[Author’s note: Conservative Catholics sometimes argue that Pope Francis puts too much emphasis on the social dimension of Catholic teaching; they worry that such an emphasis on the communal will distort the Church’s moral teachings. In reality, however, the Church is fundamentally communal, and its moral teachings are grounded in this communal essence.
The following essay explores this idea. It was written to sum up the 2021-2022 academic year of the Simone Weil House’s online “university.” The year’s theme was the recapitulation of all things in Christ; participants read and discussed a wide range of authors. I decided to focus on Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI, though some of the other texts make an appearance.
The Simone Weil House not only offers free online educational projects; they also house and feed the homeless in Portland, OR, and run many other wonderful projects. They are currently in need of funds for their houses of hospitality; to donate or learn more about their work, please visit their website.]
Modern Christians often have a very individualistic and legalistic understanding of morality. In this view, Jesus came to give us a body of rules, a code of conduct that individuals attempt to follow. This would cast the Church as the arbiter and interpreter of these laws and their justifications; an interpretive body akin to the Supreme Court of the USA. If this was true, Jesus would have come to replace one set of laws with another; he would have been modifying or abrogating the Mosaic Law to institute his own, Christian law.
This view is flawed in many respects. It can lead us to see Heaven as a more-or-less arbitrary reward for good behavior, fundamentally disconnected from life here on earth. Life becomes a sort of competition or test, with Heaven as the ultimate reward. The view of Christ as the rule-giver also produces a confused understanding of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. It represents the New Covenant as a total break in the continuity of God’s dealing with the human race.
Christ himself rejected the idea of such a discontinuity. He stated that he had come to fulfill the Old Law, not to destroy it. On the surface, the Christian message seems to be a discontinuity. But as Hans Urs von Balthasar said in A Theology of History, continuity from the perspective of the Holy Spirit is apt to look incomprehensibly disjointed from a human perspective. It is only in hindsight that such events can be seen as a true and authentic continuation of what came before.
To understand how Christ fulfilled the Law, it is important to realize that the Old Law was not just a bunch of rules. As Alasdair MacIntyre explains in After Virtue, traditional moral structures are inherently context-dependent and communal. They can only be understood within a certain social context. In the case of the Old Law, this context is that of a “covenant” between God and his chosen people. Through the Old Law, God was gathering together the people who would become the family of God himself. All the details of the moral code should be understood as referring to the virtues that would make such a covenant possible. They were the social norms of a particular way of life, the new kind of life made possible by the covenant.
Just as the Old Law was far more than a bunch of rules, the New Law can’t be seen as a disconnected set of moral precepts that individuals undertake to fulfill. Rather, the New Law, just like the Old, is only intelligible as part of a particular social context—the social context of the particular community that is the Church.
Jesus didn’t come to give us a message; he is the message, the one and only word of God. He entered into the communal structure of the Old Law and brought it to perfection. In his book Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict draws on the work of Jacob Neusner to highlight the surprising nature of this perfection. If the law is seen as being summed up in the two Great Commandments, then Jesus didn’t remove anything from the Law; nor did he add any new moral precepts to it. Rather, he added himself to the Law. In the New Covenant, the Law is fulfilled by becoming one with Christ and his body, the Church. The two Covenants and the two Laws are of the same type; the New Covenant repeats the key themes of the Old, but on a higher level. While the law of the Old Testament guided the people of Israel in fulfilling their covenant with God, the New Law of Love in Christ draws all of humanity into covenant unity.
This theme can be found all throughout the New Testament. Jesus is the “Word” of God, the Torah (Jn 1), and the New Passover. (1 Cor 5:6-8) He is “something greater than the Temple.” (Mt 12:6) In the Old Law perfection is found by being as holy as God is holy, through following the Law; (Lev 19:2, 11:44); now perfection comes through following Christ (Mt 19:21) He is the kingdom of God which is “in your midst,” (Lk 17:21) the jubilee year of grace. (Lk 4:16-21) Those who follow him are the new people of God, a new family, both like and unlike the people of God that descended from the family of Abraham (Mt 12:46-50, p. 113 Jesus of Nazareth).
In short, Jesus Christ is the “recapitulation” of all things. St. Paul writes that God set forth in Christ “a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Eph 1:10) Just as humanity sums up and draws together all of Creation, material and spiritual, Jesus Christ is at once both Creator and creature, the Lawgiver and the one who fulfills the Law. (Heb 10:7) In Jesus, all of history, all that human beings are and do, is gathered up, transformed, and divinized. And far from being an arbitrary reward for the fulfillment of arbitrary laws, Heaven is the final fulfillment of what begins here on earth in the Church. By becoming one with Christ’s suffering body here on earth, we become one with his glory in Heaven and become incorporated into the inner life of the Trinity.
