Editor’s Note: The following was originally published as Part 2 of of an appreciation of the late theologian Edward Schllebeeckx (pictured at right) by William D. Lindsey. For Part 1, click here. Both installments were originally published at William’s Bilgrimage blogsite, and cross-posted at the recently established Open Tabernacle.
Edward Schillebeeckx was one of the primary theological advisors of the Dutch bishops at Vatican II, and his work in the area of ecclesiology in particular has now become canonical for the entire church, as it were, through the documents of Vatican II.
In key respects, Schillebeeckx belongs to a movement strong in French, Belgian, and Dutch Catholicism of the early 20th century. This movement was known as a ressourcement movement, a movement seeking to return to the sources—specifically, to the biblical and patristic foundations—of Christian theology.
The ressourcement movement was, in significant ways, a reaction to what happened to the Catholic church in its period of reaction, first to the Reformation and then to the rise of modernity. During the period of the Council of Trent, the church’s official response to the Reformation, and at Vatican I, which in many ways charted the church’s strong counter-push to modernity, the Catholic church opted for an ecclesiology that was not so much strongly grounded in either biblical or patristic sources as it was innovative. It was a contextual theology that had everything to do with the church’s reaction to movements it considered threatening, movements demanding a vehement and immediate push-back from the church.
In the Tridentine period, the period of the counter-Reformation, the ecclesiology that prevailed was what is called the “perfect society” model of Cardinal Robert Bellarmine. This ecclesiology laid great stress on the need of the church to function as an institution complete in and of itself, parallel (and superior) to the state, whose structures the church mirrors but which does not have the perfection of the church.
This notion of church stressed the need for top-down, hierarchical, monarchical government in the church, akin to (but more perfect than) that of the state. Indeed, the perfect society model made being church synonymous with monarchy, with absolute control (perfect control) of the whole church exercised from the top down through a hierarchical chain of command. The model of church that Trent set into motion placed the church and its structures over against secular models, while at the same time incorporating their key features.
This ecclesiology was then, as I note above, contextual. It was an adaptive ecclesiology, one that reflected the circumstances in which the perfect society ecclesiology was developed. It was a reaction to the Reformation, which seemed to be fragmenting the perfect society of the church, and to the rise of the nation-state, which went hand in hand with the Reformation, and seemed to be competing with the church for power and control.
Bellarmine’s perfect society model prevailed from the Tridentine period of the church through the first Vatican Council and up to Vatican II. Vatican I endorsed the model, adding to it the new twist of papal infallibility. During this period of its history, the Catholic church appeared to be locked into a bitter battle against secular society—against the world. Only in the church, which was a fortress of truth and light in the midst of a surrounding culture of error and darkness, could one find salvation. Only in the Catholic church could one find the perfect society that guarantees salvation.
I’ve labored over this quick theological sketch of the ecclesiological backdrop to Vatican II because it is essential to understand what Vatican II thought it was correcting, when it moved back to the sources, back beyond the 16th-century ecclesiology of Trent and the 19th-century ecclesiology of Vatican I. Many of those who now combat Vatican II argue that this ecumenical council was a radical departure from the tradition, that it rejected the tradition and flung the doors of the church open to a contemporary secularism that represents a wholesale departure from longstanding tradition.
In fact, the opposite is the case. The ecclesiology of Vatican II returns to more ancient, more venerable understandings of the church found in the texts of the New Testament and in patristic theology. It corrects what was in itself an innovation on the tradition—the ecclesiology of Trent-Vatican I—by reminding the church that the perfect society model and the fortress church model that developed in the Counter-Reformation and modern periods are themselves innovative ecclesiologies—new developments in the tradition not conspicuously rooted in scripture and patristic theology.
And so enter Schillebeeckx: as the bishops assembled at Vatican II began to recognize the need to re-emphasize images and theologies of the church that would correct the historically conditioned fortress church ecclesiology of Trent-Vatican I, they turned to the exhaustive theological work done by theologians of the ressourcement movement like Yves Congar (a mentor of Schillebeeckx’s) and Schillebeeckx, which delved into the biblical and patristic roots of Catholic ecclesiology.
Schillebeeckx was particularly brilliant in his ability to re-focus contemporary Catholic theology on the most fundamental meaning of sacramentality, which runs beneath the sacramental system of the church and provides meaning to that system, and which had been obscured by the theology of Trent-Vatican I. During the period of reaction of these two councils, the sacraments came to be viewed almost as “things,” as holy objects owned and dispensed by the rulers of the perfect society to their loyal subjects, insofar as those subjects were faithful and performed proper obeisance.
What this view of the sacramental life significantly overlooks is the way in which the sacraments are manifestations of the primary sacrament—the sacrament of Christ himself. The sacraments signify and effect grace because Christ himself signifies and effects grace in the world, as the primary, central sign of God’s salvific self-offering to the world. The church is sacramental—it is itself a sign of Christ’s sacramental presence in the world—because it is united with Christ. It mirrors Christ’s salvific presence in the world.
