The Spirit and the Church

In the Creed, "I believe in the Holy Spirit" speaks, not of God's inner life but of "God facing outward", of the Holy Spirit as the power through which the risen Lord remains present in the history of the world as the principle of a new history and a new world ...

Teaching about the Church must take its departure from the teaching about the Holy Spirit and its gifts. But its goal lies in a doctrine of the history of God with men or, alternatively, of the function of the story of Christ for mankind as a whole. This indicates at the same time in what direction Christology must evolve. It is not to be developed as a doctrine of God's taking root in the world, a doctrine which, starting from Jesus' humanity, interprets the Church in an all too worldly fashion. Christ remains present through the Holy Spirit with all his openness and breadth and freedom, which by no means exclude the institutional form but limit its claims and do not allow it simply to make itself the same as worldly institutions.

"I believe ... in the communion of saints, in the forgiveness of sins ..". Both statements are to be understood as concretisations of the words about the Holy Spirit, as descriptions of the way in which this Spirit works in history. Both have a directly sacramental meaning of which we are hardly aware today. The saying about the communion of saints refers first of all to the Eucharistic community which through the body of the Lord binds the Churches scattered all over the earth into one Church. Thus originally the word "sanctorum" ("of the holy ones") does not refer to persons but means the holy gifts, the holy thing, granted to the Church in her Eucharistic feast as the real bond of unity. Thus the Church is not defined as a matter of offices and organisation but on the basis of her worship of God: as a community at one table round the risen Christ who gathers and unites them everywhere.

Of course, very soon people began to include in this idea the persons who themselves are united among themselves and sanctified by God's one, holy gift. The Church began to be seen not just as the unity of the Eucharistic table but also as the community of those who through this table are united among themselves. Then from this point a cosmic breadth very soon entered into the concept of Church: the communion of saints spoken of here extends beyond the frontier of death; it binds together all those who have received the one Spirit and his one, life-giving power.

The phrase about the forgiveness of sins, on the other hand, refers to the other fundamental sacrament of the Church, namely baptism; and from there it came very soon to include the sacrament of penance .. The fact remains even now that one cannot become a Christian by birth, but only by rebirth: Christianity only ever comes into being by a man's turning his life round, turning away from the self-satisfaction of mere existence and being "converted". In this sense baptism remains, as the start of a lifelong conversion, the fundamental pattern of the Christian existence, as the phrase about the "remission of sins" is intended to remind us.

The Church is understood as proceeding from the Holy Spirit, as the centre of the Spirit's activity in the world. In concrete terms, it is seen from the two angles of Baptism (Penance) and the Eucharist. This sacramental approach produces a completely theocentric understanding of the Church: the foreground is occupied not by the group of men composing it but by the gift of God which turns man round towards a new being which he cannot give to himself, to a communion which he can only receive as a gift. Yet precisely this theocentric image of the Church is entirely human, entirely real; by centring around conversion and unification, and understanding both as a process that cannot be brought to completion within history, it reveals the human connection in meaning between sacrament and Church.

Thus the "objective" view (from the angle of the gift of God) brings the personal element into play of its own accord: the new being of forgiveness leads us into fellowship with those who live from forgiveness, forgiveness establishes communion, and communion with the Lord in the Eucharist leads necessarily to the communion of the converted, who all eat one and the same bread, to become in it "one body" (1 Cor 10.17) and indeed "one single new man" (cf Eph 2.15)

The profession of faith in the "resurrection of the flesh" and "life everlasting", are to be understood as the unfolding of faith in the Holy Spirit and in his transforming power, whose final effect they depict. For the prospect of resurrection, on which the whole section here converges, follows necessarily from faith in the transformation of history that started with the resurrection of Jesus. With this event, as we have seen, the frontier of bios, in other words death, was crossed and a new continuum was opened up: the biological has been overtaken by the spirit, by love, which is stronger than death. The barrier of death has been broken through and a definitive future opened up for man and world.

The sight of the omega of world history, in which everything will be fulfilled, results from an inner necessity from faith in the God who himself wished to be, in the cross, the omega of the world, its last letter. Precisely by this he has made the omega into his point, so that one day love is definitively stronger than death and out of the "complexification" of bios by love the final complex emerges, the finality of the person and the finality of the unity that comes from love. Because God himself became a mere worm, the last letter in the alphabet of creation, the last letter has become his letter and thereby turned history towards the final victory of love: the cross really is the salvation of the world.

