Louis Bouyer’s Ecclesiology of Service and the “Credibility” of the Church: An Advent Meditation.

December 2, 2021
Communio Theology
In the light of twenty centuries of Christian life and ecclesiology … one point seems obvious, and is, in fact, found beneath most reform suggestions of Vatican II: what most encumbers the evolution of the Catholic Church is a deformation of pastoral authority.  Especially over the last centuries, pastoral authority has tended to be isolated from both the preaching of the faith and the celebration of the mysteries.  It is not that these two elements disappeared from the Catholic Church, but to too great an extent, instead of acting in symbiosis with them, the exercise of authority has tended to be its own end, causing the proclamation of evangelical truth and the liturgical life to suffer harmful distortion, and has altered itself at the same time. Hence a threat of strangulation for Catholic charity, which ought to be, and cannot cease being, the soul of the Church, the common life in the Holy Spirit. Instead of being subordinate to the truth to be proclaimed to the world, as the service, the “ministry of truth” about the life of Christ in its mystery, communicated by the sacraments and unfolding in common and mutual love, authority having made itself its own goal, has oppressed this common life by exaggerated justification of itself, thereby reducing (or at least threatening to reduce) the sacramental liturgy to an ornament of its power.
Louis Bouyer
“The Church of God”
(Franciscan Herald Press, 1982, p. 504)

In my last blog post I very briefly addressed the question of whether or not the Church has been in deep error on the topic of salvation outside of the Church.  And I think that is a worthwhile conversation to have.  After all, what could be more important than proving that the Church has not erred in such an important matter as salvation? Indeed, what is at stake in that discussion is whether or not the Church, as she claims, is a reliable medium for God’s Revelation in Christ. What is at stake is Christ’s promise to his apostles that he would send the Holy Spirit to his Church and lead it into “all truth.” And if it can be shown that the Church has committed serious doctrinal errors either in the past or in the present then we are in some deep Kim Chi brothers and sisters since one of the Church’s central claims for itself – – indefectibility – –  will have been rendered null and void.  

And there are, apparently, any number of dissatisfied Catholics who happily embrace such a nullification because it opens the door for them to ride their own theological hobby horses straight into the heart of the Church.  “Progressive” Catholics joyously proclaim: “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum! The pre-Vatican II Church was in error on many central points!”  They then use this kerygma of errors formerly and formally taught in order to endorse the idea that the modern Church is (finally!) trending toward the curve of justice and history. Which is just a fancy way of saying that the Church needs to get on board the freight train of modernity and to ride those rails to Fukuyama’s neighborhood block party.  It is a silly and self-defeating idea – – self-defeating since it is essentially endorsing the idea that the Church is a farce and a redundancy – – and no serious Catholic with half a brain believes in such trendy, faux Bohemian, dreck.  The radical traditionalists, on the other hand, at least feign sadness over their new-found discovery that the post-Vatican II magisterium of the Church is capable of formally teaching all kinds of wicked errors, but they quickly parlay that sadness into a new narrative of apocalyptic apostasy in high places, which seems to assuage their fears about a nullified Church since it is only the modern “false Church” that is teaching errors. It is the false Vatican II Church that has seriously erred and we just need to reject these modern errors, root and branch, and return to the serene and calm waters of the grand Tradition, wherein alone was universal agreement on everything.  If we can just wedge into our proclamations a lot more Hell cowbell, a lot more Catholic triumphalism, exclusivism, and eternal damnation for non-Catholics, a lot more talk of how religious freedom is a horrid thing, and a lot more Latin, the dragon of the false Church will be sacrificed on the altar of traditionalism, Archbishop Vigano will be made Pope, and the sun will rise again, like the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli who, appeased by human sacrifice, rose again over the blood-drenched plains below.  

