I should like to begin with a somewhat general remark which is related to the theme of my discourse. There is one thing that has to be said about the massive phenomenon of contemporary unbelief, namely that the issue it presents to the Christian is not to be resolved by argument in the academy or by the academy. The issue can only be resolved in the order of action and history, by the whole people of God in dialogue and in cooperation with the whole people temporal. What we are confronted with today is not classical atheism, by which I mean a simple denial of the existence of God on the ground that the whole concept of God is unintelligible. The Marxist, for instance, is quite willing to admit that the notion of God is conceivable and even intelligible. The whole contemporary problem rather arises from the fact that atheism has now found a positive basis. It is now based on an affirmation, an affirmation of the human person, his dignity and his freedom. And this affirmation is accomplished by a will to achieve the dignity of the person by achieving his autonomy, by liberating him from the indignity and misery to which he is subjected throughout large areas of the world. There is today a new confidence that man has within himself resources, purely human and secular resources, which are sufficient to organize the world in such wise that it will be a proper habitation for the man who is conscious of his dignity and freedom.
Therefore the Christian position today confronts a new counter-position. This counter-position is fairly simply stated. It says that there is only one history, the history that man makes and the history that makes man. The only forces operative in history, the only energies that galvanize history, are the energies immanent within man himself, his intelligence and his will, along with the modern prolongation of these energies which goes by the name of technology. And as for salvation, if there must be talk of salvation, the only form that man can hope for is a salvation to be achieved within history, by history, and by man himself, unaided.
Against this counter-position the Christian has to reaffirm the position that there are two histories. There is human secular history of which man is the agent, whose events are empirically observable and whose meaning is accessible to intelligence. But there is also, the Christian says, salvation history, whose operative principle is theandric, and whose basic agent is the Spirit of God. This Spirit, the Holy Spirit, is the power of God most high, who in this history summons men to be His co-workers, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:9 and Colossians 4:11. The events of this sacred history are not empirically observable and their sense, that is to say, their direction, is not accessible to human intelligence but only to faith. These two histories the Christian says are distinct but not separate or separable. They are as it were two currents that flow through time together. They are coterminous in time. They began at the same moment and they run together, but they are not homogeneous in kind. One of them will end with the consummation of this world, the other is destined for a consummation beyond this world. Moreover, while the two histories run together, they are related in such wise (and this I think is the crucial point today) that the salvation of man even within the finite horizons of human history is mysteriously dependent upon another mode of salvation of which the theandric history is the bearer. In a word, if I had to state the issue that confronts us today in its broadest terms, I think I would be inclined to say that it could be put in this question: Are there two histories or only one?
Now within this large issue of the theological intelligibility of contemporary unbelief there is a narrower issue, at once more immediate and more urgent. For the Christian cannot simply regard unbelief as a brute fact to be accepted, to be faced, then perhaps to be forgotten. No, this phenomenon demands to be understood in the light of faith, and the immediate theological question is whether or not it can be integrated into the Christian understanding of the church in the world, that is to say, of the two histories in their relation. It is to this question that I now wish to address myself.
I shall state a basic theme, and I would hope that this basic theme, if elaborated in two different directions, might lead us toward an answer to our theological question. I am very aware that I must speak in a somewhat tentative fashion because we are confronted today with a new phenomenon on which only recently theological reflection has been bent. My basic theme is that the church is the sacrament of Christ. This notion of the church was in a sense a conciliar ideal at Vatican II rather than a theme consciously developed, but it has indeed become a post-conciliar theme. It was taken up rather importantly at the international meeting in Rome at the end of September, 1966, and was the subject of two major discourses, one by the Dominican theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, and the other by the Jesuit scholar, Juan Alfaro.