Schillebeeck’s pre-Vatican II work on Christ as the sacrament of the encounter with God (particularly in Christ, the Sacrament of the Encounter with God) and on the church as the sacramental sign of Christ helped those gathered at Vatican II to refocus Catholic ecclesiology and sacramental life on biblical and patristic roots that connect the church’s life, its role as a salvific presence in the world, to the primary sacrament from which the church’s sacramental life and salvific work flow—to Christ. At one level, this ecclesiology reorients the church to something that should never be lost sight of in Christian theology and Christian spirituality: to Jesus as the model, the center, of theological reflection and of the spiritual journey.
This is a strand of the theology of Vatican II that Schillebeeckx would deepen significantly in his two post-Vatican II works Jesus: An Experiment in Christology and Christ: The Christian Experience in the Modern World. These provide a rich treasure trove of biblical scholarship that sets Catholic theology back on a strong, vibrant biblical foundation—a project that reflects the particular concerns of Catholic theologians in countries like the Netherlands, where Catholics and Protestants coexist and seek to recognize the important theological contributions made by the traditions of each other. Schillebeeckx’s theology is especially strong in the area of biblical scholarship. In contrast to many Catholic theologians of the latter half of the 20th century (including Benedict XVI, whose biblical scholarship has often been criticized by theological colleagues as notably deficient), Schillebeeckx grounds his theology in painstaking, well-researched exegesis.
Note what this return to the sources—above all, to the central, perduring focus of Christian theology and spirituality on Jesus as the primary sacrament, and on the church’s role as a sacramental presence in the world through its fidelity to Jesus—does, as we begin to look at how the church lives in the world and interacts with the world. In the perfect society and fortress church models, the church’s primary obligation vis-a-vis the world is to combat the world, to correct the world. The church has it all. The world is deficient. The church offers to the world what the world lacks—in particular, dogmatic truth, perfect hierarchical rule, and the sacraments. And the world, if it is wise, will respond humbly and receptively to the offer.
The sacramental notion of the church—the idea that the church mirrors Jesus as the sacramental sign of God’s presence in the world—dislodges the certainties of the perfect society and fortress church models. It does so in two ways. First, if the church is a sacramental sign of God’s salvific presence in the world, it can hardly claim to have exclusive ownership of that salvific presence. To do so would limit God. It would imply that God’s salvific intent and “reach” in the world are limited, that they do not intend and encompass the entire world.
When ecclesiology grants that God wishes and intends the salvation of the entire cosmos through Christ, then the church pursues its sacramental task in the world in part by watching for signs of the Spirit’s presence anywhere those signs are to be found in the world—inside the church, certainly, but also outside its boundaries, since God is there, too, working salvation. The sacramental church of Vatican II (and of scripture and the patristic period) is a more chastened church than that of Trent and Vatican I, which purported to have it all, almost to own God and God’s salvific work in the world, through the sacraments. The church that seeks to be a faithful sign of salvation in the world both offers salvation to the world, and receives that salvation from areas outside the boundaries of the church, as the Spirit moves through the world fanning the flames of divine love everywhere.
The sacramental notion of the church developed so brilliantly by Schillebeeckx also dislodges the certainties of Tridentine and Vatican I ecclesiology in another key way. This notion of the church, focused as it is on Jesus as the initial, the Ur-sacrament, constantly calls the church back to reflection on how, precisely, it signifies the salvific presence of Christ in the world. If the church is a sign, and, specifically, a sign of Christ and of Christ’s salvation, in the world, then everything the church does, how it behaves, how it structures itself, how it regards the rights of its own members as it exercises governance, how its pastors engage in pastoral leadership—all becomes part and parcel of the sacramental sign of salvation of Christ in the world.
Or perhaps the church’s behavior, how its pastors exercise pastoral leadership, how the church deals with the human rights of its own members as it exercises governance, how it treats the least among us, becomes a counter-sign to Christ’s salfivic presence in the world. If the church can reveal Christ’s face to the world, it can also obscure that face. It can fail to be a patent sacramental sign of salvific love in the world.
As a Dominican theologian, a member of a religious community whose charism is all about engaging and dialoguing with those living in urban centers with strong intellectual movements (Dominic began his ministry as cities began to develop in the Middle Ages, many of them with large universities), Schillebeeckx had a strong concern to see the church respond dialogically, creatively, and above all, redemptively, to the cultures in which it found itself. As with Dominicans in general, Schillebeeckx was a preacher, someone concerned to proclaim the good news of Christ in ever-changing cultural contexts.
Schillebeeckx’s vision of Christian faith was inspired by a deep, profound, and broad grasp of who Jesus was in his humanity. In his work, he was able to articulate this vision across the whole spectrum of Catholic theology from Christology and ecclesiology to ecumenism and social justice concerns. Anyone who tries to understand the Catholic tradition following Vatican II cannot do so adequately without paying attention to the monumental contributions of Edward Schillebeeckx to that tradition.
See also the previous Progressive Catholic Voice post:
Edward Schillebeeckx (1914-2009)