And for all of the reasons I stated in my last post, I categorically reject both of these approaches and argue, along with Pope Benedict, for a hermeneutic of reform.  A hermeneutic that sees both rupture and continuity in all true doctrinal development.  It is a hermeneutic that affirms that sometimes a rupture with some elements of the Tradition is needed precisely in order to retrieve deeper elements of the Tradition that had been eclipsed.  Furthermore, that “rupture” must sometimes include the Church admitting that it has promoted error on the peripheries of a doctrine either through a one-sided focus on only one aspect of a truth, and/or through the errors associated with omissions rooted in the limitations of the times.  The Church is no good at admitting such errors since it fears that it undermines its claims to indefectibility. Which, of course, it does not if one understands indefectibility as the negative charism that it is, but at the very least such admissions of past mistakes would be a refreshing burst of honesty in a Church that sometimes struggles mightily with that virtue.  But enough of all of that.  Like Penny Wharvey-McGill (Holly Hunter) in “O Brother Where Art Thou,” puts it:  “I have said my peace and counted to three.”

I want to put that conversation to bed and leave it happily in the rear view mirror because quite frankly I often find such discussions about the Church’s indefectibility to be pointless superficial deflections which often contribute to a false ideological narrative of an ecclesiology of power.  Because Christ did not promise his Church that its leaders would be holy men and he did not promise his Church that its leaders would not be evil men with a jeweler’s eye for self-aggrandizement.  Thus, Christ did not promise that the teaching authority of the Church, though remaining technically within the safe boundaries of “doctrinal truth” would not divorce those truths from the lived life of Divine charity in the Church thereby rendering its doctrinal authority a kind of end in itself in the form of an ideological superstructure to which it then demands obedient allegiance.  Christ did not promise that the life of Divine charity, which should flow through the Church as its lifeblood bringing spiritual oxygen to all of the Church’s organs, would not be strangled into a hypoxic stupor by its leaders, which in many ways it has.

This Church and her “magisterial bureaucracy” has trended for centuries in the direction of a juridical skeletal structure (necessary in its own way ) which is increasingly detached from the flesh it is meant to support. And insofar as this is true, then also and just so far, the Church’s magisterium, though technically “not in error,” is in a crisis of existential credibility that cuts so deeply that it renders all proclamations of doctrinal “truth” otiose and viscerally painful to bear.  In fact, it has a tendency to engender righteous anger as one reads yet another ecclesial document that dots all the proper “I’s” and crosses all the “T’s” all the while being a word salad of disconnected cluelessness.  Words spoken are not always words heard, and the Church’s magisterium has become a chattering irrelevance for many Catholics, even, if not most especially, among the devout and attentive ones who know the difference between formulaic, lip service and genuine existential authenticity.

Therefore, in many ways such discussions about magisterial consistency leave me cold and indifferent as I find that they are as meaningless and futile as a group of financial experts pouring over the minutiae of their budget spread sheets, searching for any hidden discrepancies, even as the national currency collapses into worthlessness due to a default on accumulated, unpaid, debts.  And the Church has such unpaid debts in the form of an accumulated deficit of holiness and the burdensome weight of centuries of sclerosis and entropy, wherein the Church hierarchy lacked any structural, constitutive, connection with christological holiness in its underlying principles of governance, as it hid behind the skirts of “ex opere operato” and turned the whole affair into an ecclesial mirror image of a Renaissance palace court, complete with all of its corruption, intrigue, and sexual shenanigans.  The Church in our own time is little better, and though it no longer enjoys the political clout of a renaissance King, it does have the air of the landed aristocracy. Today we call it “real estate” speculation, but it is all the same thing nevertheless: rich people owning a lot of land and fancy buildings which they leverage as collateral for loans in order to buy more real estate. The Church has become a real estate magnate in pious Gothic garb ($millions lost on a London high rise investment gone bad anyone?) with just enough Jesus décor splattered about to give off the illusion that it is all in the service of the Gospel, when in reality it has been in the service of the Church’s “power” as a “player” independent of the State, but which utilizes the same iteration of power as the State.