This theme of the church as the sacrament of Christ has, of course, deep biblical roots in the Pauline epistles, in 1 Corinthians, Romans, and especially in Colossians and Ephesians. The background of the idea is not, as many think, the medieval speculation on the nature of sacrament which led to the definition of the seven sacraments. The background is rather the biblical notion of the sacrament which is the “mystery” of Ephesians 3:3-4, where the Greek word that is translated by the Vulgate sacramentum. In the earlier Pauline epistles the accent was on the eschatological fulfillment of the mystery of Christ, the mystery of God. In the captivity epistles, Colossians and Ephesians, the emphasis is upon the present, here and now, history of what Paul in Colossians 2:2 calls the mystery of God, which is identically the mystery of Christ to which he refers in Colossians 4:3 and Ephesians 3:5. This mystery is simply the divine plan of salvation as it unrolls in history from the first coming of Christ to the Parousia. It is identical with the power and the action of God as operative for this salvation of man. Hidden from eternity in God the Father, this mystery was uttered in the eternal utterance of the Son and the eternal breathing of the Spirit. Here in time, although still hidden by the veils that conceal from man the face of God, it is nonetheless manifested in a sign, in a sacrament. It is revealed, as Paul says in Ephesians 3:10, through the church which is the manifestation of the manifold wisdom of God and the epiphany of the salvific plan of God. The church, therefore, as visible and as historically active, is the sign and sacrament of Christ who is here and now with us in the Spirit according to his promise. The church is the progressive realization of the divine plan of salvation for mankind, that reconciliation of all things of which Paul speaks in Colossians 1:20, and that fulfillment of all things of which he speaks in Ephesians 1:10.
Now I think it is important to realize, certainly for the sake of this discourse, that the church about which we are speaking here is the concrete, living church, which is, as Vatican II made quite clear in Chapter 7 of Lumen gentium, an eschatological reality in which there is an indissoluble tension between the “even now” and the “not yet.” Even now the church is, and is one, and is holy, and yet the church is not yet one and is not yet holy. The church indeed has been sanctified, washed by the blood of Christ, sanctified by the immolation of Christ himself on the cross. But the sanctification of the church still remains an historical process which is not yet fulfilled, because the church, even now the one and holy, is still the pilgrim people of God, capable at any moment of those betrayals that the original people of God were guilty of after their rescue from Egypt. One must therefore distinguish two aspects of the church, but not dichotomize them. One cannot divine the institutional church from the people who make it up, or, in more scholastic terms, one cannot divine the formal from the material elements in the church. And in this living, concrete, historical totality, the church is the sacrament, the sign of Christ. It is the realization and manifestation of the mystery of salvation which is even now being wrought out, though it has not yet been fully wrought out.
This, then, very briefly is my basic theme. I suggest that this theme is capable of development in two directions both of which are pertinent to our present inquiry. It is the second direction which is more directly pertinent to the unbelief of the Christian, but I should like to go through the first development first.
The first development leads to a sort of dialectical tension which was completely unresolved by Vatican II. The church, as we have said, is the sign of salvation for all men, the new humanity inaugurated by Christ, the existential realization of the deepest meaning of human history. On the other hand, the church is simply the little flock. From a numerical point of view it is almost insignificant in comparison with the vast mass of men who do not know and do not recognize either the church or the Christ of which the church is sign and sacrament. This gives rise to the question of the relationship between this little flock which is already gathered and the literally innumerable multitude of men who are still scattered. Is the relationship simply extrinsic, between those who are inside and those who are outside? Or is there possibly an intrinsic relationship? In asking this question, I think we come to the heart of the theological intelligibility of contemporary atheism.
Here is the point, I think, at which to refer to the biblical problematic, because prima facie it would seem that the biblical problematic is stated in terms of those who are inside and those who are outside. On the one hand, there is the people of God, there is the people that God himself knew, in the biblical sense, that is to say, the people whom he loved and chose and the people who in return loved him and chose him and entered into a covenant relationship with him. And there are, on the other hand, what Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:5 calls the peoples who do not know God but reject him and ignore him, in the biblical sense of ignorance. They have chosen against him and have thus become captive to what Paul calls in 2 Thessalonians 2:7 the mystery of iniquity, that counter-action in the world which opposes the salvific action of God. These other peoples are thus under the power and rule of the kingdom of darkness. In the biblical problematic, moreover, it seems evident that the ignorance of these peoples is somehow culpable. They have somehow chosen to stand outside the kingdom of light. We can see this in the Old Testament indictment of the idolater, which is pitiless and even scornful. We can see it even more clearly in the first chapter of Romans, where we find Paul’s indictment of the pagan idolaters which ends with the words: “Therefore they are themselves without excuse.” Their ignorance was not simply ignorance; it was an ignorance that was culpable. The same problematic appears in Saint John, in his classic statement of the contrast between light and darkness. The light came into the darkness, he says, and there were those who “loved the darkness better than the light.”
