Reflections on Haight’s Comparative Ecclesiology

Haight, Roger. “Comparative Ecclesiology.” The Routledge Companion to the Christian Church. ed. Gerard Mannion and Lewis S. Mudge. New York: Routledge. 2008. 387-401.

After a brief overview of comparative elements of ecclesiology through the history of the church, Haight identifies five prerequisites to comparative ecclesiology, and describes five forms of it. As this is an intrinsically ecumenical (or interfaith) methodology, he appears to be writing primarily to those who have already been formed by the historical consciousness, appreciation of pluralism, a “whole-part conception of the church,” and appreciation of ecclesial or confessional identity that constitute its prerequisites. (Pluralism appears twice, separately for intra-Christian and interfaith pluralism.) Four of the five forms of comparative ecclesiology appear to proceed along a spectrum: one would reasonably begin with an objective comparison, followed by ecumenical dialogue and analysis, which would then progress to convergence on a common ecclesiology, and finally engage in interreligious comparisons with other religious communities. The second of the five forms is qualitatively different from the others, although Haight argues that it together with the first is a prerequisite for the third.

He describes this second form as “constructing the foundations of ecclesial existence” (393), and draws heavily on the work of Edward Farley in his 1982 book Ecclesial Reflection. This form is of most significance to the project of constructing a systematic ecclesiology that is rooted in, without being reduced to, the concrete church, while simultaneously avoiding an overly ideal or even Platonic understanding of the universal church that truly exists only in its eschatological fulfillment. Although Haight formulates this section in the terms proposed by Farley’s book, the reviews of which were mixed due to its suspicion of tradition and traditional doctrinesi, the point seems to be to describe and defend the set of things that we have in mind when members of different ecclesial traditions look at each other and ask, “Can we recognize each other as church?” This is the methodology articulated by the ARCIC dialogues, for example, and other ecumenical dialogues between separated churches searching for a path towards unity.

Farley’s set of such things, taken over by Haight, comprises the following (394):

  • the “event of Jesus Christ” as initiating, normative, salvific, and of universal significance
  • the articulation, codification, canonization, and interpretation of this event and reflections thereon
  • “proclamation, sacramental celebration and mediation of the message, and care of individuals and groups”
  • institutional forms that provide leadership, expertise, regular face-to-face assemblies of local congregations; and meaningful connections among local congregations.

Haight describes this as “the common social form of Christian existence. Common existence does not compete with the differences among traditions but subsists within them.” (394)

What’s less apparent from this summary is the assumption that any given concrete church community will certainly possess these attributes in a form that is historically conditioned by the community’s historical, cultural, ecclesial, and social context. Thus we should positively expect differences among church communities, even in the essentials, at least as to the precise form such essentials would take.

I think of this in the following terms: the concrete church is underdetermined by the universal church. Therefore, there may be great variations among concrete church communities, all of which are equally congruent with the universal church. This is similar to the way I think about the notion of human flourishing, which is a foundational notion in Catholic moral theology that engages with natural law. Because of the universality of the human condition, there must indeed be some set of universal criteria for human flourishing; and at the same time, because of the great diversity of the human condition, there is no single perfect form of society that maximizes human flourishing. Societal and cultural forms are underdetermined by this standard (Deo gratias!).

Haight’s selection of the verb subsists rings strongly to this Catholic reader of a deliberate allusion to the language of Lumen Gentium, which famously declared that the one Church of Christ “subsists in” the Catholic Church. The precise meaning intended by this phrase was, I believe, wisely left deliberately unclear: the only clarification given was that it was definitively not to be interpreted as “identical” or “coterminous.” The Second Vatican Council rejected the prior assumption of an ecumenism of return as the only path to unity, and taught that a real though imperfect communion already existed between the Catholic Church and other Christian churches. Some of these other Christian churches were later re-defined as “ecclesial communities” in Dominus Iesus, on the grounds that they lacked some or all of the necessary qualities to be considered churches “in the proper sense.” Here is the relevant paragraph from DI:

17. Therefore, there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him. The Churches which, while not existing in perfect communion with the Catholic Church, remain united to her by means of the closest bonds, that is, by apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist, are true particular Churches. Therefore, the Church of Christ is present and operative also in these Churches, even though they lack full communion with the Catholic Church, since they do not accept the Catholic doctrine of the Primacy, which, according to the will of God, the Bishop of Rome objectively has and exercises over the entire Church.

On the other hand, the ecclesial communities which have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery, are not Churches in the proper sense; however, those who are baptized in these communities are, by Baptism, incorporated in Christ and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church. Baptism in fact tends per se toward the full development of life in Christ, through the integral profession of faith, the Eucharist, and full communion in the Church.

The Christian faithful are therefore not permitted to imagine that the Church of Christ is nothing more than a collection “divided, yet in some way one” of Churches and ecclesial communities; nor are they free to hold that today the Church of Christ nowhere really exists, and must be considered only as a goal which all Churches and ecclesial communities must strive to reach. In fact, the elements of this already-given Church exist, joined together in their fullness in the Catholic Church and, without this fullness, in the other communities. Therefore, these separated Churches and communities as such, though we believe they suffer from defects, have by no means been deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church.

The lack of unity among Christians is certainly a wound for the Church; not in the sense that she is deprived of her unity, but in that it hinders the complete fulfilment of her universality in history.

Haight’s criteria for “the foundations of ecclesial existence” appear to be functionally analogous to the properties described by DI of the Church of Christ, but they are qualitatively different from the attributes of a valid church discussed in DI: the latter are very particular doctrinal and institutional forms, underdetermined by the former.

iMcCann, Dennis P. “Ecclesial Reflection: An Anatomy of Theological Method.” Interpretation 39, no. 2 (April 1, 1985): 189-192 ; Wainwright, Geoffrey. “Ecclesial Reflection: An Anatomy of Theological Method.” Theology Today 40, no. 2 (July 1, 1983): 200-318 ; Dulles, Avery Robert, Cardinal. “Ecclesial Reflection: An Anatomy of Theological Method.” Theological Studies 44, no. 1 (March 1, 1983): 143-145.

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1 Response to Reflections on Haight’s Comparative Ecclesiology

  1. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival – March 2013 | Reading Acts

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