The Holy Catholic Church

We are tempted to say, if we are honest with ourselves, that the Church is neither holy nor Catholic: the Second Vatican Council itself ventured to the point of speaking no longer merely of the holy Church but of the sinful Church, and the only reproach it incurred was that of still being far too timorous; so deeply aware are we all of the sinfulness of the Church. This may well be partly due to the Lutheran theology of sin and also to an assumption arising out of dogmatic prejudgements. But what makes these "dogmatics" so reasonable is their harmony with our own experience.

The centuries of the Church's history are so filled with human failure that we can quite understand Dante's ghastly vision of the Babylonian whore sitting in the Church's chariot; and the dreadful words of William of Auvergne, bishop of Paris in the thirteenth century, seem perfectly comprehensible. William said that the barbarism of the Church must make everyone who saw it go rigid with horror: "Bride is she no more, but a monster of frightful ugliness and ferocity ..."

The catholicity of the Church seems just as questionable as its holiness. The one rock of the Lord is torn between the disputing parties, the one Church is divided up into many Churches, every one of which claims more or less insistently to be alone in the right. And so for many people today the Church has become the main obstacle to belief. They can no longer see in it anything but the human struggle for power, the petty spectacle of those who, with their claim to administer official Christianity, seem to stand most in the way of the true spirit of Christianity.

There is no theory in existence that could refute such ideas by mere reason, just as conversely these ideas themselves do not proceed from mere reason but from the bitterness of a heart which may perhaps have been disappointed in its high hopes and now, in the pain of wronged love, can see only the destruction of its hopes. How, the, are we to reply? In the last analysis one can only confess why one can still love this Church in faith, why one still dares to recognise in the distorted features the countenance of the holy Church.

As we have already seen, in all these statements of faith the word "holy" does not apply in the first place to the holiness of human persons but refers to the divine gift which bestows holiness in the midst of human unholiness. The Church is not called "holy" in the Creed because its members, collectively and individually, are holy, sinless men - this dream, which appears afresh in every century, has no place in the waking world of our text, however movingly it may express a human longing which man will never abandon until a new heaven and a new earth really grant him what this age will never give him. Even at this point we can say that the sharpest critics of the Church in our time secretly live on this dream and, when they find it disappointed, bang the door of the house shut again and denounce it as a deceit.

The holiness of the Church consists in that power of sanctification which God exerts in it in spite of human sinfulness. We come up here against the real mark of the "New Covenant": in Christ God has bound himself to men, has let himself be bound by them. The New Covenant no longer rests on the reciprocal keeping of the agreement; it is granted by God as grace which abides even in the face of man's faithlessness. it is the expression of God's love, which will not let itself be defeated by man's incapacity but always remains well-disposed towards him, welcomes him again and again precisely because he is sinful, turns to him, sanctifies him and loves him.

Because of the Lord's devotion, never more to be revoked, the Church is the institution sanctified by him for ever, an institution in which the holiness of the Lord becomes present among men. But it is really and truly the holiness of the Lord that becomes present in it and that chooses again and again as the vessel of his presence - with a paradoxical love - the dirty hands of men. It is holiness that radiates as the holiness of Christ from the midst of the Church's sin. So to the faithful the paradoxical figure of the Church, in which the divine so often presents itself in such unworthy hands, in which the divine is only ever present in the form of a "nevertheless" , is the sign of the "nevertheless" of the ever greater love shown by God.

The existing interplay of God's loyalty and man's disloyalty which characterises the structure of the Church is grace in dramatic form, so to speak, through which the reality of grace as the pardoning of those who are in themselves unworthy continually becomes visibly present in history. One could actually say that precisely in its paradoxical combination of holiness and unholiness the Church is in fact the shape taken by grace in this world.

In the human dream of a perfect world, holiness is always envisaged as untouchability by sin and evil, as something unmixed with the latter; there always remains in some form or other a tendency to think in terms of black and white, a tendency to cut out and reject mercilessly the current form of the negative (which can be conceived in widely varying terms). In contemporary criticism of society and in the actions in which it vents itself, this merciless side always present in human ideals is once again only too evident.

The aspect of Christ's holiness that upset his contemporaries was the complete absence of this condemnatory note - fire did not fall on the unworthy nor were the zealous allowed to pull up the weeds which they saw growing luxuriantly on all sides. On the contrary, this holiness expressed itself precisely as mingling with the sinners whom Jesus drew into his vicinity, as mingling to the point where he himself was made "to be sin" and bore the curse of the law in execution as a criminal - complete community of fate with the lost (cf. 2 Cor 5.21; Gal 3.13). He has drawn sin to himself, made it his lot and so revealed what true "holiness" is: not separation but union, not judgement but redeeming love.

