Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras Source: USCCB

Pope Paul VI’s Ecclesiam Suam as a Source for Political Theology

Catholic Social Ethics

Pope Paul VI’s 1964 encyclical Ecclesiam Suam is largely neglected in contemporary theological discussions, but ought to be an important resource for Catholic political theology.

Pope Paul VI’s 1964 encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, the first of his pontificate, is largely neglected in contemporary theological discussions. As Paul himself inauspiciously notes in the encyclical, “Our present aim is not to expound new or duly developed insights. . . . Nor do We propose to make this encyclical a solemn proclamation of Catholic doctrine or of moral or social principles” (##6-7). Nevertheless, Ecclesiam Suam provides a helpful window into the development of conciliar and post-conciliar magisterial teaching and offers key insights for Catholic political theology.

Paul begins the encyclical by stating its purpose: “The aim of this encyclical will be to demonstrate with increasing clarity how vital it is for the world, and how greatly desired by the Catholic Church, that the two should meet together, and get to know and love one another” (#3). He goes on to outline three points of emphasis he believes are vital for the ongoing life of the church and that he wishes to make central to his pontificate:

1) A deepening self-knowledge on the part of the church;

2) Renewal and reform within the church;

3) Greater dialogue between the church and the world.

Paul’s priorities map closely with those of the Second Vatican Council, which was ongoing at the time he wrote the encyclical, and many of the themes introduced in the encyclical are further elaborated in the documents of the council, such as Lumen Gentium on the nature of the church, Gaudium et Spes on the relationship between the church and the modern world, and Unitatis Redintegratio and Nostra Aetate on dialogue with fellow Christians and non-Christian religions, respectively. It is in part because of this close link between the encyclical and the teachings of the council, which have profoundly shaped the subsequent life of the church, that a closer look at Ecclesiam Suam is merited. In this post I will discuss all three of the priorities outlined by Pope Paul, with a particular emphasis on the last, dialogue.

The Self-Knowledge of the Church

Paul begins by calling on the church to deepen its self-awareness. He writes, “We are convinced that the Church must look with penetrating eyes within itself, ponder the mystery of its own being, and draw enlightenment and inspiration from a deeper scrutiny of the doctrine of its own origin, nature, mission, and destiny.” Indeed, he notes that this process has already begun in the church’s official teaching, most notably in the teachings of the First Vatican Council (1869-70) and in the then-ongoing work of the Second Vatican Council, but also in the teachings of his predecessors, particularly Pope Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi, on the nature of the church as Christ’s mystical body (#30).

Paul also praises the contribution of theologians to the church’s self-understanding. He writes, “We would like to pay special tribute to those brilliant scholars whose extremely competent works of theological research and exposition, undertaken in exemplary submission to the Church’s teaching authority, have made such an expert and useful contribution to this subject, especially within recent years” (#31).

In particular, Paul praises how both magisterial teaching and the works of theologians have elucidated what one might call, following the Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac, the paradoxes of the mystery of church, of which Paul lists several: the church is both visible and spiritual; it is “free and yet subject to discipline”; it is both a communion and hierarchical; it is both holy and in need of reform; it is both contemplative and active (#38).

Why is the church in need of this renewal in its self-understanding? Paul writes that, “[T]he Church is deeply rooted in the world. It exists in the world and draws its members from the world. It derives from it a wealth of human culture. It shares its vicissitudes and promotes its prosperity.” He continues, however, that “[W]e also know that the modern world is in the grip of change and upheaval. It is undergoing developments which are having a profound influence on its outward way of life and habits of thought” (#26). In order for the church to engage with the world brought about by modernity, or postmodernity, the church must have a clearer, deepened, sense of its own identity.

Renewal and Reform of the Church

Paul goes on to argue that this deepened self-awareness of the church’s identity will necessarily lead to the moral and spiritual renewal of both individual Catholics and of the church itself. If the church’s identity is focused on bringing the world closer to Christ, then the church and its members must themselves be purified by their ongoing encounter with Christ.

In a striking passage, Paul lays out some important principles for the reform of the church:

“[W]hen we speak about reform we are not concerned to change things, but to preserve all the more resolutely the characteristic features which Christ has impressed on His Church. Or rather, we are concerned to restore to the Church that ideal of perfection and beauty that corresponds to its original image, and that is at the same time consistent with its necessary, normal and legitimate growth from its original, embryonic form into its present structure (#47).”

Paul’s purpose in the first sentence is not to deny the need for change, but rather, as he makes clear in the preceding paragraph, to affirm that the church has an “essential nature” and a “basic and necessary structure” that reflects its divinely-given mission and which cannot be changed (#46). As the remainder of the passage makes clear, however, Paul believes that the church consistently falls short of God’s intentions for it and is in regular need of reform. He provides two contrasting but reinforcing images for this reform. On the one hand, the church must constantly refer back to the “original image” of its divine founding, a sort of Platonic ideal from which it falls short. On the other hand, the church is like an organism that grows to fullness over time, or as the Second Vatican Council would later put it in Dei Verbum, “[A]s the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her” (#8).

