The Church as Sacrament of Hope?

(This is Neil)

Some of the last words of Gaudium et Spes– the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World – read:

By thus giving witness to the truth, we will share with others the mystery of the heavenly Father’s love. As a consequence, men throughout the world will be aroused to a lively hope—the gift of the Holy Spirit—that some day at last they will be caught up in peace and utter happiness in that fatherland radiant with the glory of the Lord.

If it seems like the Roman Catholic Church – perhaps just in some contexts – is failing to foster that “lively hope,” we really should ask why. Put more constructively, how can the church be a sign, even a sacrament, of hope?

As I mentioned in my last post, the current issue of Theological Studies has a few articles about hope. Another one of them is written by the Australian priest Richard Lennan. Among other things, Lennan lists four elements that must be present if the church and hope are to be related. They are mostly taken from the Dominican theologian Louis-Marie Chauvet. These four elements are, in my opinion, rarely held together in most Catholic discourse.

First, Fr Lennan says that we must recognize the church as the “only guaranteed means of access to Jesus as crucified as risen.” This seems mostly argued as necessary to prevent a search for a direct “Gnostic line” to Jesus Christ, or to preempt reliance upon a mere memory of Christ – the seeking after a “corpse,” in Chauvet’s words. Through accepting the church, we hand ourselves “over to what is not the product of one’s own initiative.”

This element is an expression of hope, because the recognition of the church expresses hope that Christ is still alive – an “undreamed of possibility of love” in the words of Juan Luis Segundo – and can be encountered in word and sacrament.

(It probably should have been mentioned here that there is no reason at all to use “church” in an unnecessarily narrow sense. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clarified, “It is possible, according to Catholic doctrine, to affirm correctly that the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial Communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them.” See my post here.)

Second, we must recognize that the church has an institutional dimension. This is a rather unlikely expression of hope. To be sure, institutions can be effective. But they can also clearly be self-destructive. By accepting the institutional church, we hope that we can retain institutional tools – including bishops as “bearers of tradition” – without becoming the sort of institution that insulates itself from self-criticism, dialogue or cooperation.

Third, for the church to be a sacrament of hope, it has to avoid “necrotic” temptations. These all involve “claiming ownership of the grace proper to sacramental encounters.” We sense this sort of temptation when doctrine is used as an instrument of managerial control, or liturgy becomes magic – a “way to achieve an effect we desire without having to face the consequences for our inner life of a genuine encounter with God.” We also see this in works-righteousness, when grace is supposed to function mechanistically. A “necrotic” church cannot be open to conversion – there is nothing more than what it already has and carefully guards.

I suspect that part of this would have to involve a renewed, and inevitably ecumenical, commitment to the doctrine of justification.

Fourth, for the church to be a sacrament of hope, it has to remember that it is a sacrament – a sign. The church cannot confuse itself with the Kingdom of God and just focus on defining its sacred boundaries against non-Church, while strategically expanding its blessed ecclesial territory. Instead, the church must “radicalize the vacancy of the place of God.” It shouldn’t attempt to fill this vacancy.

The church actually becomes itself by being willing to recognize the presence of God in other ecclesial communities and religions and forms of belief, because that shows awareness that it neither controls nor exhausts the Holy Spirit. And what is the church but a sacrament of the union between God and not merely Catholics or even Christians but “the unity of the whole human race?” (Lumen Gentium 1). Establishing “Catholic identity” is a paradoxical endeavor, because it is an act of dispossession. The church is most itself as a sacrament of hope for the “whole human race,” when it is least anxious about its own sufficiency.

In your view, then, how can the Catholic Church foster hope among people “throughout the whole world?” Or is this simply impossible?

(Regarding our four elements, it strikes me that most writers emphasize either the first two or the last two.)

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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