The Church as Covenant, Culture, and Communion

By Starkloff, Carl F. | Theological Studies, September 2000 | Go to article overview

The Church as Covenant, Culture, and Communion


Starkloff, Carl F., Theological Studies


FOCUSING ON THE PROBLEM of individualism not only in distinct persons but also in exclusive cultural groups, I wish to argue here that the theme of the "common good" in Catholic social ethics has a deeply sacramental dimension, and that this ecclesial sacramentality disposes the Church to serve as a model for a community of the common good which embraces all the cultures of the world. I appreciate also the fact that the Church, inevitably in its humanity a "cultural system," can fall into the same trap of exclusivity as secular society, and in fact has often done so). Only if it is constantly attentive to the original covenant by which God established it as well as to its cultural responsibilities and its nature as communion (koinonia) can it transcend this trap and fulfill its sacramental role.

Theologically, the Church can serve as a model because it is a sacrament, the primordial sacrament (Ursakrament). In a famous article, Karl Rahner wrote even before Vatican II: "The Church is the continuance, the contemporary presence, of that real, eschatologically triumphant and irrevocably established presence in the world, in Christ, of God's salvific will."(1) This basic definition of sacramentality came into its own at Vatican II, especially in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum concilium), where the decree states: "The purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify people, to build up the body of Christ, and, finally, to give worship to God. Because they are signs, they also belong in the realm of instruction."(2) Here I cite this statement about the final cause of the sacraments to describe the Church which as Lumen gentium calls it, is "the universal sacrament of salvation."(3)

It will clarify my point to examine a venerable authority on the topic, Avery Dulles, and his oft-cited Models of the Church. Of Dulles's six models the second is that of sacrament, in support of which he draws on an impressive list of theologians who describe the Church as the basic sacrament, after Christ himself.(4) For the purpose of his overall theme, Dulles cast this model in a highly liturgical light and detailed the possible advantages as well as deficiencies of using this model. One of the deficiencies is that a community can fall into a preoccupation with ritual nicety a "narcissistic estheticism," in Dulles's tongue-twisting phrase.(5) However, he also saw the sacramental approach as effective in mediating the more extreme interpretations of the institutional and mystical communion models, with their tendencies, respectively, to rigidity and privatism.(6) My approach here is to strengthen the socio-cultural dimension of the sacrament model through a concern for what Dulles would express in his fifth model, that of servant in dialogue with the world.

Casting the Church as a model calls for a further methodological statement, one that I take from the famous essay of Clifford Geertz, "Religion as a Cultural System." Geertz's methodology for interpreting culture is semiotic, focusing on cultural symbols and, in turn, symbols as models. He has created a valuable distinction in types of models--models of and models for. The model of symbolizes what a reality already is, as in the case of a diagram of an existing dam, while the model for is like a blueprint for a new construction.(7) While these functions are often interchangeable in the same model, my major emphasis here will be on Geertz's understanding of how a model for enables agents to manipulate external systems of symbolically expressed relationships--that is, to create new symbolic processes.(8) Employing Geertz's method here, I argue that the Church is not only a model of communion, but a model for a richer historical development of that communion.

Throughout the works of Robert N. Bellah over the last quarter of a century, one golden thread is woven, namely the quest to retrieve "the common good." But interwoven with it is a darker thread, his lament over individualism in the United States. …

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