Academic journal article Theological Studies

Bonaventure and the Sin of the Church

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Bonaventure and the Sin of the Church

Article excerpt

EVER SINCE THE Second Vatican Council declared that the Church is "at once holy and always in need of purification," there has been an ongoing debate over whether one may speak of the Church sinning as a collective body. (1) Interest in this question has been stimulated by John Paul II's repeated calls for the Church to repent for the many abusive policies and actions its members have engaged in over the last two millennia. (2) More recently, the crisis in the Church in the United States concerning the sexual misconduct of a small number of priests, and their reassignment by bishops to settings where they could prey on the most vulnerable members of our communion has added urgency to the question. At the heart of the question is how we understand the term "Church." Does Church always refer to a Platonic conception of a universal Church with ontological primacy over the concrete actions of local churches in history? (3) If so, it would be absurd to speak of the Church sinning. Further, can we reconcile the idea of collective guilt with an ecclesiology deeply rooted in the scriptural and traditional model of the Church as the Body of Christ? (4)

Though several theologians and ecclesial leaders, most notably John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger, have found that the Body of Christ model would seem to exclude the possibility of affirming that the Church can sin as a collective entity, I have found that the idea of collective sin and guilt was quite common in the Middle Ages. (5) In fact, Bonaventure (ca. 1217-1274), arguably one of Ratzinger's major sources for his own theological work, explicitly used Paul's description of the Church as the Body of Christ to explain what he identified as the "original" and primary sin of the Church, namely legalism. (6) Here I explore Bonaventure's sources for making such a striking claim and I examine how his analysis of the sin of the Church functions as a form of ecclesial apologetics and as a means to call for reform. Finally, I apply his understanding of the sin of the Church to the current crisis.

When Bonaventure made his statement about the fundamental sin of the Church being the sin of legalism, the Franciscan Order to which he belonged was in a state of crisis. The Order had been under attack by a large number of bishops, many of whom were opponents to the pastoral reforms called for by the Fourth Lateran Council. The Friars Minor had been under suspicion of heresy by some of these prelates on the grounds that many of the brothers had been tainted with the suspect doctrine of Joachim of Fiore who seemed to be calling for a new "spiritual" Church. Given this context, Bonaventure had to position himself on solid theological ground to avoid providing his enemies with more ammunition against the Franciscan Order. (7) At the same time, he had to exhort his brothers to remain faithful to a Church riddled with scandal and resistant to reform. The failure of the bishops to implement the reforms contained in the canons of the council had left many of the faithful vulnerable to unscrupulous clergymen. Worse still, at least to the medieval mind, these bishops had left their flocks vulnerable to the misleading and heretical doctrines of the Waldensians and the Cathars.

The rallying cry of the reformers for cura animarum urged ministers to focus upon the care of or more properly the cure of souls. Sin was seen as a type of illness that needed to be healed with great skill and discipline. This notion of ministry as being analogous to medical practice was ensconced in the Western tradition through Gregory the Great's Regula pastoralis and had been incorporated into the canons of the Fourth Lateran Council. (8) Though the council applied this idea of pastoral care to individuals, Gregory, as we shall see, had applied this idea to the Church as a collective body. By discussing the sin of the Church in terms of the collective Body of Christ, Bonaventure was able to link his insistence on implementing the council's reform agenda which had motivated many of the brothers to join the Order to his demand for the friars to practice the discipline of patience. …

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