Saturday, March 27, 2010

Meeting Our Membership Goals

You may be a construction worker working on a home,
You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome,
You might own guns and you might even own tanks,
You might be somebody’s landlord, you might even own banks

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
- Bob Dylan
When Anthony Card. Bevilacqua, Archbishop Emeritus of Philadelphia, retired, he took up residence at Saint Charles Seminary. It was not uncommon for seminarians to meet him walking the halls. Looking with consideration at them from beneath his bushy eyebrows, he would sometimes ask, "Are you one of mine?" - by which he presumably meant to find out whether it was a seminarian who had been accepted to Philadelphia during his term as Archbishop.

The amusing question became a popular joke among the seminarians, but few ever stopped to consider the rather profound ecclesiastical implications behind its unconventional wording. The Shepherd had a sense of real possession over the members of his flock and his phrasing evinced this theological posture.

The mystery of membership in Christ's Body is one which provides for copious reflection. Indeed, the concept of personal identity is radically different for the Christian than for any other kind of person: the defining question in Baptism changes from "who we are", as the individual dies in the sacred waters and is claimed for Christ through the power of resurrection, and thenceforth the matter becomes a question of "whose we are" - we belong to Christ, living as members of His Mystical Body, the Church.

Our understanding of the social order ought to be framed by the theological import of this ultimate relation. The simple dialectic between the radical individualism of Western liberalism, on the one hand, and the depersonalizing solution into an absolute Social State, on the other, fails adequately to cope with this ontological transformation brought about by the Incarnation.

Even in the Christian tradition, the popular interpretation of the social Gospel has been insufficient in this regard. I'm thinking particularly of the work of Prof. Michael Novak, who sees something analogous between the ideal of the American market economy and the mystery of the Mystical Body.

The problem seems essentially to be that Paul's discourse on the Body in 1 Corinthians 12 lends itself to an organismic interpretation. Although this idea is by no means explicit in the Apostle's words, one can easily see how someone might begin to understand "membership" in the social order as a functional reality, with the different parts performing their specific roles as members or organelles of an organic whole. Yet, it is important to realize that the Body of which Paul speaks is a unique kind of Body. It is not merely metaphorical, true; but our understanding is problematic when the interpretive hermeneutic begins from the biological reality of the human body as we know it, and proceeds thereby toward an understanding of Paul's teaching. Rather, Paul's teaching is to be itself an interpretive key to other aspects of the Revelation in Christ, and vice versa. Taken in such a way, the guidelines for understanding the symbol become more cogent.

Number six of Lumen Gentium contains a taxonomy of metaphors from Revelation with the Body of Christ as foremost, but all of which are contingent for a full understanding of ecclesiology (and, by extension, these formulae condition our interpretation of the Church's evangelical mission with regard to the social order). The Church is a sheepfold with Christ as the one door; She is a flock to whom He is the Good Shepherd; She is a fecund land, a vineyard, "the tillage of God"; She is the building of God with Christ as cornerstone; She is "mother" and the "spotless Bride of the Lamb"; and She is finally the Body of which Christ is head. The document then goes on to speak extensively of the Church as the holy People of God, "a nation of Kings and Priests," with Christ himself as the High Priest.

The vision imparted by this rich tapestry of symbolism is not easy to summarize, but the major outline might be said to be one of distinction within unity. The individual is not annihilated by the role of service, but rather fully realized and actualized by the very "belonging" - again, the question is best put in terms of "whose" we are: into whose flock we have been cordoned, onto which building we have been built... and so on. However, the question is certainly not one of function. The gifts and charisms which are committed to the individual parts are secondary to the primary identification established by the ordering of the whole to its end. These aspects do not define the members in themselves, but are ordered to the service of the same ontological reality to which the members are ordered as persons, namely Christ. Put another way, all individual services and ministries, vocations and callings, are contained within the basic Baptismal call to holiness and relationship with Christ.

Now, the Church's proclamation of the Kingdom of God contains as an essential element the building up of a more just social order. And since this mission of the Social Gospel is nothing more than the extension of Christ into the world, it follows that the same kind of formal structure applies to that message as the one we've seen defining our ecclesiological ordering.

In a forthcoming post, I will speak about the shortcomings of a too-functional view of social justice. I will try to demonstrate that the same dual integrity of distinction and unity must apply to the social order as applies to the Body of Christ as a sacramental reality. Only in this way is the ordering of society truly analogous to the Mystical Body. It is not something brought into being by diversity of function and roles, but rather something primary to which any diversity of function and roles is contingently ordered. Finally, I will try to show that personal realization - what in the order of the Church is the "calling by name" of each sheep in the flock, the Baptismal claiming of each particular member for unique relation to the end - is just as crucial in the ordering of a just society, which is sadly lacking in our current arrangements which relegate economic players to the position of functional technicians rather than fully thematic persons.

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