Now while this biblical problematic is perennially valid and must not be dissolved, it was in fact the product of a polemic, or at best, if you will, an apologetic. The prophetic indictment of idolatry in the Old Testament and the passage in Romans were directed exclusively to the people of God. Neither Paul nor the prophets were talking to the idolater. This polemic has had in fact a rather long historical life. It was installed in ecclesiastical literature certainly after the Constantinian settlement, and it has been maintained in papal literature right through Leo XXIII up to Pius XII. Only at Vatican II did the inadequacy of this problematic begin to be appreciated and understood. Then the church became more aware of herself as situated in the interior of history and not above it, as situated in the world and not apart from it. There was the consequent awareness that the relationship between the two histories, must be a dialogic relationship which implies a certain give and take. The proclamation of the Word of God today, as Paul VI made very clear in his encyclical Eccesiam suam, must take the form of what he called the dialogue of salvation.
Consequently we now feel the need to enlarge the biblical problematic without destroying or discarding it. To do so we have to take very seriously a traditional doctrine that the order of grace is not coterminous with the visible, historical, empirical church. The frontier between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness does not coincide with the boundary, as it were, between the visible church and something we call the world. On the contrary, the order of grace is pervasive through all humanity and the action of the Holy Spirit which supports sacred history is also somehow supportive of all human history including secular history. There is therefore a distinction to be made. The distinction is between the church as the public manifestation of the mystery of Christ and the operative action of the grace of the Holy Spirit. The church represents the fullness of Christian faith; the church represents humanity in its consciously realized newness, and as such the church is the sacrament, the sign, the manifestation of Christ. On the other hand, grace, and very notably the grace of faith, is somehow operative in all men, even in those we think of in terms of the biblical problematic as “those outside.”
In consequence of this new conciliar awareness of the church and of this newly realized distinction, a number of new theological themes have been cast up. There is the theme of the belief of the unbeliever, and the theme of the anonymous Christian. There is the theme of implicit faith, Christian faith that is implicit in all men of good will, in all men whose will is to the good, in all men who are animated by the spirit of love. There is the theme of the distinction between the manifest and the latent presence of the sacred in history. All these themes, all these theological theories, are pertinent to the issue of contemporary atheism because they serve to establish an intrinsic relationship between the church and the world, between the two histories. These themes have, moreover, considerable theological fertility. They serve to enlarge and to deepen our notion of faith and to bring us back to a more biblical notion, as over against the more intellectualized version of faith which was prominent in the scholastic tradition. These themes have besides a great pastoral significance insofar as they illustrate the necessity and possibility of dialogue; dialogue between the church, which is the fullness of belief, and the world, in which there is indeed belief but a belief which has not come to a conscious conceptualization or even perhaps to an integrity of commitment.
Nevertheless, there is, I think, a danger today that these themes, especially the anonymous Christian idea, might lead to some dissolution of the biblical problematic. If you push these themes to their logical absurdity, you might be inclined to say that there are today no atheists, neither in foxholes nor anywhere else. You might be inclined to say that culpable unbelief is not a possibility, is not a viable option for man today, that there is no such thing really as conscious refusal or rejection of God. You might, if you pushed these themes to absurdity beyond the bounds of logic, be inclined to repeal the condemnation of Paul: “So that they themselves are without excuse in their idolatry.” This we cannot afford to do, for the biblical problematic must stand.
Thus far I have been pursuing the first development of my basic theme of the church as the sacrament of Christ, namely the dialectical tension between the institutional church and those who have no visible relation to it. There is another line of development, however, one more directly pertinent to the unbelief of the Christian. A hint of it is to be found in Section 19 of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, where there is a discussion of the forms and roots of contemporary atheism, and where explicit mention is made of the responsibility of Christians themselves for this massive contemporary phenomenon. Christians, the text says, “To the extent that they are deficient in their religious, moral, or social life, must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion,” that is to say, the presence of God here and now.