Is the Church not simply the continuation God's deliberate plunge into human wretchedness, of Jesus' habit of sitting at table with sinners, of his mingling with the misery of sin to the point where he actually seems to sink under its weight? Is there not revealed in the unholy holiness of the Church, as opposed to man's expectation of purity, God's true holiness, which is love, love which does not keep its distance in a sort of aristocratic, untouchable purity but mixes with the dirt of the world, in order thus to overcome it? Can therefore the holiness of the Church be anything else but the mutual support which comes, of course, from the fact that all of us are supported by Christ?

I must admit that to me this unholy holiness of the Church has in itself something infinitely comforting about it. Would one not be bound to despair in face of a holiness that was spotless and could only operate on us by judging us and consuming us by fire? Who would dare to assert of himself that he did not need to be borne by others, indeed borne up by them? And how can someone who lives on the forbearance of others himself renounce forbearance? Is it not the only gift he can offer in return, the only comfort remaining to him, that he endures just as he too is endured?

Holiness in the Church begins with forbearance and leads to bearing up; where there is no more bearing there is no more bearing up either, and existence, lacking support, can only sink into the void. People may say that such words express a weakly existence - but it is part of being a Christian to accept the impossibility of autonomy and the weakness of one's own resources. At bottom there is always hidden pride at work when criticism of the Church adopts that tone of rancourous bitterness which today is already beginning to become a fashionable habit.

Unfortunately it is accompanied only too often by a spiritual emptiness in which the specific nature of the Church as a whole is no longer seen, in which it is only regarded as a political instrument whose organisation is felt to be pitiable or brutal, as the case may be, as if the real function of the Church did not lie beyond organisation, in the comfort of the Word and of the sacraments which she provides in good and bad days alike.

Those who really believe do not attribute too much importance to the struggle for the reform of ecclesiastical ritual. They live on what the Church always is; and if one wants to know what the Church really is, one must go to them. For the Church is most present not where organising, reforming and governing are going on but in those who simply believe and receive from her the gift of faith that is life to them. Only he who has experienced how, regardless of changes in her ministers and forms, the Church raises men up, gives them a home and a hope, a home that is hope - the path to eternal life - only he who has experienced this knows what the Church is, both in days gone by and now.

The Church lives from the struggle of the unholy to gain holiness, just as of course this struggle lives from the gift of God, without which it could not exist. But this effort only becomes fruitful and constructive if it is inspired by the spirit of forbearance, by real love. And here we have arrived at the criterion by which that critical struggle for better holiness must always be judged, a criterion that is not only not in contradiction with forbearance but is demanded by it, This criterion is constructiveness. A bitterness that can only destroy stands self-condemned. A slammed door can, it is true, become a sign that shakes up those inside. But the idea that one can do more constructive work in isolation than in fellowship with others is just as much of an illusion as the notion of a Church of "holy people" instead of a "holy Church" that is holy because the Lord bestows holiness on her as a quite unmerited gift.

The basic elements of the Church appear as forgiveness, conversion, penance, eucharistic communion, and hence plurality and unity: plurality of the local Churches which yet only remain "the Church" through incorporation in the unity of the one Church. This unity is first and foremost the unity of Word and sacrament: the Church is one through the one Word and the one bread. The episcopal organisation stands in the background as the means to this unity. It is not there for its own sake but belongs to the category of means; its position is summed up by the phrase "in order to ": it serves to turn the unity of the local Churches in themselves and among themselves into a reality. The function of the Bishop of Rome would thus be to form the next stage in the category of means.

One thing is clear: the Church is not to be deduced from her organisation; the organisation is to be understood from the Church. But at the same time it is clear that for the visible Church visible unity is more than "organisation". The concrete unity of the common faith testifying to itself in the word and in the common table of Jesus Christ, is an essential part of the sign which the Church is to erect in the world. Only if she is "catholic", that is, visibly one in spite of all her variety, does she correspond to the demand of the Creed.

In a world torn apart the Church is to be the sign and means of unity, she is to bridge nations, races and classes and unite them. How often she has failed in this, we know: even in antiquity it was infinitely difficult for her to be simultaneously the Church of the barbarians and of the Romans; in modern times she was unable to prevent strife between the Christian nations; and today she is till not succeeding in so uniting rich and poor that the excess of the former becomes the satisfaction of the latter - the ideal of sitting at a common table remains largely unfulfilled. Yet even so one must not forget all the imperatives that have issued from the claim of catholicity; above all, instead of reckoning up the past, we should face the challenge of the present and try in it not only to profess catholicity in the Creed but to make it a reality in the life of our torn world.