As Louis Bouyer makes clear in the quote above, Church hierarchs, in an evolution of many centuries, have made Church authority an end in itself, concerned more with the internal consistency, and therefore public respectability, of the magisterium itself, rather than with a deep pastoral concern for the life of the Church that the truth of the Gospel is meant to engender. Thus does Bouyer identify a “distortion of pastoral authority” in the Church as one of the chief concerns of Vatican II and that distortion has led to what Bouyer calls “an ecclesiology of power” rather than one of service. And it is precisely this ecclesiology of power that has led to most of the seemingly intractable problems that afflict the Church today.  In particular, Bouyer identifies the primary problem with this ecclesiology as one of disconnection from Christ’s holiness as the animating reality that breathes fire into the Church’s equations.  And absent that fire, the doctrines ring hollow as mere speculative algorithms devoid of existential gravitas.  In other words, truth taught divorced from truth lived, especially in an institution putatively devoted to saint making, is a form of truth that lacks credibility and which, therefore, is actually a species of falsehood.

Bouyer identifies three ways in which the Church is a medium of Christ’s Revelation as well as the real presence of Christ’s life extended in time. And all three ways are relationally grounded in the others and suffer serious distortions when they become disconnected.  The first way is in the sacraments which are the direct presence of Christ in his Church and vouchsafe the ongoing presence of Christ’s holiness which can never be effaced or made null by the Church’s sins.  There will always be a holy remnant, therefore, of those in the Church who avail themselves of this holiness and attempt to live it most seriously, even if that remnant is, like Elijah, a solitary lay person or a single bishop. Christ once asked if he would find any faith at all in the Church upon his return, indicating that the Church herself can indeed fall away from Christ in most of her members, which is a sobering reminder that “ex opere operato,” though true, is only a  niggling comfort for those serious Christians who must endure the oil of Laodicea that is poured over everything as an anointing of bourgeois mediocrity.  Such Christians ask for bread and are instead given the stone of ex opere operato as a mechanistic deflection.

The second way is the pastoral ministry of the Church, which includes her preaching, her pastoral accompaniment of her members who are all on the journey from sin into the charity of divine life, and the teaching magisterium with its guarantee of indefectibility as a ministry of service to the truth.  And the entirety of this pastoral ministry must be grounded in, and motivated by, the life of Divine charity if it is to be true to the christological holiness of the sacraments which it seeks to inculcate in her members.  Therefore, the fact that Christ chooses as his ministers men who are also sinners means that this ministry to the truth in charity can be rendered opaque, and the image of Christ can be submerged in an avalanche of cascading sins the net effect of which is to disconnect the truth from charity. And when this happens the sacraments too, and most especially the Eucharistic liturgy, can become a form of ritualism. Bouyer puts it thus: “… celebration of the mysteries would become a ritualism, divorced from both subjective faith and the collective life and its organization willed by Christ, and would nourish nothing more than a mystique of evasion.” (The Church of God, pp. 502-503. Emphasis added).

The third way that the Church makes Christ present now is in the lived life of Divine charity in all of her members.  Here is the subjective holiness of the believer in play precisely as a movement of the Spirit, vivifying the whole and putting flesh on the bones of the Church’s doctrinal preaching and teaching.  This is the lifeblood of the entire Church, her very reason for existing in the first place, and when this life of charity wanes and then grows cold the entire lava flow of the Spirit’s love hardens and fractures as it encounters the icy waters of recalcitrant indifference. And when this ossification happens, the various ways that Christ is present in the Church disassociate themselves from one another, and the hierarchical ministry of the Church hardens into a self-justifying end in itself, ruling more and more from a position of weakness that has no other recourse than the methods of a harsh regime of coercion. And its teachings, as Bouyer notes, became a form of  dead intellectualism devoid of an explicit and constitutive orientation to the life of charity. And as a side note, this is precisely why Brad Gregory, in his excellent book “The Unintended Reformation,” notes that it was exactly this lack of a direct orientation to charity that brought down the medieval and Renaissance Church, and brought on the Protestant revolt, since the Church had come to be seen as this monolithic structure of power which was impervious to criticism, which threatened death to anyone who opposed it, and which employed the methods of State coercion heartlessly and without an ounce of shame. Mendacity can take many forms, the most alluring of which are the lies that hide behind truths proclaimed, but never really embraced.

