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September 9, 2004 Edition

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Catholic = Jesus + me?  Not exactly

photo of George Weigel
The Catholic 

George Weigel 

The recent debate over the ecclesiastical status of pro-abortion Catholic politicians has sharpened several issues in U.S. Catholic life.

Among them are the utility (or lack thereof) of "seamless garment" approaches to public policy questions; the roles of moral conviction and prudential judgment in legislating and voting; and the bishops' responsibilities for the integrity of the sacraments.

The list could be expanded further and much of it would be familiar; many of these issues have been debated before.

What has been surprising is the dramatic confusion in some Catholics' minds about the Church and its place in a Catholic's life.

Church as mother

That the Church is central to Catholic faith has been a settled question for the better part of two millennia. One of the early Church's premier theologians, the great North African martyr-bishop, Cyprian, put it this way in the mid-third century: "You cannot have God for your father unless you have the Church for your mother."

By the same token, a Catholic cannot have Jesus as savior and brother unless he or she has the Church as mother.

Integral part of faith

The Church is neither incidental nor peripheral to Catholic faith. The Church is an integral part.

To deny that is to confess oneself confused, at the very least, about the creed. We do not profess "one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church" every Sunday as a matter of taste, tribal allegiance, or sociological self-definition. We "believe in" one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church as an integral part of our confession of faith in God and in Christ. That's the true "seamless garment."

And that's why many commentators on the Second Vatican Council have stressed the idea of "communion" as a defining characteristic of the Church. In prayer, in reading the Word of God, in our reception of Christ's Body and Blood in Holy Communion, in our service to those people who are "Jesus in a disturbing disguise" (as Blessed Mother Teresa put it), our personal "communion" with the Lord is mediated through that communio, which is the Church.

It's not a question of "Jesus and me" over here, and the Church over there. Because Christ is the head of the body, the Church, our relationship to the Lord and our relationship to Church go together.

Thus when Rhode Island Congressman Jim Langevin says, of the recent debate over Catholic politicians and their position in the Church, "I'm very comfortable with my status, and quite frankly, my relationship with God is direct and personal and the Church is merely a guest in that relationship," he sounds like an untutored Baptist, not a Catholic.

No Catholic who understands the symphonic nature of the truth of Catholic faith can say that the Church is "merely a guest" in his or her relationship with God. If the Church - the body - is "merely a guest," then what is Christ, the head of the body? Another guest?

Revisit document

Langevin's confusions about Christ-and-the-Church-and-me are probably shared by many of his fellow-Catholics. Notions of individualism are woven into the fabric of American culture. So it's perhaps not surprising when Catholics in the United States say, in effect, "My faith is a matter of my personal relationship to Christ."

Forty years ago this fall, the Second Vatican Council was finishing work on its central document: the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. Four decades later, it's time for every adult Catholic in the U.S. to revisit that great text, ponder its challenge to individualistic distortions of the faith, and make its teaching our own.

George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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