Wednesday, January 14, 2009

And now, ecclesiology ...

Another question and answer - probably not as profound (or important) as the one on Christology, but I thought it worth sharing anyway. Again - if you have something to add/contribute/correct please do.

The Question

I am writing an essasy on the Church: 'Compare and contrast the three

images of the church - People of God, Body of Christ, Bride of Christ'.

I have decided to look at comparing on themes, the ones which I have notes on are:





I understand and can find quotes for the images based on the themes of community and unity, however am slightly confused on the theme of spiritual and mutuality. Can you help?

The Reply
Fundamentally our understanding of the Church has two dimensions, if I can put it this way. Let's call it the horizontal and the vertical.

Now by horizontal I mean the aspects of the Church as a human community, an organisation in some ways like any other. In this respect we may emphasize its diversity and its community - a fellowship of many different people from very different backgrounds, languages, cultures, throughout the centuries etc.

And by vertical, I mean the spiritual dimension of the Church - a body created by God, chosen by him, which is governed by a hierarchy given to us by Christ. This may emphasize the unity of the Church.

Now to emphasize one of these aspects more than the other can lead to a distorted ecclesiology (understanding of the Church) - for example, if we over-emphasise the first, we are in danger of seeing the Church as a rainbow people and one happy family but lose sight of the sacraments, the priesthood, and idea of holiness; whereas if we emphasize the latter, we are in danger of making the Church seem dour, authoritarian and monochrome, united, but inflexible.

Now the three images you were asked to consider can perhaps be compared by using my vertical-horizontal key.

People of God - seems mainly horizontal - diversity, community.
Body of Christ - seems mainly vertical - unity, holiness.
Bride of Christ - based around a personal relationship (h) but also fixed on Christ (v)

Now beware. These ideas are quite simplistic. People of God is just that - of God (v), and Body of Christ is a body, which as St Paul says, has many parts (h). None of these images is 'wrong', but perhaps we need a number of different images in order to have a rounded understanding of the Church.

Now then - to your question.

You mention


Without my notes in front of me I'm not sure exactly where these come from, but I would say that community and mutuality are very closely related (h) and that spirituality and unity are linked more to the Body of Christ image (v).

I think perhaps you have notes on mutuality because that relates especially to the Bride of Christ, which could be seen as a compromise, or better 'qualifying' image. The idea of betrothal/marriage introduces the distinction between Christ and the Church, while relying on a close personal relationship. It suggests intimacy yet also allows for a distinction (and, given the historical context, the precedcence of the Groom). So, the Church is not the same as Christ, but enters into his life. In this way the image may be said to have advantages over both the idea of People and Body. However, it needs to be said that the documents of the Church (namely Lumen Gentium and the Catechism) give much more space to the other two images.

Have fun!
God bless,

Fr Peter

The Double Agony in Man ...

Occasionally a student who I am supervising for one course or another (through Maryvale Institute) asks a question which it seems worth sharing on this blog. I've had a go at answering - if any reader wants to qualify or improve on my response just leave a comment!

The Question:

Dear Fr Peter,
I was reading an Alpha booklet about Jesus and came
across the following. 'The NT makes it clear that there was something
worse for Jesus than the physical and emotional pain; this was the
spiritual anguish of being separated from God as he carried all our
If you have a moment could you enlighten me about this. Did
Jesus have to be parted from God to carry our sins on the cross? I am

My reply:

The first thing I'd say is that one has to have a little caution with Alpha Course materials, from a Catholic viewpoint. They are fairly solid protestant-evangelical materials, and mainly very sound, but do approach things differently than a Catholic would.

To look at this assertion I take as my starting point the Church's teaching about the person of Christ. The relevant sections of the Catechism on this question are 603, 612, 624, 627. Have a look at them and the passages around them. You will see a concern to emphasise
(1) the reality of Christ's death, (2) the unity of human and divine in
Christ. Jesus is true God and true Man, complete in both his humanity and his divinity.
This teaching is derived not only from a reading of scripture but
also from centuries of reflection and indeed debate in the Church.

So, Jesus' suffering on the cross could not be any less than that of any other human being. He had to fully share our suffering. Soul and Body are one in every human, so in his humanity this suffering must be both physical and spiritual: he knows the anguish not only of physical pain, but also the sense of abandonment: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" he says. This belief is very important on the basis of the principle from the early Church fathers that 'what he did not assume he cannot redeem', so Jesus in his humanity must suffer spiritually in order to redeem us both in body and soul. Cardinal Newman, I think, alludes to this 'double suffering' in the hymn Praise to the Holiest in the Height in the verse which includes the words 'the double agony for man in man should undergo' (this verse is often omitted from modern hymn books).

Now while I think the quotation from the Alpha materials is referring to this orthodox belief, its expression seems rather unorthodox. We cannot talk of Jesus being 'separated' or 'parted' from God if we have an orthodox Christology. If by that we mean that Jesus experienced in his humanity the fullness of spiritual suffering and the reality of death, then perhaps ... but we are in danger of implying that in some way the incarnation became 'unstitched' for a couple of days, which would be quite unorthodox - the point is rather that God in Christ reconciled the world to himself by embracing death - not running away at the last minute.

Actually, I don't think the writer (Nicky Gumbel?) is suggesting that the incarnation briefly 'comes apart', but rather he is assuming that Jesus is somehow able to become separated from God (because he is not the same as God?). The quotation seems to make a distinction between Jesus and God that we often hear in young children's prayers. Jesus was (presumably) united to God - like every good Christian - and then he is separated from him in order to save us. This kind of language is - hopefully unintentionally - quite Arian - it suggests that Jesus is some kind of 'demi-God', who is 'united' to God, but who becomes separated from God in order to 'carry our sins'. This is not at all orthodox Christian belief, neither Catholic nor Protestant.

[I might also add that I am not quite comfortable with the distinction which also seems to be drawn between 'emotional pain' and 'spiritual anguish' - it suggests something like a dualism in the understanding of the human person: just what precisely is the difference between the two?]

I hope this sheds some light on the matter.

God bless,

Fr Peter

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Do animals pray?

Could this be the proof?

(Source: Times Online - image 6 Siberian tigers perform for visitors during a New Year’s Day
celebration at a zoo in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, China)