In the discussion on the “strategies” for the priest shortage and future of Catholicism in Australia, I was just wondering today whether there wasn’t something more fundamental going on than just how we are going about our mission here in Australia.
As usual, if I have some question going in my head, anything I read will make me ask “Is that pertinent to my inquiry?” So today, I was reading (in preparation for my class in 3/4 of an hour) a section on the Reformed Churches in the book “The Christian Church: An Introduction to the Major Traditions” edited by Paul Avis.
The writer of this chapter, David Fergusson (a Scot, maybe?) commented on Calvin’s (and by implication, Luther’s) ecclesiology:
The sovereignty of God is such that persons outwith the institutional church may nonetheless be redeemed, although God for the most part has chosen to mediate the divien decree by the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. …Calvin argues that salvation comes only through the Christ who is present in Word and sacrament… The emphatic insistence that ‘there is no other way’ illustrates the necessity and importance of the church in Calvin’s theology. Yet the dependence of the church upon the Word of God is revealed by the way in which Calvin exalts the preaching of true doctrine… The visible church, though everywhere mixed and impure, is identified by the preaching and hearing of the Word ad the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution…
…In stressing this christological constitution of teh Church, Calvin argues for the indivisibility of Word and Spirit. Christ is known to us through the Word of God, and it is to this Word that he directs us. This linkage of the second and third articles is crucial in his polemics against both anabaptist and Roman Catholic opponents. He charges each side with abstracting the Spirit from the Word…
Calvin’s strict warnings against unnecessary separation [of congregations from one another because of doctrine] may have been designed to counteract the centrifugal tendencies of the Reformation churches. Its fragmentation and repeated subdivisions were weaknesses by contrast with the more unitary nature of the Roman Catholic Church.
Now, my reason for quoting those sentences is that the Catholic Church also sees the essence of the Church’s existence to be the Word and Sacraments, but places the emphasis directly opposite to the Calvinist. The Calvinist exalts the Word of God as constitutive of the Church, with sacraments as a kind of “add-on”, whereas the Catholic Church (and the Orthodox Churches) see the Eucharist as foundational (“source and summit”) for the life of the Church (and hence the other sacraments as well). As the author notes, by the very nature of the two different emphases, the one tends toward heirarchical unity and the other toward congregational fragmentation.
Be that as it may, I wonder if one of the fundamental reasons for the current situation in the life of the Australian Catholic community is that we have emphasised our Sacramental unity and belonging at the expense of a deep communion in the Word of God? The current Holy Father has certainly done all he can to indicate that he believes it is necessary for the good of the universal Church that we find new ways into a living relationship with the Word. I wonder if in fact a renewed emphasis on the Word as the “fount and source” of the Spirit in the life of the Church would not go astray? Indeed, is not a strong proclamation and deep familiarity with the Word of God necessary for Evangelisation? For Catechisation? For Conversion? Is this not precisely what paragraph 1072 of the Catechism means when it speaks of the necessary preparation for involvement in the Eucharistic liturgy and sacramental life of the Church?
If so, then the “strategy” for facing the priest shortage and the future life of the Catholic Church in Australia (and elsewhere) is a renewed emphasis on the Word of God in the life of the Church (which was in fact the subject of the 2008 Synod of Bishops). Do we need our priests, teachers and families to be more deeply formed as “people of the Word”, both as teachers and spiritual leaders? So, if you are drawing up your “strategy” for the Church, give some thought to the question of where the Word of God fits in your plans!