Evangelii Nuntiandi 62: Churches, Universal and Individual

The relationship between universal and the individual Church can be a marvelously productive and fruitful one. Or it can be derailed by tension and suspicion. At any rate, I found this section to be rather rich and full of potential discussion points.

First, we are reminded that the universal Church is “incarnate” in the local Church. What does that mean? Is it wishful thinking on the part of Rome and the pope? Incarnate suggests a tangible, physical, “embodied” reality. The document also speaks of things not as “embodied,” like culture, vision, history. How would you say the universal is found tangible in the local?

62. Nevertheless this universal Church is in practice incarnate in the individual Churches made up of such or such an actual part of mankind, speaking such and such a language, heirs of a cultural patrimony, of a vision of the world, of an historical past, of a particular human substratum. Receptivity to the wealth of the individual Church corresponds to a special sensitivity of modern man.

This next paragraph is careful to suggest that the Church does not consist of the sum of parts:

Let us be very careful not to conceive of the universal Church as the sum, or, if one can say so, the more or less anomalous federation of essentially different individual Churches. In the mind of the Lord the Church is universal by vocation and mission, but when she puts down her roots in a variety of cultural, social and human terrains, she takes on different external expressions and appearances in each part of the world.

And it can be difficult not to see the Catholic Church as Rome plus Marquette plus Manila plus Melbourne plus Manchester plus … . Pope Paul alludes to the cultural and spiritual variety that one finds as one travels among other believers from place to place. Over the past fifty years, perhaps the Catholic laity experience this in a way our forebears never did. Do we Catholics have a stronger sense of a universality because of the access to travel? Or perhaps we come home more satisfied (self-satisfied?) than before.?

Thus each individual Church that would voluntarily cut itself off from the universal Church would lose its relationship to God’s plan and would be impoverished in its ecclesial dimension. But, at the same time, a Church toto orbe diffusa would become an abstraction if she did not take body and life precisely through the individual Churches. Only continual attention to these two poles of the Church will enable us to perceive the richness of this relationship between the universal Church and the individual Churches.

Two poles, not in tension we hope, but in a complementariness. That Church, wholly “diffused” through the world, is that what some of us expect? Pope Paul seems to be saying that the particular distinctiveness of a local Church is just as important as that universal dimension. I’d say that the best expression of the Church balances between a hierarchical institution putting its mark everywhere, and the congregational aspect that so easily can be adrift and straying from a greater whole.

This would be one aspect of the Body in which hewing to a middle gray does us better than a clear leaning to either the worldwide or the local expression. Find that right middle ground, that right mix of both “poles,” places us in the center where we ideally find Christ and place ourselves in a universal, catholic Body much broader and more glorious than our particular concerns. How to achieve that balance? We spend a lot of time fussing about it, don’t we?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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