The fateful and most decisive step in this direction happened, according to Bouyer, when the Church rightly fought for its independence from an Empire now become “Christian” and which sought to control the Church for its own Imperial purposes.  Which in and of itself is a cautionary tale with regard to all hard, confessional integralisms, since often enough it is precisely the “Catholic State” which is the most dangerous State of all for the life of the Church since it dangles the cream puff of compromise before the Church’s palate in ever more enticing and diabolically sophisticated ways.  Eventually, in this struggle for independence the Church moves from a rightful claim to its own autonomy from civil power into a mimicry of the methods of State power creating a competitive situation among players besotted with the same animating spirit of the libido dominandi. And in the end, the Church buys an illusory independence from the State – – illusory because the Church has now succumbed to the worldly world and has thereby been conquered by it. The Church thus loses its character as a ministry of service and adopts instead, as Bouyer puts it, an ecclesiology of power.

And it is exactly the pastoral disaster of this ecclesiology of power that Bouyer claims was one of the chief targets of the Vatican II reforms.  Unfortunately, it was this very ecclesiology of power that continued on after the Council that scuttled the reform process since the Council sought to change the Church without really changing the Church.  It said some really profound things and uttered some fine sounding words about collegiality and shared authority and the universal call to holiness, but in the end the conciliar project failed because the Council itself failed to explicitly identify and, therefore, failed to confront directly, the false ideology of power that was the source of the malaise in the Church.  Bouyer puts it as follows:  “But during the course of this council, and even more in what followed, it became apparent to what extent misunderstanding of the real sense of Christian authority was inviscerated  in the consciousness of its possessors. Even though the doctrinal texts had formally acknowledged that conflict between primacy and collegiality can arise only in an ecclesiology of power, not in one of service, the episcopate again, in tending to its regeneration, too often thought of itself in terms of ecclesiological power.” (The Church of God, p. 505.)

And this ecclesiology of power was not only still operative in the episcopacy, but was also deeply entrenched in the presbyterate and among the laity. This is why the Council’s fine words about holiness and the collective life of charity were promptly ignored once the Church lifted the lid on the ecclesiastical libido, unleashing the very forces of a false sense of self-entitled “autonomy” that it sought to reform.  The Church desired to light some “back fires” to burn away the accumulated scrub brush, not realizing that those scrub brushes were everywhere, and ended up igniting the entire forest instead.  However, I am reluctant to criticize the priests who went theologically crazy after the council since they were poorly formed in the first place, as were the laity, by those same bishops who claimed they were seeking reform.  As Bouyer notes, the post-conciliar bishops, empowered by the new “collegiality,” now became little princes of power themselves, mistreating their priests and employing them as petty vassals who were ground down into powder within the matrix of the newly bloated diocesan bureaucracies of “reform.” That is why so many priests desire to become pastors, despite all of the headaches associated with that office, because at least pastors enjoy some measure of canonical rights in the face of such “power.” Which is also why in the contemporary Church bishops love to place priests in charge of two or three dying parishes but without naming them as “pastors,” preferring instead the vassal status of “parish administrator.”  Bouyer notes:  “In the council itself, it was shown to what extent the restoration of the power of a number of bishops signified capacity to act with regard to their subordinates exactly as they had reproached the ‘curia’ for doing in the past. Neglect of the presbyterate and the priests of second rank in the conciliar definitions and, even worse …, the almost exclusive concern to bully them (though with honeyed words) constituted scandal for anyone who, desirous of reform, was exasperated by the long-latent crisis in the Church.” (The Church of God, pp. 505-506).

