The Spring, 1962 issue of Cross Currents contains an article by the Dominican theologian Yves Congar that is of more than historical interest. Pére Congar attempted to answer the question, “What do you see in the Council for the future of the Church; the reunion of the Christian churches; the progress of the Faith in the world?” The Council, of course, had then not yet begun. But we are still asking this question a generation after the Council ended. Pére Congar would eventually become Cardinal Congar; he died in 1995.Pére Congar begins by lamenting the distance between the Church and the world that existed before the Council. “And what churchman has met, even once, a real atheist? Has he ever left his world of certitudes? Has he ever gone into waters over his head? And isn’t it true that a certain screen of convention and respectability has separated him from the genuine reactions of man?” The Church must not be of the world, but it truly must be in the world. Otherwise, as we shall see, the consequences will be destructive for both a Church of ritualized isolation and a world left to unbelief.
For, regarding the question posed to him, Pére Congar first affirms a conclusion that he had reached in the 1930’s: the belief or unbelief of the world depends upon the face that the Church shows to the world. Congar explains, “Historically, the divisions among Christians, the fiercely cruel wars, carried out in the name of dogmatic differences, are largely responsibile for the genesis of modern unbelief (Herbert of Cherbury, Spinoza, the Philosophes of the eighteenth century). Concretely, the division among Christians is a scandal for the world. The world is exonerated, to a degree, from the duty to believe.” The presence of unbelief is a call for Church renewal, particularly ecumenical activity. “May they be one,” Jesus prayed, “so that the world may believe.”
So, quod tempus requirit (what the time demands), to take St Bernard’s phrase, is a new sense of ecclesial identity in response to this call. Because the Church exists in the world and for the world, the future of the Church itself is entangled with non-Catholic Christians, non-Christians, unbelievers: “I believe that the future of the Church insofar as it is to be realized in history depends also on the fact that besides herself there are our separated brothers, and that directly confronting her is the world which is indifferent, hostile, or at least protesting and disturbing.” The Church – because what is true of Jesus is true of the Church, Qui propter nos, homines, et propter nostram salutem, descendit (who, for us and for our salvation, descended) – must increasingly be drawn to proclamation and dialogue, ecumenism, and an attentiveness to appeals and questions from without.
Pére Congar gives us two points for theological meditation, as we consider the relationship of the Church and the world. They seem worthy of our prayerful consideration forty years later:
1. Concerning the catholicity of the Church: I would point out that she must join in herself a source from above – the fullness of Christ – and a source from below: the fullness of creation, not as sluggish and stagnant, but alive, active in research, full of questions, in labor to “increase and multiply.” The idea of “fullness” which St Paul proposes in his Epistle to the Ephesians is then capable of two meanings: Christ completes, and is Himself completed (cf. I, 23). The Church, then, makes the connection between Christ and the world. This point is, in my opinion, decisive. It marks a fundamental division between integralists and others, the former wanting everything in the Church to be determined from above. If only this “from above” were from Jesus Christ! But it is all too often a question of human representatives who do not have the same guarantees of universal fullness, or of “traditions” going back sometimes a few decades, sometimes to a past that is dead and gone.
2. Concerning the temporality of the Church, that is to say, her full earthly and militant character, her complete and true humanity, proceeding from the humanity of Jesus Christ, whose divine dignity it does not, incidentally, possess. What must be sought is genuine growth along the paths of history, which are those of opposition and strife, not just a harmonious development, ideally preserved by a purely internal flowering. Didn’t St Paul go so far as to write, “Opportet haereses esse?” It is necessary that there be the rending of divisions.
Pére Congar would go on to suggest an ecumenism without the betrayal of dogma, evangelization efforts towards Marxism and the materialism of the free world, and more attempts to investigate and honor the concerns of the developing world, as in John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra. But, first of all, he suggests once more that the Church must be present in this world, must “energetically seek for modes of existence … so that she may be seen as clearly as possible and to the highest degree as a sign of the Gospel.” I’ll let the last words be Congar’s. Here is just one way that the Church may be such a sign – in, I think, 2006 as well as 1962:
On an internal and profound level, that is, of doctrine and the Christian message itself, it is necessary, without giving up anything of the deposit of Faith developed by centuries of Christian life, to present a simple formulation of doctrine, centered on what is essential. In my opinion, the essential point to remember is that biblical and evangelical affirmation, simple and at the same time very rich, concerning what is the true religious relationship, that of man made in the image of God with the living God himself. In this revelation, there is never an affirmation about God which does not concern man, which does not call him into question, illuminate his situation, and call for a response from man to God, at the same time as God’s gift of grace to sinful man. A contemporary Jewish author has written these words, which have profound meaning for those who understand them: “The Bible is not a theology for man; it is an anthropology for God.” I think that it would be better to say that it is both, but never one without the other. One should never separate anthropology and theo-logy, not in order to humanize the latter, but to make it, in the thread of our lives, in both large and small events, a living echo of the Word which God has communicated to us of Himself, so that we might live by it. For the God of revelation and of salvation is never more Himself than when He is so for man, in the thread of his human life. In my opinion this is the most important and urgent point of Christian preaching. The most damaging ambiguities and confusions come about when it is badly neglected.