Paul also warns about false reform, which he describes as adapting an overly worldly character. He warns against efforts at reform that downplay the supernatural or spiritual aspects of Christian faith, or that diminish those aspects of Christian life that prove difficult or that distinguish Christians from their neighbors (##49). Paul is aware that the church’s engagement with the world must involve a careful balance: the church lives within the world and must in some ways adapt to it, but also must maintain its distinctive identity and purpose.

The Call to Dialogue

The third priority outlined by Paul in Ecclesiam Suam is that, if the church and the world are to “get to know and love one another,” then they must learn to engage in dialogue. He notes that the church must come to better understand and preserve its distinctive identity not to separate itself from the world, but rather to better engage and serve it (#63), a mission it fulfills through dialogue.

Paul uses the metaphor of four concentric circles to describe the various partners with whom Catholics are called to dialogue. The first, outer, circle is humankind, although because of the particular way Paul defines the more inward circles, here he particularly has in mind atheists and other secular-minded people. The second circle includes what Paul describes as “worshippers of the one God,” which unsurprisingly encompasses Jews and Muslims, but Paul also includes “the followers of the great Afro-Asiatic religions” (#107). The third circle includes fellow Christians, and in the relevant section Paul includes a lengthy discussion of ecumenical dialogue. And the fourth circle includes Catholics themselves. Paul seems primarily focused on dialogue between the church’s hierarchical authorities and its members, but the notion that dialogue among the church’s members is at the heart of the church’s mission is a fruitful one at a time of intense polarization within the church. As I noted earlier, the Second Vatican Council explored in more detail the forms of dialogue called for by Pope Paul in Ecclesiam Suam, and here I am more interested in how Paul defines dialogue and how he believes it ought to be carried out.

In a 2016 editorial in First Things, R.R. Reno expressed his doubts about the usefulness of the terms “dialogue” and human rights,” despite their centrality to Catholic teaching since the Second Vatican Council. Claiming that “dialogue” has become a “tactic for neutralizing opposition” used by the opponents of the church, Reno concludes that “to speak of dialogue in 2016 risks baptizing our compromising complicity with the present age. We can too easily justify our easygoing, get-along approach as a commitment to dialogue.” Instead, he proposes that “Our moment calls for witness, not dialogue.”

Although very aware of the challenges to dialogue Reno describes, Paul’s description of dialogue makes it clear that it is not simply a tactic that should be adapted only when useful, but rather is central to the identity and mission of the church. In a profound passage, Paul explains that the church’s commitment to dialogue is the church’s reflection of what he calls “the dialogue of salvation.” God’s revelation to humankind through the Incarnation is the foundational dialogue—God speaks to us through His Word, a Word to which we respond in one form another. As Paul goes on to say, “Indeed, the whole history of man’s salvation is one long, varied dialogue, which marvelously begins with God and which He prolongs with men in so many different ways” (#70). This dialogue between God and humankind is constitutive of what it means to be a human person and what it means to be the church. As an example of the principle that the good is diffusive of itself, Paul insists that “The very nature of the gifts which Christ has given the Church demands that they be extended to others and shared with others” (#64), meaning that because the church receives the gift of salvation by means of “the dialogue of salvation,” the church must likewise perform its ministry by means of dialogue.

Drawing on this dialogical anthropology and ecclesiology, Paul then provides a series of guidelines on how the church and its members ought to carry out dialogue within the concentric circles outlined earlier:

  • Just as God took the initiative in the dialogue of salvation, we must always be ready to take the initiative in dialogue;
  • Dialogue must always be carried out with the motive of “ardent and sincere” love;
  • The worth of dialogue is not dependent on the merits of the interlocutor or on a pre-determined outcome;
  • Dialogue must be carried out free from physical pressure or external coercion;
  • Dialogue ought to be universal in scope, open to everyone except those who refuse to participate;
  • Dialogue should be patient, but also “eager for the opportune moment” (##72-77).

Paul is also aware of some of the risks of dialogue. For example, he warns against the “immoderate desire to make peace and sink differences at all costs” which would endanger the church’s identity (#88). Dialogue must always be carried out in pursuit of the truth. He also considers the situation of Catholics then living in the communist bloc, where “dialogue is very difficult, not to say impossible” because it is hampered “by the absence of sufficient freedom of thought and action, and by the calculated misuse of words in debate, so that they serve not the investigation and formulation of objective truth, but purely subjective expediency” (#102). Yet even under the worst conditions, the church can carry out its mission of dialogue by being a “voice of suffering,” a witness “of silence, suffering, patience, and unfailing love” (#103). Although the situation of the church in the contemporary West is by no means comparable to that under communism, Paul’s reflections suggest that, contrary to Reno, there is no dichotomy between dialogue and witness, but rather witness itself is a form of dialogue that must be carried out in the same spirit.

Paul turns to themes of self-knowledge, reform, and dialogue as a blueprint for the priorities of his papacy, but these themes also provide a key for interpreting later magisterial documents, including those dealing with social and political issues, where these themes continue to be central. Examining Ecclesiam Suam’s anthropology and ecclesiology of dialogue is especially vital because this anthropology and ecclesiology are crucial to understanding the church’s teaching on religious freedom in Dignitatis Humanae and the church’s later positions on democracy, but Ecclesiam Suam remains one of the documents where those themes are most clearly articulated. Catholic political theologians engaged with the magisterial documents of the tradition, then, ought to turn to Ecclesiam Suam as an important source.

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