It is in the name of this greater unity that Jesus sets aside the particular details of the Old Law. They served to unite a particular people, but the new unity in Christ must include those of every culture, race, and nation. As such, the universal law of Christ must be able to include any number of particular laws, particular communal realities that together form a complimentary diversity. A rejection of enculturation is a rejection of the universal nature of the Church. Just as each church community contains many diverse individuals, each with a unique, personal relationship to Christ, so the Church as a whole consists of many diverse communities, each with its own unique relationship to the Christian revelation.
This balance between the universal and the particular is always fraught with tension, but it is a creative, fruitful tension. The balance is always threatened when one aspect is exaggerated at the expense of another. When the principle of unity is forgotten, we become a disorganized crowd; when the principle of diversity is forgotten, we become a sort of regimented army, without personality or individuality. Jesus did not come to create a robotic army of slaves or a disorganized, chaotic mob; he came to create a structured group, a covenental family.
This familial reality can be seen in the prayer that Jesus himself gave us. It is, on the one hand, a “school of prayer, a way of guiding our encounter with God (cf. Jesus of Nazareth, chapter 5); at the same time, it is the recapitulation of the decalogue of the Old Covenant. Just as the giving of the 10 commandments formalized the relationship between God and his people, the Lord’s Prayer assembles the new Israel of God, the Church. It is a fundamentally communal prayer, even when it is said by an individual, since it invokes God as “Our Father.” In the Fatherhood of God, all humanity is brought together as one family in Christ. As such, the Our Father is a prayer that can only be said in and with the Church. It can only be said if we are willing to take part in the unity brought by Christ, by asking for bread for all, by forgiving debts and forgetting offenses, by waiting together for the coming of the Kingdom.
This is the purpose of the Church; it is a touchstone for authentic unity rather than a mere interpretive body. It can be easy to imagine ourselves as being in unity with God and neighbor, to trick ourselves with fuzzy feelings of universal benevolence. But the Church gets in our way! There, in the pews next to us, are the members of Christ’s Mystical Body, in all their gloriously stubborn individuality. There are the people we’ve hurt, the people who have hurt us, the people who owe us something, the people to whom we owe something, and the people we disagree with or simply dislike. As with any true community, the Church contains a variety of human personalities and outlooks. We’re always trying to reduce it to a comfortable club or clique, full of “the right kind of people”—who are inevitably just like us. But the universality of the Church, which can be so unpleasant and painful, keeps us intellectually honest.
The Church in this world is marked by sin and failings, but it also contains the only remedy for such failings. Only in the Church can we properly “recapitulate” and remember our history, the history of the people of God. In the Bible, remembering is closely connected with repentance; the prodigal son “remembered” the generosity of his father, and set about returning to his home. It is also connected with God’s favor. Many times throughout the Old Testament, God “remembers” someone, or is asked to “remember” someone or something. He “remembers” Noah, and brings the Flood to an end. God remembers Rachel and gives her a son. God remembered his covenant with the patriarchs and sends Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. When God becomes angry with the people’s idolatry, Moses asks him to remember the covenant and forgive them.
Remembrance is also deeply connected with thanksgiving. In the Old Covenant, the celebration of the Passover is a yearly reminder of what God has done for his people. In the New Covenant, the Eucharist (literally, “thanksgiving”) is celebrated in memory of Christ’s sacrifice until he comes again.
All true renewal is rooted in such remembering; true renewal must include repentance, gratitude, and supplication. As the people of God, we have a prophetic role. But just as modern Christians tend to have an individualistic understanding of morality, we tend to have an individualistic understanding of prophecy; we see the prophet as an individual who stands against the corrupt or unjust community. The true reality is deeper. The prophet is the one who remembers, and who reenacts, the story of the people, calling on them to remember and to return. The Old Testament prophets called on the people to remember that they were the chosen people of God, to repent and return to the Lord. In a similar way, authentic prophets of the New Covenant call on the Church to remember and reenact the New Covenant of Christ’s blood, shed for the redemption of the world.
This remembrance and reenactment is centered on the Eucharist; in the liturgy, we reenact and make present the self-giving love of Christ, proclaiming his death and Resurrection until he comes again. But our whole lives are supposed to be part of this reenactment. The Liturgy will only be fulfilling its role of recapitulation and remembrance when every aspect of our lives reflects the Eucharistic unity of all things.
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Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.