentrating our minds on basics and relativising our particular hobbies, deserved his Cardinal's hat.

This isn't a finished theology, a theology that claims to know all the answers.  It is just an attempt to break the surface; and I am sure that many more questions will arise in the years to come, and there will be better answers than mine.  However, those Orthodox theologians who attack us with yesterday's arguments will probably be left behind, as will Catholics whose theology comes from the newspapers.

by Aidan Nichols O.P.
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