St. Benedict’s Raven


Woodcut, St. Benedict's Raven, by Alison Kubbos
Woodcut, St. Benedict’s Raven, by Alison Kubbos

By luck, or fate, or providence, I’m teaching Ecclesiology to masters students this term, and so I have the task  of helping Lay Ecclesial Ministers understand the church where they minister. As part of my preparation for last week’s class, I re-read a chapter I had written last year on Lutheran Ecclesiology (it still isn’t published, though it should come out from Fortress Academic this year in a book called The Church as Fullness of All Things, edited by Jonathan Mumme, Richard Serina, and Mark Burkholz).

In it, I argue that the sixteenth-century argument about what the church is was unfortunately structured by a bad metaphor (the church is a society) that left both Catholics and Lutherans arguing about whether the church in heaven was really exactly the same church as the earthly structure or not. The Lutherans were concerned that the earthly church was often demonstrably not holy, and wanted to account for the admixture of sinners.  Catholics were concerned that Lutherans were setting up two churches, one heavenly and one earthly.  It quickly became a fight about whether the church was visible or invisible.

In that chapter, I pointed out that Catholic ecclesiology has theologically deemphasized this church as perfect society model (without leaving it entirely behind). It has moved towards describing the church more primarily as the mystical body, or the pilgrim people, or other images that describe the church in terms of both its earthly outwardness and the presence of its heavenly inwardness.  And then I suggested that Lutherans might be better served by using a key metaphor from their own tradition, seeing the church as a corporate body that is caught up in the logic of Law and Gospel.

Thinking about that chapter, I realized that it also had something to say to Catholics. Most of the time, we’re still conceiving of the church as a society.  Just this week, I listened to a podcast from a group of theologians whom I very much respect, who spent 20 minutes talking about the church in an explicit parallel to the idea of “Canada.” This sounds an awful lot like the polemical position of Cardinal Bellarmine, who insisted that the church was as visible as “the body of the Roman people, or the Republic of Venice, or the Kingdom of France.” (De Controversiis, 193­–4).

It’s easy to see why such conceptions are so common. We generally experience the church as a society, as an institution. Especially those of us who work in  it. But, it has some serious theological downsides. In Tridentine theology, this model explicitly meant that the borders of the true church, of God’s presence, was determined by being under the rule of the church’s proper leaders. Which means that the hierarchy, and the hierarchy alone, determines where the church is. And this sets up particular problems when that very hierarchy is complicit in real evil (as the sixteenth century knew, and we are remembering).

Returning to this chapter, it was clear to me just how sacramental those more developed Catholic descriptors of the church that we find in Mystici Corporis and Lumen Gentium are. I’d encourage you to take another look back at those documents.

But here’s where we come to the point of this post: If we think of the church in sacramental terms, then first of all, we expand our definition of the church beyond its leadership. The hierarchy are certainly important, essential.  But in the sacraments, it is the whole church that celebrates, and it is the whole church in which Christ is present, albeit as head and body.

But more importantly, sacramental language simultaneously affirms that God’s presence, God’s promises, God himself are present in the church. And yet it distinguishes the sign by which those things are really present from that which is present without separating them.

To use the language of classical Sacramental theology: the res tantum [the thing itself, i.e. in the Eucharist, the Body of Christ] is really, truly present in the sacramentum tantum [the sign itself, in the Eucharist, the consecrated elements].  We can only received the res tantum as res et sacramentum [as the thing and sign, the sign is that through which the grace is really present].

Indeed, this kind of presence is the only way that any grace is sacramentally mediated. You can’t get around the sign to the reality that it mediates. But that doesn’t mean that eucharistic elements can’t mold, or even that they can’t be poisoned. In that unfortunate case, Christ’s body and blood would still be present, but receiving those tainted elements would not be sound theological or pastoral advice.

Of course, given that this post is located at Pray Tell, I can’t let a reference to poisoned bread and wine slip by without invoking St. Benedict, whom (St. Gregory says), people kept trying to poison, especially his bread and wine.

Sometimes, a blessing is all that’s needed to dispel the danger – the cup is broken, and the poison revealed (Vita Benedicti, ch. 3). We kept trying this path in the church, trusting in the sacrament of reconciliation and the grace of God to protect the innocent. We all know what happened. Especially when we didn’t reveal publicly what the poison was.

And so, sometimes, that which is poisonous needs to be taken away where it cannot hurt anyone. In the Life, Benedict calls on a raven to take the poisoned bread off to a place where it cannot hurt anyone (Vita Benedicti, ch. 8).

Calling for the reform of the church, proposing ways to help prevent further abuse, imposing penalties on those who, through their action or inaction poisoned the very signs in which we encounter Christ (I Cor 12:27) is not a sign that we disbelieve God’s promises. That would only be true if our understanding of the church equated the church on pilgrimage (or worse, its pastors) with the Kingdom itself.

Especially in contemporary Catholicism, where we have often confused loyalty to institutions and persons with fidelity to Christ, we need to unlearn the lessons of sixteenth-century ecclesiology in order to remember with Vatican II that the church is a sacrament.  And that sacraments only happen in the ordinary stuff of life where both mold and poison are possible.

