Church must 'breathe with two lungs' - Catholic Courier

Church must ‘breathe with two lungs’

It has been almost 10 years since an unheralded and perhaps long-forgotten Province Assembly of New England Jesuits met in late spring 1995. I did a column later that year on what was probably the most significant item on that assembly’s agenda, namely an address by Father Robert Taft, longtime professor at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome and one of the church’s leading experts on Eastern Christianity.

Father Taft had been a delegate to the 34th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus in Rome and was one of the principal drafters of its major document on Jesuit service in the church. A central portion of his report to his fellow New England Jesuits focused on the theological issues that his committee had addressed.

In reviewing Father Taft’s presentation a decade later, I am struck — but not surprised — by the fact that his words are as pointed and as relevant today as they were in 1995.

Roman Catholics, who make up the bulk of the readership of this column and of weekly diocesan newspapers and Catholic magazines generally, tend to have a limited understanding of, and appreciation for, the more than 20 millions of fellow Catholics who belong to various non-Roman Catholic churches. These churches are in full communion with the Bishop of Rome, but they worship and organize themselves for mission and ministry across a broad spectrum of non-Roman Catholic liturgical and canonical traditions.

This knowledge gap exists in spite of Pope John Paul II’s urging that the Catholic Church “breathe with two lungs” — East and West alike — rather than with only one Western, or Latin, lung. He underscored his point in 1985 by naming Saints Cyril and Methodius, whose feast day is celebrated next Monday, Feb. 14, as co-patrons of Europe alongside St. Benedict of Nursia.

The lands to which Cyril and Methodius were sent included territories encompassed by the modern-day Czech Republic, Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia. Indeed, the two saints are known today as the “apostles of the Slavs.” It is significant that it was the first Slavic pope who employed the metaphor of the “two lungs” to describe the authentic universality of the Catholic Church.

Father Robert Taft, however, did not need a papal reminder of Catholicism’s global dimensions. He has devoted his adult life, his priestly ministry and his scholarly career to the building of bridges between Eastern and Western Christianity. In appreciation for his efforts, he has been honored by Eastern Catholics and by Orthodox and separated Oriental Christians alike — not by all Orthodox, to be sure, but certainly by those with a capacity for objective self-criticism.

In his report to the New England Jesuits 10 years ago, Father Taft spoke of various theological issues that the 34th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus addressed through the work of his committee.

The first concerned a “rediscovered communion ecclesiology of collegiality and co-responsibility.” This means that the church is not an absolute monarchy under the headship of the pope, but rather a community of local churches, or dioceses, each of which is the Body of Christ in their own locale and together constitute the universal church.

The challenge is always to balance somehow the need to maintain the unity of the whole church (a traditional emphasis of the West) with equal regard for the autonomy of the local churches (a traditional emphasis in the East).

Father Taft pointed out that, if John Paul II’s understanding of the “two lungs” were really taken to heart, it would mean that “the Church is no longer [to be] identified with the pope, the Vatican, the hierarchy — nor should it be.”

A second issue concerned the renewed theology of the Petrine ministry itself in the light of modern New Testament scholarship, the documents of Vatican II, ecumenical contacts with the East and various historical studies.

The papacy of the first Christian millennium did, in fact, “breathe with two lungs,” while the papacy of the second breathed, for the most part, with only one.

A third issue had to do with the hierarchical magisterium. “Anyone who knows church history,” Father Taft noted, “could bring forward numerous irrefutably documented historical instances of clear and authoritative supreme magisterial pronouncements to which no one would dream of assenting today.”

Finally, regarding the concept of authority as such, Father Taft insisted that “the only absolute authority in the Church … is that of God.”

Indeed, if we feel free today to criticize the unjust and sometimes criminal behavior of popes and bishops in the past, “it is only because they were criminal and unjust while they were alive; they did not become so only after death.”

“Two lungs” indeed.

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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