Henri de Lubac’s Catholicism (pt. 1)

The first part of de Lubac’s tripartite book,¬†Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, is an extended exercise in Christian theological commitments that revolves around one very simple idea: namely, that Christ embodies the entirety of the human race. Or, put more succinctly, Christ¬†is humanity as a whole.¬†As is the case throughout the book, de Lubac’s conclusions are rooted deeply in the theology of the church fathers. Consider especially the following excerpt from Clement of Alexandria:

[Christ] intercedes for men and calls on them: “Hearken,” he cries, all you people, or rather all you who are endowed with reason, barbarians or Greeks! I summon the whole human race, I who am its author by the will of the Father! Come unto me and gather together as one well-ordered unity under the one God. (33)

Here, by way of Clement, de Lubac emphasizes the now difficult case for a human identity rooted in unity, not division. This is contrary to modern and postmodern accounts of the violent “state of nature” (Hobbes) and a denial of the ontological status of any such “origin” at all (Foucault). In what sounds almost naive to our weary modern ears, de Lubac is courageous enough to re-announce a consistent doctrine of creation–one that “postulates the brotherhood of all men” (31). For him, the perennial question, “What is humanity?” must be answered by the Christian: “Christ himself.” This is not a vague universalism without content in regards to human action, but instead a guiding destiny that constitutes¬†true¬†humanity as the divine image constituted by the Word become flesh. Thus “humanity” ought to be understood as a precious reality that is all too easy to let slip away with the divisive nature of the powers of sin and death.

But if humanity is one, then what of the Church? Are we left with a Church who is simply “along for the ride” in this common destiny of all human beings? Far from it, de Lubac says:

¬†[T]he¬†Unica Catholica¬†is not just her mere universality, open to all men and excluding none…but the bond of peace, that cohesion that is created wherever her sway extends. In the fullest meaning of the word she brings beings into existence and gathers them together into one Whole. Humanity is one, organically it is one by its divine structure; it is the Church’s mission to reveal to men that pristine unity which they have lost, to restore and complete it. (53)

As a predestined body, the Church was always and is continually its mission of speaking the hallowed truth of unity into the world. She is a theone¬†¬†for whom “the world was made,” and it is for this reason that “schism has always inspired the true believer with horror…for destruction of unity is a corruption of truth” (71,77). Put simply, the Church cannot be the Church if she is constituted by division and dissent; for at the heart of her very mission is the unity of humanity!

It is for this reason that the sacrament of the Eucharist “is also especially the sacrament of unity”–not only between historical human beings but also with the “mystical body” ¬†(89). It is in this context that he discusses transubstantiation, the doctrine of “real presence” of the fleshly body and blood of Christ in the elements of bread and wine. With the general atrophy of a sense of thorough integration of physical and spiritual, de Lubac says that the concept of symbol in the Eucharist was lost due to a fear of losing the miraculous nature of the sacrament altogether. He diagnoses the problem as a forgetting of the simple words of Augustine, “[Christ:] I am your food, but instead of my being changed into you, it is you who shall be transformed into me” (99). That is, the hermeneutic difficulties with the Eucharist could be alleviated by this re-framing. Instead of the forced emphasis on Christ’s physical presence coming to the Church,¬†we ought not to lose the equally important emphasis of the ceremony as a transformation of the Church itself.¬†

The subtlety of these arguments often makes them barely noticeable to the untrained ear, but it is nonetheless a profound exercise in hermeneutic theology.

(to be continued…)







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