I don’t know what reforms need to happen. Or how the church makes adequate reparation and reform. Or even if adequate reparation is possible. But for now, at the very least, we should stop worrying that asking the church to act more like Christ is somehow doubting Christ’s presence or his promise.  Fidelity to Christ, fidelity to the church,  may require actions that seem disloyal to persons and institutions.

Sometimes we need to call on Benedict’s raven. “In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, take up that loaf, and leave it in some such place where no one may find it.” (Vita Benedicti, ch. 8).



9 responses to “St. Benedict’s Raven”

  1. Alan Griffiths Avatar
    Alan Griffiths

    If the consecrated elements did decay, mould or were otherwise no longer perceptible, or even chemically constituted, as bread and wine, where would that leave the ‘real presence?’


    1. Jakob K Rinderknecht Avatar

      So, classical sacramental theology says that once the elements aren’t “really bread” or “really wine” any more, they are no longer consecrated elements because the sign has stopped being a sign.

      But, in a situation where the consecrated bread is still bread (moldy bread, or poisoned bread), it would still be a consecrated host. The sign is still a bearer of the reality. Albeit one which should not be consumed by a human.

      The typical situation at this point would be to dissolve the bread and dispose of it in a sacrarium.

      So, in bringing the analogy back around to the point under consideration– what do we do when something/someone who is professed to be a locus of God’s presence in the community is also dangerous? We cannot merely say that they are no longer a sign of God’s presence. And yet, we cannot presume that they are safe because they are a sign of God’s presence. And so, we need to find ways to remove the danger to the gathered assembly.

      1. John Kohanski Avatar
        John Kohanski

        “what do we do when something/someone who is professed to be a locus of God’s presence in the community is also dangerous? We cannot merely say that they are no longer a sign of God’s presence. And yet, we cannot presume that they are safe because they are a sign of God’s presence. And so, we need to find ways to remove the danger to the gathered assembly.”

        That proposition is more dangerous than a litmus test to see if a person believes in the Holy Eucharist or not.

      2. Jakob K Rinderknecht Avatar

        John, I’m not quite sure what you’re saying. Can you expand a little more to help me understand?

  2. Kurt Bodling Avatar
    Kurt Bodling

    I’ve long understood article VII of the Augsburg Confession to teach that the Church is _when_ the Gospel is preached in its purity and the Sacraments are administered in accordance with the Gospel.

    That sounds to me pretty compatible with what you’re saying here.

    1. Jakob K Rinderknecht Avatar

      Kurt –
      Thanks for pointing to this. One of the things I’m arguing in the Lutheran ecclesiology article I mentioned, is that in the polemical situation of the 16c. Lutherans repeatedly argued that the church is something hidden, more event-like — in contradistinction to the Catholic insistence on a visible church. BUT… this description isn’t adequate to Lutheran patterns of action in the 16c. either, since one of the first things Lutherans did in every place they carried out their reforms was to set up Church orders (Kirchenordnungen) by which the church’s institutional common life would be regulated.

      I would argue that the problem with the “when” description you point to is that it can’t really account for these moments between the liturgy as truly actions *of the church*. Lutheran reformers, however, clearly saw them as not only actions of the church, but as requirements of the Gospel.

      In the article I argue that quite a bit of the argument can be interpreted as arising from the societal understanding of the Church that both Lutherans and Catholics were assuming… an understanding that eclipses the eschatological aspects of the Church. Where Catholics have later developed a sacramental understanding (as I articulate here), Lutherans could easily speak of the church as a corporate body that operates under the logic of Law and Gospel; just like any Christian, the institution is saved by union with Christ, and can never claim that salvation as something that it has apart from union with Christ.

      When the book comes out, I’d be happy to point you towards it if you’re interested.

  3. John Kohanski Avatar
    John Kohanski

    Jacob–I guess that I am wondering from your sceanrio, who determines that someone/something is dangerous and what that definition of dangerous is? And who determines that they need to be removed from the Church and why?

    1. Jakob K Rinderknecht Avatar

      Thanks, John, that’s a helpful clarification.
      In this post, I’m talking about the church’s response to abusive priests. And one of the distinctions I’m trying to make is that removing someone from a position of authority — even sequestering them from the community so that they cannot do more harm is not incompatible with recognizing, for example, that they are still a member of the body, a priest of the church, etc. Someone can even be forgiven, and *still* removed from the situations in which they can do further harm

      But — we have often acted like those things are not compatible. And the bishops, who have had the responsibility for determining when a priest is credibly charged with abuse, have often not acted to protect the community, seemingly out of a sense of their connection to the priest, or out of a desire to protect the institution. And that is what needs to change, I am arguing.

      1. John Kohanski Avatar
        John Kohanski

        You should have said that you were talking about abusive clerics. They might still be a priest till they are defrocked officially but they betrayed that position when they committed that act. I am still wondering what the “something” “locus of God’s presence” is.
        I’m sorry–but the civil authorities, ie. the police and courts, should be removing them so that they can harm no one else, not the bishops or an “assembly.” We’ve seen how well that’s worked out. Would you rely on the local Board of Education to remove an abusive teacher or the executive boards of the Boy Scouts or Little League to remove an abusive troup or team leader? As a parent I still wonder why anyone would report abuse to the religious authorities instead of the civil authorities.

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