These are harsh words, but they come from a man of the council itself, a man who, like me, supports the broad conciliar project and what it hoped to achieve.  And contrary to what so many of the council’s critics allege to be its chief flaws – – liturgical reform, religious liberty, an exaggerated ecumenism , and the like – – in reality, as Bouyer correctly notes, the Ur-flaw of the council was its failure to properly address the many ways in which a false notion of “authority as power” had deformed the Church in profound ways.  And it is that flaw which short-circuited the council’s broader aims since all that really happened after the council was the simple transference of this false sense of power from the Church’s center into all of her peripheries. And this is why I remain skeptical of the current chatter about synodality.  Because, if history is to be our guide, in an unregenerated Church, synodality usually means some form of Gallicanism will rise up again, wherein ecclesial power, now made multi-focal and diffuse, will remain what it has been for centuries: a competitive grasping after “control.” And the pontificate of Pope Francis gives us little hope that this will not be the case since his own form of governing, which is most likely to be the model for the kind of “authority” he wishes to devolve into the episcopacy, gives us scant indication that the false notion of power has been expunged from the Church.

Louis Bouyer was a prophet who understood that the Church must be christocentric but that it cannot be christomonistic.  Because the Christ event must never be divorced from its broader inclusion in the trinitarian event in the entire economy of salvation.  Which means that the Church is not merely a christological reality but a pneumatological reality as well. The Church is indeed Christ’s body extended into time and space, but it is also Christ’s betrothed who awaits the final consummation of her calling in the eschatological wedding feast of the Lamb. Mary, as the spouse of the Holy Spirit, becomes then in her subjectivity as the fully engraced receptivity of the creature, the ground of possibility for the Church’s receptivity of grace as well, so that she can truly enter into the body of Christ who alone is “truth.” [sidenote: I have written on this topic in an article that appeared in the Summer 1996 issue of Communio entitled, “Who is the Church? The Personalistic Categories of Balthasar’s Ecclesiology”].   And this is why my own incessant drum beat about the universal call to holiness is not an appeal to a rigoristic puritanism rooted in some kind of a hyper ascetical, white-knuckled, sanctity. That would be little more than a pharisaical moral extrinsicism and also more than a little Pelagian.  Rather, the true reform of the Church, her only possible reform, both now and forever, must be the Marian holiness of receptive humility – – a “reception” which is at once passive as it awaits expectantly the movement of grace, but also, and just insofar as it is receptive, truly active as the engraced rolling back of the libido dominandi, and as such, an exploder of the structures of power:  “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.”  

Therefore the holiness I seek, both in myself and in the Church, is a holiness that is also a counter politics of service for the life of the world, even if that service requires martyrdom. Only such a Church can, in the end, be “credible.” Only a Church that is animated and motivated by this holiness from top to bottom, in all of her structures and ministries, will be credible as a teacher of truth. Only a Church that ceases to hide behind the deflecting cadences of ex opere operato and which takes its sins seriously, acknowledges those sins, apologizes genuinely for those sins, and seeks a true reform rooted in an ecclesiology of service, can speak to the world credibly.  Only a Church of sackcloth and ashes, of the poor and for the poor, can be a true medium for God’s Revelation in Christ.  Perfection is neither expected nor needed in order for that more transparent Church to emerge. Rather, the transparency will be that of the repentant sinner with hand outstretched in the run of compassion and mercy.  We are a Church of sinners and we always will be.  But the measure of our holiness will be in exact proportion to the measure of our service, and only that is “the one thing necessary.”

Many readers of my last post correctly took note of the fact that I was saying that the magisterium is the best interpreter of the magisterium, and criticized this construal of things as capable of justifying anything, no matter how convoluted, as “consistent with past teaching.” And this is true so long as one is thinking of the magisterium as little more than a spread sheet or a database of slowly accumulated factoids.  And such a magisterium indeed lacks credibility, no matter how consistent it is with itself internally. But the magisterium is ultimately an episcopal ministry of service as well and its doctrinal constructions will only therefore be received as genuine, if they are first perceived as empowered by, and imbued with, that same Spirit of Divine charity that lifted the Virgin Mary from a humble girl of Nazareth to the handmaid of the Lord and the Mother of God. Call it a hermeneutics of authenticity, a hermeneutics of holiness.

My prayer this Advent is that I too may prepare for the birth of our Lord by asking Mary to intercede for my conversion away from the libido dominandi and toward her holiness of receptive humility and the grace which her Son alone provides.

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

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