Likewise in Section 8 of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church we read that the church “faithfully reveals the mystery of its Lord to the world, but under shadows, until finally the manifestation will be complete in fullness of light.” Now these are very interesting statements and upon them hangs in a sense a kind of conciliar tail. For in these texts there is explicit reference to the culpability of individuals in the church. There was a great resistance among the conciliar Fathers against any notion that somehow or other guilt or sin or defect or deficiency could be predicted of the church herself. There was a great opposition to what finally got into the document on ecumenism, as to the fault of the church. With regard to the document on religious freedom, I can testify here personally to great opposition on the part of the Fathers to any notion that the church herself had been guilty of default, defect, and sin against the proclamation of that Christian and human freedom which is inherent in the Gospel. It was I who finally devised the formulation in Section 12: “even though there were some people among the people of God who did not act up to the example of Christ in regard of Christian freedom.” That is the best we could get from the Fathers, and you have no idea what a strain it was to get this much into the documents, namely that somehow or other, here and there, now and again, one or another person in the history of the church may not have lived up to the fullness of the Christian revelation.
I must say, with all due deference to the Fathers of the Council, that they were the victims of a defective ecclesiology, very Platonic in its implications, as if somehow the church were some supernal entity hovering above history and not involved at all in history or in the people who make up the church. They seem to have acquiesced too readily in some division between the formal and material components of the church, between the church as sacramental and institutional, would have been well advised to return to a stream of patristic thought which as a matter of fact they themselves had found without fully knowing it. As you know, in Chapter 7 of the Constitution on the Church they picked up the great patristic theme of the eschatological character of the church and as soon as you get into that you get into the tension that I spoke of a while ago between the “even now” and the “not yet.” This tension is a vital tension – the “even now” and the “not yet” exist in unity and simultaneity in the concrete living reality of the church that you and I belong to, the pilgrim church making its way through history.
If you take this theme of the eschatological character of the church seriously, as we in the post-conciliar age can do, then I think you are obliged to admit not merely that individuals in the church can be sinners and sinful, but that the church herself at any and all given moments of her Earthly pilgrimage can also be a sinning and a sinful church, even though at the same time the church remains the one and the holy church. While it is true that the church incurs guilt only through her members, it is nonetheless also true that the guilt her members incur can rightly be predicted to the church herself. In other words, you could apply to the church in an orthodox sense the famous Lutheran dictum with regard to the individual: simul justus et peccator, at once just and a sinner. And this seems to me implicit in the explicit conciliar acceptance of the Lutheran dictum that the church must always be reformed. In Chapter 8 of the Constitution there is mention of the church as at the same time holy and always to be purified; and the church is, as the text goes on to say, in continual quest both of conversion and also of renewal. This is what the Council said, and we in the post-conciliar period are allowed to take it seriously.
It is at this point that I come back to my theme, namely that there is a certain ambivalence to the church as the sacrament and sign of Christ. On the one hand, the church is the explicit and visible manifestation of God’s plan in history, of the divine salvific action, of the abiding presence of Christ in his spirit. On the other hand, the intelligibility of this sign and sacrament is darkened by the shadows that conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of Christ who is the image of the Father.
The first shadow that falls on the face of the church and obscures its intelligibility as the sacrament of Christ is the disunity of the church herself. In John 17:21 the Lord said it was by the unity of his followers that men were to know that he had been sent by the Father. The disunity among his followers therefore is an obstacle to belief in him. This disunity blurs the message of the church, confuses her mission and obscures the significance of herself as sacrament. Note that I am speaking of the disunity of the church, because here again Vatican II dissolved an older problematic. It used to be that you had the one, holy, Roman, Catholic and apostolic church over here, then rather lamentably you had a group of separated brethren over there. But this will no longer do. Obviously the Council here did not follow out its own thought. In the Decree on Ecumenism, the Council acknowledged that there are ecclesial realities outside the visible communion of the Roman Church. There is the reality of the Word, the reality of baptism, the reality of faith, to some extent the reality of the Lord’s Supper. These realities are not merely realities that sanctify the individual as such; they are also ecclesial, that is to say, they contribute to create and build the church. In their ecclesial realizations outside the Roman Church, these realities play a role in the history of salvation. It is not then simply a question of the true church over here and those unfortunately divided form the church over there. No, the church herself is divided. She is not yet possessed of her full ecclesial reality; she is not yet the one and holy, although she is even now the one and holy. Here again we have the eschatological tension.
