The Church as an Eschatological Community

Article excerpt

In my last few columns I have been exploring the major ecclesiological themes or principles proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The final ecclesiological principle I want to look at is embodied in the council's teaching that the church is not an end in itself, but that it exists always and only for the sake of the reign, or kingdom, of God. In other words, the church is an eschatological community.

The church is "already" and "not yet" within the reign of God. Insofar as it is "already" within God's reign, it is itself a mystery, or sacrament, and an object of faith ("I believe in the church.").

Insofar as it is "not yet" within the reign of God, it is a sinful church on pilgrimage through history, holy but always in need of penance, renewal and reform.

The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudi-um et Spes) expressed it succinctly: "The church has but one sole purpose -- that the kingdom of God may come and the salvation of the human race may be accomplished."

As I pointed out in my book The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism, everything that the church is and does is always subordinate to and in service of the coming reign, or kingdom, of God.

This conciliar teaching was in. sharp contrast to the widespread pre-conciliar assumption that the church is the kingdom of God on Earth. Thus, the parables of the kingdom were regularly interpreted by preachers, catechists and even some theologians as parables of the church.

The tendency to equate the church with the kingdom of God was denounced as a form of "triumphalism" in a famous intervention at Vatican II by the late Bishop Emile-Jozef De Smedt of Bruges, Belgium.

Article 5 was added to the Dogmatic Constitution on the church (Lumen Gentium) precisely to counteract this residual habit of equating the church with the kingdom of God.

Just as Jesus came to announce, personify and bring about the kingdom of God, so too the church exists to proclaim, witness to, and help establish the kingdom on Earth and to facilitate its fulfillment at the end of history.

But unlike Jesus, the church cannot claim to be itself the kingdom of God. It is at most "the seed and the beginning of that kingdom. While it slowly grows to maturity, the church longs for the completed kingdom and, with all its strength, hopes and desires to be united in glory with its king."

The whole of chapter seven of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church is devoted to the eschatological nature of the church under the title, "The Pilgrim Church. …