You will see, I think, that at this point I am once more touching the ecclesial dimensions of the unbelief of the Christian. The church is sacrament of Christ, Christ is the sacrament of the Father. The church is the sacrament of Christ in the concrete totality of her presence and action in history. On the other hand, the concrete reality of the church in history obscures, dims, clouds the visibility and the intelligibility of the church as sacrament and sign of the mystery of people. In the opening words of the Constitution on the Church: “Upon Christ as the light of the peoples, the church herself, who is to be the sign of Christ, casts shadows.” And it is in this ecclesial sense that I think I would first speak of the unbelief of the Christian. It is the unbelief in the church and the unbelief of the church. The basic notion here is the notion of the church as at once believing and unbelieving. It is the notion of the church as at once realizing and signifying in history the divine plan, and in some sense being a negative realization of this plan and an obscuring of it. It is in such terms that I would in the first instance establish an intrinsic relationship between the church, the world of belief, and those outside of it, the world of unbelief.
In some such terms I think one could reach a unified theological understanding both of the church and of the world in their mutual relationship. There are of course the other factors mentioned by the Council itself: the faults of Christians, the neglect of education in the faith, misleading exposition of doctrine and defects of individuals in the church. But you might raise this question: are there not also ecclesial defects, defects of the church herself? Are not these related to defective structures in the church, or to defective functioning of her institutions, whether these institutions be of divine law or of human institution? Do we not find defects in the organization of her prophetic ministry and its prolongation in theological education, defects in her pastoral mission, organized less in terms of love than perhaps simply in terms of efficiency? The Constitution on the Liturgy notes defects even in the liturgical practice of the church, in so far as the liturgy is a proclamation of the Gospel. The present funeral mass, for example, is a complete misrepresentation of the fundamental Christian theology of death. Instead of proclaiming the ultimate meaning of death as the beginning of the fullness of life in Christ, what it proclaims is dies irae and all that kind of thing. This is somehow an ecclesial fault, for we cannot say it is the fault of the one who composed the mass; we don’t even know who he was. This liturgy is an instrument of the church used kerygmatically to veil from the world the supreme message which the church has to give to the world. Similarly the social practice as well as the social doctrine of the church as such has as a matter of historical fact obscured her message of salvation. There is no need for me to develop this line of thought any further. The point is that the church is a burden and a trial to the belief of the Christian as well as a help and a support to this belief.
The church does indeed fulfill the great mandate of Matthew 28:1-20, her apostolic mission to teach. But the church also forever falls short in fulfilling this mandate. The church exists in the world as the sacrament of Christ, and does indeed reveal by her existence and her action the mystery of Christ; but she does this in a shadowed and darkened kind of way, fideliter sed sub umbris, as the Council says. By her own unbelief the church bears an intrinsic relationship to the unbelief of the world, as well as a responsibility for this unbelief, insofar as she herself, destined to be the sign and sacrament of the mystery of Christ, conceals instead of reveals the face of Christ. Yet the dialectic still holds: because the church is the revelation of the mystery of Christ, she imposes upon the unbeliever a responsibility for his own unbelief. Thus we rejoin the biblical problematic: “So that they are inexcusable” who fail to recognize and acknowledge Christ in the sign of Christ. This biblical problematic is at root an affirmation both of the accessibility and the obscurity of faith. It is an assent to mystery, an assent that is given not on evidence but on the Word of God. Faith therefore contains within itself the seeds of its own imperfection; belief itself contains the seeds of unbelief.
In my opening remarks I underlined what I feel to be the central issue in the contemporary phenomenon of unbelief, namely whether there is something else in human life besides the history that makes man. For the Christian affirmation is that there is indeed another history, the history which God makes, and which takes place in and through the events of human history. This history of salvation can be seen only with the eyes of faith and its external manifestation is a sign, the sacrament which is the church. Yet this instrument of Christ’s revelation has, in cold historical fact, obscured his face and failed to proclaim his message. This the church has done not through malice but simply because she is human. Her members are therefore themselves in some sense unbelievers, and must share responsibility for the unbelief of the world around them. This world in turn cannot be absolved from its own guilt, for there will always be men who freely choose to live in darkness rather than in light. Yet what the Christian must guard against, when he and his church present themselves to the world in which they live, is that this world should not encounter in them that portion of darkness which is theirs. This we all pray for, that the light which is Christ may break through our darkness, and that contemporary unbelief may find in the church a sacrament of Christian faith.